So, as Jack Johnson began to record his new album "From Here to Now to You," what exactly did he have in mind?
"At the risk of sounding completely un-ambitious," says Johnson, "I never really have an idea of what the record is going to be like. They're really just a collection of the songs I've written over the last year. Every one has been like that."
"But then at some point," he adds, "you have to start to shape what it's going to be. It was fun [in the studio] this time because you can't help but start learning your process a little bit."
Johnson's creative touch has led to his fourth No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, following the chart-topping success of his soundtrack to the film "Curious George" in 2006, "Sleep Through the Static" in 2008 and "To The Sea" in 2010.
This conversation took place Sept. 21, before the album's chart-topping achievement could be confirmed, backstage at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. where Johnson was performing at Willie Nelson's annual Farm Aid concert to benefit America's family farmers.
Johnson was told that early indicators showed "From Here To Now To You" was expected to debut at No. 1.
"Alright! That's exciting," he said. "It's surreal. When we [first debuted] at No. 1, it seemed really bizarre to me. Now, it's been a couple of albums. But it's always a surprise. I'm just waiting for the natural curve of things. When we get a No. 1, that's always an added bonus."
But as he spoke, he was reminded, the debut chart position was not yet firm. And that was okay with him.
"We'll see what happens" said Johnson modestly. "I'm fine with No. 2."
No diminished expectations necessary. "From Here to Now To You" opened with first week sales of 117,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The new album reunites Johnson with producer Mario Caldato, Jr. "He really helped shaped the sound of our second and third records," he says.
Caldato is a friend who has Johnson all figured out, and takes advantage of that knowledge in the studio, the singer/songwriter explained.
"With Mario," he said, "It feels like you're demo-ing things. It feels like you're getting ready [to record]. He fools me a lot -- which I appreciate later. But I get mad at him while I'm doing it.
"He does this thing; he can tell when I'm starting to digress and he'll say, 'Ok, cool, I think we've got something really nice for now and we'll come back to it later.'
"Then when we finally listen to stuff later, I'll be, like, 'Okay, let's re-do that vocal take.'
"And he'll say, 'No way. That thing's perfect.'
"And I'll say, 'Wait, wait, you specifically said we'd get back to it later.'
"And he'll say, "No way. That thing's perfect. Leave it.'
"So I get kind of mad. It never gets that heated. But it is a good technique to keep me moving."
Johnson's performance at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center -- which immediately preceded the headlining sets by Farm Aid's guiding foursome of Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Willie Nelson -- also served to kick off Johnson's tour in support of "From Here To Now To You."
Johnson's participation with Farm Aid, for two consecutive years now, is consistent with his commitment to sustainable local food systems and efforts to reduce the use of plastic during his tours, in collaboration with the non-profit group All At Once.
Johnson and his wife, Kim, also have created the Kokua Hawai'i Foundation to advance environmental education.
"My wife was a high school teacher for four years and I stole her to be my tour manager," Johnson quipped. "She wanted to get back into education.
"The trick [to environmental education for kids] is to not make it feel overwhelming—even though as a an adult it can be, the whole picture. So the symptoms are the things you have to work on, the things you see in your own neighborhood. You make it fun and engaging for kids to do."
Earlier in the day, Johnson listened as Farm Aid co-founder Neil Young vehemently called for greater awareness of the importance of saving family farms, and specifically carbon-rich topsoil, in the cause of fighting climate change. In the view of longtime Farm Aid participants, it was the most explicit link the organization's leading musicians had made to what Young called "THE issue of the 21st century."
"I think he's the right person to be able to do it, too," said Johnson. "He's like one of these elders that I've always [admired)]. His music has made a huge impact on my life. Lyrics in his songs have helped shape the person that I want to be. So it's really great when he takes such a strong stand."