An exclusive interview with surfer and musician Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson grew up on the North Shore of Oahu, near Pipeline, and started out not as a musician, but as a competitive surfer, entering surf contests in his teenage years.

With the release of his first new album in nearly five years, “All the Light Above It Too,” including the new single “My Mind Is for Sale,” we’re bringing you an exclusive interview with Johnson covering his early surfing days, how he went from being a filmmaker to a musician, and his favorite places in the world to surf.

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Were you a musician first or a surfer first?
Surfer, way before the musician. I started surfing before I can remember. It was growing up in Hawaii and having two older brothers that surfed, and my dad surfed, and so I was out, like, riding tandem with my dad way back when.

And then I got my first surfboard when I was probably 5 or 6 years old. I remember getting the hand-me-down from my brother. It was pretty funny: It was my birthday and it was wrapped up, like, [with] a bow around [it] or something. As I was looking, I go, “Wait a minute, that’s Petey’s board! I’ve seen that thing around here already! They’re re-gifting!” But I was stoked; it didn’t really matter. It was an old single-fin.

Anyways, I’d been surfing since then and music kind of came into my life around 14 or so. I started to learn how to play guitar chords. My life is more focused on extreme sports and surfing. I mean, if I have the choice between snowboarding or surfing or something like that and doing music, it’s usually the surfing.

Sometimes I have to commit to doing a whole tour and all that, but when I’m back at home, guitar is always kind of a nighttime thing for me. Or when the waves aren’t good.

Have to pay the bills. The money comes from the music.
Yeah. It’s become a nice balance. I mean, it’s something I love to do, but it keeps the surfing really pure. I get to just surf for fun.

It’s a little bit of a sacrifice sometimes too, anytime you decide to make it a living or a business, but it’s kind of different because with music — especially the kind of music I make, which is based on lyrics — it’s kind of about sharing the song. So when you go out and play in front of a crowd, it actually feels pretty natural.

Whereas [with] surfing, I love going off and finding a spot where nobody else is around, just a couple friends. And surfing the contests, it was kind of weird. I used to do that a little bit in high school and had a lot of fun, but wasn’t something I was kind of really anxious to do for the rest of my life.

The way you got started is pretty interesting. You were doing a surf film, basically, right?
It was called “Thicker Than Water,” and we were working on that and actually a bunch of things happened right at the same time. I got a chance to meet Ben Harper because we had been using some of his music in the films that we were making, and then G. Love and Special Sauce as well. And those are both bands I liked a lot.

We were just using their music because we liked it. And then by chance they ended up being interested in surfing, too. So I got a chance to hang out with both [of] those guys and surf, and we played some music together and they were both really supportive.

Ben came and played a little bit of my record, and G. Love used one of my songs on his record that we sang together. That was a huge deal. I mean, it really sparked things for me in the music world, meeting those guys. And then also making the soundtracks for the surf films, that really helped a lot too.

You’ve been all over the world surfing. What are your favorite spots?
I like surfing Indonesia a lot. I like Hawaii a lot, I mean, just because I grew up there and a lot of the spots I surf all the time. You start to know exactly where and how the wave breaks. You know how it is — like, you surf one spot all the time, you know how the section’s going to be and so you get real comfortable.

But I like Santa Barbara [California] actually. I spent a lot of time going to school there, and so Rincon and those pointbreaks are pretty unreal when they get good. It’s just not quite as often.

More about Jack Johnson and his intersection with surf culture on GrindTV

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