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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