The relationship between music and surfing is as old as the sport itself. And unlike when the Beach Boys charged the airwaves without ever standing up on a surfboard, today there are successful artists who are as in tune with the ocean as they are with their instruments. Jack Johnson and Ben Harper are perfect examples. So when we heard that both had fresh releases and summer tours in the works, we put staff music writer and industry insider Tim Donnelly on the case. Says Timmy D: “Cool is an overused word, especially when it comes to Ben Harper. Caring, consistent and civil are better descriptions. And Jack Johnson is so humble and understated. This is a guy that describes epic, 6-8′ Backdoor as ‘pretty fun.’” Read on for more from these soulful solo artists — in and out of the water.
SURFING MAGAZINE: Nice to know that even with the musical success, you still get in the water. We heard that you spent most of the winter in Hawaii surfing.
JACK JOHNSON: Yeah there’s been a couple of days. I’ve had a lot of fun on six- foot days at Backdoor. It gets really fun at six to eight. And we got a really good day off big surf out at an outer reef with Dan Malloy, Mark Healey, and Chris Malloy that was pretty fun.
What about the new record? Did you tweak the formula from Brushfire Fairytales?
We did it in Hawaii this time, which was cool. We’ve got Mario C., Mario Caldato Jr., who was the producer for the Beastie Boys. It’s probably similar to the first one in that it’s acoustic guitar, drums and bass. On this one I play the same guitar the whole time. Actually…there are a few songs on electric guitar. But it’s pretty stripped down. I think this time we were a little more relaxed in the studio. We were just doing it in the garage, which was cool.
You’ve written a lot of music on surf trips. Did traveling on tour affect your writing this time?
Yeah I think so. I wrote a lot while we were touring in vans, hotel rooms, but it’s still just about things I see, people and how I want to sometimes cheer somebody up with a song.
[Johnson's sophomore effort On and On hits streets in April.]
SURFING MAGAZINE: Songs on Diamonds on the Inside range from reggae to hard rock, blues to spirituals.
BEN HARPER: Well, I’m always trying to stretch it, to go in different directions. Not for the sake of being musically clever, that can’t be further from what it’s freaking about. It’s about communicating the sincerest part of the emotion I feel in the moment. I’m following the song; I’m not leading the way at all.
How does nature and the environment affect you and your craft?
It is a part of every breath for me — God as life, God as nature, respecting and representing — it’s every hing, it’s first and foremost. Look, culture has been unfortunately structured towards waste instead of grace. There are challenges to just being human that are frustrating. But when it comes down to the core of who I am, nature and an organic approach is where I am from.
Do you find the ocean particularly inspiring?
I have clean slates in and out of the ocean in where I need to go to get my head together. The ocean sure is one of them. The ocean is extremely melodic. Whenever I am in the ocean and paddling out, ideas come to me in a way that they don’t in other places. I think anybody who surfs will tell you, you hear music when you surf; it’s a weird phenomenon.
[Harper's new record Diamonds on the Inside (Virgin) is out now, along with Pleasure and Pain, a documentary DVD by acclaimed rock photographer Danny Clinch.]
[For more, check the May issue of SURFING Magazine, on newsstands now.]