Interview with Beans on Toast: Children’s Songs, Artificial Intelligence, & the End of the World

Beans on Toast © Aaron Parsons
Beans on Toast © Aaron Parsons
The witty folk singer Beans on Toast opens up about producing two albums in a year, collaborating with Frank Turner, and staying optimistic in spite of the times.
Stream: “The Family Tree” – Beans on Toast

Jay McAllister, better known as Beans On Toast, is a proper folk singer.

Not in the modern singer/songwriter with mellow tracks and a pretty voice kind of way, but in the old tradition of a storyteller dedicated to explaining the world through song. He is as close to the image of the medieval jester or the Shakespearean fool as he is to the indie stereotype of an artist selling his own merchandise after a show. Beans’ songs feel more at home around a campfire or a pub than at any sort of venue with a high quality sound system. And he has written a lot of them.

His 2009 debut album Standing On A Chair is 50 songs long. It is a wild parade of witty rhymes, political criticism, drunken wisdom, flat out funny phrases and one beautiful closing track that we will get into before this article ends. After that, Jay made it a tradition to release an album every year on his birthday, December 1st. He hasn’t missed a single one and in the process he has written about more world events, pop culture references and relevant topics than anyone else out there, covering from MDMA to chicken farms, from Taylor Swift to the oil industry, and from Glastonbury to the Gaza Strip.

There’s a wonderful honesty to how Beans On Toast composes music.

This not just talking about the simple chord progressions or the artist’s informal tone – although it’s always refreshing to listen to songs with no pretension attached to them. What’s most special is that they feel as if it was a friend talking to you, confiding what has been on his mind. He asks important questions without fear of coming up short on the answers, just as any of us do in a conversation. To him, life and music are one and the same, so in listening to his albums you get a sense of knowing him: not the artist, but the person.

Knee Deep in Nostalgia - Beans on Toast
Knee Deep in Nostalgia – Beans on Toast

The funny thing is that while his best works are brilliant and endearing, I find it’s precisely his raw honesty and playfulness which lead to many songs not being really that “great”; but “greatness” (in a popular sense) is not what Beans on Toast is going for. Just watch any clip of Beans playing at a small Glastonbury stage with no amp or microphone, with a crowd of a hundred singing along, regardless of who is playing at the Pyramid Stage, and it becomes clearer: He is establishing a real connection, beyond the act of consuming and enjoying music. It is most obvious when people laugh at the punchlines as they sing them, but becomes more powerful every time McAllister makes sure to empathize with the listener, often admitting to his own faults first, before going on a rant.

In the midst of the constant chaos, he transmits a hopeful sensation that we are all in this together, that somehow life can still be won. Perhaps that has never been more needed than now. In this extraordinary year, which also happens to land on his 40th birthday, Beans On Toast is now releasing not one, but two albums on the same day.

The Unforeseeable Future - Beans on Toast
The Unforeseeable Future – Beans on Toast

They are kind of opposites. The first, Knee Deep In Nostalgia, is a full band record produced by folk-punk legend Frank Turner. It was written before “Coronavirus” was even a word and inspired by looking back at the good memories of his career and focusing on the joyful parts of life.

The other, The Unforeseeable Future, documents Beans’ reaction to this year’s world shifting events as they unfolded. It features only acoustic guitar, piano and vocals recorded at home during lockdown. It is a heavier album that he never expected to make, but that came out naturally as a way to make sense of things. It was a pleasure to talk to him about this and much more.

Knee Deep in Nostalgia and The Unforeseeable Future are out December 1, 2020.


The Unforeseeable Future - Beans on Toast

Atwood Magazine: Hey Jay! Mine name is Diego, nice to meet you.

Beans On Toast: Hey Diego, great to meet you too.

I listened a lot to The Inevitable Train Wreck in the months after its release, and it seems all of our biggest problems were already packed in there: Global warming, inequality, social media manipulation, you name it... and then just a few months later the pandemic hit, making the world even crazier…

Beans On Toast: Yeah, exactly.

Did you feel like that album was cut short in a way, by not being able to fully tour it and properly engage in those themes you were exploring with the audience?

Beans On Toast: Not really. Because I release music quite quickly, so I work on a sort of fast conveyor belt and we finished the tour in February just before everything went mad. That was kind of the end of The Inevitable Train Wreck campaign. Obviously it wasn’t the end of climate change or the rise of A.I. or anything like that. And it’s weird because I actually came out of that record saying “I don’t want to write another album about the end of the world”. I wanted to write a bit more of a personal record about my history and just a feel good album… And then the pandemic hit, so it was like “fucking hell! Well there’s no way I can’t write about this as well”, so more songs about the end of the world just kept on coming basically.

It’s weird, I think it shows that you never really know what’s going to happen, do you? I mean, even the title The Inevitable Train Wreck was a bit presumptuous. Of course, all the pandemic has done is highlight the other problems that you mentioned, but we didn’t see it coming and it is proof that you never know what is going to happen, so the new record is called The Unforeseeable Future.

That’s funny. Almost the opposite.

Beans On Toast: Right! In reference to that.

Beans on Toast © Aaron Parsons
Beans on Toast © Aaron Parsons

So many artists put out quarantine albums and songs. No matter what kind of music they usually make, they felt the need to address what was happening in the world, but that’s something you do every year anyways. What was the process behind deciding to release two albums instead of one this time around?

Beans On Toast: Knee Deep In Nostalgia was the album that was going to happen anyway. I had already spoken to Frank about producing it and actually the nine songs were written by February. The plan probably would have been to keep on writing songs under that theme and it probably would have been a bit of a longer album. I was in this mindset of positive memory lane ideas for songs and then when the pandemic came –like you said I’ve always written about current events and I’ve never really questioned why I do it– but when everything started getting real, just before lockdown with the system unraveling before our eyes, instantly I just picked up my guitar and wrote a song about it, unknowing that that song would be out of date in two weeks time.

I have found over the years writing about current events, songs used to have quite a long shelf life. You could write a song about a political circumstance and it would still be relevant in six months or a year’s time. That has been speeding up and that shelf life is getting shorter. Not that that’s a problem for me as a writer, but it says a lot about the world. It happened with Brexit… songs that I was writing about that, three or four months down the line would be factually incorrect and out of date. With the pandemic, I felt, “If I say something now, the world could change in two days.”

I know Frank Turner and you go way back as friends and touring mates, but can you tell me a bit more about your musical relationship and his impact on the album?

Beans On Toast: We never talked about how we would have done it under normal circumstances. I just asked him if he wanted to produce the next record and we left it in the back burner. The reality of recording during lockdown and in between lockdowns was so easy in all fairness. Once it was legal to go to other people’s houses, I went to Frank’s for a one day session and recorded all the songs just me and my guitar and then Frank did all the hard work, built the whole songs up.

We spoke a lot over the phone, emailed the songs back and forth and it was done almost remotely. And then every musician we knew was at home with nothing to do, so we got Matt Hensley from Flogging Molly playing an accordion on a track and bits like that. Making records is fun and I usually find it really easy, and working with Frank made it even easier because he did all the leg work.

Was Frank part of the Camden scene that you describe in “Once Upon A Time?”

Beans On Toast: Yeah, it was a bit more North London to be honest. I knew Frank from Nambucca, which was a Holloway pub that I used to live at.

Is that the pub, which burned down, that you sing about in the first album?

Beans On Toast: Exactly that. Yeah. But Camden has always been a bit of an anchor as I’ve moved around London a lot over the years. That song was inspired more by my early twenties when I had just moved to London and I was handing out flyers and all that shit, but yeah, it’s all incorporated, that kind of London musicians scene.

“The Album Of The Day'' just came out. It’s a beautiful song about listening to music with your daughter. You describe listening to several records from back to front with her. Graceland is one of my all time favorites. Did she like it?

Beans On Toast: Yeah, she did. That’s actually one of my wife’s favorites. My wife’s a big Paul Simon fan. You get an idea of what a kid is gonna like and something like Graceland works of course. I think that says a lot about the record because who is not gonna be able to get a groove onto that?

Beans on Toast © Aaron Parsons
Beans on Toast © Aaron Parsons

Other than writing songs for her, has she changed the way you create or perceive music?

Beans On Toast: Well, I know a lot more about Disney songs now.

I think I’m asking because in The Inevitable Trainwreck, there’s some fun sing-along type of songs that could almost be taught in classrooms.

Beans On Toast: I’d definitely love to write a children’s album. Children’s songs are like an unbreakable fortress. There’s songs that I sing to her and are the same ones that I sang, like “Old McDonald” or “The Wheels On The Bus”, these are stone cold classics that have lasted for generations and it’s quite impenetrable. I think out of all the songs she sings in class, there’s like one new song that I’ve heard.

Even Mozart wrote a version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”! So these are bad ass songs that have lasted forever and something amazing about kid’s songs is that you basically got one line and you got to get everything in it. I’ll definitely take a swing at some point, but I’ve been putting it off cause it’s hard.

Going now into the darker side of these albums. I was really moved by “What Colour You Are”, it struck me as a descendant of Dylan’s “Only A Pawn In Their Game” or “Death Of Hattie Carroll”. A proper protest song in light of fucked up injustices. Was it particularly hard to write?

Beans On Toast: Yeah, it was a hard song to write I suppose, just cause it was a fucking tough week. The world feels a lot more at ease now that Trump is gone, but I felt the ground rumbling at that time and I couldn’t see a clear way out. I was really feeling for America, but knowing that we are treading a very similar path here in England.

It was a weird week and I didn’t put out the song instantly. Up until that point, all the songs before I had written in chronological order and put them out, but that song was different for some reason. I wrote it and – again because things were changing so quickly– it felt like sitting on it was the right thing. It’s nice to get it on the album now.

In those lyrics you point to a crazy contrast of the launch of SpaceX happening at the height of Black Lives Matter. A powerful, kind of disturbing image. How did you connect the two while writing it?

Beans On Toast: It’s just money, isn’t it? I think the expedition could actually have cured all world hunger. I say it in the song: it’s not that I’m against the idea of space travel, I love adventure and all that stuff, but it’s just getting your priorities right. Feels like a weird time to spend that much money doing something so extravagant. Feels like you should fix your own house before going out looking for another one.

Beans on Toast © Aaron Parsons
Beans on Toast © Aaron Parsons

You’ve expressed a reasonable fear of where technology is headed since your first album and it’s crazy to think how much things have changed since 2009. Were you thinking about interplanetary species and artificial intelligence back then? What concept is it you find most scary to think about today?

Beans On Toast: I think I was thinking more about Mario Kart back then. It’s always been on the horizon, hasn’t it? This idea of computers and how fast they’re gonna move. Reading Yuval Noah Harari, who is definitely your man for this type of stuff, a lot of the stuff he says just makes perfect sense and it does feel inevitable. A lot of it can be used for good and it should be. If there’s a digital utopia, you have to think a scenario is completely buildable in which data is used for the benefit of humanity rather than just to rob them of their shit. And for me all this leads into universal basic income very naturally, you know? We have to change how we work and in order to do that we are gonna need to change other things too.

One of the weirdest things for me to get my head around is that as progressive and liberal our generation is, we might still be conservatives in the future about things like human-AI relationships and our kids will be like “love is love”.

Beans On Toast: Yeah, no doubt. That is evolution within itself innit? Everybody thinks they’re really open minded and then something changes in the next generation that they can’t get their head around. I like to believe that my kind of core values of letting everybody do what they want as long as they’re not hurting anybody else can stick through some kind of A.I. revolution, but I’m also ready to be sucker-punched.

We all live through social and political hardships, but you are constantly breaking them down, writing and singing about them. How do you keep yourself optimistic and avoid becoming disillusioned when the landscape doesn’t get much better album after album?

Beans On Toast: There’s always certain landscapes that still look really nice. I can still go out and look at the sea, or spend some time outside. Crying about it ain’t gonna help and if anything, the one thing that I might be able to do from my tiny little place is to put a little bit of happiness and positivity into the world. That’s kind of how I am hardwired, I’ve always been quite happy.

There’s still so much beauty out here and things have kind of always been fucked. If you talk about wealth inequality and asshole rulers that goes back to half of recorded history. Things have always been tough and humans have always found a way and I’m willing to hope that we’ll fucking find a way this time and not coward in the corner. And I suppose on the flip side, if the planet is literally gonna burn, then fuck it, let’s dance.

Beans on Toast © Aaron Parsons
Beans on Toast © Aaron Parsons

Yes, I think both of those messages get across clearly in your music and prove that the two things can coexist really well. And I think that would be such a perfect note to end the interview with, but I have one final question that I couldn’t let go by: There’s a song that stands out for me in your discography. “I’m Wearing The Clothes I Found On Your Throne” is the last song of your first album. Pretty much all your songs have a very direct what-you-hear-is-what-you-get message, but this one is a bit more on the metaphoric poetry side and has a more melancholic sound to it. Would you mind telling me the story behind it?

Beans On Toast: You know what? I literally don’t know, but I’m glad you say so though, that means a lot cause I’ve always thought that. That was a song from like another place. It felt like someone else wrote it. It was written at the same time that some of the first ever Beans On Toast songs, because I used to play in a band and I was writing before, but all these new songs started conjuring up a year or so before the first album, 2007 or 2008. I think that was almost a different path that I could have walked down writing like that, but then everything went the other way.

I’m a huge Bright Eyes fan and I think it was a nod towards that kind of more poetic songwriting than the more literal songwriting I do, but I’d like to say there’s a few more littered through the other albums that are a bit more like that. I’m glad you said that though, man.

Thanks so much for sharing that! It’s been amazing talking to you about all this. Thanks so much for taking the time!

Beans On Toast: Good luck out there and chat again in the future. Take care!

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The Unforeseeable Future - Beans on Toast

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