The only time Jack Johnson played in Kaua‘i, he was holding an acoustic guitar and singing for a circle of close friends.
This April, the O‘ahu-based singer/songwriter is keeping his acoustic guitar, but expanding his circle of friends to include more than 500 concert-goers for an April 19 show at the Kaua‘i Community College Performing Arts Center.
The surfer-turned-singer will be performing with fellow Hawaiian musicians John Cruz and Paula Fuga for a seven-date tour across the Hawaiian islands, with his first stop in Kaua‘i.
“The last bunch of tours I wanted to play more shows in Hawai‘i, and it just hasn’t worked out,” Johnson said during a phone interview at his O‘ahu home.
“It was perfect because Paula, John and I have been playing a lot of shows together and doing different recordings together — they both live nearby. Our friendship had been growing, and so the idea came up to do this tour.”
The tour supports the April 17 release of the singer’s next album, “Jack Johnson and Friends — Best of Kokua Festival.”
The live album highlights the best performances from Johnson’s eco-minded music festival, and includes on-stage collaborations with Willie Nelson, Ziggy Marley, Ben Harper, Dave Matthews, Jackson Browne and Eddie Vedder.
“It was actually pretty easy to pick them,” Johnson said about condensing six years worth of festivals into one album. “We just went through and picked out the collaboration from every year that we did toward the end of the night. … The foundation is fun and has so much energy because of people coming in and putting in their time, so I wanted to make sure I represent all these different artists.”
In 2003, Johnson and his wife Kim founded the Kokua Hawai‘i Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports environmental education in island communities. Johnson’s summertime music festival is the main fundraiser for the nonprofit.
“The long-term goal is to get locally grown food in the schools, and with that program we have a lot of school gardens we help support and get the kids out on field trips, out into nature and on local farms.”
Working with other musicians who performed at the Kokua Festival was inspiring for Johnson, who said playing for Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit Concert helped him direct his energy to the Kokua Hawai‘i Foundation.
“I just had a really great feeling that I wanted to do something like that in my hometown,” Johnson said. “Playing at the Bridge School Benefit was a big inspiration, and just growing up in Hawai‘i and going through the public school system here, I felt like I had a pretty good sense of how we can help out for the schools.
While the media is fond of depicting Johnson as a laid back surfer-dude, the singer gets a kick out of the portrayal, evident by the link on his website to the Saturday Night Live sketch, “The Mellow Show” where Andy Samberg parodies a barefoot Johnson being overly mellow, enjoying hacky sack and vegan cookies with fellow musicians Dave Matthews and Jason Mraz.
“It’s a caricature of me. It’s pretty funny to watch yourself and you see the projection,” Johnson said. “I feel like your average person from Hawai‘i. The best thing I can point out is one year I won the Na Hoku Hanohano Award. I got best rock album, and anywhere else in the world I go people would laugh if you called it rock. I think more than anything, it’s being from Hawai‘i, and then traveling outside of Hawai‘i, people think I’m overly mellow.”
As for a next album?
“I’m always sort of writing,” Johnson said. “The nice thing is when I decide to do an album, it helps me finish the song. Most of the time I’ll start them and I have all these little ideas floating around, so I’m in that phase now.”
What is your Kaua‘i concert going to be like?
“It’s going to be just Paula Fuga, John Cruz and myself with just acoustic guitars and ‘ukulele.”
Who is your favorite artist you collaborated with at the Kokua Festival?
“Damian Marley was pretty exciting. He wasn’t on the bill, but he was at the show. We met a few times at different festivals around the U.S. and he was playing a show the next night, and he just stopped by and jumped up on the stage with us. That was spontaneous.”
Is the energy different when you play in Hawai‘i as opposed to other places around the world?
“There are certain places where you go, and you feel the music is right at home. Hawai‘i is obvious, that’s where I’m from. Some places like Portugal and Brazil, it feels very much from there as well — the acoustic guitar playing. And then you go somewhere like Germany, and you kind of feel the music is out of place, and that’s what people like about it. It’s almost like you come representing summer.”