In conjunction with the release of his new Kokua Hawaii Foundation benefit album, Jack Johnson thought it would be cool to embark on an acoustic tour of the islands performing in small theaters. While the super popular musician could have easily packed amphitheaters, he has chosen to play more intimate settings like the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater on Wednesday and April 26, where he will be joined by friends John Cruz and Paula Fuga.
"We usually play outdoors with a drummer, bass player and keyboard player, but we kind of wanted to play the outer islands and bring a nice show with Paula Fuga and John Cruz," he explains. "The three of us have been doing a lot of acoustic things together. We just played in a school cafeteria. It's a lot fun. You can set up anywhere and play music with those guys."
Both Fuga and Cruz, two of Hawaii's most soulful musicians, are featured on the just-released "Jack Johnson and Friends - Best of Kokua Festival" CD.
Paula Fuga (center) is coming to the MACC with Jack Johnson (right) for two concerts next week. Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley (left) isn’t on the bill for the Maui shows, but soulful John Cruz is.
BRIAN BIEHLMAN photo
Jack also recently collaborated with John Cruz on the song "Little Bit of Love," for a new Mana Maoli benefit album. He previously teamed with Paula Fuga on "Mana Maoli Volume 1."
"When we bring Paul Fuga out to somewhere like Colorado, any song she starts to sing we have to stall for a moment because the crowd goes wild," he says. "The majority of the crowd has not heard of her, but when she sings the opening notes the whole crowd puts their hands in the air and starts cheering. It's like a spiritual moment. It's pretty amazing to see."
"Best of Kokua Festival" highlights onstage collaborations by Johnson with a host of great musicians including Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Eddie Vedder, Ben Harper, Dave Mathews, Ziggy and Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, and Taj Mahal.
* Jack Johnson will play the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater on Wednesday and April 26. The concerts benefit the Kokua Hawaii Foundation. Tickets are $50 and $75 (plus applicable fees), available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
"I'm so lucky to have all of them on there," says the Grammy-nominated artist. "Jackson, Willie and Taj are people my parents used to listen to, so I grew up with their music all over the house. And then Ben Harper, Eddie Vedder and G. Love are people I listened to in college. So just to get a chance to meet these guys and then have friendships and get to play with them, it's such an honor. These are some of the greatest musical moments of my life."
Among the tracks, live versions of Johnson's gems, are "Constellations" (with Eddie Vedder), "Mudfootball" (with Ozomatli & G. Love), "Breakdown" (with Jake Shimabukuro) and "Better Together" (with Paula Fuga).
Johnson also joins his guests for stripped-down renditions of their own songs, with Taj Mahal on "Further on Down the Road," Jackson Browne on "Take It Easy" (plus John Cruz, who also features his "Island Style" anthem), and teams with the Marley brothers for Ziggy's "Cry, Cry, Cry" and Damian's dance-hall hit "Welcome to Jamrock."
Among the covers spotlighted are Bob Marley's "High Tide or Low Tide" (featuring Ben Harper), Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" (featuring Eddie Vedder), Jimmy Buffet's "A Pirate Looks at Forty" (featuring Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds), and Willie Nelson with his signature take on "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."
It's pretty cool to hear Johnson collaborating with such a wide range of artists in different contexts, from blues to reggae and country. "It's fun, I love all different styles, and I get to play with some of the greatest in their genres," he notes.
A few of the artists have fun with the songs, injecting some local flavor. Jackson Brown's classic "Take It Easy" substitutes "jumping off the bridge at Haleiwa" for the famous line "standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona."
"We have a cool video of backstage," he says. "Jackson said he didn't feel like the verse connected to here. We should do something else. So we started throwing out ideas and pretty soon we got the whole thing together."
The album and current Hawaii Islands tour will raise funds for the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, the nonprofit organization that supports environmental education in our schools and communities.
Since the earliest days Johnson has devoted extensive time and resources to supporting a variety of causes dear to his heart.
In 2004, he became the 50th member of 1% For The Planet, the international organization whose members contribute at least 1percent of their annual sales to environmental causes. Johnson's 2005 album release, "In Between Dreams," became the first album to carry the 1% label.
In 2008, he donated all of his "Sleep Through the Static" tour profits to establish the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, an endowment founded by Jack and his wife, Kim Johnson, to support environmental, art and music education worldwide. One hundred percent of profits from Johnson's recent "To The Sea" tour were also donated to charity.
Combined tour profit donations, along with personal charitable contributions have so far totaled $25 million since 2001.
"When someone tells me a number like that, it's surprising to me because none of it felt like work," he says about his extraordinary generosity.
"I can't believe this has all happened, that I can actually make a living doing something I love so much. One of the best parts is being able to raise awareness and money for things you believe in. When I was first touring I remember reading how Willie Nelson ran his trucks and buses on biodiesel made from recycled vegetable oil. I get all these ideas from some of the guys who are on this album. It's just natural. The best kind of shows are where people are coming and realizing that the tickets they bought are raising money for programs that benefit kids. What's better than that? The feeling is different when you play a benefit show. It's so much fun."
Where does he think his desire to help so much comes from?
"I think anybody who has got to this position would do it," he responds. "It's my wife's fault, she's the one behind all this stuff. I'll have an idea it would be nice to do a benefit tour and she's the one who actually writes the ideas down and is responsible about it. I get to be the main fundraiser and have the ideas, but she is the follow-through. So it's really been a partnership.
"We grew up together, meeting in college, and living in a lot of apartments, and living month to month. She was a schoolteacher and I was able to continue making surf films. I was barely breaking even and losing money sometimes, and she would cover me with her teacher's salary. We had that beginning together and it's been really rewarding for us to do all this stuff together."
The son of surfing pioneer Jeff Johnson, Jack was born and raised in Haleiwa, near Ehukai Beach Park. Growing up like many kids on Oahu's North Shore surfing major waves, Johnson progressed to a career in pro surfing.
Attending the University of California at Santa Barbara, he discovered a new passion in filmmaking. His natural talent led him to film friends surfing, which grew into two acclaimed surf films, "Thicker Than Water" and "The September Sessions."
A desire to play music arose from wishing to support his family's love of singalongs. Crafting his early compositions so that they were easy to sing along to, Johnson's debut album, "Brushfire Fairytales," earned him both critical acclaim and a devoted following, and his follow-up, "On and On," cemented his stature as a bright star of contemporary music.
Throughout his life, the ocean has played a primary role.
"The ocean is where I get all the inspiration," he says. "It's where I can get a clear mind and process and think about everything I've taken in. It feels a little like detaching from earth. I get to float away from troubles. I feel I can be more objective when I'm out in the ocean.
"So I do quite a bit of writing while I'm in the water. In my mind I come up with a lot of lines while I'm surfing, and the choruses and verses, a lot of the detail. The ocean is really important."
Johnson's music is loved by so many, one wonders what he thinks resonates most with audiences?
"Doing these interviews is kind of like having a psychotherapy session. It forces you to try and answer questions about yourself," he answers.
"For a long time I would tell people I was afraid to find out the answer in case it might go away. You don't want to get too reflective. But I've come to the conclusion that what I write is very personable, they come from personal situations, but I always try to make them broad enough that I feel comfortable putting them out. So I think there's a balance. People can hear they're personal, but they can take them and apply them to their own life.
"My songs are usually gathered from a conversation. The love songs are a conversation with my wife. They always start with me trying to make her laugh. But I hope if it's a love song, they're not thinking about me and my wife, I hope they're taking it to their own life. A song like 'Better Together,' I've had so many people tell me they've used it as their wedding song. In a way that song has become everybody else's, which I love.
"Those are the ones that are easiest to write, they tend to connect the most with people. They just come out real quick, they come more from a feeling than a thinking. They come from the heart. Other ones that I spent days and days writing are the ones that always end up late on an album that nobody ever cares about."