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.
Jack and Kim Johnson after a performance at Kalihi Waena Elementary School.
Photos: Ryan Foley
Five-hundred children sit on the cafeteria floor at Kalihi Waena Elementary School, laughing and cheering as a long line of fourth graders bury Jack Johnson’s head in a stack of lei made from reusable classroom materials. They pile so much paper, tinsel and pipe cleaner around Johnson’s neck he can barely see his fingers on the fretboard of his guitar. “I never played with this many leis in my whole life,” he says into the microphone, then launches into a set of cafeteria classics from his soundtrack album for the animated children’s film Curious George.
It’s fall, Johnson has just returned to Hawai‘i after his latest world tour, and he’s looking forward to retreating from the craziness of the music industry for a while to spend time doing the everyday things he likes to do when he’s home. These include surfing, volunteering at his kids’ school garden, working in his own garden and making surprise appearances on the cafeteria circuit for the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation, the nonprofit organization he and his wife, Kim, founded in 2003 to promote environmental education.
“I love playing cafeterias,” Johnson says later. “Those are the best venues. You can hardly hear yourself play because the kids are so loud. But it’s just good fun, you know?”
Jack gets a high five at Kalihi Waena Elementary.
With more than $20 million in album sales, Johnson breathes the air of rock superstardom. Yet somehow he remains the solidly grounded product of the surf-stoked North Shore beach culture from which he came. He drives a dinged-up minivan, he can’t walk by litter on the beach without picking it up and throwing it away, he surfs every chance he gets, and he usually wears slippers, whether playing onstage before tens of thousands of fans or strumming bar chords for a cafeteria full of grade schoolers. He is in real life exactly as you would expect him to be: easygoing, unassuming and, all things considered, pretty ordinary.
“He’s just so not a rock star,” says Kim Johnson, who is pretty down-to-earth herself.
Johnson plays “The 3R’s” for the Kalihi Waena kids, and they happily join him in singing the refrain: “Reduce, reuse, recycle!” Although this song appeared on the Curious George soundtrack, Johnson wrote it as the theme for the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation’s 3R’s School Recycling Program, which provides students and teachers with training and bins to promote waste reduction and recycling in schools.
The recycling program was Kōkua’s first initiative, growing from a single pilot school in 2003 to 51 schools across O‘ahu. In the early days, teachers were sometimes surprised when Jack Johnson himself showed up at their classroom door to deliver a stack of multicolored recycling bins. But the program went into decline in 2012 when the City and County of Honolulu stopped picking up recyclables on state school campuses. For the next two years, a Kōkua staffer regularly appeared at the right Department of Education meetings, befriending administrators, talking story with trash haulers and gently urging a solution to the lapsed recycling pickups.
The occasion for the Kalihi Waena concert is to announce that the DOE had renegotiated its trash hauling contract so that recyclables will be picked up at schools once again.
Gilbert Chun, the DOE’s Auxiliary Services Branch administrator, who poses for photos with Johnson after the show, acknowledges that Kōkua’s prodding had an effect. “They kept it on the radar,” he says.
Kim Johnson grins broadly throughout the school concert. “Now that the DOE is taking it on and doing the pickups, we’ll be able to work with all those schools that we had and add even more—as many as we can,” she says.
Kim is the executive director of the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation and, though Jack is president, it’s really her baby. “Jack always says he’s my fundraiser,” Kim says. “All the programs and planning and vision of where we’re going, where we’re heading, is kind of more my role. He chimes in every step of the way, but he’s not someone who is going to go, ‘Let me write this curriculum.’ The cool thing is, I’ll say, ‘Hey, will you write a song about recycling?’ And he writes ‘The 3R’s.’”
The Johnsons spend some time at the school’s garden.
Jack has been writing songs for Kim since they met in the cafeteria at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during the first week of their freshman year, in 1993. He has often said that every love song he has written is for her, while all the breakup songs are for friends, since he’s never been through a breakup himself.
Jack and Kim married in 2000, while Kim was immersed in graduate school and Jack was about to embark on tour as the opening act for Ben Harper, his first really big musical break. Johnson’s debut album, Brushfire Fairytales, didn’t come out until the following year, but, when it did, it quickly went platinum. Jack’s career was on fire, and in 2002 he whisked Kim from the Santa Barbara high school where she was teaching math to help with the business side of touring. Kim’s role in Jack’s music changed from simple muse to muse-slash-manager.
She still plays that role today, sharing her management duties with a close friend of Jack’s from college. “I’m her boss, but then she’s my boss,” Jack says. “The tour wouldn’t happen without me going on tour. So she’s my manager. She’s working for me. But if she needs somebody to replace the ink cartridge, then that’s me. If she needs somebody to run to pick up a supply, I go. So I’m kind of her assistant, even though she’s my manager.”
Also in 2002, the Johnsons moved from a cheap apartment in a Santa Barbara duplex to a house they bought on about an acre of land on the North Shore, not far from the house where Jack grew up. Jack immediately set about transforming the two-car garage into a recording studio, and the Johnsons began talking about how to put their unexpected success in the music industry to good use.
Helping out in Hawai‘i’s schools seemed natural. Jack loved working with kids as a summer camp counselor and surf instructor during college. Kim, who earned a master’s degree in education, comes from a family of educators. Teaching is in her blood, and she can hold forth on educational theory as naturally as she can hold the attention of a class of fidgety fifth graders. “When you have that teaching bug, and you’re wanting to work with kids, you don’t get that when you’re on tour,” she says. “I needed something to fill my soul.” And so the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation was born.
Kim with an ‘ĀINA in Schools garden class.
As a companion to the recycling program, Kōkua launched Plastic Free Hawai‘i, which gives away reusable water bottles and shopping bags and encourages people to avoid single-use plastics, such as grocery bags and Styrofoam food containers. Kōkua also awards grants to teachers for environmental projects and field trips, organizes family cooking classes and holds workshops, among other things. But the foundation’s flagship initiative is the ‘ĀINA in Schools Program, a complete elementary school curriculum designed to cultivate children’s appreciation for the environment, healthy eating and locally grown food.
Kim and students from the ‘ĀINA in Schools garden class.
The ‘ĀINA curriculum, which 15 schools have adopted, ranges from a kindergarten introduction to the life cycles of flowers and butterflies to a sixth-grade lesson on decoding food labels. It includes cooking demonstrations, farm visits and lots of time spent in the school garden. For the fourth grade, there’s an end-of-year harvest party where the students eat a meal prepared with the food they grew.
“The main goal is to connect kids to where their food comes from,” says Kim. “Just knowing that connection to the earth is important. Knowing where their food comes from is important.”
Every lesson is designed to meet the DOE’s Common Core State Standards, and because they are taught by trained volunteer docents, they actually lighten the workload for teachers. Both Jack and Kim work as docents in their own children’s school. “Some days I wake up and I have an idea of what I might want to do that day, but then Kim will remind me, ‘Oh, we’re doing garden lessons today,’” Jack says. “I might at first think, ‘Oh shoot.’ But every day after I do these kinds of things, it always reminds me that this has come out of the music, and it makes it all feel a little more like a career worth pursuing. It reminds me, Oh, yeah, a lot of good can come out of music.”
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.
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.”
Read More Stories by David Thompson