Can the music industry ever reach net zero?

Jack Johnson says yes, but it is a long road ahead. In this exclusive interview, we ask the American singer-songwriter and UNEP Goodwill Ambassador about his hopes for the state of the world and how music plays a role in providing a dose of optimism in dark times.

Jack Johnson and Jessica Cheam

There’s something about listening to Jack Johnson’s music that delivers a clear dopamine hit and renewed sense of optimism — perhaps all the more needed in these times. Against the backdrop of wars, geopolitical tensions, a global cost-of-living crisis and climate instability — particularly in Asia, the American singer-songwriter’s brand of music and lyrical simplicity continues to resonate, even in this part of the region as demonstrated by the strong turnouts at the Asian stops of his latest Meet the Moonlight tour.

Johnson’s latest and eighth studio album is his first full-length release after a five year hiatus. Known for his acoustic-pop style, sometimes dubbed ‘barbercue rock’ (laid back music played at outdoor barbercues), his early albums such as Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George reached number one on the Billboard charts. Speaking in an exclusive interview with Eco-Business in Singapore where he played on 7 March, Johnson says his songs are often inspired by the natural world: “If people are reminded of what they love about nature… then they try to protect it”.

Meet the Moonlight, he says, is premised on the idea of “just being with people you love out in nature”.

As the lyrics to the song go, Well, you can meet the moonlight / Any night you really wanna / It’s waiting in your own backyard.” 

The idea of nature “waiting in your own backyard”, being there for people to connect with anytime, is a recurring theme in his work in his almost-two decade music career which has spawned other hits such as Better Together and Banana Pancakes.

Born in Hawaii, Johnson was one of the island’s youngest professional surfers before suffering an accident and pivoting into the music industry. His own way of staying optimistic in a time when it’s “really easy to become cynical… is just to dig more into your own community,” he says. 

Johnson and his wife Kim have created two organisations — the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation and the Kōkua Hawaii Foundation — that support environmental, art, and music education in Hawaii and around the world. His connection with the ocean, in particular, has seen him use his music and charities to raise awareness and inspire action around plastic pollution.

“We can’t just recycle ourselves out of the problem or even reuse,” he says, saying that everyone needs to take an “audit” on themselves. Named a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Goodwill Ambassador in 2015, Johnson has been known to avoid extensive touring due to its large environmental footprint.  

But avoiding emissions entirely is impossible, at least for now, and there is “something beautiful and exciting” about live music performances that can inspire, says Johnson, whose gigs are devoid of elaborate sets, fancy props and pyrotechnics — a stark contrast to the likes of pop queen Taylor Swift, who happened to be touring in Singapore in the same week.

It’s a tough act, trying to strike a balance between enabling people to gather for cultural exchanges and live gigs and the emissions that the music industry generates, he admits. Will the music industry ever reach net zero? “You have to be optimistic. But it’s a long road ahead,” he says. 


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