The last I saw of B.A. Johnston, he was snaking a path through a crowded barroom, shirtless with a bandanna around his neck – a sweaty, stubby, wild-eyed sight of unabashed beer belly, overgrown red mutton chops and Zach Galifianakis indecorum. Onstage, the gruff oddball had led a singalong version of Deep Fryer in My Bedroom, had blasphemed with Jesus is From Hamilton and had charmed with Cat Food Fork.
He had bantered erratically, ranted charmingly and made do with a Casio keyboard and an acoustic guitar.
Johnston’s voice is ragged but serviceable; he possesses a daring sense of rhythm. His unfussy urban-folk canon is rich with outdated pop-culture references and fraught with the daily confusion and pathetic chaos of a man-child free of responsibility ( Drinkin’ on My Mom’s Dime), bewildered by society’s schedules (Trash Day) and angered by messed-up food orders (Drivethru Beef).
After the show – at Toronto’s funky basement-set Junction City Music Hall, with its eighties-era pinball machines and Playboy-plastered men’s restroom – fans filed up and out toward street level. Some high-fived each other and shook their heads in amazement, but dissenting voices were also heard. “That was so awful,” a young woman told her friend, “I don’t even have words.”
Such is the effect of Johnston, a polarizing figure among indie-music fans and tastemakers alike. Some view him as a musically untrained jokester, while others position him as a modern-age Stompin’ Tom Connors or performance-art savant, with an irony-free oeuvre appealing to debt-burdened students and overeducated underachievers. At the centre of the debate on Johnston, a fortysomething former philosophy student at Trent University, is the issue of authenticity: Is he a real fella or is he playing the schmo for show?
“It’s weird, man,” he told me before a preshow sub-shop meal in North Toronto. “B.A. and I definitely intersect. I downplay it and say I’m not like him, but I totally am. He’s me times 10.”
So, as an artist, Johnston (who doesn’t reveal his given name) plays a character and writes songs within a persona. While “B.A.” lives with his mother and is associated with Hamilton, the Steeltown native Johnston himself now shares a home with a girlfriend near Barrie, Ont. Between large bites of his roast beef, salami and gravy sub, he describes B.A. as somewhat crazy. “No one would want to be around him all the time. He’s a bit intense.”
Out of character, Johnston is laid-back and chummy. He wears a Cleveland Browns tuque – “my cat ate the pompon off my Ticats hat” – and a camouflage jacket. His ride is a white, cluttered 2006 Dodge Caravan, which we tumble into for the drive to the concert venue.
Once he gets his GPS-helped bearings, we chat about his new album – Gremlins 3, a title which caused copyright issues because of the film franchise name – and about the mild controversy that began swirling around his music a couple of years ago. “It was more than people not liking the record,” he says, shaking his head. “It was about people not liking me.”
In 2015, Johnston’s album Shit Sucks was the subject of great debate among Polaris Prize voters: Some lauded the record for its relatability and unpretentious tone, while others fumed over its lightheartedness. One jury member dismissed Johnston as a novelty act and declared that he would quit Polaris if the album made the 10-album short list.
Johnston’s album, as it turned out, did not make the Polaris short list. But it wasn’t for a lack of effort from his loyal fans, who organized a hashtag social-media movement in hopes of vaulting their hero’s quirkiness to higher consideration.
“It was all very strange,” Johnston says, leaving it at that.
Asked about his songwriting, he explains with a shrug that he writes a bit about what people know and what people care about. “You gotta pull those heartstrings.”
On his new album, Johnston pulls credibly and with meticulous Canadiana, on ditties such as So High in Foodland and Too Messed Up To Be In This Canoe. Some will dismiss them as novelties; others will applaud them as novel and true.
In 2013, at a memorial service for Stompin’ Tom Connors, I spoke to a man outside Peterborough Memorial Centre. “When we first heard Stompin’ Tom’s music, we laughed,” the fan said. “But then we realized he was singing about us.”
Likewise, if Johnston’s songs are jokes, they are about us, not on us. His career is real, as is his underdog bona fides. “I have no other skills,” he says, parking his van in front of the venue. “I was thinking about trucking, but now they have the self-driving vehicles. So, this is it, you know?”
B.A. Johnston’s cross-country tour continues to April 29. (bajohnston.ca)