Jack Johnson Celebrates His Father With 'To The Sea' The singer-songwriter, once a professional surfer, discusses his father's influence and unique Hawaiian upbringing. Johnson is about to embark on a world tour in support of his latest album, and says he plans to donate all profits to charity.

Jack Johnson Celebrates His Father With 'To The Sea'

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(Soundbite of song, "You and Your Heart")

GUY RAZ, host:

There's an old photograph on the cover of Jack Johnson's new album. It's from the early '60s, and it shows his dad, Jeff, constructing a giant wooden sculpture that looks like a wave.

Jeff Johnson died last summer. He was a legendary surfer in Hawaii, and his life revolved around the sea. And it's why his son, Jack Johnson, called his new album "To The Sea."

(Soundbite of song, "You and Your Heart")

Mr. JACK JOHNSON (Musician): (Singing) But you and your heart shouldn't feel so far apart.

RAZ: This is the first single from the album. It's called "You and Your Heart." Jack Johnson's laid-back, sun-drenched style instantly won him a dedicated fan base with his first album in 2001. He sold more than 18 million records since. His latest is maybe his most personal statement ever. This album is a tribute to his father.

Jack Johnson joins me from Santa Barbara, California. Jack, welcome.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thanks for having me on.

RAZ: And I should say, Jack Johnson, you are the second-most famous Hawaiian, is that right?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, Obama definitely takes me out, and in my mind, there's quite a few that are up there above myself, as well.

RAZ: Jack Johnson, there's another photo in the liner notes of this record. It's of a sailboat. Now, I'm presuming that was your dad's sailboat?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, that was a boat he sailed from California over to Hawaii.

RAZ: He took a solo trip from California to Hawaii back in the early '60s. He was a very young man at the time, right?

Mr. JOHNSON: He was in his early 20s. I think he might have been 21, 22. I feel really fortunate that he took that journey. But I often, when I fly over at night, look down at the ocean being so dark, you know, during a night flight or something, and think of my dad being out there for weeks. He was definitely a brave, brave human.

RAZ: It's a five-hour, five-and-a-half hour flight from California, and as you say, it took him weeks to do it. There's a song on your new record. It's called "Only the Ocean." And I'm wondering if it's about that journey.

(Soundbite of song, "Only the Ocean")

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, it is. It's that song started out, my niece came over and she said she had an assignment for her English class. She had to write a myth. And I suggested what about writing the myth of grandpa, him sailing from California to Hawaii, because to me it always had these mythological proportions in my mind, that journey.

I sat down and started working on it as well. I thought it sounded like kind of a fun assignment.

(Soundbite of song, "Only the Ocean")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) After all this time after all of these seasons, after your one decision to go to the water for reason, it's only the ocean and you...

RAZ: You call it a mythological journey, and there really is that element to it, the sort of one man, vast ocean in a small boat. Did your dad ever talk about that journey?

Mr. JOHNSON: That was his favorite thing to talk about was either surfing or sailing. And so a couple days out of Hawaii, he ran into this other boat and they pulled up next to each other, and so this guy came on board to help fix something in his engine. He had like it was a sailboat but he also had a little engine for motoring around, and then the boat that pulled up next to him, it took off and they left this guy on his boat.

So the last couple of days, he had this guy on his boat and he had to share his food with him. And they ran out of food a couple of days outside of Hawaii. But he said they were lucky because there was a school of fish that was basically living under his boat at that point. He said it was kind of nice. They were just catching fish and all that.

But these are the kind of stories that he'll tell as if it was just sort of normal thing and then (unintelligible)...

RAZ: Right, right. I mean, can you imagine as a 20-year-old or 22-year-old doing that yourself?

Mr. JOHNSON: No, I can't. You know, that's the idea of having to conquer your dragons and any kind of these rite of passages, I feel like our culture is lacking a lot of these type of things.

(Soundbite of song, "Only the Ocean")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) You just roll over me and you pull me in.

RAZ: Jack Johnson, you father, Jeff, was a pretty well-known guy in Hawaii because - obviously because of his surfing. You were also a competitive surfer as a young man, but you ended up obviously pursuing music. What did your dad make of your life as a musician and of your success as a musician?

Mr. JOHNSON: He liked the idea of me being a musician, the idea of me being an entertainer. It was definitely a whole different thing. And he never tried to persuade me to go a different direction, but if I came home from a tour, he was much more interested to hear about a day off, where we took a hike or found some new wave on a coast somewhere. And that was more his area. So he wasn't too impressed with the celebrity aspect of what I do and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: It was - was it in a sort of a way, a kind of a reality check? You know, you'd go, you tour, you play to packed stadiums and huge venues, selling millions of records. You'd go home, and your dad was sort of like, asking you about an interesting wave that you caught or something.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. It was good to have, you know? And I really had three dads in a way because I'm the youngest. My middle brother is seven years older than me and my older brother is 10 years older. My older brother is often quoted as saying - whenever I start talking about this or that from some show or something, he always says: Wow, sounds like you're pretty proud of yourself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: And I hear that a lot in my life. And so it's good to have these guys that kind of keep me in check.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Jack Johnson about his new record. It's called "To the Sea."

So many of the tracks on this record are clearly letters to your dad or to your family, including this one I want to hear from. It's the title track, and it's called "To the Sea."

(Soundbite of song, "To the Sea")

Mr. JOHNSON: Run my dear son, until we get to the trees. Keep on going all the way. We've got to get right down to the sea. We've got to get to the sea. My dear son, we've got to get to the sea.

RAZ: That line: Run my dear son, we've got to get to the sea, I wonder if that's you singing as a father or you singing about your father or both?

Mr. JOHNSON: You know, I couldn't figure it out, either. As I was writing the song, it was me feeling like a son and a father at the same time. I was it came about I was reading a book called "Iron John" by...

RAZ: Oh, yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...an author Robert Bly. And then, by chance, I came across this children's version and it had this really beautiful imagery in it, you know, with the wild man sitting at the bottom of this pond, and he was the protector of these animals, and if the hunters came into his forest, they'd be the hunted.

And it was beautiful. And I was reading that to my kids quite a bit. And the part I really loved is when the young prince steals the key from his mother's underneath his mother's pillow and he unlocks the wild man from his cage.

I always saw my dad as a sort of eccentric character. And so reading this book, it really felt a lot like my dad, this wild man archetype. And so I love this moment where they're running for this pond, and just having read enough Joseph Campbell, to know that any body of water represents the subconscious. And I just love that image of the father leading the son to that place.

RAZ: Jack Johnson, you're about to go on a massive tour, just a relentless tour. I was looking at your schedule and I was just thinking, my god, when are you going to sleep?

You've announced that 100 percent of your tour profits are going to charity, which is pretty unbelievable.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, that's my wife's fault. She makes me do that.

RAZ: So you're going to be working for free this summer.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, you could say it that way. The way I look at it is I get an all-expense world tour with my family, and we get to see all these neat places. And then we also get to do fundraisers almost every night, you know, for all these great local nonprofit groups in every area that we're playing.

We just got to a point where we felt really fortunate that we were making a really good living off the CD sales, and that makes it so much more rewarding and so much easier to explain to the kids when I tell them about the community gardens or the instruments we're buying because of these shows. And it's that feeling of bringing people together, playing live music and then seeing the results and how much it was benefitting the kids and the schools. We feel really lucky to have a chance to do it, really.

RAZ: That's Jack Johnson. His new album is called "To the Sea." If you'd like to hear a few tracks there at our website, nprmusic.org.

Jack Johnson, thank you so much, and congratulations on your now number one album.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Thanks a lot. It's pretty exciting.

(Soundbite of song, "Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) ...so that we don't cry. Let's all lift the glasses up to the sky for some red wine, mistakes, apologies (unintelligible). Red wine, headaches, mythology. Red wine, mistakes, mythology.

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