A lot has changed for Jack Johnson since he was a college student writing songs for his first album, 2001’s “Brushfire Fairytales.” Far from living with six college roommates, he has been married for more than 20 years to his wife, Kim, and they have three kids.
A one-time professional surfer — at age 17, he was the youngest invitee to make the finals of the Pipeline Masters — Johnson now searches out big waves near his home in Haleiwa, on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, purely for recreation.
He’s left behind his early ventures in filmmaking to become a highly successful musician. His seven previous albums have sold a combined 25 million copies and he commonly headlines major outdoor amphitheaters.
But the ambition he has for each album he makes hasn’t changed.
“When I made my first one, my wife and I were driving, and I have this memory where we’re listening to it, and it was the first time I listened to a final mix and thought I want to change this, that and the other, but I had to let it go,” Johnson said during a phone interview, ahead of playing a special Sunday night set at the three-day Cali Vibes Music Festival taking place Feb. 17-19 at Marina Green Park in Long Beach.
“I remember saying to her, it’s like well, it’s not the best record ever, but I hope it’s somebody’s favorite,” he continued. “I’m not trying to get more numbers or anything like that. I hope somebody still holds this one and says ‘Hey, this is my favorite one so far.’ So that would be the only thing I have an ambition to beat on every album, that it’s somebody’s favorite.”
The “this one” Johnson mentions is his eighth album, “Meet The Moonlight,” and chances are that some fans will consider it their favorite Johnson album.
“Meet The Moonlight,” which came out in June, introduces a significant new collaborator into Johnson’s world in singer-songwriter and producer Blake Mills. The pair started the ball rolling with a test run at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles that produced a few tracks and convinced them to move ahead on the project. They then reconvened at Johnson’s studio in Hawaii, where the bulk of the album came together and Mills and Johnson developed a close working partnership.
“All of those producers I’ve worked with have been great,” Johnson said. “They don’t tend to play music on the record. They mostly have been listening and making suggestions, whereas Blake played on every single track on the whole album one way or another. We’d start almost every song by sitting down with two guitars facing each other, pointing in different directions.
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“Even though we didn’t always know where we were going to go with the track, we would always start with the two guitars,” he continued. “And the way he plays would kind of elevate what I was playing. I think he’s such a supportive player. He’s an amazing guitar player where he can be as flashy as he wants, but what he does is he listens to the song and he always finds a part that just supports what I was playing and elevates it a little. It was really beautiful to work with him.”
Mills ended up not only playing guitars on the album, but at various points, adding percussion, bass, steel drums, organ and Moog synthesizer parts. Then to round things out, Johnson had his touring band of keyboardist Zach Gill, drummer Adam Topol and bassist Merlo Podlewski come out to EastWest Studios in Los Angeles to add various parts to the tracks.
“Meet The Moonlight” fits in nicely alongside Johnson’s other albums, as he offers up 10 relaxed and highly melodic songs that blend folk, pop and island music. While the largely acoustic songs may seem spare and even simple at first, they are filled with a variety of instrumental touches and bits of ear candy that add considerable interest.
Lyrically, “Meet The Moonlight” references issues such as the pandemic and the political and social divisions in society, but retains a sense that people can find hope, calm and even consensus and joy during troubled times.
“I tried to focus on some of the bigger themes and not get (tied) too much to the topic of the pandemic, for instance,” he said. “That wouldn’t make too interesting of a song or it’s not a very long-lasting theme. Instead, I’m looking at things like empathy. I think empathy was a big goal for me to consider on this album. I feel like it’s what the world needs more of right now.”
Cali Vibes Music Festival
When: Noon Feb. 17-19
Where: Marina Green Park, 400 E. Shoreline Drive, Long Beach
Tickets: $140 single-day general admission pass; $330 three-day pass; $195 single-day VIP; $465 three-day VIP; $525 single-day Beach Club passes. All tickets are available at calivibesfest.com.