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Inside Jack Johnson and Kelly Slater’s Surfing Safari

Before singer-songwriter recorded upcoming LP, ‘All the Light Above It Too,’ he hit the waves with his surf-champ friend

Jack Johnson Surfing Adventure see photos 2017

Singer Jack Johnson and surf pro Kelly Slater talk about the last minute surfing safari they took while Johnson was recording his new album.

Todd Glaser

Jack Johnson was hard at work on All the Light Above It Too – his first album since 2013, due September 8th – when he got a phone call from an old friend. “He said he’d been watching a spot that, if the wind was going in the right direction and we got a good swell, could be pretty amazing,” the singer says. The buddy in question was 11-time World Surf League Champion Kelly Slater, who took Johnson to a stretch of reefs in the Marshall Islands – about 2,700 miles from the singer-songwriter’s home in Hawaii – where the water is so clear you can see 200 feet below the surface.

For Johnson, music has always been something for “when there’s no waves,” and he wrote many of his early songs on boats during surfing trips. These days, though, he’s usually too busy being a dad to manage spontaneous wave quests. “Most of his downtime between tours is at home with family,” says Slater, who met Johnson when they were teens, and calls the singer a “very good surfer.”

But when Johnson managed to get away this time, he brought a cigar-box ukulele with him, using it to write a breezy meditation on the familiar feeling you get when you see someone you know called “Sunsets for Somebody Else.” The song became a key track on his still-untitled seventh LP, which he recorded in the same garage home studio that birthed every album since his 2000 debut, Brushfire Fairytales. Johnson didn’t stray far from his signature island-tinged folk pop, but the recording process was hardly effortless: After trying his hand at playing all the instruments on every song, he realized he wasn’t up to the task. “It sounded like my band, but with some guy who couldn’t play the drums as good as my drummer,” he says.

His band and producer Robbie Lackritz helped him flesh out songs like “Big Sur,” a whimsically jazzy track about a camping trip, and “My Mind’s for Sale,” a relatively gentle Trump takedown (“I heard that six or seven words he likes to use are always in bad taste”). “It’s depressing to be part of a country with a leader pulling out of the Paris Agreement,” says Johnson, who often finds topical songs easier to write than personal ones. “But it’s also inspiring to hear a couple of days later that Hawaii’s gonna be the first state to adhere to the Paris Agreement.” 

Here is what Johnson and Slater had to say about their big surf trip.

Todd Glaser

The Need to Surf

“Surfing was always kinda the first thing in my life and music is secondary,” Johnson says. “I don’t mean to say music means less to me. When I go on tour it’s definitely, it takes all the energy to do it and we’re not around waves all the time and I love it. But when I go home, I usually put the guitar in the closet for a few weeks. I don’t need to play all the time like I need to surf. I don’t feel like myself if I don’t surf.”

Todd Glaser

Riding the Waves

“Jack’s a great surfer,” Slater says. “He was probably never gonna be, like, world-pro level, but he could have had a living surfing. He could have turned pro and done some events. He’s not a radical, flashy guy. He’s just a good, clean surfer with a really nice style. And he likes powerful waves. He likes going fast. He’s a powerful surfer, so he likes the wave that kind of pushes back and has some energy to it. I think people don’t have an understanding of how good Jack is as a surfer. He’s not, like, some guy who surfs on the side for pastime. He’s pretty serious about surfing.”

Todd Glaser

Let It Bleed

“I slammed my hips so bad,” Johnson says. “I thought I was paralyzed for a second, I slammed it so hard, and then I could swim again. It was so much pain that I was on the little dinghy that they were shooting photos from, laying in the boat. Eventually, I came in and watched Kelly just completely get barreled across the point, and my leg started feeling a little better. Every time I saw another wave, I’d try and stand up to see if I could put any weight on it and I couldn’t really but I just kept thinking, ‘I’m never gonna see waves like this without any other humans on it ever again, so I gotta get out there.’ So I went out to surf for about another two hours after I hit my leg. The next day I literally couldn’t walk, I was limping so bad.”

Todd Glaser

Sidelined on the Dinghy

“I’ve gotten a lot of injuries over the years,” Johnson says. “There have been a lot of different sprains and dislocations of shoulders and stitches and stuff like that. I got one really bad accident when I was about 17; I knocked some teeth out and got a lot of stitches through my lip and on my forehead or anything. That kept me out of the water for a while. I never really worry about these injuries affecting my musical career. Surfing to me is really what’s more important anyways than the music. Music’s always sort’ve been for when there’s no waves or nighttime.”

Todd Glaser

Good Friends and a Bottle of Beer

“Jack’s circle of friends are people that he’s had around him most of his life,” Slater says of his friendship with the singer. “I think Jack really likes the fact that our group of surf friends has been real tight forever, since we were teenagers. And, you know, all of us pushed Jack really hard to put his own music out before he was confident enough to do so. We all had recordings of Jack’s in the late Nineties into around 2000. I think people like to stay friends with the people who can keep them level and grounded. And I think Jack has a good group of friends around him that does makes him feel normal. I think it’s probably refreshing for him to just be who he was before he did all of what he’s done.”

Todd Glaser

Just Keep Swimming

“I can hold my breath underwater for probably three-and-a-half minutes underwater,” Johnson says. “The visibility was so amazing there,” Johnson says. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You could see your friend from like a hundred yards away. It was wild.”

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