"To the Sea" was recorded at the Mango Tree Studio in Oahu, Hawaii, and the Solar Powered Plastic Plant studio behind the Brushfire Records house. The album, in Johnson's estimation, is more immediately accessible than 2008's "Sleep Through the Static," and the first single, "You and Your Heart," has sold 148,000 digital downloads since it was released on iTunes as a teaser track in early April.
"Everybody's first record is a real cohesive thing because it's these songs you've had a lifetime to create," says Emmett Malloy, Johnson's manager and co-founder of Brushfire. "This one feels magically like that."
Johnson says he wrote the album in spurts, generally sitting on his couch with a guitar after his three kids went to bed. He was inspired by sources as diverse as his family, Greek mythology, Robert Bly's "Iron John" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." "There's songs about losing loved ones and there's songs about starting to see the personalities of people who have passed in your own kids," he says. "It's seeing how life lives on through a family."
Johnson says he strives to be honest in his songwriting, but he worries about crossing the line into being too personal. He occasionally takes lines out of songs or rewrites them to cloak their meaning. (He assiduously avoids mentioning his children by name, in song or in interviews.) On "To the Sea," the song "My Little Girl" is an ode to his infant daughter.
"At listening parties it seems like all the dads that have daughters come up to me when they hear that song and they say, 'Aw, man, I was really feeling that,' " Johnson says. "I realized that although it feels personal to me when I'm writing it and you can tell I'm singing from a place where I'm really feeling those emotions, they're not thinking about my little girl, they're thinking about their own. And so it becomes very impersonal in that way."
Johnson directed the video for "You and Your Heart," which debuted April 20 on VH1.com and features him surfing and floating in the ocean as waves swoop around him. "I was looking at the camera singing and I can't figure out when the wave's going to hit me from behind," he says. "That was fun to do. It was a physical challenge."
Other tracks include "Turn Your Love," featuring an assist from Hawaiian singer Paula Fuga, and "Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology," which Johnson says is most directly based on "Brave New World." "There's a line in the book where [Huxley] says how much better things are and how much happier they are because of the soma-there's no need for headaches or mythology," he says.
It was Johnson's wife, Kim, who looked at this collection of songs and suggested two things: He had enough for an album, and he should tour. "My wife's pretty good at pointing that out sometimes," he says with a laugh.