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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 21, 2006

Jack talk

 •  Harper takes both sides

Advertiser entertainment writer Derek Paiva spoke with Jack Johnson from the singer/songwriter's North Shore home a week away from the Kokua Festivals on Maui and O'ahu.

A day before taking off for a show in Tokyo, Johnson was "just cruising" around the house, occasionally supervising the unloading and temporary storage of festival merchandise in the Kokua Hawai'i Foundation's offices.

The following is the full text of Paiva's chat with Jack Johnson. Portions of it were excerpted in the Friday, April 21, print edition of TGIF.

So are you sorry you missed all of the great weather we had while you were off touring Europe in March?

(Sarcastically.) "Yeah, I'm pissed! ... See, that's how much the gods are on my side. While I was gone, they just rained the whole time."

What were you dealing with in Europe?

"Snow, actually. It was freezing a lot of places I was at. It was actually snowing at a few, which was good, because I went snowboarding in Switzerland. We snowboarded the Swiss Alps, which was pretty cool. But other than that, it was pretty nice. I surfed in Portugal. We had warm weather there. But it was cold. I don't think I would've minded trading a couple of times because it was pretty freezing out."

And how was the North Shore backyard when you got back home?

"Not too bad. ... I did have to deal with a lot of shoveling soil back into place. We live pretty much at the bottom of the mountains, so everything coming down just made huge ruts. I've got riverbeds in my backyard now instead of a yard. ... It was coming out of the forest and right down the driveway. It was a river instead of a driveway, pretty much. ... But everything (else) was intact. Our house didn't get flooded, so that was good."

How did you enlist this year's Kokua Festival lineup?

"With Willie Nelson, it was cool because they made contact with us about doing a show over on Maui (last year). We met through that and started talking about the idea of him coming and doing the Kokua Festival this year. We just really got along. He's a real sweet guy, and his wife is great. They put on a show over there. She knows what it's like putting together a festival, so she's real helpful. That's how we got Willie.

"ALO are just close friends that were on tour with us these last few months. They're gonna be in Japan with us, so we thought it'd be fun. They're a great band for somebody who's never heard them yet. Some bands you've got to know their music to get into it. They're the kind of band that can show up and just play for a crowd that doesn't know them and still be entertaining. I think people will have fun with them.

"And then Paula Fuga, I got turned on to her at a kickball tournament this winter. We had a third annual kickball tournament on the North Shore earlier this year that some of my friends from this group called All Bus put on. ... They kind of specialize in putting on parties. ... They get live music (and) this year they had Paula Fuga playing. It was the first time I'd heard her, actually. And right after she finished, I just walked up and asked her if she wanted to play at the Kokua Festival because I thought she was perfect for it. Have you heard her music at all yet?"

Yeah, I have. She's got a real soulful voice. I bet she was stoked.

"Yeah, she was super stoked. But I just think she's a perfect match. ... A real voice and a great band. We're real excited to have them.

"And then (Henry) Kapono and I, we met earlier this year and have just been kind of keeping in touch. So I just asked him if he'd be interested in coming and playing. He was all stoked about it, so it worked out good."

Now about Ben Harper. First off, congratulations on finally getting Ben. We've been talking about it for three years now. How'd you finally do it?

"It finally just worked out in his schedule. He actually almost came the first year. I talked to him at the last minute then, and he was thinking about just coming over and doing a surprise-guest thing. The second year it just didn't work out (with) his schedule. And for (this year) we asked him far enough in advance that he just went ahead and said, 'You know what, I'm just gonna commit to it and then (work) my schedule around it.'

"So that was pretty cool and nice of him to do. He wants to come back, because it's been a while since he's been in Hawai'i, and he knows it's a good place for him to come and play. "

After a couple of years of doing it now, do you still look forward to Kokua Fest?

"Oh, yeah! For a couple of reasons. One being just the day itself. It's super fun getting all the groups together. Not just the music, but also all of the booths and kind of shining some light on all of these great groups that are doing wonderful things in Hawai'i. Sometimes, the hardest thing for them is getting attention for what they're doing.

"A lot of it is really just fun stuff for kids to get into, so it's good for parents that are at the show.

"And actually, every year it just gets easier for me."

Really?

"Yeah. The first year I wasn't only playing and hosting and stuff, but I also kind of had to do everything from going out and helping dig holes. ... And it started raining (at the festival's Kualoa Ranch site).

"We didn't really know what we were up against the first year. It was our first time trying, so everybody was kind of a jack-of-all-trades that year. So I had to just jump out there and just do whatever.

"The second year, we learned a lot from the first year. We changed venues. And after last year at the (Waikiki) Shell, everything's really starting to get pretty down (to) where we know whose jobs are what and we have a lot of volunteer help. It works out good.

"Part of the reason we organize (a show) like Japan (before the Kokua Festival) ... is so we can have our crew that's so used to doing our concerts and knows how to run our stuff really well come straight from (the show) to all help out. Last year we came straight from Australia. That's why we kind of plan the tour right around it, so we can have (the festival) kind of piggyback on this. With all of (the crew) helping, it makes it real easy.

"Now all I have to think about, really, is the music ... planning all the (on-stage) sit-ins and stuff like that. So it's fun.

"But it's almost just as fun when the whole thing's over and I get to just not think about organizing anymore."

Tell me about the Kokua Hawai'i Foundation's progress since last year's festival.

"The first year (of Kokua Festival) was kind of like the initial fundraiser for the foundation. We did a couple of things with a few schools, got some recycling programs started up.

This (past) year was really the year of getting the foundation together. We actually hired a few people, and it really runs a lot smoother now. There's a lot of real exciting things like a Farm the Schools program, where there'll be gardens in the schools and kids having healthier lunches. It's a pretty exciting and a big plan. And that's all getting going now.

"(We've) been having a lot of meetings, getting the steering committee together with nutritionists and local farmers and education administrators.

"We have a staff of three now. My wife, Kim, as well as Kaliko Amona ... and also Crystal Young.

"Another big (project) that's exciting is (working) with 'Ohi'a Productions. They specialize in doing plays for kids ... and we're kind of helping them to develop a new one about the Three R's: 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.' It'll be a play that they can do at schools.

"Once we help fund the development of the play, the writing of it and getting all of the props together, we'll take it around and do it at schools."

Farm the Schools sounds like a big project.

"It is a big one. It's exciting. There's six components to it. There's nutrition for the kids learning more about nutrition. There's also learning about agriculture and where their food comes from.

"There's learning about waste reduction. ... Worm composting, which is really fun for the kids. You put all of your food and organic wastes into a container with worms, they eat it up and every few months the worms double, so you have to make your container bigger again. That's cool, because you can start putting more and more until you get up to putting eight pounds of waste a day in there everything from cardboard to paper to food. That's the average amount that a household puts out (in a day). It's pretty fun for the kids to see. And by the end, what they get is vermacast, which is this really nice compost to put in the garden.

"There's community outreach getting parents to come and help volunteer, both on nutrition lessons and also in the gardens.

"Having the garden in the school is the big part of it.

"One thing we've been trying to focus on is making sure that it's all a lot of fun. ... Based on things we've been reading about environmental education for kids, (we've found that) you really want to make it fun because the worst thing you can do is scare kids at this age to bring up things that are just too heavy for them at this point and might actually steer them in the opposite direction from wanting to do things that are positive for the environment.

"So really, it's about having significant experiences out in nature and having a lot of fun with the lessons. Also, expanding the recycling program, which is going to be tied into the Farm The Schools (program) ... to more and more schools."

Sounds like a lot to do.

"Yeah, it is. But it's kind of fun because, more and more, it's starting to come together. It's organized a bit more this year. It was always raising money and trying to organize the foundation at the same time. And now this year is going to be a real productive one for us.

"Another thing we want to do is fund field trips. With the web site (www.kokuahawaiifoundation.org), teachers can actually go and get an application where they can sign up and try to get funding for field trips. ... That's exciting because that's something that can happen real easily."

Is Kokua Festival still the foundation's only fundraiser?

"Yes and no, because on the last tour we sold (a) live DVD from Kokua (Fest) last year. That was a fundraiser for the foundation.

"And then on this last tour through Europe, in a lot of those territories where our record went gold or platinum, my manager (had the idea that) because (I) didn't really want the (awards) anyway because I don't really hang them up or anything to take the amount of money (it would've cost to make them) and make donations to the foundation. So traveling through Europe, we got a lot of really nice donations for the foundation."

I know one of your favorite parts of your work with the foundation has been visiting the kids at the schools. Will you get to do more of that this year?

"Yeah, that's fun. And that's something I'll continue to do, as well as putting on the festival and being really active with it. But other than that, I like my surf time, too. (Laughs.)

"I'll be more hands-on in certain ways, like having more time to visit schools. And that's kind of where I think my strength is because when I'm sitting in the office and doing some of the stuff (the staff) could be doing, that's less schools I can go off and visit.

"Another nice thing is one of our board members is Kawika Kahiapo, who played last year at the festival. He's been great. He visited a few schools with me last year. And it's really fun because we not only talk about recycling, reducing and reusing, we also kind of open it up to whatever the kids want to ask us about.

"Kawika always talks a bit about Hawaiian slack-key guitar, and about the tuning, and what it means, and that style of playing. Depending on what grades we're with, we talk about different stuff. We'll talk about how you make a rhythm and how you write a song, sometimes.

"Having two of us up there makes it a lot more fun for me. We get to show up and bounce off each other. We've become really good friends. (Kahiapo's band) Kaukahi recorded their record in my studio this year. It'll be coming out soon. I played on a song with those guys. So we've been hanging out quite a bit. It's really fun to visit the schools with a friend like him.

"We're actually going to be visiting a school on Maui on the morning before (that island's Kokua Fest) show and starting our first recycling program at a Maui school."

Was keeping your tour of the Mainland U.S. last year as environmentally friendly as possible as successful as you'd hoped?

"It was a learning process, but we got over a lot of the hiccups real quick. We brought on a guy whose whole job was basically setting up the biodiesel. Finding biodiesel to fill up your buses isn't always easy. So there were a few things he learned in the first week of the (six-week) tour that really helped. But that was the biggest challenge.

"As far as our merchandise and all of that, we did everything on recycled paper all of our posters and CDs. All of our shirts were made out of organic cotton. That all went really well.

"Some venues were easier than others to have recycling. Backstage, we had recycling at every venue. We also had a group that basically took any leftover food to a shelter in town. That was nice, because there wasn't any food going to waste.

"So it was fun. It was our first time doing it, so there were little kinks we worked on along the way. But I think, in general, it was pretty successful. What was also nice is that it got a lot of coverage. CNN did a special about it. They came and showed the buses getting filled up with biodiesel.

"I thought, if nothing else, it brought some attention to the idea that you can change things instead of just falling into the pattern of what people have previously done in any profession. In my case, it's touring. You can actually try something different, and there are options."

You didn't get to take home any of the Grammys you were nominated for ...

"Yeah, some guy named Stevie Wonder stole it. (Laughs.) I don't know who that guy was.

"Nah, I was actually pretty stoked that Stevie Wonder won. I was thinking, it's pretty cool to say you were nominated the same year that Stevie Wonder got it. He's about as cool of a human as I can think of to lose to.

"I was pretty nervous. It was kind of weird. It was out of my element. I had a suit on and the whole deal. But it was fun. I had a hunch being that I was up against Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder that I wasn't going to win. So I wasn't that nervous about having to go up and give a speech or anything. I was more nervous just to be in a suit.

"Sean Paul sat in the seat next to me and my wife."

Did you get to at least meet Stevie?

(Sighs.) "No, I didn't get to meet Stevie. But I did run into a few people. A lot of famous people walked by me.

"I met Prince. Not at the Grammys, but at the Brits, which is kind of like the Grammys in London. And that (awards show) was pretty happening.

"The Brits were pretty cool because ... I don't know, there was something about it, they were serving drinks, actually. At the Grammys, you kind of just sit in a big audience. If you want, you can go out and get water during the (commercial) breaks.

"At the Brits, they were actually serving drinks. Wine was coming around. So people got pretty saucy. So by the time they went up to give their speeches, there was a lot more funny stuff.

"I got to hang out with a lot of the guys. There was a big after-party. I got to hang out with Prince a bit. That was pretty cool. The guy from The Flaming Lips was there. I hung out with him a lot."

Wayne Coyne?

"Yeah! And I like him a lot. We've sort of gotten to know each other from doing a lot of the same festivals. I'm always running into him.

"So both (events) were fun. But I had a little bit more fun at the Brits. I played live at the Brits, too.

"Kanye West was the performer right before me, and he had 70 girls in bathing suits all painted gold. And so it was pretty over-the-top. And then the Gorillaz played after me, and they had about a hundred elementary school kids up there singing.

"All of the productions were big."

And in between there's you and your acoustic guitar.

"And I come out without a band ... just me and an acoustic guitar."

But hey, at least you stood out.

"I did. I ended up standing out. It was pretty funny. It was cool. It was a good time."

Was getting your first Billboard No. 1 album earlier this year, for the soundtrack from "Curious George" a big deal for you?

"It was funny, because I was out of the country in Europe when it happened. And at the time, 'In Between Dreams' went to No. 1 in the U.K. So that was the wild thing ... having two No. 1 records ... was pretty trippy for us. I think it was kind of a bigger deal for us to have the one in the U.K. because we were touring there at the time (and) it was sort of what I heard about more while I was there. "Curious George" seemed so far away.

"But the thing that really made me happy was that ('Curious George') was a kids record. I thought it was pretty neat that there was a kids record that was No. 1 in the States. It's such an innocent, harmless, well-meaning record. And to have that be the No. 1 record was the aspect that made me pretty proud about it."

And here's the big kicker: Rolling Stone magazine finally came around and gave you a positive review for it!

(Laughs.) "They love me now. They finally gave me three (stars). I saw that. That was exciting."

And in a year of many firsts for you first Hawai'i-based artist to score a solo male Grammy nomination; first Hawai'i-based male to score a Billboard Top 200 No. 1 album debut you scored another that seemed to fly under everyone's radar: first Hawai'i-based musician to get his very own Saturday Night Live commercial parody.

(Laughs.) "Oh, that was great! That was the best one of 'em all."

So I have to ask: How are Jack Johnson Casuals doing? Making you some bank?

"JJ Casuals! They're great. I actually called to see if I could get a pair of those sent to me. (In the commercial parody, SNL cast member Andy Samberg, playing Johnson and spoofing Johnson's sometime preference for playing barefoot on stage, sings about a line of shoes that look like bare feet for places a fancy restaurants, for instance that require footwear.)

"I was just so happy, because when my friend called me and told me I got spoofed on 'Saturday Night Live,' I nearly had a heart attack. I was, like, 'Oh no!' because I've seen how harsh they can get with people.

"So I felt like I got off pretty easy. I actually cracked up when I saw it. I thought it was pretty funny. I knew it was OK when my mom Tivo-ed it and was basically showing it to anybody she could show it to. She thought it was the funniest thing ever. The fact that my mom liked it was a good sign. It can't be too harsh if your mom's digging it."

So what's next, post-Kokua Festival? I've heard that you want to lay low and rest for a couple of years. Are you really going to do it this time?

"Yeah, this time it's gonna happen. Last time I was gonna do it, we ended up going on tour with G. Love and Donavon (Frankenreiter). But this time, (it's) for sure."

"We're going to take one whole year off from doing much and then maybe record another record after that. But (recording) means being around (the house) anyways. And then we'll see where that takes us after that.

"It'll probably be about two years before I tour again, I think. But that doesn't mean the Kokua Festival won't happen. Maybe that will be the one show we do."

Which will be nice because that'll be near home, as well.

"Yeah, exactly. As long as I don't have to leave the Islands unless it's for surf or I go on an Indonesia boat trip or down to Australia for some wave breaks that's fine. "

So you haven't been doing any writing, recording or anything related to music at home lately?

"Not much, just because I've been gone. I've been doing a lot on the road with the label (Brushfire Records). We have Matt Costa's record and Animal Liberation Orchestra's record. G. Love has another record coming out soon. And we're actually putting out Money Mark's whole catalog. He's gonna put out a new record on our label, and reissue 'Keyboard Repair' and 'Push the Button' on our label. That's pretty exciting. We're kind of big fans of those records.

"So there's all that stuff, which is just fun stuff ... helping people get (music) out the way they want it. That's my job description. Just making sure that people have the same kind of freedom I've had with all this stuff, and making sure that they feel they're putting out the record they want and not the label's."

So can I ask what you're looking forward to doing with all this time that you're hopefully gonna have?

"You know the answer ... come on! (Laughs.) I'm gonna be surfing as much as possible. That's really it. I mean, there's family time. But that just comes natural. It's just the same as surfing."

Think you'll get restless at all?

"Ummm ... You know, I probably will. I always find that once I'm home for a few months, I actually get excited to go out and play live again. And by the end of the tour, I can't think of anything besides getting home and getting on a beach.

"So, yeah, I probably will get a little restless, and I'll probably go against everything I just said and actually be touring four months from now.

(Pauses.)

Nah, I won't do it. ... Hold me to it, Derek."

I'll be the first to call you if you do.

"All right. Sounds good."