by Rowan Gavin
Today, Essex-born folk singer Beans On Toast releases his ninth album, ‘Cushty’. Last night, I saw Beans play live for the ninth-ish time (if I’m honest, I’ve lost count, but the symmetry is pleasing). If you’ve been to a British festival in the past decade you’ve probably run into Beans as well – he’s the kind of musician who pops up everywhere. With a new album out every year since 2009, he’s perpetually turning up in your town on tour, or supporting one of his many musical friends, or appearing at festivals you didn’t know he was on the bill for.
Beans’ work is characterised by simple chord progressions, “say-it-as-you-see-it” songwriting, and an infectiously meandering approach to playing live (I once saw him close a set by starting a song, stopping mid-line to tell a story, playing a whole other song at double time, then finishing the first – and that was his debut arena gig at Wembley). What first captured me when a friend lent me album #3 back in 2011 though was the effortless, direct way his lyrics explored socio-political issues, from wealth inequality to renewable energy to the royal wedding. His tendency to write about what others might call ‘political’ has yet to wane, but when I open by asking him to describe his political outlook, he is bemused: “Wow, straight in! How would i describe myself politically? I don’t know, er, optimistic?”
He goes on to elaborate on his feelings about recent political events (“I’m big up for Corbyn”) and his voting habits, but his first response is not surprising. His optimism and good-naturedness are always the most apparent things about Beans’ character. He writes simultaneously with simplicity, cutting intelligence and often dark wit – “Social media watches as its monster comes to life”, referring to Trump of course, is a standout lyric from ‘Cushty’ – but never with dourness or despair. Spending half an hour with him, the quality that comes through on stage is made even more apparent: he’s had plenty of practice being a decent, honest person.
And he’s more optimistic now than he was a year ago. “Glastonbury was a really good symbol of that […] last year Brexit happened during the festival – I stepped on stage on the Friday, after it had happened, at 11am – and that was a weird vibe throughout […] a year later, after the attacks happened in Manchester, live music events were under high security, the country was in mourning, there was a lot of high emotions going on – and then Glastonbury came around and it was really sunny, and because of the Jeremy thing it was so positive […] it shows how much things can change.”
Beans went on a special tour to mark Independent Venue Week back in January, and he recalls that as we talk about musical and political spaces: “every town could turn exactly the fucking same, everywhere’s got a Primark and like 20 Costa coffees […] but there’s something about music venues, each one’s got its own feel, its own name, it’s run by its own people”. It’s spaces like that, “where people can go and congregate and come up with different ideas”, that for Beans show that alternative music and alternative politics “go hand in hand”.
He’s less keen on traditional activist spaces – “the few protest marches I have went on, I felt in the way more than anything else” – but he recognises the importance of “taking to the streets”. He just thinks there could be “a bit more fun there”. We wonder aloud about how “protests could take a leaf out of the festival book” and be more exciting – and how conversely festivals, where “you meet so many like-minded people”, could harness their energy to bring people together for a cause. Many of the same sentiments are echoed on ‘Cushty’, in ‘That’s why I came to Okeechobee’. In the room he says “if you’re hoping for a better world, you gotta hope that that [it] is a fun one”; on the record, “Let’s take the festival down to the frontlines”.
Beans doesn’t remember any musicians influencing him politically growing up, because “politics wasn’t even on the agenda for me, or almost anyone I knew”. Moving to London and getting into the squat party scene was more of an eye-opener. He wasn’t sure why he was “naturally drawn to that environment” – though he “liked the drugs and the dancing and stuff” – until he read Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo‘. “It kinda explains what capitalism is, and it explains that the free party scene was kinda the last place where there’s no adverts. It’s done not for corporate gain, it’s just done because people love music“. From there he went along to a couple “May Day anti-capitalist protests around London” and saw “a lot that I thought was just common sense”, which gave him the basis to start speaking up when “things did start to deteriorate” as the utopian illusion of the Blair era faded.
There are present-day musicians who inspire him with their politics though – in particular he cites Wirral psych-indie outfit She Drew The Gun. Generally, his musical inspiration comes from people he meets on tour. One of the great benefits of his annual album release schedule is that “If i meet an interesting person who’s got a studio I can be like ‘Hey can we do a record? September?’ and I can just book it in the minute that I meet ’em”. In the case of ‘Cushty’ that person was Tristan Ivemy, “an incredible sort of producer” who’s worked previously with Xtra Mile big names Frank Turner, Will Varley and Skinny Lister. Beans and Ivemy “grabbed a bunch of musicians” and headed out to Giant Wafer, a “beautiful” studio in the Welsh countryside run on renewable energy, for the week it took to get ‘Cushty’ on tape. That bunch includes Bobby Banjo (guitar, harmonica, and yes occasionally banjo) and Matt Millership (keys), familiar faces to a long-time Beans fan, as well as Jenna Jones (fiddle), who quit her previous band in protest after they agreed to play at Trump’s inauguration. Between them they bring Beans simple chords to life, injecting a little jig and keeping him (mostly) on task.
‘Cushty’ itself is a brilliant little modern folk album, as thought-provoking, light-hearted and disarmingly catchy as any of Beans’ previous eight. He says he did “have to drag this record away from being quite a doom and gloomy one”, though. It might have been easy to write 14 “here’s another shit thing” songs, but it wouldn’t have been accurate to his life: “It’s strange times that we live in but I’m happy in my heart and I love my family and stuff “. And as ever his own life is his biggest inspiration – “what I’ve been doing, people I’m meeting”, and of course his wife Lizzy, who ever runs through and under his lyrics.
That Beans’ songwriting process remains “the same as ever” nine albums in might seem strange, but he fundamentally disagrees with the common model of progress in the music biz. “I’m all for the plateau. It’s weird that it’s presumed that to be a musician you constantly have to get played to larger audiences, or get bigger. If you was a plumber, no-one would expect that. If you can make a living and you can get by, then that’s fucking good as gold”.
Nonetheless, things are always changing for Beans, on record and on stage. Writing ‘Jamie & Lilly’, his first song about someone else’s relationship, he found a “new building block for songwriting”. Previously “I thought that would be kind of invasive”, but “trying to make an imaginary window into someone else’s world” created something that “seems to have really touched people”. Popping backstage after the set to pick up my things, I heard the band marvelling that they’d finished early for the first time ever. Beans puts it down to “not so much fucking around” – a pretty big departure from type for him. Maybe the fact that this tour is his first that’s featured a written setlist had something to do with it. As much as changes, stays the same, though. Where will we see Beans in the future? “If I could continue doing 200 cap rooms, touring twice a year and putting albums out like this til the end of my days, then I’d be fucking well happy with that.”
Cushty is out on Xtra Mile Recordings today, Dec 1st 2017. Beans On Toast’s co-headline ‘Double Trouble’ tour with Skinny Lister runs until Dec 10th. All info on his website.
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