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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After inspecting the garden, Jack takes me to the new house where the Johnsons now live. It’s a simple, roomy place on the beach, with a picnic table on the back lānai and enormous sliding screen doors that bring the sea breeze right into the living room. Jack and one of his brothers, a contractor, built the house from scratch a few years ago. They salvaged the rafters, redwood siding, tongue-and-groove paneling and most of the other lumber from two tear-down houses in the neighborhood.
Rooftop photovoltaics provide the power and charge an electric car (it’s Kim’s; Jack drives the dinged-up minivan) in the garage. A catchment system collects rainwater to drink, and a three-phase water treatment system cleans up household sewage well enough to irrigate the lawn, which, during my visit, sported a few rescued plastic toys. “Every night you look down there on the beach, and there’s always one or two things left behind,” Jack says. “We have the best bucket of beach toys.”
The Johnsons say the house is so ecofriendly it earned a platinum LEED certification, the highest honor in the world of green building, and the first house in Hawai‘i to attain it.
A funny thing about Jack Johnson is that despite his considerable green credentials, he hesitates to identify himself as an environmentalist. “The industry that I’m a part of has a pretty big footprint on the environment, so I always feel funny calling myself an environmentalist,” he says. “To me, I’m a touring musician who’s trying to help make my industry more responsible.” At another point he says: “Mostly, I just think of myself as a surfer, kind of first and foremost. That’s the thing I love to do most.”
Jack eyeballs the waves, which are good, and I don’t have to ask about his plans for later that day. But before the interview ends, he emphasizes that his philanthropy “doesn’t feel like some huge sacrifice or task” to him. “It just feels like the thing that anybody would do if they had the chance. You know what I mean? It just feels like, most of my friends, if they were given the opportunity, might do the same sort of thing. I get surprised when people say, ‘What you’re doing is so amazing!’ It’s a compliment, and I appreciate it. But to me it’s just the natural stuff I enjoy doing.”
Before I leave, Jack offers me a pickle he made at Let’s Pickle It! It’s slender, green and crunchy, but a little too vinegary. It isn’t perfect, but it isn’t awful, either. It is, all things considered, a pretty ordinary pickle.
You never know where Jack Johnson will turn up. For instance:
A few years ago, Dawna Casebier, a teacher at Kainalu Elementary School, called the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation to inquire about getting some recycling bins for her classroom. “They told me they’d have a man bring them by,” Casebier says. The man who showed up with the bins at her classroom door a few days later turned out to be none other than Jack Johnson, who stuck around to play a few songs for the kids. Says Casebier, “How cool is that?”
In November, when higher rent forced Hungry Ear Records out of Kailua after 35 years, people at the store’s grand reopening ceremony in Mō‘ili‘ili were surprised when Jack Johnson—who frequented the Wahiawā branch of the store as a teenager—dropped by.
At the 2013 Farm Aid concert in Saratoga Springs, New York, Johnson strolled the concert grounds in disguise. Had it not been for a YouTube video that came out later, concertgoers would have never known that the smiling cow giving out hugs and high-fives that day was actually Jack Johnson.
The influence of older brothers
What keeps Jack Johnson so humble? Two older brothers don’t hurt. Consider this: As Johnson’s popularity soared in the mid oughts, he suddenly began getting boxes in the mail filled with gold and platinum records, in nice frames meant for hanging. “For a while I’d put them over in the corner,” Johnson says. Then one day he decided to hang them on the walls of his North Shore recording studio, Mango Tree Studio. “I spent a couple days getting them all lined up, and putting them up in the studio,” he recalls. “Then my oldest brother walks in, he looks around, and he’s like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool. You got a little shrine to yourself, huh?’ And so, yeah, I took ’em all down.” Says Kim, only half jokingly, “He’s the youngest of three brothers, he’s been humbled his whole life.”