Jack Johnson on Staying Local, Environmentalism and Superstardom
Musician Jack Johnson has achieved international superstardom with the help of his wife, Kim, earning enough to donate more than $30 million to causes they support. Find out how the power couple strike a balance.
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The Johnsons launched the popular Kōkua Festival as a fundraiser for the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation. The festival ran annually from 2004 through 2008. During that time the couple had two sons, Jack did three world tours and released four albums. “It was just crazy busy,” Kim recalls. “And, at the end of 2008, Jack’s dad was battling cancer.” He had lung cancer, and he died in 2009. In the following weeks Jack went into creative overdrive, writing many of the songs that would go onto To the Sea, the album he dedicated to his father. Then, a month after his father’s death, the Johnsons’ third child was born, a girl. “And, for some reason, in this weird baby fog, he decided he wanted to record another record,” Kim says. “And go on tour. And do the festival.”
The Kōkua Festival came back in 2010, but it’s been on hiatus since. Meanwhile, the Johnsons have taken the idea of throwing a local concert for the benefit of a local nonprofit and gone global with it. They formed the Johnson ‘Ohana Charitable Foundation in 2008 to support green-minded nonprofits, plus arts and music education, in the communities around the world where Jack performs. With quite enough to live on from album sales alone, the Johnsons have, since 2008, dedicated all of the profits from Jack’s tours to these charities.
To date they’ve made more than 300 grants, benefiting organizations as diverse as the Camden Children’s Garden in New Jersey, a marine conservation group in Peru called esOceania and—one of Jack’s favorites—The Polynesian Voyaging Society. All told, between their foundation grants and programs, and other donations, the Johnsons have given away more than $30 million.
One recent Friday night, in observance of the little-known fact that it is National Pickle Day, the Kōkua foundation holds a pickling workshop at the Patagonia clothing store in Hale‘iwa. It is called Let’s Pickle It! As children play on the store’s floor, about 30 adults sit on the lānai, filling jars with vegetables and vinegar. Among the picklers are Jack and Kim, who have brought cucumbers, cabbage, carrots and—as an experiment—kale stems. “We try not to waste things,” Kim says of the usually discarded bitter part of the kale leaf.
The Johnsons blend right in with the other North Shore mommies and surfer daddies packing their jars with okra, star fruit, garlic and whatnot. This is their community, and spending a Friday night at a pickling party is the kind of thing they do.
“I think they’re the same people they probably always were,” says Terri Langley, the gray-dreadlocked pickling expert from MA‘O Organic Farms, who leads the workshop. “But it always blows my mind how laid-back and nonpretentious and giving and loving they are. They’re walk-the-talk kind of people who are really true to their roots.”
Ideally, the workshop attendees are supposed to bring produce from their own gardens. But not everybody did. Jack and Kim themselves got their veggies at the farmers market. Their garden had “gone feral,” as Jack puts it, during his 2014 world tour in support of his latest album, From Here to Now to You. Over six months, with their three children in tow, Jack played 50 shows in 16 countries and 17 U.S. states, including a quick stopover in Honolulu for two performances at the Waikīkī Shell in August. As usual, the tour was a wonderful adventure for the Johnsons. But it was also exhausting.
“At the end of every tour, Jack’s like, ‘I’m gonna retire, I’m done, I’m burned out,’” says Kim. “It is a burnout. It’s fun at the same time. You get to see all these beautiful, amazing places. I think we both have a little travel and adventure bug. But at the end, you just want to come home and plant your garden.”
Not long after National Pickle Day, I get to see Jack’s vegetable garden for myself. There isn’t much to look at—just a 30-by-30-foot plot of freshly tilled soil with a recently transplanted mulberry tree going into shock in the middle of it. “My garden’s pretty unimpressive right now, but you can see the potential in it,” Jack says. He had stayed up late the night before, after putting the kids to bed, plotting on graph paper the paths and beds he would build. “Besides surfing, this is what I love to do,” he says. “Just get out here and put the radio on, listen to NPR and, like, work in the garden.”
The garden is in the big backyard of the home Jack and Kim bought in 2002, which now serves as the Kōkua foundation’s headquarters. Not surprisingly, Kōkua’s offices run on solar power. So does Mango Tree Studio, the converted two-car garage where Jack has recorded most of his albums. He also records at his Solar Powered Plastic Plant, the studio in the old Victorian house in Los Angeles where the recording label he created, Brushfire Records, is based. The music industry’s environmental impact has always weighed on his conscience, and he’s become the leading proponent of greening up the business. But not in a pushy way. That’s not his style.
Unless you’re a concert venue. A Jack Johnson concert is a paragon of green virtue, from the biodiesel fueling the trucks, buses and generators, to the locally grown produce feeding the band and crew, to the digital counters on the reusable-water-bottle filling stations keeping track of exactly how many 16-ounce plastic bottles were avoided. As for the concert venues, they have to sign the “green rider,” a list of ecofriendly requirements that must be met if Jack is to appear there. These run the gamut from installing energy-efficient light bulbs throughout the facility to recycling or composting at least half of the waste generated on show day.