Jack Johnson

ORGANIC: Jack Johnson will headline opening day at the Coachella music fest, singing pieces about love and war (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)

JACK JOHNSON is far from home again, away from Oahu's North Shore, where he grew up. He still leads a quiet, idyllic life there with his family, writing songs of hope and introspection, a low-maintenance platinum-selling rock star who lives where the pavement is scarce and the TV is rarely on.

But for a few days, Johnson, who on Friday will headline opening day at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, is in Los Angeles, swiveling in a chair at the offices of his Brushfire Records label and thinking a lot about getting back. He's been surfing in Hawaii since he was 5. It's not a hobby for Johnson; hitting the waves is as much a part of his daily existence as a morning cup of coffee is for others. "It's something I'll always do," he says casually.

But surfing is not what he chooses to sing about. His newest album, "Sleep Through the Static," is another smooth collection of organic, understated songs inspired by parenthood, romance and bad news from across the planet. In February it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s top 200 chart, and it has already sold more than 1 million copies in the U.S. alone.

Songwriting is a personal and natural process, he says, and not about working to stay relevant to another generation of young fans.

"I'm not going to try to be something I'm not," Johnson says. "As you get older, I think it's a bad thing to try to keep writing songs about what a 21-year-old is going to relate to. It's important to keep writing songs that have to do with what you're going through in life at that point. Otherwise, you're not writing what's true to yourself."

At 32, his tanned face still shows the scars of a teenage surfing accident on the hard corral near his home. His words come out in a gentle rush, and he offers to share his bowl of fruit and frozen yogurt. A recent Rolling Stone cover story called him "the world's mellowest superstar," and it fits.

Recurrent themes

Likewise, the music on "Sleep Through the Static" remains gentle and inviting, centered on Johnson's acoustic guitar and the soft urgency of his voice, but the lyrics reveal some of the trouble he's seen. Letting go is a recurrent theme, as his sons grow older or as he watches friends suffer.

The new album is dedicated to Danny Riley, his wife's 19-year-old cousin, who died of a brain tumor.

And just the previous night, Johnson had been up until 3 a.m. visiting another close friend in the late stages of terminal cancer, singing at his bedside while surrounded by other friends.

"It was an amazing night last night," he says. "It felt so much more positive than I thought it was going to."

There are still songs of escape and happiness on the album, but bad times haven't escaped his attention as a songwriter. The title track was inspired by the war in Iraq ("Who needs peace when we've got guns?"), and on the album's "All at Once," Johnson laments: "All at once, the world can overwhelm me / There's almost nothing that you could tell me / That could ease my mind."

"Sometimes I don't like being so introspective," says Johnson. "What I realized is that once I get a song out of my head, I clear part of my mind and some thoughts that I hadn't worked out yet. It creates new space so I can think about other things."

Much of the record was recorded in L.A. at the solar-powered studio of Brushfire, with occasional 2 a.m. breaks with his pals for impromptu skateboard runs through the neighborhood. Making records usually means "dragging people out to Hawaii -- not that they mind very much."

Working in L.A. also meant reuniting with producer JP Plunier, who last collaborated with Johnson on his 2001 debut, "Brushfire Fairytales." Johnson then brought the tapes back to his home studio in Oahu, where he completed the lyrics and vocal tracks in the setting where he feels most comfortable: at home with his wife, Kim, and their two young sons.

"I like writing there, and it's so far from the industry," he says, but Johnson also has good memories of Los Angeles. "I enjoy coming into L.A. for periods of time, just the excitement of it all. I remember when we first started playing shows at the Mint and the El Rey, it was so fun pulling into Hollywood. Playing at the Mint in front of 200 people, you felt like the biggest thing in town.

"At the same time, if I spend too much time here, it's easy to get a little too aware of what's going on with the industry. In Hawaii, it's so nice -- I don't even see the magazines; I don't see a Rolling Stone magazine just sitting around ever in Hawaii. I get all the surf magazines: Surfer, Surfer's Path, Surfer's Journal -- those are at the store. You're just totally detached out there."

Johnson also keeps a home in Santa Barbara. He studied film at UC Santa Barbara.

And he chose to co-found Brushfire with friend and filmmaker Emmett Malloy in Los Angeles in part to re-create the sense of community and musical kinship he felt with Ben Harper, Ozomatli and G. Love early in his career. "I wanted to be part of a label that was creating a little scene," he says. "It's fun to collaborate. It's like a little family."

Business sense

The indie label, which is distributed by Universal, evolved from the release of soundtrack albums to a pair of raw, meditative surfing documentaries -- "Thicker Than Water" and "September Sessions" -- that Johnson made with Malloy on 16-millimeter film before focusing on music. Aside from Johnson, the Brushfire roster also includes G. Love, Matt Costa and Money Mark.

"Jack would admit to not being much of a businessman, but he does have great instincts," says Malloy, a friend for nearly a decade. "And he's good about knowing what not to do. Every one of our bands is truly related to us or is a really good friend. It feels really old-school in its mentality. I hope we never lose that."

Brushfire is located in a refurbished 100-year-old house on Larchmont Boulevard, upgraded to be environmentally friendly. "This is our clubhouse," says Johnson. "When there's no distinction between your work and your enjoyment, you've arrived at a good place."

His last album in 2006 was an unexpected side-trip, serenading an animated monkey on the movie soundtrack for "Curious George." Johnson's role was originally going to be limited to a single song, but he ended up creating an entire album of "singalongs and lullabies" for the film.

For a moment, even he began to question the wisdom of recording an entire album for kids. Was it a career killer? He hardly seems worried now. His career already has overtaken any dreams he might have had. He's comfortable with the pace, whatever direction he's headed.

"At least it's not going to do one of these deals," he says of his trajectory, moving his hand straight up and down. "Even if it's all downhill from here, it's going to be a nice, slow glide down."