Johnson never imagined stardom. Born on Oahu in 1975, he grew up in a house with Banzai Pipeline in the front yard. Johnson’s father, Jeff, an old-school surfer, had moved to the island with his wife, Patti, from Southern California in the sixties. Their front porch quickly became a hangout not just for Jack, his two older brothers, Trent and Pete, and their friends, but for some of the best big-wave surfers in the world, including Gerry Lopez, Derek Ho, and Laird Hamilton.
Johnson began to surf before kindergarten by kneeling on the front of his dad’s board. Music came later, in his teens, when he picked up a guitar and a few licks from beach-party jam sessions. In high school, he sang and played guitar in a goofy punk band called Limber Chicken.
But riding the breaks always came first. He entered Pipeline Masters, a premier pro event, at 17. A week after the contest, a wave tossed him onto a reef and left a meatball where his face used to be. Johnson’s karma being what it is, he healed quickly, using the recovery time to improve his guitar skills just before he took off for the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he played in a party band and studied film.
After graduating in 1997, Johnson did camera work and made soundtracks for independent surf films in locales from Ireland to the South Pacific. While recording instrumental music for the films Thicker Than Water and September Sessions, he put together a CD of his own music. Emmett Malloy, a filmmaker and amateur surfer from Los Angeles who is now Johnson’s co-manager, introduced the singer to J.P. Plunier, Ben Harper’s manager and producer. Plunier was looking to set up an indie label, Enjoy Records (now Everloving Records), and wanted Johnson as his first artist…
Then one day in 2001, while eating a burrito at Illegal Pete’s, in Boulder, Colorado, Johnson got a phone call from Malloy. The sales of Brushfire Fairytales were climbing. Malloy told him that Universal Records wanted to sign the band, and they were talking serious money.
Look for special GUEST EDITOR’S Chris Malloy and Jack Johnson in SURFER Magazine coming to a surf shop near you soon!
“We had a lot of pride as this independent band,” Johnson says. “We were probably too full of it. They were offering an amount of money we’d never thought we’d get. But I remember telling my friends, ‘Let’s just say no. Things are going so good.’ ”
Five minutes later, the phone rang again. The offer had been doubled. Johnson said no again.
“It was so fun!” he recalls. “It tripped them out.”
Johnson wasn’t playing games: He and his buddies truly didn’t care if they hit it big. Life was good. “It’s not like we were some great businessmen,” he says, laughing.
He finally signed in 2002. But Johnson could say no, and enjoy saying no, because he didn’t define himself as a musician or an entertainer. He still doesn’t.
He’s a waterman.
Read the entire Jack Johnson profile in OUTSIDE Magazine September 2005.