English Teacher: “We boxed ourselves in, and ended up having a bit of an identity crisis”

Leeds band English Teacher were determined not to rush themselves in their development, and in taking their time are a testament to how nurturing arts environments remain vitally important throughout the UK

The third single from English Teacher’s debut album, ‘Mastermind Specialism’, has Lily Fontaine quietly excoriating herself for her chronic indecision. She casts herself variously as a bride frozen at the top of the aisle, a child hopping off a slide half way down it and, in one line that spills out a clutch of potential career paths, a singer, a porn star, a writer and a thief. It is one of the record’s quietest and prettiest moments, and its tasteful blend of twinkly piano and arpeggiated acoustic guitar feel like a long sigh, like a lament, as if she’s forever resigned to being defined by her dithering.

She makes it sound like a bad thing, but on the evidence of this remarkable first record, Fontaine’s natural reluctance to choose a lane and stick with it might be English Teacher’s greatest strength. They have already made marked changes in direction during their still-nascent career, and they’ve also become adept at making diffuse influences meld together in a way that sounds instinctive. To write down the myriad musical gates that the album slaloms through is to paint the record as a rollercoaster ride but in truth, the journey is a pleasingly smooth one; its feels as if Fontaine’s vocals should be soaring one minute (‘You Blister My Paint’) and Sprechgesang the next (‘R&B’), like chaotic walls of guitar can stand next to swooning strings, and like the path between freewheeling pop-rock (‘Nearly Daffodils’) and soft, spacey synth (‘Sideboob’) is a logical one.

That last track offers a rare glimpse of English Teacher’s fledgling form; they began life in 2018 as Frank, a dream pop outfit named after, and occasionally sounding like the fictional band from, the 2014 film Frank. That in itself is instructive; the movie remains fiendishly tricky to categorise a decade later, having taken Frank Sidebottom’s fibreglass head and maverick heart and built a grimly comedic pseudo-biopic around them. Similarly, the band that are now English Teacher have taken myriad twists and turns of their own since they first came together at the University of Leeds, with Fontaine joined by guitarist Lewis Whiting, bassist Nicholas Eden and drummer Douglas Frost.

“The band that we were before, and the band that we are now, are so different,” says Fontaine; even since transitioning from the woozy stylings of Frank to English Teacher’s more experimental rock remit, the group have shifted shape before their listeners’ ears. “I think we’ve benefited from having time to figure ourselves out.”

Guitarist Lewis Whiting
Singer Lily Fontaine
Bassist Nicholas Eden
Drummer Douglas Frost

Their relatively steady pace of progression, which included a couple of stop-start years during the pandemic, has stood them in good stead, as has their grounding in Leeds, another aspect of the group’s palpably northern identity. Last year, Fontaine wrote an impassioned paean to the importance of regional scenes in protest of BBC plans to scale back their ‘Introducing…’ platform. “I think we had about five years of developing through the Leeds scene that brought us to where we are,” she says, “and that’s the reason we’ve gotten to this point. Being part of a scene that was supportive of us and helped us to grow, but also being able to work with organisations like Music Leeds, helping us to get PRS funding; that kind of stuff is what helps you build the connections that gets you to something like Later…with Jools Holland. We had great access to support and I think us getting to where we are now proves that it works, that keeping those things accessible in the regions is pretty vital.”

Sonically speaking, their early work was informed by the musical fashions of the time; the 2021 single ‘R&B’ sees Fontaine reckoning with her place in the overwhelmingly white male world of indie rock as a mixed-race woman, and takes its cues from the off-kilter post-punk of Black Midi and Black Country, New Road. “‘R&B was heavily influenced by that wave of bands from South London from 2018 onwards, which is fine,” recalls Eden, “but I think we boxed ourselves in, and ended up having a bit of an identity crisis. And it wasn’t that we wanted to stop making that kind of music entirely, but it’s only one type of sound out of a plethora of different influences, and we really didn’t want to be pigeonholed.”

It isn’t likely to happen on the basis of This Could Be Texas, a sprawling, genre-fluid record. Whilst Fontaine’s voice, both literally and figuratively, provides a cornerstone, the album feels free to wander between disciplines; Whiting recalls that ‘A55’, the closing track from their 2022 Polyawkward EP, was the moment the group realised they had broken beyond the self-imposed shackles of their oldest songs. “Here’s a direction we can really explore,” he recalls thinking. “There’s a lot of different elements, and the structure’s a bit irregular, and it’s got such a strong melody, and it seemed to go over really well, so it started to influence the songs that came later. And the culmination of that is something like ‘You Blister My Paint’, which Lily wrote years ago but we’d never figured out quite how to make it work, until we realised that having her play it solo on the piano was the most effective way of recording it. Putting her vocals through a tape machine and having some delay on them – those kind of experimental elements made it feel modern and up to date.”

Whilst there are still flickers of the English Teacher of old on the record (‘R&B’ is included, while tracks like the epic centrepiece ‘Not Everyone Gets to Go to Space’ feature the same kinds of sweeping landscape changes as defined the likes of ‘Polyawkward’), the avoidance of leaning too far into their influences and the forging of their own lane, is key to the album’s success. “Realising we were starting to sound too much like Jockstrap and then changing it up,” says Fontaine. “Nothing was off the table,” says Frost.

“And I think I’d had a bit of a concern that us having that mindset might be a problem,” adds Fontaine. “That maybe people would struggle to get into the music if it sounded different from song to song. It doesn’t fit into a particular niche, so who are we appealing to? We knew it wasn’t going to be that cohesive.”

“That still worries me a little bit with the album,” admits Eden. “When we were recording, it did feel at times like we were putting together pieces of random puzzles, and if it wasn’t quite working we’d rearrange them. But I’ve never been so proud of something. I think it’s turned out nicely.”

“I’d listen to it,” Fontaine deadpans.

Her lyrical style is the throughline that holds this eclectic bunch of songs together; consistently funny, vividly descriptive, and at once vulnerable and cutting. In the video for ‘The World’s Biggest Paving Slab’, the spectre of Sidebottom is raised again, with its central character taking in the sights of the singer’s native Colne, Lancashire and the surrounding countryside from behind a papier-mâché head – fittingly, as the song nods lyrically to Emily Brontë and the Pendle witches, both from the same corner of the world.

Sidebottom is actually a weirdly neat point of reference for Fontaine, because there are similarities between her and his creator, Chris Sievey – chiefly their shared fascination with the curious nature of everyday life. In their version of kitchen sink realism, there is a third tap marked absurdity, which is often the one from which poignancy most readily flows; Fontaine makes sense of the world with both rapier wit and, in places, violent metaphor (‘Broken Biscuits’). It marks the band out as one willing to reckon with sociopolitical issues, but Fontaine insists it’s a byproduct of writing from an honest place.

“I’m never aiming to do any one specific thing,” she says. “I’m glad people definitely seemed to pick up on the observational side of the lyrics, because I like that kind of thing myself. None of it feels intentional, though; I try to include humour because I think it’s a good way to explore different themes, but those themes just come from whatever it is I feel like I need to talk about. I’m always reacting, against something that’s happened to me, or maybe something I’ve witnessed.”

As they speak to me, the band are about to head to America for their first US shows in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, having just come off their first full UK tour – a sell-out. Anybody who caught a show would be able to attest to how far English Teacher have come as a live band; Fontaine has genuine presence about her now, and the musicianship is airtight. “Sometimes I wish I could redo our first impressions – go back and redo our first gigs, our first festivals, do them like we do it now,” says Fontaine. “But that would always be the case, wouldn’t it? We’ve definitely become better musicians.”

“I don’t want to speak for all of us,” says Eden, “but my confidence in us as a live band has grown massively, coming off this last tour. I think we’re going to be so much more comfortable expanding our live sound; the excitement levels for 2024 have really ramped up.”