Jack Johnson finds his ‘Calling’ on stage

Matt Roberts/Getty Images

The semi-annual Boston Calling Music Festival returns for its spring iteration this weekend, filling City Hall Plaza with a myriad of sounds from over 23 artists including the Decemberists, Jenny Lewis, Modest Mouse, and Tegan and Sara.

Helping ease into the weekend is laid-back acoustic rocker Jack Johnson, who kicked things off Friday night on a bill with Cass McCombs and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros.

We recently caught up with the amiable Hawaii native by phone from St. Augustine, Fla., where, after he hung up, he was headed — where else? — to the beach with his family. We chatted with Johnson about his most recent album, “From Here to Now to You,” his inner metalhead, and the joys of not being famous even when you’re famous.


The platinum-selling singer-songwriter behind such hits as “Flake” and “I Got You” was particularly excited to be playing with the Zeros, with whom he was hooked up by the Boston Calling programmers and is now heading out with for a run of dates.

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“That first show together down in Mexico was so fun, it was a match made in heaven,” says Johnson. “Backstage was so much fun and there was so much music getting played and then we took it up onto the stage, so I’m sure we’re going to be doing more of that at Boston Calling.”

Q. Some festivals are programmed around one genre whereas Boston Calling offers a lot of different styles.

A. There’s an art to that. You can have an eclectic lineup and it still somehow works. We’ve been on bills with people that we never thought would work. And I’ve been on ones where it probably still didn’t work but it was really fun. I actually had to play after Motörhead one time in Germany. (Laughs.)

Q. That’s so funny, I’ve always had this silly image of you jamming out to metal to get pumped for shows.


A. I love Motörhead. We used to cover “Ace of Spades” in my high school band. I was such a surf movie junkie as a teenager that whatever [music] they put in the surf movies, that’s what we listened to. And there was one movie in particular that had a lot of Motörhead in it.

Q. At your own gigs people have paid specifically to see you, but when you’re faced with thousands at a festival how do you command their attention?

A. I’ve actually never really cared if they listen. That sounds funny to say. We just got off a theater tour in the fall and, in that case, it’s nice that people listen and that usually does happen. But I had this realization back when I was doing little clubs in the beginning and I saw a couple of singer-songwriters scold the crowd and, oh, that is just the hardest thing to watch or listen to. If your music’s not grabbing them, lecturing them is not going to help. It just makes it worse. I think of my music as very social, it’s kind of like barbecue music. How I started playing was to learn Cat Stevens and good old Bob Marley songs and all the songs that everybody knows. I would learn the chords for those from my dad’s friends and everybody at the barbecue would sing along. So when I started writing it was the same thing.

Q. On the new album you’ve got a few songs where you seem to be reminiscing — on writing your first love song on “Never Fade,” or reliving the days of your high school band on “Tape Deck.” Were you in a nostalgic mood?

A. Yeah, I’m getting old, you know. (Laughs.) I just turned 39 a couple of days ago. I forget to get presents for birthdays and Valentine’s Day and all those days and so all those songs come the night before one of those when all of sudden I realize, “Oh, I’ve got nothing.” And then I realize I have the power to give the best thing of all and I write a song. Those are like cards and then I end up sharing them with everybody.


Q. You’ve been very successful but maintained a low profile. Are you able to walk the streets without getting hassled?

A. Yeah. I’m pretty lucky in that sense. I feel like it’s a perfect balance. I’m able to fill up venues and have fun playing music, and then I can cruise around. My friends last night were really surprised because no one was stopping me. In one case, after we left this popsicle shop the girl [at the shop] told my friend that she was going to our show that night and he said, “That was him that was just in here” and she started screaming and freaking out but she didn’t realize it was me. The most I ever get is people tell me I look like Jack Johnson. I keep growing my hair out so that kind of helps me. (Laughs.)

Interview was edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at