Jack Johnson's Hawaiian Fairytale
Few singer/songwriters can claim as unique a career launch as acoustic groovemaster Jack Johnson. With "Brushfire Fairytales," both his and the tiny Enjoy label's debut release, over the past year theFew singer/songwriters can claim as unique a career launch as acoustic groovemaster Jack Johnson. With "Brushfire Fairytales," both his and the tiny Enjoy label's debut release, over the past year the 26-year-old Hawaiian has emerged as one of the freshest new voices and most sought-after artists in the independent music world.
And whom does he have to thank for it? Of all things, the surfing community. Prior to the gradual, early 2001 release of "Brushfire," Johnson was primarily known as a pro surfer and noted surf filmmaker who also dabbled in music.
But things started to sway toward music a few years back, when after playing for friends and at parties for years, Johnson began making four-track recordings at home and occasionally passing along copies to his pro surfer pals Rob Machado, Timmy Curran, and Dan Malloy. In their travels to Tahiti, Australia, Southern California, Japan, and pretty much anywhere else big waves were breaking, they toted along Johnson's discs, occasionally burning copies for friends.
Although he was without an album release, Johnson, who now lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. -- where he studied film at the local branch of the University of California -- suddenly found complete strangers paying him compliments on his music, some of which had been featured in his films. It seemed that Johnson's buddies had inadvertently laid the foundation for the buzz that now surrounds him and has in-the-know fans clamoring for tickets to his shows and major-label A&R reps knocking on his door.
Among those first charmed by Johnson's greatly rhythmic songs via his films were fellow surfers J.P. Plunier (Ben Harper's manager/producer) and G. Love & Special Sauce leader Garrett Dutton, who covered Johnson's "Rodeo Clowns" on his group's 1999 effort, "Philadelphonic." "He's got such good chord movement," Dutton says, "and his voice is real soft and melodic. I told my A&R guy, 'Dude, you need to sign him. He's got great songs!'"
Preferring, right now, to keep things "as independent as I can," Johnson has declined a number of major-label deals. "I want to let things happen naturally and roll with it, instead of trying to be proactive about it and be put in a position where I'm pushing my music on people," he says. "That's just the worst feeling in the world to me."
Instead, he opted to go with Enjoy, the new indie that Plunier and former Virgin A&R man Andy Factor run out of the latter's home in Los Angeles. As a result, things are being kept on a pretty small scale-partly from necessity and partly because Johnson isn't too concerned with the touring and promotional regimens so often a part of new artists' careers. "He's a very laid-back guy," Factor notes. "He's not in any rush. He's just enjoying the fact that he is allowed to express himself."
Funded out of Factor's pocket, Enjoy is ill-equipped to handle any sort of big radio push. "But even if we suddenly decided to bring a big radio campaign in January, I don't know if Jack's going to be jumping around to every station, doing the job he's gotta do for the next two years, like David Gray did," Factor says. "And I don't think he wants to go out and tour 200 days a year for the rest of his life. He wants to tour sometimes, then go to Australia and make a surf movie. He doesn't want to be a radio star. He just wants to be able to do it."
Though he may not be pursuing such status, Johnson is a bit of a "radio star" in San Diego, where the "Brushfire" track "Flake," featuring Harper on slide guitar, has been played more than 800 times on alt-rock station 91X. The station's music director, Chris Muckley, partially attributes Johnson's local popularity to the "surf culture and that whole coastal vibe. But, regardless of that, he just makes good music with a lot of soul and emotion."
Since 91X added "Flake," stations in Hawaii and San Jose, Calif., have also picked up on Johnson and "Brushfire," which has sold some 50,000 copies and is distributed by Hepcat and Orphan.
Though getting airplay on alt-rock stations, "Brushfire" seems tailor-made for triple-A stations. Carrying reggae and Brazilian rhythms (courtesy of bassist Merlo and drummer Adam Topol), its songs sound akin to a more well-read, unplugged version of Sublime. In Johnson's tone and phrasing, the influence of late folkie Nick Drake is somewhat obvious, but less evident is the impact of Bob Dylan, A Tribe Called Quest, and even Jimmy Buffett.
Johnson says the door is still open to the possibility of a major-label deal. And Factor adds that if there's enough interest in "Brushfire," Enjoy may partner with a major. "But if all this went downhill from here, I would be happy," Johnson says. "This is way beyond what I thought music was gonna do."