No More Monkey Business?

In a career blessed by laid-back luck, terrific timing, and key childhood connections — oh yeah, and a mellow music-making talent — most wouldn’t call Jack Johnson a cunning businessman. The sometime Santa Barbara resident’s rise to global stardom seemed about as easy as catching your third shoulder-high wave at an empty point break. But given the UCSB grad’s latest move — the creation of the entire soundtrack for the new Curious George animated feature film — what we think of the easy-riding golden boy might just have to change.

First of all, by doing the soundtrack to a kids’ movie — officially titled Jack Johnson and Friends’ Sing-Alongs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George — Jack enlisted a new generation of young fans. He also nailed down those kids’ parents and grandparents, who will be excited to pop in Jack’s adult-friendly soundtrack rather than some silly Disney concoction. Lest we fear Jack’s slide down and up the generational scales might hurt his base of screaming teens, surfers, and nature-loving twenty- to fortysomethings, remember that Curious George is one damn mischievous monkey, not to mention a character that Jack’s generation grew up with. Since only a few of the 13 songs are aimed explicitly at kids, we can also expect more than just the current “Upside Down” tune to hit the airwaves. Now, let’s do the math. Jack picks up gazillions more fans, doesn’t lose any street cred, and still has new songs hitting the radio. The world’s best business schools couldn’t teach that fortune-making strategy.

“That’s the only reason I did it,” joked Jack over the phone recently, as he re-floored his North Shore Oahu home. “Nah, it’s funny. It seemed like the right thing to do, but who knows how it will turn out?

It could end up being a career-ender. You never know.”

Career-ender? Yeah, right. But given the perceived gamble, why not just release another album of tunes perfect for a beachside campfire? One major reason is that Jack and his wife have a young boy of their own, which made the project a family favorite. And in an age of questionable role models, why not ensure that your own kid will grow up loving your brand of happy, positive music?

Fatherly reasoning aside, the opportunity lined up with Jack’s serendipitous trajectory. One day, his buddy/music video director Emmett Malloy called, saying that the people making Curious George were interested in Jack writing one song for the film. Jack, who grew up reading H.A. Rey’s Curious George books, checked out some sketches and started writing the song. When the filmmakers loved it, Jack offered to do as many songs as they wanted. So he finished four, then finished a couple more. By the time everything got incorporated, Jack’s lyrics became the speechless monkey’s inner thoughts. Said Jack, “I’m kind of Curious George’s voice.”

It was a learning experience for Jack, too, in that it was the first time he had done a record when the creative control was not just his alone. “I had feedback, and that was positive and negative at times,” he explained. “And that was new, because you can’t help but become a control freak with your music when you do it all the time.”

There were no major conflicts, and working with film score master Hans Zimmer on extending the songs for background music was surely enlightening. Lyrically, it all came out as he’d written, from the radio-playing “Upside Down” and monkey-comes-to-city “People Watching,” to the more kid-oriented “Jungle Gym” and island-y “Talk of the Town.” Plus, Jack was able to include his song “3Rs,” which has become a recycling mantra for grade schoolers, and his live-crowd-pleasing cover of the White Stripes’ “We Are Going to Be Friends.” In true Jack form, he also brought in friends such as his keyboardist and Santa Barbaran Zach Gill (of Animal Liberation Orchestra), Philly’s G-Love, and old friend Ben Harper. It’s a great album, more dynamic than his first three in many ways, and will make his bank account all the fatter. So, then, what’s the next big move, aside from his spring tour through Europe? Jack’s answer: a big chill. “I’ll be surfing and kicking it for about a year. After that year, I’ll figure out what to do.” Wait, that’s not the talk of a cunning businessman. Maybe he’s the same Jack, after all.

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