Jack Johnson was hard at work on All the Light Above It Too – his first album since 2013, due September 8th – when he got a phone call from an old friend. "He said he'd been watching a spot that, if the wind was going in the right direction and we got a good swell, could be pretty amazing," the singer says. The buddy in question was 11-time World Surf League Champion Kelly Slater, who took Johnson to a stretch of reefs in the Marshall Islands – about 2,700 miles from the singer-songwriter's home in Hawaii – where the water is so clear you can see 200 feet below the surface.
For Johnson, music has always been something for "when there's no waves," and he wrote many of his early songs on boats during surfing trips. These days, though, he's usually too busy being a dad to manage spontaneous wave quests. "Most of his downtime between tours is at home with family," says Slater, who met Johnson when they were teens, and calls the singer a "very good surfer."
But when Johnson managed to get away this time, he brought a cigar-box ukulele with him, using it to write a breezy meditation on the familiar feeling you get when you see someone you know called "Sunsets for Somebody Else." The song became a key track on his still-untitled seventh LP, which he recorded in the same garage home studio that birthed every album since his 2000 debut, Brushfire Fairytales. Johnson didn't stray far from his signature island-tinged folk pop, but the recording process was hardly effortless: After trying his hand at playing all the instruments on every song, he realized he wasn't up to the task. "It sounded like my band, but with some guy who couldn't play the drums as good as my drummer," he says.
His band and producer Robbie Lackritz helped him flesh out songs like "Big Sur," a whimsically jazzy track about a camping trip, and "My Mind's for Sale," a relatively gentle Trump takedown ("I heard that six or seven words he likes to use are always in bad taste"). "It's depressing to be part of a country with a leader pulling out of the Paris Agreement," says Johnson, who often finds topical songs easier to write than personal ones. "But it's also inspiring to hear a couple of days later that Hawaii's gonna be the first state to adhere to the Paris Agreement."
Here is what Johnson and Slater had to say about their big surf trip.
Somebody Else's Sunsets
"It was about a five-hour flight from Hawaii to where we went," Johnson says. "I don't know how secret we're trying to keep the area."
"It was in the Marshall Islands," Slater says. "The trip was so last-minute because the storm that creates the swells for this place are a little bit tricky to predict ahead of time. You really have to wait to two or three days prior to going to know if the swell's gonna come from the right direction and the wind's gonna be from the right direction, as well."
"We flew Hawaiian Airlines, which I end up flying a lot because they're in and out of Hawaii," Johnson says. "The in-flight magazine is interesting because there's always articles about different things in Hawaii, so a lot of times I'll see somebody and I won't know if it's somebody I know or if it's somebody I've just seen in a commercial or advertisements. There was a girl in one of the advertisements, for a hotel or something, and I wasn't sure if I knew her. I talked to Kelly a little bit about the idea of 'I know I've seen your face somewhere,' and then that next line I came up with is 'selling something, some big idea.' It became the beginning of the new song, 'Sunsets for Somebody Else,' because you got these corporations with hotels, so the idea of selling something sacred popped into my mind."