A New Kind Of Beach Boy

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It is hard to imagine a person less suited to carrying the name of the early 20th century boxer Jack Johnson than the early 21st century folk singer Jack Johnson. The contemporary Johnson, 26, spends his days shuffling between rooms of a shabby-chic Santa Barbara bungalow, editing surf films and strumming out tunes on an acoustic guitar. When life gets too tough, he takes a five-minute stroll to the the beach. "I try to surf everyday," he says quietly. "If there's no waves, I'll go swimming, or we'll just set up camp with a cooler and a guitar and play some music."

Johnson is chiller than a month of Sunday mornings, so it's not surprising that his debut album, Brushfire Fairytales, is doing a slow but steady sales burn in Southern California, Hawaii and other places where sand abounds. With a supersoft vocal style and influences ranging from Jimmy Buffett and Cat Stevens to Ben Harper and De La Soul, Johnson has perfected the admittedly picayune art of contemporary beach music. If the rest of the country hasn't yet heard of him, it is likely because he could barely muster the ambition to get a recording contract in the first place.

Raised on the North Shore of Oahu, Johnson is the son of Hawaiian surf legend Jeff Johnson. At 16, Jack had a pro surfing contract and became the youngest-ever invitee to the ridiculously dangerous Pipe Masters. After he face-planted on a reef (an accident that left him with 150 stitches and extensive scars around his lip and forehead), Johnson made the transition into directing surf films. On "work" trips to Indonesia and Australia, he would entertain his buddies with mellow acoustic tunes, but never considered a career in music. "Because of where I grew up, music for me has always been just some guys sitting around, not really on a stage or anything," says Johnson, "but just playing down at the corner of the yard at a luau or barbecue. It's not very flashy."

By chance, Johnson met up with amateur surfer Garrett Dutton, lead singer of the college rock act G. Love & Special Sauce. The two surfed and jammed together, and Dutton liked Johnson's song Rodeo Clowns so much that he asked Johnson to record it with him for the 1999 album Philadelphonic. When Rodeo Clowns became the album's only hit, Johnson found himself on the radar of several major record labels. "I had a pretty good gig, the surf-film gig," he says. "I had a lot of fun, and I could pay my bills, which is all I was really concerned with. So when [record] people would ask me if I was willing to give up the surf-film thing or if I would give up surfing at times to be on the road and promote an album, the answer was sort of, 'No.'"

Instead, Johnson signed with tiny Enjoy Records, whose only goal was to sell a few copies of Brushfire Fairytales in surf shops and boutique record stores. The 50,000 albums sold on a production and promotion outlay equal to your average Iranian art film made for a tidy profit. Johnson has also managed to tear himself away from the beach long enough to do some sporadic touring with Ben Harper, though he hopes not to make a habit of it. Nor is he sure there will be another Jack Johnson record. "There's no ambitions musically. I like to just sort of let whatever happens naturally, go with it. So who knows?"