Scene In-Between: English Teacher Interviewed

Frontwoman Lily Fontaine on home, belonging and the punk-poetic verve coursing through the band's debut album...

It’s been almost two years since Leeds outfit English Teacher released their debut EP ‘Polyawkward’. They’ve spent most of that time having critics call them the most vital new band on the UK guitar music scene, the most exciting new voice, your new favourite band, your new favourite band, your new favourite band… And the critics would be right. ‘Polyawkward’ arrived at a time when the post-punk wave was peaking, and English Teacher were credited with being both the best of the bunch and with transcending the tropes and innovating, one of the first acts to push us beyond the jagged-isolated-guitar-line renaissance into truly fresh territory – all within a neat quarter of an hour. 

What the band have achieved creatively on a sixteen-minute mission statement sets formidable precedent for what they could do with a feature-length LP, and we’re on the brink of finding out. ‘This Could Be Texas’, the band’s grand debut album, is ready, and it’s nearly an hour of sprawling realised potential. It’s precisely English Teacher, even though it’s a conglomeration of writing from a far longer time period than ‘Polyawkward’. “It’s difficult to write everything together all at once,” frontperson Lily Fontaine explains. “It was a good experiment for ‘Polyawkward’, as we were very set on writing everything together. We had a vision for what we wanted it to sound like, whereas for the album a lot of the songs were written before the EP came out, or before we even conceived of English Teacher. More of the songs have come from individual members. Sometimes it’s good to have a leading voice on things, and one person decision-making, then bringing it to the group and seeing how it changes things.” 

“I think I prefer it that way. Creatively, I’ve noticed that I enjoy it more, I’m more productive writing songs on my own, but they wouldn’t be English Teacher without the elements added by everybody in the band. We’re very reliant on each other to create the sound that we do,” Fontaine continues, mentioning ‘The World’s Biggest Paving Slab, ‘You Blister My Paint’, and ‘Sideboob’ as examples of tracks that were written independently, the former of which is perhaps one of the best, most distinctive English Teacher tracks released so far. The latter two are shining examples of the band’s poetic, complex, dreaming variety – a musical eco-system in perfect balance. 

Nowhere is it more evident how in sync English Teacher are than at their live shows, where audiences have been treated to a slew of material from ‘This Could Be Texas’ in the run-up to its release; a crowdsourced refinery for the ideas that English Teacher have planned for their music. “We’ve played every song live except one… Although we [sort of] have. It used to be called ‘You Won’t Believe How Beautiful She Is When It Snowed’, but now it’s called ‘Sideboob’”, Fontaine says. “And there’s a song we do live, ‘Blister My Paint’, that I’m really excited for people to hear because I’m really, really proud of the recorded version. I think touring new music is the best thing we can do before recording it, because the more that you work it and play it for people and play it for each other as well, the more you can experiment and come up with new ideas. Playing it in general, seeing how it translates, how much we enjoy playing it… That is so good to know before going into the studio and recording it.” 

Between ‘Polyawkward’ and now, with scores of lauded live shows including a heroic Glastonbury appearance and Jools Holland, English Teacher have been assigned quite a number of genre labels. Which, if any, have they tried to carry forward into their debut record? “I’m not very good at genre descriptions,” Fontaine admits, “which is kind of shit, because I wanted to go into music journalism! But I feel like trying to put English Teacher into a genre, ‘indie’ is the only thing that feels appropriate. Someone called us BritFlop the other day.” Does she think that these labels are even useful anymore? “I think descriptors are good! So you can reach out to people, and they can know what you sound like before listening to it. But I think the more you write and the more you listen to, your taste changes, so it can be restrictive to always stick to the same thing.” 

Fontaine continues: “It’s useful as well, because if people see the band before listening to it, there might be an assumption about what genres we make. In the past, people have assumed we make soul music, or music of Black origin, so that’s why accurate genre descriptions can be really useful.” It’s a misrepresentation that is touched on in the album, in the quickfire reflections of ‘R&B’, a thoroughly punky moment in which Fontaine laments that “despite appearances I haven’t got the voice for R&B”. 

‘R&B’, with its themes exploring genre and musical assumptions is just one of a number of moments on ‘This Could Be Texas’ on which Fontaine finds herself drawn back to reflections on belonging. “It was the result of psychoanalysing myself a bit,” she explains, “but there did seem to be this overarching theme throughout all of it, about home. I’ve spent a lot of time displaced, living in various different places and different houses, and the notion of what ‘home’ means seems to crop up a lot. I use the frame of the hometown that I grew up in as the background for those ideas, so my mum comes up a lot, which is quite funny!” 

“Then there’s things about race, as I said in ‘R&B’, and most recently there’s a bit about being mixed race. And there’s songs about not being able to make decisions, about feeling very in-between, and I think that being mixed race you do feel like this sort of almost-person in a way, not quite this, not quite that. And I think that is an overarching theme, weirdly, of the whole [album].” 

Was it a surprise, to confront any of the themes that cropped up during studio sessions and post-writing introspection? “I’m not sure if any of the topics were a surprise. Like, with ‘Not Everybody Gets To Go To Space’, I’ve wanted to write about the varying opportunities given to people based on the class system and stuff like that for ages. I’ve wanted to write about my hometown for ages, it’s one of my favourite things to write about. But what did surprise me is that a running theme throughout all of these was that uncanny feeling of being in-between.” 

Fontaine’s musical endeavours are many, with English Teacher running alongside DJing with BBC 6 Music, as well as occasional music writing. But as with the way she writes for the band, it’s not a calculated approach, but more a natural inclination to say what she wants to say in any way that works. “I’m just trying to build a career for myself, with the most things I can do to help the causes I care about. Portfolio careers are a way to make money in the music industry. You have to do loads of things, and I just wanted to work in music. But alongside that, wanting to work on social issues and politics is a really big part of my life. So, it’s kind of by chance they’ve locked up, but also given there have always been those two or three interests in my life, it makes sense that they’ve locked up: in some big explosion of socialism and psych music…”

As seen in Issue 127 of CLASH. Order your copy here.

Words: Ims Taylor
Photography: Florence Mann
Fashion: Alicia Ellis

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