Jack Johnson is primarily known for his laid back, intimate acoustic-based folky, rocky, breezy sound. He helped to kickstart a whole new generation of dudes who take guitars to the beach. But he’s also a devoted student of the electric guitar, and it should not have come as a surprise when he picked up various electrics – Telecasters, semi-hollow Gibsons – for 2008’s Sleep Through The Static and 2010’s To The Sea. Both albums could simply be seen as new angles on a sound and style he’d previously established. But the acoustic guitar is a seductive temptress, and she’s lured Johnson back to her earthy embrace on his latest album, From Here to Now to You. Produced by Mario Caldato Jr., who Johnson worked with while recording his most successful album In Between Dreams, it offers a sound that’s at once familiar and exotic, with lush instrumentation augmenting steel-string and nylon-string guitars.
You come into this album as an acoustic guitarist again after several years of attachment to electric guitars. What’s your relationship to the electric guitar?
I used to be in a punk rock band in high school, and I used to love playing any style. At the same time that I was learning to play folk songs from my dad’s friends I was learning to play Metallica and Sepultura – all this thrash metal stuff – as well as punk stuff like Minor Threat and all that. The electric guitar has always been something I loved playing. And then I started travelling and making surf films and playing the acoustic guitar so much when we were travelling, so it was just easier to bring that along. So those first couple of albums ended up having a lot of acoustic just because of the songs I’d been writing. And after touring a bunch once the whole thing started going, I just had an electric guitar around more often so I started recording with that. I got back to playing a lot of acoustic on this new album partly because I guy I met put this nylon-strong acoustic guitar in my hands and it was just a lot of fun to play. So there’s a lot of nylon, which is actually a first for me. Almost half of the album is on the nylon-string.
So did you take anything back with you from the electrical world, going into this album?
Yeah, definitely. With a steel-string acoustic you can really dig in, and I tend to use medium-gauge strings. I mean, I’ll switch around but I tend to put heavy-enough ones on that if I strum pretty hard to do certain percussive things on it when I deaden the strings and create almost a snare drum sound, it’s nice to be able to dig in without throwing off the pitch or anything. And with an electric you can dig in in a different way on single strings or when taking a lead or something, but as far as strumming it you have to be a little more delicate. And it’s kinda like that with the nylon too. It’s a chance to play a little more delicately – fingerpicking and things like that. You have to be a little more careful about digging in but you can also do things that pop out a little more. Throw in subtle little things like hammer-ons and pull-offs and that sort of thing that really stand out on a nylon-string. And it’s really similar to doing that on an electric except you have some kind of sustain on an electric.
And the nylon string has a kind of intimacy to it. It makes you want to lean in to hear those little details.
That’s true. And it all happened by chance. This guy, I have a friend who told me this guy wanted to give me a guitar, which is a really sweet thing. It’s unbelievable that somebody would want to spend the time to hand-make a guitar for me. So I had a chance to meet this guy, and right at the same time I had this old nylon-string guitar in my house that my daughter had knocked over. It hit a tuning peg and knocked it off and tuned the guitar way down. This one string slipped down to Bb and I couldn’t tune that one string any more, so I had to tune the whole guitar around this one string. And I ended up finding this open tuning that was in Bb that kind of sat around for a whole year where I would just noodle on the thing. Whenever you pick up a guitar that’s in a tuning you don’t know you’ll find cool little things, but it’s hard to write with that. And after about a year or so it just so happened that this guy, Pepe Romero Jr, made this guitar for me. When he handed it to me I tuned this really beautiful guitar to that same tuning and started picking it up so much. Sometimes you get a new instrument and you can just feel the love that’s put into the instrument. So I started writing all these songs in this open tuning, and it was perfect.
It’s amazing how guitars can lead you in particular directions. Some of them just want to be used for certain styles.
It’s true. Sometimes you pick up a guitar that has all these scratches and marks on it, from an old shop or something, and you feel like the thing already has its own character and its own story that comes along with it. And then other times you get a brand new one, and that’s how this one was to me: the guy had just made it and I felt like I had to be careful with it for a while. And when you have three kids and you actually use the things, they start getting bumped around, and they get scratches, so now it’s slowly moving its way towards Willie Nelson’s guitar [Trigger] with the hole in it! It’s going to be a while before it gets there, but it’s kinda nice to have those scratches because those are your own stories, like “Oh I remember that time my kid knocked it over… and when I left it out in the sun by accident.” So both are kinda fun: you find those old guitars that have the stories that come with them, and you get a new one that you get to create your own stories with.
So what other guitars did you use on the album?
I have a Cole Clark. Cole Clark has been really sweet. They’ve given me a lot of really nice guitars along the way and we use those live quite a bit. They have a real nice pickup system that works great for getting a sound that’s not too direct-sounding. It sounds like a mic’d acoustic, a bit. So I use those a lot live. And then I have a couple that are real nice in the studio too. I always have those around and they get a really nice clean sound. And I have a couple of old Gibsons. One’s a Dove and one’s a J-45. And then I’ve got an old Martin. And those are in the category of guitars you get that already have a certain character to them. Sometimes a song you write, you feel like it would be a perfect conversation with that particular guitar, and it brings something to the song that it didn’t have before. And sometimes you want a cleaner sound, and I trust the guys I work with. So there’s a couple of Gibsons, and old Martin, a couple of Cole Clarks. And I have an electric hollow body Cole Clark. There’s one song on this album that has electric guitar on it and that’s the hollow body Cole Clark.
What’s your studio like?
It’s basically a two-car garage. We give it a fancy name – we call it The Mango Tree and it’s got a big mango tree that hovers over it and drops mangoes on the roof all the time – but it’s basically just my garage. We’re lucky to have found this place, because I was looking for a house in Hawaii when the first album gave me the chance to move back here after living in California for a while. When I first started singing and making surf films we were living off my wife’s teacher salary, and when the first album did okay and we had the chance to move back to Hawaii I was looking for a place that had a big enough garage to make into a studio, and we happened to find this one spot that had this really deep garage and it worked out great because we could divide it into three rooms: a control room, a live room and an isolation booth. It’s nice. If we want to separate the sound I can go in there and the drummer can be in the live room and the bass player in the control room, but it’s small enough that we can see each other through the glass. The studios great, and the nice thing about it is I built it with my brother. We built walls within walls to separate it from the neighbours, and it’s always a work in progress. Every time we finish a part we’ll do another record then go back in there and put the flooring in or something. Every record it looks a little nicer and it gets a few more pictures on the wall. The nice thing is I’ll look around and I’ll see a part that I messed up on the drywall or I see a certain tile that’s uneven and I remember putting that one in, and I feel a lot of ownership over the place. It really feels like mine because we built the whole thing.
How do you reconcile being a musician and being a responsible family man? Most of us grow up being told to stop playing guitar and go do some homework. What’s it like when work and play merge?
That’s a good question. What we’ve found our way into doing is using the music and the spotlight I have to support a lot of really great groups around the world. In every town we travel to we’ve made some great friends with different non-profit groups. We focus a lot on environmental education within communities, but also music and art in schools, so we help anywhere from putting in a school garden to buying instruments for classes. It’s really rewarding. It’s funny that you ask that question because that’s how I explain it to my kids: music isn’t work, and I never want the kids to think that’s my work. My work – what they see me working at – is how to focus this energy we’ve gathered into something bigger than myself. So when we tour the family always comes with me and we’re always visiting these community gardens or going to art museums or different non-profit groups that run the museums, and telling the kids “Daddy helped to get this place running,” and it’s a nice thing to be able to show that’s what my work is. It feels a little more like a career worth pursuing.