Musician BA Johnston on music and quarantine

They say never meet your heroes, but they have clearly never met BA Johnston.

A day or so after the interview, as I was attempting to transcribe the audio into text, I could have sworn I was listening to an episode of The Chris Farley Show – aimless, unintelligible ramblings full of monotonous praise, asking Paul McCartney if he remembers Beatlemania.

I was shocked I managed to get out a single coherent question. I can rarely even manage to get my order across in the drive-thru line, panic-ordering potato wedges and a gallon of soup when all I wanted was a coffee.

Fortunately for me, Johnston was more than prepared for my fan-boy rambles.

For those of you who’ve never heard of folk-rock legend BA Johnston, you’re truly missing out. Rooted out of Hamilton, Ontario, Johnston has been making audiences laugh with his lively, honest humour for well over a decade.

With songs like “Too Messed up to Be in This Canoe,” “I Will Make Lasagna for You and “This Hangover Has Legs,” it’s hard not to fall in love with these gut busting anthems.

And when it comes to performing, Johnston’s act is anything but ordinary. He plays to please, and more importantly, wants to have fun.

Whether he’s force feeding audience members a pitcher of Hawkins Cheezies or singing about a lingering roommate while perched on the well-worn toilet bowl at Jane Bond, there is no lack of entertainment.

It draws the question, how does anyone come up with this kind of act?

“When I first started I didn’t really have songs. The audience would kind of yell suggestions and then I would write songs on the spot about what they were yelling at me and then everything slowly changed over time,” said Johnston.

“As you do the shows for years you kinda keep the stuff that works, or you forget about stuff that works. It always kinda changes, you keep the good stuff, get rid of the duds.”

Unfortunately for Johnston and his fans, a show such as his grows increasingly difficult as this global pandemic continues to fester. Believe it or not, David Lee Roth air kicks into the crowd are not considered social distancing.

Live streaming shows has been an efficient way musicians have found to stay relevant during these challenging times. From Andrew Bird to Alanis Morissette, artists have been finding ways to stay connected to their fans.

Johnston has done his own online sets as well, performing from local bars, although he remains skeptical about the sustainability of the online platform.

“I think the livestream stuff was really important to people … I think livestreams are a really great way for people to feel connected to other people.” Johnston said.

“I’m just wondering if people are out, working again, once they open up a bit, when you can have gatherings of twenty people and go camping and all that stuff. Are you really gonna watch some guy play guitar in his TV room?”

It’s a fair concern. As things slowly begin to open up throughout the province, the chances that people will want to stay home and watch a concert through their laptop begins to diminish.

But Johnston has his own ideas of how to make his show socially-distancing approved. Ideas on how to remain safe without losing the showmanship his fans have come to admire.

“I’m debating trying to do kind of like driveway concerts for people where I guess they’d have to watch from a distance.” he explained.

“I’ve kind of thought about performing under a tarp. I’ll put a glove over my body, some kind of plastic sheet, wear a bunch of disposable suits I can take off between songs.”

It’s no news to any Waterloo resident that beloved karaoke bar Chainsaw has permanently shut their doors.

With the absence of a steady revenue, even for those few establishments that remain selling food, the already challenging task of owning an independent business becomes that much more difficult.

“During the livestreams I did, eight or nine videos from bars and venues, I think three of those venues are now permanently closed,” commented Johnston.

As the concern for the state of local businesses through the region continues to rise, it raises worry for one particular uptown hotspot – Jane Bond, BA Johnston’s regular venue.

“Jane Bond has always treated me great. The only problem would be that the room is very small but once you play a place for so long you’re just associated with that place.”

“It would be weird to play Waterloo and play somewhere else. Jane Bond is kind of like home in that town.”

As an avid fan, I can vouch that Jane Bond is the perfect venue for such an act. A quaint, intimate space to rock out, have some laughs and leave covered in someone else’s sweat.

As for his other projects, Johnston has recently been promoting his new children’s book Gary the Seagull.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect the artist who wrote a song about McDonalds coupons to be up for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction but the publishing company, as well as his many fans, seem to have a lot of faith in the book.

“We got really lucky because Paul [Hammond], he’s done all my album covers and a lot of [my] shirts, he knew someone who worked for a book publisher… he just gave it to his buddy and she just gave us the contract,” Johnston commented.

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be that easy. I know a lot of people who are like ‘no, it should take you years of rejection’ and we just got very lucky. [The publishers] have been very supportive.”

Although I’m sure the book will be a massive hit with children, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the majority of Johnston’s mid-twenties fanbase adding it to their library – god knows I will be.

As for parting words, Johnston had a sweet sentiment for his fans – “Everybody stay well in these troubled times.”

If I haven’t convinced you by now that BA Johnston is a rock legend, let him do it instead. Go check out his music videos or his collection of albums on Spotify. It’s not everyday you hear a love ballad about a hotdog from Ikea.

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