Jack Johnson headlines the Cali Vibes Festival in Long Beach Presidents Day weekend (2/19) and comes to the Lobero on 2/21 | Credit: Kizzy O'Neal

When I think of Long Beach, I see waves slowly creeping through the air then crashing along beaches with a thunderous force as they catch up with time. I imagine de-stressing for a moment as the only thing on my mind is the slight sea foam gathering under my feet, silently bubbling away. What better location, then, for a reggae festival? The Marina Green Park’s got you covered: Cali Vibes is a three-day festival February 17-19 — a perfect escape for the long President’s Day weekend. 

Headlining the festival are de-stressing legends, Jack Johnson and Snoop Dogg, along with Rebelution, Dirty Heads, Slightly Stoopid, Ben Harper, and more. I caught Johnson around lunchtime in Hawaii, his slight Hawaiian accent complimenting his sweet and unassuming nature. The relaxed vibe is so palpable you can hear it in his music, permeating any room it’s playing in with playful lyrical knobs of joy and relaxation.

Let’s dive right in. How are you feeling about playing Cali Fest and co-headlining with Snoop Dogg? Did you ever imagine that happening? What a combo! Johnson: Yeah, I’m really excited! I can’t say I did imagine it, but it’s definitely a great bill to be on.  We’re excited to go check Snoop Dogg out the night before … It’s a cool lineup. There’s a lot of friends on the bill, especially on the night that I’m playing. It should be a really great time. It’s always fun when backstage there’s lots of friends around!

Jack Johnson, left, and Snoop Dogg headline the Cali Vibes Festival | Credit: Courtesy

I know you’re a huge fan of surfing, to the point where you make surf films which are so cool. In your opinion, what’s the biggest connection between songwriting and surfing? Do you ever feel a tie between them? In my own life, it’s definitely a balance. Surfing kind of helps me escape a bit. A lot of times the lyrics that help me finish songs come while I’m out surfing and just not overthinking it, you know? It takes kind of both for me, it takes being intentional and taking the time to work on songs, but it also takes stepping away from the songs and not thinking about it and suddenly the lines come. That tends to happen a lot when I’m in the ocean … I just grew up always having music [from surf films] in my head when I would surf. So when it’s my own melodies, a lot of times I’ll have the syllables there but no real words yet. I’ll have an idea of what the emotion is but I don’t really know what the words are. Sometimes it’s when I’m not focusing on it is when the first line or sometimes the last lines of a song will come.

Speaking of films, do films themselves ever have an impact on your songwriting? I know Everything Everywhere All At Once influenced some new albums this past year. Oh, wow … I like that movie, that’s cool! Yeah, I was a film major at UC Santa Barbara, so all those film classes I was taking … the films were almost having a bigger influence than other music was [having] on my songwriting. ‘Cause it was all storytelling.

That’s so cool! With those songs, do the melodies and lyrics sometimes come all at once? Yeah! The love songs a lot of times come pretty quick, ‘cause they’re just me trying to make my wife laugh and then it becomes the song. Just me joking around with her.

That’s so cute! I saw you say in another interview, “I couldn’t have written a love song before I met my love, so I may have tried, connected the dots and made words rhyme, but you can’t write a love song without love.” In your opinion, how do you know when you’re feeling real love, or are in love? Oh, that’s a good question! I mean I don’t know how to put it into words, it’s one of those things where you just know when you’re in love. My wife and I, we’ve been together since we were 18. I just remember the feeling when we started talking about things before either of us knew we were going to spend our life together, we just naturally started to talk about those kinds of things. Like, “oh it will be fun when we have this or that, it’ll be fun when we have kids”… it was just really natural and I guess we kind of both knew. Even before we consciously knew that we’d be together forever.

That’s so sweet! You also mentioned that she’s the only person you can take musical criticism from. What does that shared musical tie mean for your relationship? And what’s the secret to a lasting relationship amidst touring and travel when it’s so uncommon in your field? Yeah, she just became my editor at the beginning. She always had a cooler music collection than I did back before it was all on the phone. We’d hang out and listen to music a lot and she was a big music fan, and still is. So I’d play her a song and say “what do you think of this?” She was always sweet … and I could tell the ones she really liked … and I could tell when a song would move her. It was this really easy thing … if you’re a music fan and you love music, then when you hear a song, and it makes you feel something that you knew already and you couldn’t put it into words … but when you hear the song, you think to yourself, “ah, that’s that thing I’ve always thought about or held and didn’t know how to put into a song”…that’s what a good song does for me. When you discover a line or two that makes you feel that way yourself, you realize it’s the same thing. Having somebody that you trust, you can see it in their look or in the way that they respond to it, that it is working.

Was your music collection on vinyl or CDs? In college it was more CDs, I mean both of us had families that had vinyl and grew up with record players but at that point we’d have these canvas zipper bags that you’d have 40 or 50 CDs in sleeves that you’d hold.

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On the topic of college, what was your favorite Santa Barbara food spot and hangout spot? Yeah! Los Arroyos! It was fun when they opened their very first location. We used to cruise in there and get burritos and hangout within the family and they were really excited to start their first one. So we’ve seen them grow over the years and we’ve always been supportive.

Cool! Is there a song that takes you back to UCSB? I listened to “Phoenix” by Birdy all the time on campus so that was mine. Yeah, Sublime’s 40 Oz. To Freedom, the whole album! When we were freshmen that was the big album. It hadn’t really broken out … that was the soundtrack to our freshman year.

I know you decided to do the Lobero Anniversary concert in Santa Barbara on February 21. It’s a much smaller venue than what you usually play, which I take to mean the Lobero itself is important to you. Plus tickets were only sold in person to make it local centric! Can you speak about that? Yeah! I’ve seen great shows there and it’s definitely a place [where] if we can do some help on the fundraising and celebrate how long they’ve been around, we’re excited to be a part of that. My favorite show I saw there was Neil Young warming up for a tour — they just announced they were basically gonna rehearse and let people watch the rehearsals. That was really moving. It’s just a great place. I have a lot of great memories of seeing shows there.

Now the fun questions! Since you love Hawaii, have you seen The White Lotus? Yeah yeah! I thought it was great. One of my really good friends was a stunt double. He was the one that tackles the guy when he’s in the room.

Do you know if you’re introverted or extroverted? Somewhere in between. I definitely get up onto the stage and do what I gotta do, but also at the same time don’t always feel like it’s the most natural state for me. I kind of wonder how in the world I’m going to do it every time.

Yeah, I remember you mentioning in another interview, where you said you kind of see stars and you just go for it. Laughs Yeah, it’s true.

Any artists that are on your current rotation? I like Big Thief a lot. Khruangbin I listen to a lot. And I kind of got into Adrianne Lenker, the singer from Big Thief. She has some solo stuff too.

I love that you love Big Thief, that’s amazing! I love them so much I went to see them twice when I was in London because I needed to see them multiple times. And they change their setlist every show which is really cool. Yeah! I love their song “Change,” it’s a really good song. I soundcheck with that song a lot, I always end up doing a cover of something I’ve been listening to.

That’s so cool! Would you consider putting out a cover of it? I’d love to hear that! Oh cool! Thank you! Maybe live at some point. That’d be fun.

Can you quickly run me through the inception and writing process for “Upside Down”? I listened to that song all throughout my childhood, it’s a huge part of my life, my family listening to it in the car … I just think it’s one of the best written songs of all time and it makes me so happy. Aw, you’re so sweet, thanks for that. I appreciate that. That’s one of those ones that came real quick and naturally and easy. It was around when I was having my first kid, so I just wanted to write kids songs. So I had a bunch sitting around and there’s a certain freedom writing songs where you know it’s for kids and families. It frees it up, and those songs come easy. That was a lot of fun to do. It’s been a cool thing to meet people around your age that grew up listening to that song. I remember there used to be kids on shoulders at the shows and that was a cool experience for us.

The lines are so great, they’re so universal and sweet. Did those just come to you? Yeah! When you’re not overthinking it, they are real simple, I do enjoy singing them. I was just trying to be as optimistic about the future as I could, bringing new life into the world. That was a fun exercise.

I’ll be driving through the Santa Barbara mountains listening to “Upside Down” on full blast, and think, like, this song … all the elements are so good. Ah, that’s so cool! That makes me so happy! It’s always fun thinking of it as being the soundtrack to road trips. Some of my favorite memories and music I love the most are the ones that I had on a road trip and that reminds me of that time or place.

Totally. Your songs are soundtracks to other people’s lives now.

Jack Johnson Headlines the Cali Vibes Festival in Long Beach on February 19 (calivibesfest.com/) and plays the Lobero on February 21.

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