Jay McAllister, better known as Beans On Toast, chats with Kevin Cooper about being likened to Billy Bragg, his message about using plastic, his love of touring and the launch of his latest album A Bird In The Hand.

Jay McAllister, better known as Beans On Toast, rose to prominence in the UK folk scene in 2005. His song writing openly deals with the topics of politics, drugs and love. He is also known for opening the Glastonbury Festival, something that he has done since 2005.

In 2009 he released his debut fifty track double album called Standing On A Chair which was produced by Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons, The follow up, Writing On The Wall, was also very well received and gained radio airplay on the likes of Radio 1 and 2.

2011’s Trying To Tell The Truth was produced by Frank Turner who Jay supported on his sold out Wembley Arena show in April of the same year. Other albums followed such as Fishing For A Thank You and Giving Everything. In 2014 he performed to a crowd of over 100,000 in one week when he opened for Frank Turner’s UK Stadium Tour. In the same year he embarked upon his first American tour which saw him playing a number of headline shows.

In 2015 he toured the UK with his Off The Road tour, visiting much smaller venues, before releasing his seventh album Rolling Up A Hill. His eighth album, A Spanner In the Works was recorded over one weekend on a laptop, straying away from a typical Beans On Toast album with no guitar being used.

His ninth studio album Cushty is followed by his latest album A Bird In The Hand, which focuses heavily on the birth of his newborn daughter. This will be released on 1st December, the date on which McAllister releases all of his albums because it is his birthday.

Whilst busy preparing for the release of his album, Jay McAllister took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Jay how are you?

I’m fine thanks Kevin, how are you keeping man?

I’m very well thank you and before we move on let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No worries mate, no worries whatsoever.

And just how is life treating you today?

I have to be honest with you and say that life is treating me good; very well in fact.

I have to ask you, just where did the name Beans On Toast come from?

It was a long time ago now when I first came up with the name, and I had no idea that I would need to explain myself so many times (laughter). I am a band name fan if you know what I mean. I have spent a lot of time with my mates in the pub trying to come up with silly band names and what not. I have to say that I think that it is a pretty fair description of the music that I make really. It’s English, it is cheap and easy, and it does what it says on the tin.

That is all well and good when you are performing here in the UK, but I have heard that it doesn’t quite work when you are over in America. Is that correct?

(Laughter) that’s right, you have hit the nail, on the head. One thing that I could never foresee happening is that it doesn’t really translate well overseas, especially over there in America. The Americans have beans and they have toast but they don’t have the dish. So when I am out in the States it just sounds like a wacky name rather than a cultural reference (laughter). So it has been quite interesting travelling over there under the moniker but there you go (laughter).

Let’s talk about the new album A Bird In The Hand. I have been playing it now for a couple of weeks and I have to say that I think that it is fantastic

That’s great to hear, I’m glad that you like it, thank you.

Are you happy with it?

Yes, very much so. Being the tenth album, not that it should matter any more or less than the previous albums, but it really did feel like a milestone; an album to stop and take a breath and realise just how far I have come in the last ten years. And to be honest I think that this album does that, both in the songs, the production and musically as well.

I have got two go to tracks at the minute, they are Alexa and Bamboo Toothbrush.

Alexa was one of the singles that we put out off the album. It had its own video and I have been able to gauge the fans reaction to that particular song. I have been playing the song live over the whole summer so I have been able to gets people’s feelings on that song. Bamboo Toothbrush on the other hand, I have never played it live, and it is still under wraps if you know what I mean. It is an album track that hasn’t been put out there as yet and as such I have not spoken to many people about their reaction to that particular song. So I am really glad that you like it. Obviously it is about an important subject that seems to be currently getting a lot of attention, and rightly so.

It seems to be a large conversation piece at the moment and that is the sort of thing that is going to help what can only be described as a disaster that we are creating every minute of every day. It’s a hard thing to do isn’t it, because whenever you stop and look around we are surrounded by plastic. When I was raised during the 80s and 90s plastic was cool; it was this disposable thing. We were told that you could use it once and throw it away. We had the campaign against using straws, and now we have the bamboo toothbrush thing happening which on one side we have the people who will always say “what difference is that going to make, it is just a tiny, little object” but on the other side people are now saying “you need to start with the little bits”.

The main problem is getting your head around how we can stop using plastic. Well why not start with a toothbrush which is used on a daily basis. It feels like a small battle which is a part of a bigger war that we are facing. You do use a toothbrush every morning and I now use my little bamboo toothbrush. When I wrote the song I didn’t have one and even when I recorded it I didn’t have one but I waited until my last plastic one died before I went out and got myself one. It is now a reminder every morning, that’s the thing about brushing your teeth as well, you will be reminded not to use plastic a little bit every morning.

But it then goes on from there. When writing the song about not using plastic, I was trying to write a particular line and trying not to be righteous by saying that you can’t use plastic because we all do, and I suddenly realised that I was using a plastic biro to write the song. I suddenly thought ‘for fucks sake’. That switch was simple, I just started using a pencil instead. I simply went out and bought a pack of pencils (laughter). I will try never to buy or use biros ever again; I will replace them with pencils. Again, it was quite a simple change and that done on a larger scale can only be a good thing in getting the correct mind-set. This is simply a problem that cannot be ignored any longer.

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

Not really, that is not really how I think of these things. I always try to perceive the album and the whole project as one thing. I also like to move forward quite quickly; in fact I was up last night writing songs that will most probably find their way onto the next album together with the ones that are in my head at the minute (laughter). But saying that, I am currently putting together a brand new band for the forthcoming A Bird In The Hand tour. It is a bunch of people that I have never played with before, and I am sure that once I get into a room and start doing some live takes on these songs then I will start to enjoy things more. I always enjoy that especially with a bunch of new players. So I am sure that there will be some favourites that I will enjoy singing live.

From writing to recording, how long did it take you to complete the album?

Well I generally start writing the new album as soon as I have finished recording the previous album. To be honest I am writing all of the time. Generally I tend to record all of my records around September time. I find that during the recording process you concentrate so much on the songs that once they come out the other end I just want to think about something else (laughter). So I would have started writing this album towards the end of last year and most of it was recorded in September. Having said that the very last song that I wrote was actually written the day before we went into the studio. So I suppose that you could say from January to September I would be writing then go into the studio and record it all in a short space of time.

You will be performing tracks from the album here in Nottingham at Rough Trade on Saturday 1st December, up close and personal. Is that how you like it?

To be honest I like it in different sorts of ways. I have played at Rough Trade before and I have to say that I think that in-stores are great. It’s also good that those kinds of record shops like Rough Trade survived the death of the record shop era. They seem to have come through that era stronger than ever almost especially the ones with small venues and bars in them. As you know the Rough Trade one is actually on the day of release of the album and it’s also my birthday on Saturday. So yes I am very much looking forward to that. I have got family friends up there in Nottingham who when I grew up I spent a lot of time with them. They were really good friends of my mum so I spent a lot of time there as a kid, so I always make a point of seeing the guys whenever I go up there to play. So I have got a lot of love for the city. I am really looking forward to it.

And then from Nottingham you will be driving over to Nuneaton for the official album launch.

(Laughter) yes I will, exactly that. The performance at Rough Trade in Nottingham will be a solo performance in the afternoon and then that evening over in Nuneaton it will be the first band gig and that will be, as you rightly say, the official album launch party. It will be with the full band, all singing, all dancing (laughter). I have done other album launches but I have only ever done them in London. One thing that I am quite proud of is that whenever I put tickets for my tours on sale I always manage to sell an equal amount of tickets around the whole of the country rather than just selling loads in London and not anywhere else. It is always quite evenly spread. So with that in mind why would I only ever do album launches in London?

It’s where I live so it’s easy to do that but in my mind it didn’t seem right. So on the back of that conversation it was like ‘so where is the most central place where we could do a gig’ and Andy my booking agent looked into it and he found The Queens Hall in Nuneaton and as far as we are concerned, a venue with that kind of capacity is the closest one to the centre of England. So I just said “cool, let’s do it there” (laughter). We are expecting a good sized crowd especially as it is a Saturday night. It will not only be people from Nuneaton but people will travel too. With the Rough Trade appearance, if people buy a copy of the album then they can come along to either show.

Looking at your tour schedule there are quite a few days when you are playing two gigs on the same day. Do you like putting yourself under that kind of pressure?

Gigging has always been very easy for me. I know that this tour will be with a band but generally speaking and how I have always done it, it is generally solo or sometimes duo. So all of the things which make touring really hard, sound checks, the carrying of equipment, plus all of the other backend stuff that needs to be done, I really don’t need to do any of that. There is not a huge fanfare; I can turn-up ten minutes before the doors open, do a quick sound check and just be ready to roll (laughter). With that in mind and because of that whenever I tour I have actually got a lot of time on my hands so two gigs in one day for me is easy. I love doing it and I would never feel like it is putting me under pressure. If anything it is more of a fun day. I would much rather be doing a gig than pretty much anything else. If I can do two gigs in one day then its happy days (laughter).

Please don’t hold this against me but I would describe you as a modern day Billy Bragg. Would you go along with that?

I would be honoured but I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to call myself that. I am a huge fan and actually a personal friend of Billy, I have done quite a bit of work with him over the years. He invited me to join him onstage at Glastonbury and he has always been very kind to me. Billy is a hero of mine; my dad used to listen to him while I was growing up. Watching him performing at Glastonbury when I was seventeen years old was quite an important inspirational moment in my life. It most definitely put me on the path to where I am now so yes, I will gladly take that. Billy is such a nice, genuine man and he knows his shit too (laughter).

That whole ‘never meet your hero’ nonsense is just that, nonsense. I have been lucky enough to meet a lot of people who I admire and I have to say that I have never been let down by any of them. People say that people who have sold loads of records are arseholes but I don’t agree with that. I have never found that. Everybody who I admire and who I have met have always been great people. I once did a tour with a band called The Devil Makes Freebies; I love the band and I am a huge fan of the guy’s lyrics specifically and when I finally met him and chatted to him it was so heart-warming to find out that we enjoyed the same books, music and we had a similar outlook on life. It felt really good, and really was heart-warming.

Was it always going to be a career in music for you?

Yes it was but not necessarily playing it. Music was always going to be a centre point of my life. Before I did this I managed bands for a bit; I used to live and work in music venues, putting on gigs and stuff like that. Certainly the Beans On Toast thing started more because I was filling in gaps in my own bills and stuff like that. So in answer to your question yes and no (laughter). I would much rather be playing a gig than organising a gig. But whatever happened this was always the world that I was going to exist in.

I know that you have mentioned Billy (Bragg) but who else has influenced you along the way?

That would have to be the old American songwriters who I grew up listening to, people like John Prine, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, people like that. Their storytelling abilities were phenomenal. There is that but that certainly wasn’t the only music that I was listening to. More than anything for inspiration for me is actually just life, the day to day stuff and what I get up to. The three chord songs that I write musically they are kind of down, and now it is simply a case of ‘what is this song going to be about’ and the inspiration is what the song is going to be about and the inspiration is life and how I live it. That really is where my inspiration comes from.

What was the first record that you bought?

That was Do The Bartman by Bart Simpson. What a lot of people didn’t know at the time was that the song was written by Michael Jackson. I had all of Michael Jackson’s stuff on cassette but the first single that I bought was Do The Bartman by Bart Simpson. In fact I think that I could still probably sing it (laughter).

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

That would have been a local band in Essex called Planet Empathy at a venue called The Army And Navy.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

That would have been seeing Kate Tempest performing People’s Faces live at Glastonbury last year.

How will you be spending Christmas?

I will be spending Christmas with the family somewhere between Essex and Kent which is where my wife is from.

What next for Beans On Toast?

More of the same. I will tour this record, record another one and put that out. And round and around we go (laughter).

You have got your own record label Beans On Toast Music, does that work well for you not having to answer to one of the major labels?

I have worked with an independent record label right up until this record and I think that the record industry is such a changing game at the moment, and for what I do, the DIY approach has always worked and it is just how I like it.

On that note Jay let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been great.

Thanks Kevin it’s my pleasure. You take care and bye for now.