For anyone who wants to know what’s been happening in Jay McAllister’s life over the past decade there are worse places to start than his recorded output.
Jay, or Beans on Toast as he is known to his fans, has released an album every year on December 1, his birthday, since 2009.
And in those 10 albums the singer-songwriter has turned his razor-ship wit to a myriad of subjects, from politics to the issues of the day, as well as the dubious joys and delights of a hedonistic lifestyle.
He has also frequently mined his own life for material, which is how we end up with several songs on A Bird in The Hand about his newborn daughter and becoming a father for the first time.
When he chats with The Guide, she’s there in the background, ‘doing a little bit of backing vocals’ for the interview.
‘When she was born I took three months off and was living in this bubble, just with my daughter and my wife and this amazing wintery, cosy, new-life existence that I’ve never witnessed anything like before, and that’s when a lot of the new album was written.’
Was there ever any doubt he’d write about her on Bird?
‘I’ve always written songs about exactly what’s going on in my life, so if anything, I didn’t think about it, I just did it. It didn’t feel overly cheesy – it was a progression of everything I’ve done before.
‘Because I’ve been so obvious about where I am, and certainly my relationship with my wife Lizzy, which has been pretty much documented since we met, there was a kind of a hint towards a baby on the last record [Cushty], which a few people pulled me up on. By that that point we already knew, so it was in my mind.’
‘Songwriting is at its best when you’re coming from emotions and true-life experience – around the pregnancy and birth emotions are stronger, almost overpowering, and it’s obviously a true-life experience.
‘At one point the whole album was all going to be about becoming a father, and then I figured that might be a little bit… I’ve never really done concept albums, and it might be alienating to some people.
‘Also, when I stepped out of the bubble there were still a million other things that needed writing about too!’
The album’s lead single, Alexa, is an on-point tirade against Amazon and the all-pervasive impact of technology on our lives, while Bamboo Toothbrush tackles our reliance on plastic. There’s also Here at Homerton Hospital.
‘That’s kind of about my daughter, but not about her. I’m lucky enough to have not spent a huge amount of time in hospitals, but over the course of her birth we were there a lot, and what an incredible place it was.
‘It was something that needed celebrating, and the song focuses on the multiculturalism and the diversity of the place, and how it works so well. You hear so many horror stories about funding cuts and all that, but the treatment that we got was so incredible – you know these people are working so hard, but they have the time for you. It was a great place.
‘Soon after I finished the song Trump was slagging off British hospitals. I had felt that this album wasn’t going to be about world politics, but politics that are going to be closer to home. If he wants to slag off a hospital that he’s never been to, though, then as a protest against that, I can celebrate a hospital that stands in protest against him and his hatred.’
And his daughter got to be an unwitting test audience for these works in progress.
‘I’d play little gigs to her when she was just a few weeks old, I’d just sort of put her on the coffee table and do the full-on thing, walking in going: ‘Hello, I’m Beans on Toast!’ Now she just clambers over and grabs the guitar and tries to snap the strings.’
But perhaps the stand-out track on the album is Magic written about the day she was born. It manages the trick of being both heartfelt and putting the listener in the moment while never descending into icky sentimentality.
When we spoke Jay was about to release the song’s simple but affecting video, which has also been a departure from his often DIY (albeit clever) looking affairs: ‘It turns out I’ve got quite a few friends with kids and young families, so I invited everybody I know who has a young kid to come to a photography studio for a day.
‘We captured the emotions and love in the room for the day, and it’s done by a film-maker/photographer friend of mine and it looks very slick. It’s definitely the most slick Beans on Toast video ever, I’m very excited to get it out there.’
To make the new album Jay turned to his old friend Ben Lovett, who produced his mammoth 50-track debut album, Standing On a Chair. Ben is better known in his day job as bassist for the folk-rock behemoths Mumford and Sons.
‘We did the first record at his parent’s house in his loft. He had the equipment and the know-how, even way back then he knew his stuff - he’s an incredible player.
‘With album 10 coming around, I thought I should do something to commemorate that. It just happened quite naturally. I happened to bump into him when we were out and about - we’ve always stayed in touch. I told him album 10 was coming up, he said: “Great, I’ll record it, and leave it with me”.’
Jay was soon invited to London’s Church Studios where the Mumfords were recording their fourth album. The former church was turned into a studio by The Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart and has seen everyone from Bob Dylan to Beyonce, U2 and Adele record there. It is currently owned by super-producer Paul Epworth.
Ben suggested they record the new Beans album guerilla-style: ‘While the Mumfords were in there doing their sessions we’d go in there in over a couple of weekends and evenings.
‘The other thing is, not only is it one of London’s finest studios, but where they were mid-session, all of the Mumford’s equipment was there, [frontman] Marcus’s guitars, all the drums were mic’ed up and ready to go. We walked into the studio with some of the world’s finest equipment, all set up and ready to go. Ben got in a bunch of session musicians and really steered the ship, we’re old friends and we didn’t really have time to dilly dally - so it was: “We’re going to do this, this, and this ,” and we just flew through it. It was amazing, and what an opportunity!’
With his landmark 10th album out, has Jay been tempted to look back and reflect on his decade?
‘I still play a number of tunes from the first record at gigs – people still want to hear MDMAmazing or The Price of Rice, but not I’m not really one for Memory Lane.
‘I wrote a book this year and one of the things I liked about it was all of the reminiscing, but by the end of it I was like: “Oh shut up! Just move forward”, which is generally my way.’
That book, Drunk Folk Tales does however feature a very funny chapter on the time he headlined the acoustic stage at Victorious Festival the same time as Noel Gallagher was playing the main stage.
So with 10 albums in as many years, is this the point to relax his release schedule?
‘Not at all.
‘If anything number 11 is more important. If there was a time to not necessarily jump ship, but to maybe change your schedule, this is it, but the only thing that might change is that I’ve kind of run out of colours for my album covers,’ he laughs.
‘The album a year thing has been kind of weird. It feels like every year, it’s brought up like it’s a gimmick. By this point I feel like we should have got through that.
‘For me it’s not a gimmick – it’s a natural output. If I hadn’t written the songs, or hadn’t found someone to record them, I wouldn’t do it.’
For an artist renowned for his live shows, he’s happy that his output allows him the opportunity to keep doing what he loves.
‘It does have benefits, I play a lot of festivals year-in, year-out, which not a lot of bands can do, but if you’re releasing new music every year, you’re kind of allowed to do that.
‘Through constantly releasing, I can constantly play live and do festivals. If I wasn’t doing that, I don’t know what I’d do. I’ll carry on doing it… until it stops being a gimmick!’
Beans on Toast is at The Wedgewood Rooms on Thursday, January 31, doors 7.30pm, tickets £15. Go to wedgewood-rooms.co.uk.