English Teacher, with their inspired lyricism and Indie sensibilities, are the Leeds quartet steadily rising to the top of the class. Writer Eddie Smith sits with Lily Fontaine and Nick Eden to discuss identity, songwriting and their love for Leeds.
Post-Punk as a term has always represented a broad genre of music, grouping artists together for their stance rather than sound. A label that came into fruition largely in retrospect, referring to a specific period in the late 70s and early 80s, it has recently been reappropriated and attributed to a whole slew of contemporary acts – many of whom share little more than an attitude. One such act is English Teacher.
“Post-Punk has a lot of stigma on it now,” says lead singer Lily Fontaine. She sits upright on a red sofa in Burley, proudly sporting a Clue Records beanie indicative of her enthusiasm for the Leeds music scene. A wry smile betrays the outwardly dour demeanour of Nick Eden, the band’s bassist, who sits beside her. “It doesn’t feel accurate for a lot of what we do,” Fontaine continues.
She’s right. But then again, English Teacher’s sound morphs from song to song, capable of darting between garage rock fervour and reverb-laden indie pop. Despite their conventional lineup (vocals, two guitars, bass, drums, and synthesizer), they treat each song as a blank canvas, throwing out all that has come before time and time again; building from the ground up. Fontaine adorns each piece with consistently poetic lyrics, often crafting intricate metaphors to convey her opinions, dropping in references to Victorian literature, local history, and even YouTube channels along the way. Her vocal style refuses to stand still; fragile and soulful in one instant, brazenly monotonous the next.
After meeting at Leeds College of Music, the band began life as Frank in 2018, before adopting a new name and settling on the lineup of Lily Fontaine, Nick Eden, Douglas Frost, and Lewis Whiting. “We all liked our English teachers at school,” explains Fontaine, “I think we all had crushes on them.” Over the past 18 months, the band have been steadily releasing singles, most recently through Nice Swan Recordings. They’ve also been supporting artists such as Yellow Days, No Vacation, and even appearing alongside Sports Team on their fabled Margate coach trip.
The seaside town is the epitome of Englishness, a subject that troubles and inspires the band. Though lyrically they show a lot of warmth toward particular towns and places, there are some factions of the nation that impress them less. On their recent track ‘Wallace’, Fontaine points the barrel of the gun at the political right-wing. Named after Wallace Hartley, bandleader on the doomed Titanic and famous son of Fontaine’s hometown of Colne in Pendle, the song is an attack on those who choose to look the other way. “The rampant nationalism – it frustrates me.” Fontaine displays a look of discomfort, “I’m glad I’m from here, but I’m not particularly proud of it.”
Eden takes a sip of water from a glass stein the size of his head. “I’m proud to be European,” he adds with a smirk.
Besides notorious witch trials, the Pendle district may seem as if it has little to offer a lyricist. Fontaine, however, excels in transforming the smallest idiosyncrasies into sweeping allegories. “I see it is as creative writing. It’s fictional scenarios representing real-life things. Facts aren’t necessarily that important to it,” she says. At times this results in the lyrics drifting into absurd territory. An example of this is ‘The World’s Biggest Paving Slab’, written from the point of view of a (you guessed it) huge paving slab that rests outside Colne Town Hall. The song explores the history of the area, highlighting the noteworthy within the mundane and reconsidering the slab as a neglected celebrity.
Recent single ‘R&B’, however, has bucked the trend somewhat. “I don’t think many of our other songs are as personal.” Fontaine fixes her collar, glancing to the corner of the room. “Though they’re all about me in some way or another, that was the first one where I referenced myself.” Personal as it may be singing about ones own voice and writing style, Fontaine taps into universal themes, confronting issues of racial identity and imposter syndrome over a searing chorus of guitars. She is as accomplished with the literal as she is with the figurative.
“I prefer the [figurative] stuff,” the singer replies when quizzed on her preference, before backtracking. “It is nice to write from a personal perspective, but it’s scary.”
One city that is referenced less than might be expected in Fontaine’s lyrics is Leeds, for which the band have nothing but praise. “There’s the Brudenell Social Club, which is incredible, and Hyde Park Book Club. I don’t know if we would have had such a good start in music if we didn’t do it in Leeds.” Despite hailing from all over England (“We’re frauds!” claims Eden) the band have adopted the city as their own, and are proud of it too.
“The third to last gig we played, people were chanting ‘Yorkshire,’ and we weren’t even in Yorkshire,” says Eden. “I mean, we were at least five minutes from Yorkshire.”
“We were in Manchester,” asserts Fontaine.
A debut appearance at this years Leeds Festival shows how much the band’s stock has risen in their short time together, yet Eden is coy with his reaction. “It was a mixed bag, but I had a great time,” he says. Fontaine meanwhile is keen to stress the uglier side of performing. “It’s one of those things that as a musician you only dream of doing, but it was incredibly overwhelming, in a scary way, and I don’t want to not mention that to people,” she confesses. “I look at the videos and I’m like ‘was that me?’” Fontaine’s ruminative honesty sets her apart from other frontmen and women. Where others thrive on bravado, she expresses sensitivity freely, finding the value in honesty.
The festival appearance coincides with a wave of support from the music press, notably including plays from radio DJ Steve Lamacq on BBC 6Music, which Eden describes as “A blessing and an honour.” With the music industry focussing more on streams, and now even on TikTok appeal, English Teacher appear to be doing it the ‘old fashioned’ way, via live performances and radio airplay. “It’s a shame there are not more shows that have such gravitas,” Eden laments. One gets the feeling that the band are very much at home on the radio, capturing listeners with their urgency and playfulness.
With tour dates across the UK fixed until the end of November, English Teacher are quickly establishing themselves as not only a vital part of the Leeds music scene, but of the UK indie scene as a whole. As a plethora of guitar bands continue to excite the nation, English Teacher are proving as worthy as any of them. Albums and headline slots surely await, but for now, Fontaine and Eden are reluctant to give away too much. “Before Christmas, there’ll be something,” teases the bassist.
The blank canvas has been daubed once again; the picture, however, is yet to be revealed. If English Teacher continue to push their sound into unexplored territory, perhaps post punk will remain the most suitable label – if only in the most literal of sense.
Words by Eddie Smith
Images by Sophie Jouvenaar