Jack Johnson Says 'We Always Have to Think of Our Impact': Interview

Morgan Maassen
Jack Johnson

The King of Ukulele is back. Jack Johnson has returned to the fold after a four-year gap between albums (that is, if we don't count the live EP From Here to Now to You Live). His new LP, All the Light Above It Too, features his usual brand of folky ukulele music, with barbed lyrics that comment on the state of the environment and the decisions taken by President Donald Trump.

"If our government isn't going to do it for us, then we have to do the change and hope that government follows us," the songwriter said.

Born and raised in Hawaii, Johnson was horrified by the level of plastic pollution of the beaches of the island. "The older I get, the more I feel I need to make sure that I'm at least addressing that issue," he said.

And address it he did: The video for "You Can't Control It" features him lying down on the beach surrounded by different plastic elements that were brought by the sea, eventually recreating the album sleeve.

Jack Johnson talks to Billboard Argentina about his passion for saving the environment and more:

We just saw the video for "You Can't Control It." Would you say we have to send this message not only to kids but to politicians too so as to have a better world? 

Yeah, I think so. For me, I live in Hawaii, and the part of the island where I live is where people come for the waves and beautiful beaches. You don't notice the problem here but if you go to the eastern side of the island, you really see the problem first hand because the beach is covered in plastic. Even if you dig into the sand you find very colorful pieces of sand, but it isn't sand, it's plastic, becoming part of the sand.

Like someone who grew up surfing and loving the ocean so much all the time, and seeing the amount of plastic growing and growing, the older I get, the more I feel I need to make sure that I'm at least addressing that issue.

So, all that plastic, that garbage, it was real, it wasn't for the video -- it's really what you see on that side of the island?

Yeah.

Everyone is talking about that gigantic island of plastic that nobody knows where it is but it's not amiss, it's a real thing, you can confirm that.

Yeah. The story of the island of plastic is more of an exaggerated thing. The way it was explained to me, from what I've seen in a trip I made with a group that studies the plastic in the ocean and do data collection. The island of plastic -- it's like the little pieces of plastic that are fragmenting from the bigger pieces are becoming so thick, that it's like a smog of plastic in the ocean.

That's the problem. A lot of people look for it like "Where is it?" on Google maps. The thing is that it's more like a large amount that's coming together in an area where beaches are small just below the surface.

What do you think about the future and fossil fuels and solar energy? Do you think it's something that is going to work or do you feel it's a battle that's a little lost?

I live in an interesting space. It's an island, and there's a saying that goes, "No man's an island, entire of itself." And it's true, everything we do affects everyone else and the rest of the planet, and we always have to think of our impact. But the thing that's interesting in Hawaii is that we are an island, so sometimes we can try things and see how they work on a smaller scale. And so, we've seen the change.

There's a lot of pushing to be completely self-sufficient energy wise. We're definitely moving in that direction. You see more and more solar panels covering roofs. I do have hope for it; I see a lot of renewable energy in Hawaii. The people are challenging themselves; they want to be leaders in the renewable energy.

But at the same time, we get discouraged when our president starts making decisions that are disastrous as far as the impact on the environment by pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and you know, by changing the Environmental Protection Agency in a huge way, basically making it not work. So those kind of things happen at the same time, so we have to look at the smaller community and what we're doing for our own community rather than wait for the government.

But I think that all the choices that Trump is making right now are infuriating a lot of people, are discouraging people. At the same time, they're igniting a fire in people to work even harder, because if our government isn't going to do it for us, then we have to do the change and hope that government follows us.

We've seen the video for "My Mind is For Sale." You said it was the cheapest video you've ever made. Was that intentional, as a way to support sustainability?

Yeah, I would like to say it was that noble, but it was actually time to get a video done and I kept procrastinating about coming up with ideas. So then I challenged myself, I spoke to my friends, to everyone that helps me take care of my career -- my wife, my manager is my best friend. When we have to decide something, we'll probably discuss it between the three.

Anyway, I talked to them, I said, 'I'm gonna make the video tonight, I'll show you next morning." They kinda laughed, it was like a challenge. I had this stop-motion animation app and my phone, so it was very cheap. I wrote with a Sharpie on the blocks my kids brought and made the video.

I thought, sometimes making those personal videos is nice, to do one that doesn't feel like a huge production with any amount of money behind. I think my music feels like you could do it in your living room. I like to show my children that you don't need a huge amount of money and fancy equipment to make something. I like showing them that you can do things with stuff that's around the house and be creative.

In these two songs, your sound is a bit more electric. Would you say there was a shift in your sound?

It's funny because the only two songs that have electric guitar on the record are those first two. All the rest of the album has acoustic guitar, ukulele, banjo and all acoustic instruments. I didn't think about the fact that I put the two electric ones out first, but the rest is more stripped back than those two. 

Everyone is copying your style. Do you feel responsible for the ukulele boom? 

If anything, I'm honored if I have anything to do with it. The ukelele is a beautiful instrument, and where I grew up, the ukulele is everywhere, it's very common. So, for me to incorporate it in my music is all very natural. So if I had any influence on it becoming more popular, then that's a good thing.