Yorkshire’s Music Scenes Are Redefining Themselves On Their Own Terms

Creatives are forging a future that no longer depends on the South…

“One of the advantages of music is that you can re-imagine cities,” says writer Karl Whitney, summing up the findings of his book, Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop. “Not as planners re-imagined cities, but as you want them to be.”

Yorkshire has been re-imagined by its musicians countless times. In the 80s, The Housemartins emerged as a reaction to Thatcherism, while bands like The Human League translated their city's industrial soundtrack into the grooves of their records. Pulp infused Yorkshire wit into Britpop while Soft Cell topped the charts with their synth-pop interpretation of Northern Soul. More recently, Arctic Monkeys’ commentary on Sheffield’s nightlife took a new generation on a tour of their hometown, complete with aggressive bouncers, fleeting dancefloor romances and drunken taxi journeys through High Green.

Today, young artists in Yorkshire face the challenge of re-defining the region post-pandemic, while simultaneously battling poor infrastructure, a lack of connection to London’s music industry and stereotypes that exclude a huge portion of the talent. But, a determined collective of artists and industry leaders are willing to do just that – forging a future that no longer depends on fleeting spotlight from the South.

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Re-inventing Leeds' historic music scene is English Teacher’s Lily Fontaine, driven by an infatuation with indie music and a resentment of industry stereotypes. Lily’s songwriting dives into all facets of Northern life, existing as a celebration of the seemingly mundane and a commentary on the intricacies of identity in the region.

Following her move to the city to study, the Colne-native became immersed in its buzzing musical landscape. She describes her initial amazement in how “compact” the scene was, where a lack of physical space results in a musical melting pot in which contrasting genres intertwine.

“With bigger cities like London and Manchester, all the different scenes are spread out. Here, people who are in the jazz community know people who are in pop or indie, cause we all go to the same venues,” she says.

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Yet despite Yorkshire’s rich and diverse musical heritage, its home-grown artists face a multitude of difficulties in establishing success. Gaining recognition from London is a momentous step one, which is often then plagued by industry perceptions that deem Northern artists as less advanced. For Sidonie Hand-Halford, drummer of Halifax’s The Orielles, the feeling of being an “outsider” was responsible for the initial struggle to break into the South.

“We would be backstage with other bands that were from Southern cities and they'd instantly have more of a rapport with one another. Not to mention the difference in how they were treated by labels or professionals in the industry. It was just straight away a sense of favouritism, treating them as better even before they heard our music,” she says.

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Yorkshire’s Music Scenes Are Redefining Themselves On Their Own Terms

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There’s also the long-held stereotypes of what a Northern indie artist looks like, which Lily says can be detrimental to up-and-coming creatives: “When I was at school there were all these bands, all boys playing classic rock or indie. I was never asked to be in any of them, even though I was a musician.” This is something she grapples with on English Teacher’s ‘RnB’, where she vents frustrations of “race related imposter syndrome” and the limitations of stereotypes.  

“I think it's the Northern lad band thing. It's important for people to realise that's not what you have to be to make that kind of music. Yeah, the Smiths and Joy Division were all white male, but then there's all these other bands who aren’t as well known in the industry. Anyone can make that music and anyone should.”

The association of Northern bands as a collective of white boys is one that is heavily ingrained, due to their historic success in the UK. This is something Sidonie argues can cause up-and-coming artists that don't fit the bill to be “overlooked”.

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But where do these ideas of Northern identity come from? Karl argues that much of Yorkshire’s music descends from its working heritage. From the heavy thud of Sheffield’s steelworks echoing through the city and into its electronic music, to the political activism in 70s Leeds woven into the lyricism of Gang Of Four and The Mekons. The collision of industry and creativity has long infiltrated the sounds escaping the region, painting an audible portrait of the North for fans who may never visit.

Like the pandemic, Karl argues that the political turmoil of Thatcherism was responsible for shaping the musical landscape in Yorkshire. “It brought a sort of community solidarity. The Housemartins wouldn't have happened without the miners' strike, for example,” Karl says, referring to the Hull band who made political activism a staple in their career.

The political ideals of The Housemartins live on in Hull promoter and musician Daniel Mawer. The Low Hummer frontman is intent on forging a new identity for the region post-pandemic – one that reflects the passion and creativity of those within it. He worked on Hull's Humber Street Sesh and Freedom Festival, and highlights the pandemic’s worsening of the North/South divide in music.

Today, the physical isolation of the city is responsible for an undeniable patriotism, which bleeds into the music industry and tribal protection of local artists. “We feel detached but that also creates that sense of community which is quite prevalent across the North. There’s a collective sense of being together and looking after each other,” Daniel says.

When touring with his band, Daniel takes the status of unofficial travel agent for Hull. “We were voted the crappest town when I was a teenager and there’s sort of a battle against that. As an artist, I look at what I can do to portray that we actually have it good in this city and we should be proud of who we are,” he says.

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Though the city shed some of its poor reputation upon receiving 2017’s City of Culture, young creatives in Hull continue to face the challenges of their predecessors. A lack of opportunity to network with industry professionals means artists are often forced to chance their personal growth on moves to London.

These moves, though essential for some, can be detrimental to local music scenes which Daniel says are “dependent” on a handful of key individuals: “It always feels like it's on a knife edge so if you lose someone, the Hull music scene really suffers.”

This need to relocate is something Karl puts down to a lack of investment in the rail system, demonstrating the impact of infrastructure on creativity: “All these debates started with George Osborne and then led onto Northern powerhouse rail, into Boris Johnson picking up this idea and being rewarded with seats in the North. But, you’re yet to see anything actually tangible happen.” This follows the government U-turn that saw plans to connect Northern cities with HS2 scrapped, once again preventing creative industries to forge opportunity that doesn’t depend on London.

Economic divide has long fed into the perception of Northerners as patriotic, and for Daniel, the pandemic has only emphasised this: “The city itself is severely underfunded. When you have that North-South divide, the North becomes even more proud. We try to support new artists however we can, through charity organisations or funding, so they can sustain themselves here.”

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The ability for a few individuals to form a scene is perhaps most evident in Hebden Bridge, a hippie enclave in the Upper Calder Valley that’s currently the epicentre of creativity in the county. Once the hub of corduroy manufacturing, the town's transition to emerging music scene demonstrates a vast opportunity for the North to redefine itself on its own terms. In the community of 5,000, creativity has been brewing since the 80s, now erupting in the form of teenage talent who hone their skills at the Trades Club.

The Trades Club exists as an amalgamation of all characteristics of Northern identity: community, unapologetic politics and an ingrained industrial history. Originally built as a trades union, the venue has been repurposed through the years, currently boasting the birthplace of new music in Yorkshire. But this wouldn’t have been possible without its rescue from disarray by Mal Campbell, the self described “temporary caretaker” of the 100-year-old building.

Scooping the most eclectic talent in a five mile radius into its historic walls, teenagers enter the Trades with tickets in hand and leave with a desire to headline. Among those are Working Men’s Club, who’s teenage vocalist Sydney Minsky-Sargeant illustrates the mundanity and frustration of northern adolescence over intricate layers of synth. Meanwhile, The Lounge Society allow the landscape to infiltrate their sound, translating the woes of landowners in their adaptation of post-punk. And the first to emerge from the club, the Orielles fuse retro disco with subtle climate-conscious commentary, drawing on a wealth of global influences. Though forging their careers side by side, the bands are unique – something Sidonie puts down to the infancy of the local scene.

“Manchester definitely seems to be ingrained with this feeling of wanting to recreate what's been already. But I think Yorkshire bands are less influenced by a scene and therefore create things that are a little bit different,” she says.

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Though world-renowned stars like Patti Smith and Thurston Moore have graced the Trades’ stage, Mal gushes over The Orielles’ debut headline-show as his most memorable gig. “It was the first time I'd seen a gig anywhere where it was all kids up front, just jumping up and down and having the time of their life. It was a young band on stage, and there were all these bands that were starting to hatch in the audience.”

The venue exists as a reminder that even small, isolated towns can produce great artists – if the right people are willing to nurture it. But even with dedication from community leaders, a North-South divide in music infiltrates the entire industry, as Mal says: “I've heard from people who run a music publication that they were worried if they moved out of London, people wouldn't take them as seriously anymore.”  

“I think that, like a lot of industries, they've thought you have to have face-to-face meetings, and possibly the idea that there's a status of a West London address,” Mal says.

The pandemic, however, has exposed the ease of remote meetings. For Daniel, this is key in scrapping dependency on London and instead focusing on building “alternate networks” across the North. Though geographical isolation has long coloured the culture of Hull, the pandemic’s introduction of remote working has provided an opportunity to bridge the regional gaps. This is a small step in coping with physical distance, as Daniel says:“The dream scenario would still be a link to travel across the North really easily.”

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Yorkshire’s Music Scenes Are Redefining Themselves On Their Own Terms

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The months of venue closures and increased importance of the internet also introduces the possibility of global music overtaking the influence of regional sounds, as artists lack the in-person communication that was previously crucial in forging local scenes.

But Karl argues this doesn’t necessarily signal the end of regional identity within music, but rather an opportunity to redefine it and end the stereotypes of what a Northern artist should be: “What can be added that will make you distinctive will be your local identity. You might be making a tune that sounds like Robyn, but you're singing it in a Yorkshire accent.”

This is true for Lily, who’s spent the majority of her time in English Teacher scouring Spotify for inspiration. Now, her nuanced perspective fuses world music with love letters to her home, proving that there’s no one way to celebrate Northern identity in music. Their latest single ‘Good Grief’ is a commentary on pandemic life, with an inherently Northern political analysis: “[The new EP] is very much based on my experiences in the North. The kinds of people, the characters, the environment, the hills and the famous landscapes,” she says.

For Sidonie, the pandemic has seen her band re-imagine their last album 'Disco Volador' in the form of a short film titled La Vita Olistica, where they channeled the energy reserved for the gigs cancelled due to Covid. The project saw them pushing the boundaries of creativity and demonstrating the innovative talent that can emerge from isolated towns.

“We wanted to produce something that would be everlasting. Something that someone could watch in 20 years time that would represent lockdown,” Sidonie says.

The next year will see an influx of new, innovative music in the UK – and Yorkshire is finally at the heart of it. But this seismic shift has only occurred from the dedication of individuals like Mal and Daniel, who are in turn learning from the brand new artists emerging: “It makes me think that it's still quite early days in the evolution of music. That we still can't predict how things are going to cross pollinate,” says Mal.

This new golden age of creativity is an opportunity for Yorkshire’s music to thrive; “But with more diversity,” Mal says. “That's the plan.”

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Words: Laura Molloy

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