Q&A with Jack Johnson

Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson has an enviable life. Starting out as a professional surfer, he wrote some songs to go along with a documentary surf film he made with a friend from film school. Then, he put together a few more songs for a little indie label album in 2001. Fans told their friends, and before you can say "word of mouth," "Brushfire Fairytales" was a platinum-selling debut. His brand of laid-back acoustic rock continued with subsequent releases: 2003's "On and On" and "In Between Dreams" in 2005. He has sold more than 15 million albums combined (his soundtrack music for the children's film "Curious George" sold well over a million copies in its first year of release). But don't think this is just some Hawaiian beach bum who got lucky: Johnson is also an impassioned environmentalist who wants to use his music to inspire awareness and action. He's also not one to rest on his laurels. "If you're going to have the luxury to have the time," he says, "then I feel like you should do what you can to give back and make things better for other people." For him, that means being as eco-friendly in his work and personal life as possible. His recording studio is constructed with the latest green technologies--in fact, his new album, "Sleep Through the Static" (out on Feb. 5) was recorded using 100 percent solar energy. And his upcoming tour will be green, too, thanks to his involvement in helping to develop an "EnviroRider" while on the road. (Riders are the contracts bands use for specific requests such as, in Van Halen's excess-of-the-'80s-case, having all of the brown M&Ms removed from backstage candy bowls). The EnviroRider can request that venues comply with such things as waste reduction, recycling and energy use in efficient manners. And biodisel to fuel his tour bus? Well, that's just a given. Johnson talked to NEWSWEEK's Jac Chebatoris about how life is a beach and what he's trying to do keep it that way for generations to come:

NEWSWEEK: What does the title "Sleep Through the Static" mean?
Jack Johnson:
It was kind of meant in a cynical way in a song that was talking about our culture and how we've gotten to this point where, with a flick of a button we can turn the war on or off as we want to. The line says, "You can watch it from the comfort of your bed, or you can sleep through the static." That song is about how a lot of people have become apathetic. The whole record isn't like that. In a way the record sleeps through the static a little bit. It starts out about these worldly things, drifts off into personal, domestic things and comes back into the real world again.

Is it strange to be so personal in your songs?
I think that's the sole reason that this thing has grown into what it has, is that people can relate to the songs. I'm always trying to decide which stuff is personal to the point that it's kind of letting people in too much, and then personal to the point that it feels good that people have that same thing in their life.

You're a huge activist in the green world. Will this become more widespread?
I think it's getting there. I feel like it's right on the cusp of everything changing. As soon as we think we've solved all the problems there will be more, and I 'm sure that a lot of things that we're thinking are the solutions become the problems. Like soy for instance, you heard a lot of talk for a long time that soy is so much better, and now you hearing that they're tearing down rainforests to grow more soy because soy has become so popular. So those things that we sometimes think are the solutions might end up throwing things out of balance again. Life in general is just a work in progress.

Do you only eat organic food?
When possible. In Hawaii, it's more important to eat locally than organic, because so much of our food is shipped in.  So I eat locally first and organic when possible.

What's on your EnviroRider?
The rider covers not just what's in your dressing room, which is what most people know about the rider. It has more to do with stage specifications. It could cover anything from low-energy lighting to requesting biodiesel in any generators that have to be used. I think this time around we're going to try to see what can be requirements for the venues. There are certain venues that contacted us after the last tour and said they'd made a lot of changes. It's nice to hear that the tour does have an effect on people and trying to better their venues.

So are you always so mellow?
I hit my hard pretty hard when I was like 17, and it knocked my brain a little loose and I don't have the possibility of anger anymore. I'm joking, but I find that when I get angry or hateful, I'm not able to accomplish the same things. Reading Joseph Campbell has helped--all of his stuff. He talks about "joyful participation"--it's easy to look at the world and get upset about the state of affairs. Instead, what you have to do is just accept things the way they are and try to always make them better and work toward a better place. But never think there's some grand solution. As soon as we get there, there are new problems that need to be fixed. It's ongoing work, and you have to keep working at it. Life's always been work, there's never been a time where it's just a utopian atmosphere.

Even for you--rock star, living in Hawaii?
Yeah, it's fun, but it still takes a lot of work, too. You get to a point where you don't have to worry about putting food on the table and those kinds of things, but then come bigger responsibilities of trying to use your time to support different things. I do feel a certain responsibility to try to support nonprofit organizations that are doing important things for the environment and putting my time into that, and that becomes my work. There's always work to be done--whether you're working on getting your own family together or working on trying to get communities together.

(Video courtesy of Sprig.com)