To understand Jack Johnson, it helps to go back to his college days at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He was a film student, albeit one who focused on surfing videos instead of black-and-white meditations on Icelandic ennui. But like all film students, he developed an attention for detail that mere mortals will consider excessive. For the audience, movies are a pastiche of noise and visuals, a carnival for the senses. For the filmmaker, an uneven part in the hair of an extra keeps him awake at night.
Consider this as explanation for Johnson's current obsession: the sound of a dying seagull.
"To the Sea," Johnson's next album, is due June 1 and contains a track titled "Pictures of People Taking Pictures." In the midst of recording the track using a mellotron-a combination keyboard/playback machine that was used in the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever"-Johnson hit a bum note.
"As I was playing I looked into the control room and everyone was cracking up because it sounded so funny," he says. "It's just the broken B note. But we kind of got used to it and decided to keep it on there. That's always a hard decision because if you isolate it and listen to it, it sounds pretty awful, but in the mix it sounds good. It has a dying seagull sound."
All this focus, it should be emphasized, is over one note in one song. Despite his laconic, surfer-dude reputation -- he is, in all honesty, the tannest person I've ever interviewed, and I've interviewed Jessica Simpson -- could it be that Johnson is, secretly, a perfectionist?
He pauses when asked about this. Johnson, 34, is sitting in the headquarters of Brushfire Records, located in a renovated Victorian-style house in the treesy Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, and he looks out the window as he formulates his answer.
"Can I be a sloppy perfectionist?" he asks. "A big part of why this thing keeps rolling along is because I'm able to improvise and roll with things. They don't always end up necessarily where I think they're going to, but I end up just rolling along with it."
Johnson has been on quite a roll: His mellow, melodic songs have resulted in 9.4 million albums sold since 2001 and 8.7 million single downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, on top of touring revenue of $22.1 million for his 28-stop summer 2008 U.S. tour, according to Billboard Boxscore.
"To the Sea" is Johnson's fifth studio album, and there's much that will make longtime fans happy: His tunes are hooky without being cloying, his lyrics are clever and romantic, and the overall vibe is quite effective at lessening road rage. But perhaps most important, the Jack Johnson mystique remains blissfully uncommercialized. Forget grasping for synchs or branding deals -- Johnson is content to promote the album through little more than good old-fashioned touring.
It helps that Johnson has his own label-Brushfire Records, distributed through Universal Republic-and retains the masters worldwide to his work. "He's never done anything to compromise who he is as an artist and as a person," Universal Republic president/CEO Monte Lipman says. "He's the type of person where I could say, 'Hey, we could put your music in Subway sandwich shops.' And he'll say, 'Well, if you go to Subway, you're there to buy a sandwich. You're not there to buy a Jack Johnson record.' "