Johnson's On A Roll With Third Album

Dave Matthews may be the world's most unassuming rock star, but he's positively Axl Rose compared to Jack Johnson.

Dave Matthews may be the world's most unassuming rock star, but he's positively Axl Rose compared to Jack Johnson. With his T-shirt-and-sandals fashion sense and chilled-to-the-point-of-absurdity demeanor, the Hawaiian-born singer/songwriter could probably walk into Borders tomorrow, purchase 40 copies of his own CD and not get a second look from the counter girl.

But that could change when the 29-year-old Johnson drops his third disc, "In Between Dreams," on March 1 via his own Brushfire imprint through Universal. It's the latest episode in a career defined by casual six-string work, gently rolling rhythms and the kind of vigilantly sunlit worldview that probably develops pretty easily when your home and workplace overlook the Pacific.

"We toured a bit after the last record, and I take in a lot when I'm in different parts of the world. So when I got back home, I had time to gather my thoughts and get back to my normal life," Johnson says in a breezy voice with a twist of island accent. "That's the idea of the title: those adventures that I go on now, sometimes I feel like I dream them. All the tours and shows and press, it's a lot of fun, but it's a different reality."

As Johnson would tell you, though, there are worse realities. Thanks in part to near-perfect singles in "Flake" and "Bubble Toes," a stash of palm-tree-swaying rhymes and a vocal style that's a cross between the Matthews/John Mayer school of enunciation and the salty vibe of Jimmy Buffett's non-cheeseburger-oriented material, Johnson watched 2001's "Brushfire Fairytales" and 2003's "On and On" become million-sellers.

So began his evolution from island kid to surfer to filmmaker to musician; nowadays he self-releases surf documentaries and plays Bonnaroo.

If "On and On" varied stylistically from "Fairytales," it did so in ways even more hushed than Johnson's vocals. But "Dreams" finds the musician pushing out a bit. Recorded with Johnson's usual collaborators, drummer Adam Topol and bassist Merlo Podlewski (with Zach Gill on piano and accordion), and recorded in Johnson's home studio, it's equal parts reclined melody and Chamber of Commerce flyer for the health benefits of island living.

"Dreams" dabbles in Johnson's usual themes: the sweetness of new love ("Better Together") and rainy afternoons spent indoors ("Banana Pancakes"). But that's not to say he's only interested in good-natured hippie-isms. "Sitting, Waiting, Wishing" serves as a kiss-off and probably features as much venom as Johnson can muster, while "Good People" fires several shots across the bow of TV nation underneath a fluttery little melody. Elsewhere, there's an acoustic version of "Break Down," a track that appeared with a hip-hop flavor on Handsome Boy Modeling School's "White People" last fall.

Johnson began spinning "Dreams" on the road, but, not surprisingly, finds most of his inspiration at home. "There was one bus ride -- a long one from Colorado up to Minneapolis -- and I wrote 'Never Know' during that," he says. "But in general I write on the front porch at my parents' house, the house I grew up in. It's got this view of a good surf spot called Pipeline, and you end up getting fixed there; the waves are so beautiful to watch."

In fact, he's weaved an entire career out of his own terms, dancing through the major-label courtship system a number of terms and emerging in a particularly enviable recording situation.

"We got really lucky," he says. "A bunch of majors were coming at us in the beginning and we were a little afraid of that. At that point, nobody knew who I was, and I didn't want to become somebody who a major label put a bunch of money into, then wasn't a success because they didn't make back their money. So we decided to do it on our own. That way, even if we sold just a few records, we'd still be successful."

The play worked so well the first time, Johnson drew it up again. "We passed up some stuff that was pretty appealing in the beginning, and it came back around the second time, so we said no again to the majors that came back," he says. “The third time, they came to us and said, 'You tell us what you want, you make up your own deal.' So we set up in a way that we have really an independent situation. We turn in our records once they're finished; nobody ever sees them or hears them until then."

That independence translate outside recording as well. As previously reported, Johnson is hosting the Kokua Festival as a fundraiser for the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, which he, his wife and friends established. The money will go to environmental education in local elementary schools; the show, which takes place from April 13-16, includes Jackson Browne ("He's a bodysurfer," Johnson says, "I got to meet him when I was still making movies"), Ozomatli and G. Love and Special Sauce.

After that, there's a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Europe planned, and Johnson is scoring and providing the soundtrack for Universal's upcoming animated "Curious George" movie, which stars Will Ferrell as the Man in the Yellow Hat.

Pace and geography aside, Johnson seems to be in no danger of falling victim to any kind of rock-star idiosyncrasies. "It's funny -- the No. 1 tourism destination for people from Hawaii is Las Vegas," he points out. "And it's really funny to think that people from here have had enough of the beautiful sunny days and the tropics; they want to get straight into the middle of sin city."

Johnson's road doesn't go past anything nearly that glitzy; he's way less Strip than Margaritaville. In fact, Johnson and Buffett are mutual fans; Johnson's covered Buffett's "A Pirate Looks at 40," while the head Parrot has been dribbling Johnson's "The Horizon Has Been Defeated" into the latest version of his summertime set list.

"I guess his kids are into my music," Johnson demurs. "The story's pretty similar. The first thing he did when he made a little money was buy a boat, because that's all he ever wanted out of the deal. The first thing I did was make a little recording studio and buy a place out in Hawaii, because as long as I could end up here everything was fine."