The point is, eventually, people are going to have to stop being surprised by Johnson's success. He is, after all, one of the most popular singer/songwriters on the planet (perhaps the most), capable of selling millions of albums, selling out stadiums around the world and staging an annual concert — the Kokua Festival — on his home island of Hawaii. Perhaps the surprise comes from the fact that Johnson is arguably the most down-to-earth musician in the business, shunning the spotlight and donating 100 percent of the proceeds from his tours to charities. Calling him a celebrity just doesn't seem right.
Still, there's a pretty good chance that later this summer, you will begin reading the same stories about Johnson's unlikely success, because that's when he'll release his new album, a deeply personal collection of songs that's almost certain to top the Billboard charts yet again (and stay there for an extended period of time).
"The album is called To the Sea. I guess it's a reference to a father leading his son to the sea, with the water representing the subconscious. So it's about trying to go beneath the surface and understand yourself," Johnson told MTV News on Tuesday. "I have three kids ... so the album is about that. It's both me as a son of my own father and me looking down at my kids. I'm 34, right at this transition of still feeling like a child sometimes, but other times feeling like a father, and finding the father in myself. It's all about those things."
Recorded in just three weeks in Johnson's Mango Tree Studios, Sea is meant to capture the man and his band as they're supposed to be heard: live and loose. It was mainly committed to tape in one room, with minimal use of overdubs, and an increased focus on letting the instruments bleed into one another. It is very much the sound of a band setting up in a room and just playing.
"We don't need much time. Just four guys in the band, we try to get it live as much as we can, keep as much of it with the bleeds in it," Johnson smiled. "Three weeks is about as long as we could spend, because we tend to start overthinking things if we go longer than that. We're a pretty small band, with pretty simple songs."
Sea is scheduled to hit stores June 1, and the first single from the record — a tune called "You and Your Heart" — will debut on radio next month.
"[That song] started off with this guitar riff that I had around for a while, actually had it on the last record, and we liked it, but we didn't have any words for it yet, nothing came natural, so I didn't use it," Johnson said. "And at some point, some of the books I was reading started leading me in a certain direction, kind of like this broken king character. That area you get in sometimes, where you stop trusting your heart and you start thinking too much about logic and this and that. So it's basically about that separation that can happen between the self and the heart and trying to trust your heart again."
Other standouts include the title track (which Johnson said was written "in, like, 10 or 15 minutes") and "At or With Me," a buzzing, punching number recorded "in one take, one time." And while the whole idea of working fast and loose isn't exactly a new one, Johnson's reason for doing so might be. After all, he was making it in Oahu.
"You know, the studio doesn't have any windows in it, and it's kind of this closed-off space," he said. "We went in there to work. But it's also the kind of place you want to spend as little time as possible in. You wanna go outside. Or, at least, I did."