Blake Mills is one of the contemporary era’s premier record producers. His production credits span the baroque indie rock of Perfume Genius and the psychedelic soul of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. Mills has worked with Bob Dylan and Fiona Apple, and helped Laura Marling and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard pursue novel stylistic territory.
Mills’ latest project is Meet the Moonlight, the eighth studio album by Jack Johnson. News of the collaboration came as something of a surprise. Johnson, who recently turned 47, is known for writing surf-influenced folk music that’s often laidback to the point of being breezy.
The Hawaiian local has shown a proclivity towards socially conscious and philosophically inclined subject matter dating back to his 2001 debut, Brushfire Fairytales. However, Johnson’s numerous Platinum-selling albums, including 2005’s In Between Dreams and 2003’s On And On, are anything but hefty.
Mills, on the other hand, can create sonic walls of sound. He can transform a song with an electric guitar lick or by adding an overdrive plugin to a vocal take. So, how would the producer’s auteur-like tendencies mesh with Johnson’s preference for all things unhurried and easy-going?
Meet the Moonlight came out in late June and it’s Johnson’s finest record to date. During the album’s ten-song track listing, Johnson sings of his frustration with humankind’s instinctive hostility. He worries that it might be too late for the planet, and that we haven’t even hit rock bottom yet. Amid the existential rumination, Johnson takes care to remind us, “It’s good not to miss too many chances to follow love.”
Songs such as “Don’t Look Now”, “Meet the Moonlight” and lead single, “One Step Ahead”, are as catchy as anything in Johnson’s back catalogue. But with Mills’ assistance, there’s a greater sense of urgency to the material on Meet the Moonlight.
Johnson has previously worked with Beastie Boys producer Mario Caldato Jr., as well as frequent Ben Harper collaborator J.P. Plunier. “I’ve always worked with people I already knew,” Johnson says, speaking to Rolling Stone Australia while on tour in New York. “I’ve always put friendship and family a little in front of the art.”
Mills was an exception; at least initially. Johnson was a fan of Mills’ solo records, including 2014’s Heigh Ho and 2020’s Mutable Set. “I had no idea he produced, but I had shared some of his songs with my kids on a playlist—I have teenage kids and we share music a lot,” Johnson says.
Johnson’s manager recognised Mills as the producer behind Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color and Dawes’ We’re All Gonna Die, and set up a phone call between Johnson and Mills. “By the end of the call, [Mills] said, ‘Why don’t we get together for a week?’” Johnson recalls. “‘Let’s just see if we like hanging out and not even worry about making a record.’”
And so, they did. Though, what was supposed to be a week of hanging out and getting to know one another turned into a prodigiously fruitful week of recording.
“A lot of time when I don’t think I’m recording, I kind of get the most natural and the best stuff,” Johnson says. “So, that became a lot of the bare bones for the album—that first week of playing together.”
From a production point of view, Johnson’s most popular songs—such as “Gone”, “Flake”, and “Banana Pancakes”—are slimline and to-the-point. Meet the Moonlight retains the simplicity of Johnson’s previous work, but the album’s sophisticated arrangements create an impression of expanse and sonic richness.
Mills particularly liked it when Johnson would get a bit weird. “When he would just catch me clowning around a little bit and not taking myself seriously, he would like that stuff,” Johnson says. “He was good at realising that I could be a bit guarded about my final editing process.”
For example, on the song “Meet the Moonlight”, Mills encouraged Johnson to celebrate his mistakes. “I was showing him my original part and then I hit something totally different by accident and he was like, ‘Wait—do that again. That was more interesting.’”
At first, Johnson was dubious. “That was almost on the first day we were working together. When somebody tells you your mistake’s better on the first day you’re like, ‘F– this guy.’”
But as Johnson grew to trust Mills, he began to defer to the producer’s discerning ear. “Every song we started with just the two of us sitting across from each other. We recorded that live every time. So I think every track has both of us on it.”
Johnson returns to Australia this November and December for performances in Perth, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. He’s been coming to Australia for more than 20 years, having first visited for the 2001 Byron Bay Bluesfest. Fittingly for the Meet the Moonlight tour, all shows are taking place outdoors.
“I always like playing outside if it’s a choice,” Johnson says. “We’ve been doing the outside ones for a while now. It just feels pretty natural for us.”
Tuesday, November 29th
Kings Park and Botanic Garden, Perth, WA
Friday, December 2nd (SOLD OUT)
HOTA Amphitheatre, Gold Coast, QLD
Saturday, December 3rd
Riverstage, Brisbane, QLD
Monday, December 5th (SOLD OUT)
Sydney Opera House Forecourt, Sydney, NSW
Tuesday, December 6th (NEW SHOW)
Sydney Opera House Forecourt, Sydney, NSW
Thursday, December 8th
Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, VIC