Sister Magazine meets English Teacher
This piece was originally published in Sister Magazine's 'Self Issue', available here.
English Teacher’s Lily Fontaine on the band’s debut EP, being political within songwriting and how lockdown transformed her sense of self.
Ten years since their Yorkshire predecessors Arctic Monkeys declared the region devoid of romance, English Teacher are rewriting its narrative: one that is in equal parts entranced by the stories brimming from its faded streets, as it is critical of its politics and pitfalls.
Forming on the cliff edge of normality, just before the first lockdown, English Teacher’s short lifespan has already been somewhat of a whirlwind. Their debut EP ‘Polyawkward’ was met with rave reviews upon release in April, and this summer they played Glastonbury for the first time. At the centre of said whirlwind is frontwoman Lily Fontaine, whose sharp social commentary and wit-infused lyricism were likened to Jarvis Cocker by the NME earlier this year.
“When I’m writing, it’s just stories that I hear about — like people or objects or events or places and I’m like ‘ooh that’s cool’. It’s not really a conscious thing,” Lily says, casually reflecting on her critically-acclaimed lyrics over Zoom. She’s speaking from her home in Leeds, mere days after the end of the band’s first-ever headline tour, and she’s still energised from the experience of having her own words sung back to her. “Even Yorkshire Tapas, which we only put out a few days before we went on tour. People knew the words. It's just…” She trails off, before adding with a smile “It’s just like what you dream of.”
Though English Teacher are a fairly new band, Lily has been honing her craft for a decade, after discovering a love of literature amid the mundanity of GCSE English lessons, something she credits Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Valentine’ for. Now, ‘Polyawkward’ exists as an audible scrapbook of poetic references, and is the epitome of Lily's ability to transform normality into something magical.
Revelling in the extraordinary simplicity of being alive, it’s falling out of Leeds clubs onto rain-soaked stone streets, or the whispered declarations of love across a pub pool table. Though Yorkshire remains a muse for Lily, she’s keen to shed light on the complexities of the region too. “I think my relationship with being northern is quite different to other musicians or just generally northern people,” she explains.
“In the North, especially in the towns that I grew up in, there’s not really that many people of colour. I feel like with my experience of being a northerner and looking completely different to everyone else, my perspective is just different and I think it's interesting. I think the North is interesting in itself, there are so many different bits of culture, like food or vernacular or history, but also the way that people tend to be politically leaning in contrast to my views and the way that I experience the world. I just think it’s interesting.”
Historically, northern indie music has been confined to a stereotype of white, working-class men, spanning not only the artists but the audience. A new era of bands that break the mould means a new side of the north is being explored musically, but it’s not to say Lily doesn’t love those songs. “You’ve got all the classic Artist Monkeys songs where they talk about nights out in Sheffield. It’s so relatable and it’s one of the reasons I love them, it’s putting a very relatable thing into a beautiful way of speaking. But, I don’t know if people necessarily cover the more political side of things or the negative side. It’s what I try to do in ‘Wallace’ in a sense.”
And there’s no shortage of scathing political commentary. Single ‘Good Grief’ is an imagined love story between the infamous ‘Track and Trace’, opening with the line: “Bring out your dead, make them a hashtag, The internet is the only one keeping track.” It’s one of many sharp one-liners that mark Lily’s clear skill as a lyricist, but also the general rage towards the government’s handling of the pandemic — a time when Lily herself was battling grief.
“I know bands get a bit of stick for getting involved in politics, but it’s just something that I'm really passionate about. Me and [English Teacher’s guitarist] Lewis would have both maybe gone into politics if things were different. We’re both just die-hard Labour supporters,” Lily says. “It’s always been a big part of writing for me, trying to talk about stuff that’s important, and I wanna do it more.”
But amid political chaos and unprecedented change, two years of on-and-off isolation meant lots of self-reflection, and Lily admits it translated into her music: “A lot of [the EP] was written either during the pandemic or just after, or in the second and third lockdowns. I think I learned a lot of stuff about my sexuality during the pandemic, I think it's not necessarily something that is obvious on the EP, but it's actually quite a big theme of the EP, in a very sort of, like, subtle way,” she says.
Despite producing some of the world’s most exciting female talent, the British music industry has long clung to its fixation on white boys with guitars. But after outrage surrounding repetitive festival line-up announcements in the past few years, Lily is starting to see a shift. “I think that there is a lot of positive discrimination going on, where people are more likely to book supports that have female artists and they're more balanced. It's obviously not worldwide, or even UK-wide, because there are still a lot of weird festivals that seem to have line-ups where it's all like the classic indie bands. But in my experience, pretty much all of the bands that I listen to, and that and that all my friends listen to, and all the gigs that we go and see, there are women on the line-up.”
She muses: “Hopefully, that is an improvement and it's not just a sort of short-term positive discrimination thing that will fade away. I'm certainly seeing more women in music now than I did when I was younger.”
English Teacher’s debut EP ‘Polyawkward’ is out now.