Jay McAllister, aka Beans on Toast, has released an album every year for the last ten years, always on his birthday, 1st December. A Bird in the Hand is his tenth, and marks the first time since his debut album that Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons fame, has produced him. A brilliantly witty, engaging, honest and emotional singer-songwriter, he has spent a great deal of his time singing about festivals, drugs, and politics. However, the birth of a daughter has given him new perspectives, and an optimism that sees him celebrating life and all that is good about it. He talks to Jeff Hemmings about how his music career took shape, working with Ben Lovett, his new daughter, and plastics…
Hi. How are you doing?
I’ve got my daughter here, she’s a little noisy. She might scream a bit. She might be talking as well, if she has anything to pipe in with.
Let’s rewind to the beginning, and tell me why you release an album every year, on your birthday…
That first album (Standing On A Chair), when it came out it was a bit of a bums on seats sort of thing. It’s quite a transition for a musician when you start off; you expect your friends and family to come to your gigs. Who else would come? It’s important when your mates stop coming, and people you don’t know start coming to your shows. I was still sitting on the fence, relying on my mates to fill the room, but they’d seen it all, and had enough. I did a birthday party album launch, double whammy, a bums-on-seats trick. It kinda worked. And the next year, the album was ready around the same time. Why not put it out on the same day again? Once you had done that three times, it turned into a thing.
What happens if there are no new songs?
People often say what would happen if there wasn’t an album ready, or I wasn’t feeling it. I wouldn’t do it. There are no rules in this game. But it feels like my natural output, and it keeps me busy. I play festivals in the summer, tour every winter, it’s what I like doing.
I understand you just randomly got up on a small stage at Glastonbury, and your solo career was born!
I think in my head I was going to start another band. I had a bunch of songs and was just sitting on them, and had the name Beans on Toast, as a band name. It was a small tent with a stage, I had a guitar and was filling in the gaps between songs. I just thought I would get up in the moment. Why not? By the end of the first song I was like, ‘I can do this. I don’t need a band’. It went so well, even if it was preaching to the converted; that first song, about getting hammered at Glastonbury, to a bunch of people hammered at Glastonbury. That was how I had written songs. I hadn’t listened to much folk music, as such. It didn’t strike me as something you could do, as a solo thing. But I did that, and it was perfect. It made everything after that so much easier. When I see bands now, there’s load-ins, soundchecks, management of people’s personalities in large groups. Bands can find touring quite difficult, and a slog. I tour all the time. It’s like a holiday, just turn up at the venue, half an hour before the doors, do a five minute soundcheck. Bob’s your uncle. There’s also the financial restraints. I played for years for, well, nothing, or maybe £50 a gig, which could barely support me. It wasn’t going to support four of five other people, get them out of bed, travelling around the country. But over the years, I have played with bands, and the album tour coming up will be a band thing.
Xtra Mile Recordings (home to Frank Turner) released your first record…
Yeah, it was them that suggested I make an album. I was playing a lot, had loads of songs. It was the MySpace era, an easy way to get my songs out there, which I had recorded on to my computer. I was doing a Frank Turner tour. It was one of his first solo tours, and Xtra Mile said, “You will sell enough copies of an album to warrant us putting it out”.
This record is actually coming out on my own imprint. The industry and times have changed. But no love lost, an incredible label and group of people.
Your last album Cushty was more political and a little angry compared to the new one…
I felt the last record was a little bit whingy. The world is in a sorry state, and that record was a reaction to that. But, at the same time, if there’s anything worth saving in the world, it’s the good stuff. You can’t lose sight of what is beautiful in the world just because of the horrors we seem to be facing. It was a bit of a conscious effort. That album was a bit moany from someone who likes to think of themselves as a bit of an optimist. But this one is where my head’s been at this year, having a daughter. I wrote a lot of the album being in the bubble of after she was born, where world politics didn’t matter. What mattered was her being fed, and sleeping at night. It was just a really beautiful time, and made me appreciate my family, and life. There was a time when the whole album was just about my daughter! Not everyone is going to get into that! Once we stepped out of the house, and realised the world is still going on, then songs like ‘Bamboo Toothbrush’ came pretty quickly.
Mumford & Sons’ Ben Lovett produced the new record, as well as your very first one…
Yeah, he did the first album. Mumford had started already, but they weren’t the biggest band in the world then! We did it at his mum and dad’s house, and in a weekend. I just said to him in the pub one night, “Do you want to do an album?”, and he said “Yeah”.
A lot can change in ten years, and for someone like Ben, huge things. But, we’ve always stayed in touch. He does the O’Meara venue in London, and I was there having a catch up and a pint, and I was like, “Well, you know, album ten is coming up”? “Yeah, I’ll do it. I’m up for it”. I was like, “Wow, great! Do it at your mum and dad’s?” He said, “Just leave it with me, get the songs ready”. In my head I was was like, ‘Ben is up for doing it’, but knowing in my head that he had a busy schedule. So, I tapped him up again, and he said, “Come down to Church Studios, in Crouch End”. It’s a legendary studio, used to belong to Dave Stewart, and then David Gray, but now it’s Paul Epworth’s studio. The new Adele record was made there. It’s one of London’s finest studios. Ben was like, “Just pop by, we’re in there doing a session”, and I went by and Mumford were in there with Epworth, working on what is their new record. I didn’t realise this was going on, thinking I was going there to talk about my new album. We sat down for a drink, and he just really casually, as if it was nothing, said “I think we’ll do it here”. Yeah!? Is that an option? We did it in a couple of weekends, and evenings, when Mumford weren’t there. A lot of time in studios, it’s the setting up, and mic’ing up, but it’s such a beautiful, big studio, and we got in there mid-Mumford’s sessions. The drums were all mic’ed up, all of Marcus’ guitars were there. It was ready to go. Ben and Riley, who was also the engineer for Mumford’s record, they had this beautiful relationship, had been working together in the studio for months already, and it was quick fire. Ben hadn’t heard any of the songs, so I sat down and played a song, and he’d go, “We’ll do this, we’ll do that”, and arranged for a bunch of session musicians to come as and when needed. It was the polar opposite of someone’s parent’s loft.
Ben knew his shit back in the day, and that’s clear with how well Mumford has done, and with everything else he has done, production-wise. He really steered the ship. Left to my own devices you get the classic Beans on Toast, but he was like, “Let’s mix it up. This one is going to be a punk song”. He delved in and steered the ship away from the obvious stuff, and the outcome is A Bird in the Hand.
I really like ‘Alexa’, it’s got a punkish feel.
I was like, “Is this too punk?” He’s like, “Shut up. It’s done. What’s next?”
‘Bamboo Toothbrush’ is about plastics. Before the media interest, had plastics concerned you at all?
I just wish we were told 20 years ago. I think that’s what the song is actually about, my naivety around it. It needs to be this trendy thing to stop using plastic in order to spread the word that it is so bad. It was called ‘disposables’ when I was a kid. You can use, and then throw it away. Now, it’s like you’ve literally killed the sea. I was writing it and looking at my boxes of CDs; they are all in plastic cases. Okay, right, new album is in cardboard boxes! That’s not a hard change. The bamboo toothbrush thing, it’s about making little changes. Halfway through the song, I realised the irony of writing it with a plastic pen, and I bought load of pencils. I’ve been writing with pencils ever since. Obviously, there’s a long way to go. The media push is a good thing, and it being a kind of trend to not use plastic, is a brilliant trend.
And ‘Here at Homerton Hospital’ is a bit more political, purposefully celebrating ethnic diversity…
It’s hard not to feel we are living in the end of days. I feel looking at Brexit is the wrong way to go. And looking at climate change and what that’s going to do, and machine learning, and everyone quickly becoming unemployed. The problems that we face are global problems, and the world needs to be at peace in order to start to fix them.
I started writing it when Trump started saying all that horrible stuff about London hospitals. He’d obviously never been to one. As much as there isn’t an anti-Trump protest song on this record, by celebrating what is brilliant about one particular London hospital, by someone who has been there (for the birth of his daughter), it feels like a good protest against the kind of hatred and ignorance of slagging off a hospital.
But overall, this is a less political and angry record…
It’s a bit homely this record. It hasn’t dealt with the world, and what it’s coming to, but I’m sure I’ll dip my toe into that on the next one! It’s hard not to. Putting your head in your hands and worrying, is not going to fix anything. We need to remember what it is we love about life, in order to know what’s at stake, to save the planet and humanity.