[dl] Music

The ocean was the perfect muse for Jack Johnson on his introspective new album, To the Sea.

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IN 1999, JACK JOHNSON was in California pursuing a film career when a mutual friend organized a day of surfing for Johnson, who had grown up a champion surfer in Oahu, Hawaii, and famed singer-songwriter Garrett Dutton, better known as G. Love of the band G. Love & Special Sauce. “I put a guitar in my trunk just in case,” Johnson remembers. “My friend put me on the spot, and he was like, ‘Jack brought his guitar, and he’s hoping you guys are going to jam.’ ”

Embarrassed but excited, Johnson played a song he’d written called “Rodeo Clowns,” and G. Love invited him to the studio where he and his group were recording their fourth album, Philadelphonic. The song eventually became a single for the record.

“Without that, I don’t think any of it would have happened,” Johnson says of his music career, which has spanned nearly a decade and has seen the studio release of five albums, including his latest, To the Sea (Brushfire Records, $14). The disc’s 13 tracks reference the beaches where Johnson grew up, both in a literal and figurative sense.

“[In mythology,] water represents the subconscious,” he recalls. “Any time you have somebody who is going off on, say, a hero’s journey and he crosses a river, that represents the moment that he went into his subconscious — the moment that he was able to go deeper into his own mind. So that’s all the references to the ocean and the water for me on the album.”

Johnson calls To the Sea his “most dynamic record to date,” as it combines his trademark easygoing, acoustic-based tunes with the type of rocking electric numbers he explored on 2008’s Sleep Through the Static. In fact, some of the album’s best moments come when Johnson cranks the volume on the upbeat “From the Clouds,” the immediately catchy “You and Your Heart,” the bluesy “At or With Me” and the muted-stringed “The Upsetter.” The album also includes “My Little Girl,” a song Johnson started writing for his niece 15 years ago that is now dedicated to his own nearly 1-year-old daughter.

Guests on the album include Johnson’s old surf pal G. Love and Hawaiian artist Paula Fuga. Fuga is featured on two cuts, including “When I Look Up,” which, like the rest of the album, was recorded at Johnson’s solar-powered Mango Tree Studio in Oahu. (Johnson’s second solar-powered studio, the Plastic Plant in Los Angeles, was also used in the album’s creation.) “The nice thing with the [Oahu] studio is we can just run a cord outside to the little car-cover area [and record outside],” Johnson says. “It was rainy [the night we recorded ‘When I Look Up’] and it sounds like a river or ocean or something.”

Though Johnson’s music has a laid-back sound, the man himself is incredibly active when it comes to giving back. In 2002, he and his wife, Kim, launched the nonprofit Kokua Hawaii Foundation to support environmental education. In addition, all the profits from Johnson’s current world tour, which kicks off this month in Germany, will go toward environmental, art and music education. “It’s a real rewarding way to do the tours,” he says. “It makes me that much more motivated to actually go out and do it.”