Although each of his first two albums sold more than a million copies, Jack Johnson isn’t above tinkering in his garage. It’s there, in fact, that the Hawaiian native and avid surfer recorded his third studio album, In Between Dreams. The mellow collection comes on the heels of some much-needed downtime from the road, during which Johnson spent quality time with his baby boy. His new role of dad seeped into Dreams a bit, and equipped him to write the music for next year’s children’s movie Curious George, starring Will Ferrell.
Johnson is getting ready to return to the road this spring, and he’s bringing his family with him. He took time out from his not-too-hectic schedule to talk songwriting, fatherhood and food fights.
Did becoming a father impact the new album?
A few lyrics here and there. There’s one line in “Banana Pancakes” that goes “Halaka uma lei/Mama made a baby,” which is a little phrase in Hawaii when you’re in elementary school when you catch somebody kissing — and it references having a kid. Then the next line is “But I really don’t mind the practice/You’re my little lady.” I guess it’s really more of a love song about my wife. But I’ve been getting into kid songs because of the Curious George soundtrack. I’ve already written all the songs for it, and we’re going to record them in the fall.
How will fatherhood affect your tour plans?
I tested the waters of traveling with my family last year, and we only did about seven weeks of touring. I was careful not to overbook it. This year, we’re going to be doing a full run in August into a little bit of September, and I’ll be taking my wife and our son along again. The big challenge for me is going to bed at rock & roll hours and waking up at daddy hours.
Was it hard for you to get back into the frame of mind you need to be in to make a record?
I always like to record when I’ve had a good break. The title, In Between Dreams, is a reference to being home in between the tours. At the end of every tour I feel overwhelmed and that wouldn’t be a great time for me to make an album. But recording is actually pretty stress-free because I’m home, and we give ourselves a lenient schedule. We start around noon or one o’clock, so we have the morning to do whatever we want. We’ll work until a little before dark, take a break, then go back and work a little more in the evening. It’s not like working in a traditional facility where you have to maximize your time.
You worked with [longtime Beastie Boys producer] Mario Caldato Jr. again. What about him clicks for you?
His lifestyle is similar to mine. He really enjoys being in Hawaii. He was the one who convinced me I could build the studio in my garage and record over here. The music we make is mellow and laidback, so a normal stressed-out recording schedule isn’t a great fit. We’ve never had an awkward moment in the studio. If, for any reason, someone is in a bad mood, we’ll just go and do something else.
Talk about your new video for “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing.” How did you shoot it in reverse?
We reversed the audio part of the song and I learned the lyrics in reverse. I wrote out all the sounds on a five-hour flight from Hawaii to California, where we shot the video. We had cue cards next to the cameras, but if you watch closely you’ll see that the lyrics aren’t always synched up. Ben Harper and Ben Stiller live near to where the shoot was — you can’t see them but they were the ones throwing the food at me. It was hilarious. That song has a serious feel to it, but I actually wrote it to cheer up a friend of mine who had girl trouble.
You’re hosting the Kokua Festival again in Hawaii this year . . .
Yes, this year it’s taking place in both Maui [on April 13th] and Oahu [on April 16th]. Last year was really fun. We thought it would be great to put the money back into the community to promote environmental education in the schools. This year we’ve got Jackson Browne, Ozomatli, and G. Love and Special Sauce, plus some great local musicians.
What do you think makes fans respond so positively to your music?
Gee, I have no idea. The music I write is all about feel. I don’t really think about it mathematically. Some folks praise them, but I’ve gotten ripped apart by people who say every song sounds the same and complain that it’s too mellow or that I have no edge. In the very beginning, I read my press, but it humbles you very quickly. Now I try not to pay too much attention. I’m really only doing it for my friends and family and the fans — if they’re responding to it, that’s really what I care about.