Holly Humberstone explores growing up in AltPress issue #402 cover story
Whenever she’s asked to describe her sound, Holly Humberstone is never sure quite how to answer. In all truth, she doesn’t think about it in great detail. “I just make the music that I’m into at the time,” she reasons. “I’m generally just trying not to overthink it.”
Those of us who devoutly listen to music often rush to pin down a description of what we’re hearing into just a few words. It’s part of how we determine whether a certain album or artist is worth investing our time into or not, or if they can be welcomed under the banner of “alternative” or not. What gets ignored in the process, however, is what the artist stands for, and what they have to say. It’s the most striking feature of Humberstone’s music, and the thing that is most important for her in ways beyond her artistry.
“Quite a lot of the time, I’m just writing for myself. It’s just really important that I go into the studio and write,” she explains. “I’m a chaotic person. Going into the studio is my way of clearing my head and sorting out everything that’s going on mentally. It’s my way of self-preservation. I think there’s nothing more therapeutic than going into the studio with something [on your mind] that’s negative, that’s weighing you down, and turning [it] into something positive, and then I leave the studio with a song that I love the sound of.”
[Photo by Paul Harries][/caption]Humberstone burst through in the middle of a stagnant quarantine summer with her wistful, introspective debut EP, Falling Asleep At The Wheel. It finds the 22-year-old exploring the intense, raw aspects of relationships that fall through the cracks in the usual gleeful, romanticized stories about coming of age. “Deep End,” for one, sees Humberstone grappling with worry over her sister’s mental health issues, reaching out and offering her help even if she’s not entirely sure what sort of “help” she needs. Other tracks tease out the complex spectrum of feelings that falling in love can induce, from the self-conscious anxiety of having a crush (“Overkill”) to the emotional crash land of a relationship crumbling when it becomes apparent that the other partner is behaving in a toxic manner (“Vanilla,” “Drop Dead”).
The EP’s roots sprang from Humberstone sitting and writing in her childhood home, an old cottage in the countryside of Grantham, Lincolnshire, a town in the East Midlands area of England. “I’d sort of written it about experiences I’d had there, and all the videos were filmed around there,” she comments. “That project really felt like it came from that house, and it felt very specific to that period of my life when I was living there.” Some time after, her family was forced to leave after it became structurally unsafe for them to live in.
It’s in this mournful state of mind that we rejoin Humberstone in the opening of her recent second EP, The Walls Are Way Too Thin. The intimate piano ballad “Haunted House” documents the experience, her voice wavering, as if she’s cold, as she considers her loosening grip upon her past and, most significantly, upon her childhood. It’s followed by the title track, a reckoning with the claustrophobia of the boxy shared house she moved into in London after moving out of Lincolnshire.
Going into the studio is my way of clearing my head. It’s my way of self-preservation
— HOLLY HUMBERSTONE
“I didn’t really plan it, which was a big mistake,” she recalls. “I was living with strangers in this tiny little flat that I’d literally found in a Facebook group or something. It was awful. London [was] really lonely, and it’s such a chaotic place. I became introverted, and all I wanted to do was shut my door and just stay within the four walls of my bedroom — I found that I was relying on my friends or my boyfriend at the time when they came to visit. I was relying on other people so heavily for my own happiness — I felt like I’d lost myself, and I didn’t really feel like a whole person.”
Growing up is a fast, inescapable process. It's one that can feel frightening as you enter adulthood and attempt to build your own life away from the people, and often the place, you’d spent your whole life with. Humberstone already looks back at this EP from a whole other place, despite it only coming out in November 2021. “A lot of those songs, listening back, sound intensely pathetic to me now,” she says. “They’re needy songs. I love them, but it’s just how I was feeling at the time.”
Ultimately, for her own sanity, they needed to be made. “Going into the studio was the only constant I had, and it was my one little safe space. It felt like the only thing I could really control when everything else felt like it was spiraling a bit. I didn’t really know how to deal with it. That’s why the writing and the music was so important.”
[Photo by Paul Harries][/caption]
[Photo by Paul Harries][/caption]Holly Humberstone might be thinking out loud when she writes, but now, a hell of a lot of people are listening. Just a week before she meets Alternative Press, Humberstone followed in the footsteps of Adele, Sam Fender and Florence And The Machine by being crowned the BRIT Awards’ “Rising Star” for 2022. Thanks to the timing of her first surge of success, however, it all felt intangible. Coming to terms with being adored in the way musicians are is difficult enough to handle on its own. Yet for Humberstone, the distance between her and fans amplified the amount she had to process.
“[Until the summer], I’d never really experienced what a ‘normal’ career would be like,” she explains. “I’d never met anyone or had any physical proof that actual people were listening to my music. The only people I’d met that listened to my music were my family.” The closest thing that she got to such tangible evidence of her music’s resonance were messages online from strangers who had lived experience of the situations she was writing about, and who found comfort in her words. The comfort of finding others who knew how a certain situation feels was reciprocal for her.
“In a lot of my songs, I’m sharing a lot of myself, a lot of thoughts I wouldn’t necessarily share in conversation,” she considers. “I don’t really think about strangers listening to it until the night before it’s being released, and then I have a little bit of a stress. But I think it’s empowering. I’m writing about universal stuff that everyone’s going through. I’m not going through anything particularly unique — I’m just saying it as it is. I think a lot of people can relate. There’s something nice about finding comfort in a stranger [who’s] going through something similar to you. It makes me feel like I’m not alone and what I’m going through is OK.”
[Photo by Paul Harries][/caption]
There’s something nice about finding comfort in a stranger [who’s] going through something similar to you. It makes me feel like I’m not alone
— HOLLY HUMBERSTONE
Eventually, however, she did get to see IRL proof of her music’s resonance with people. With the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions in the U.K. happening this past summer, Humberstone’s first shows back were at festivals. In a baptism of fire, she stood before gargantuan crowds far larger than the size she’d be expected to play in front of at this point in her career, overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who had shown up for her, singing her own words back at her at a colossal volume. Best of all, the return of live music, both in the form of festivals and her own headline tour in the fall, has been a reservoir of inspiration for her.
Humberstone’s success, however, has not been confined within the borders of the United Kingdom. The U.S. has embraced her just as openly, with her first-ever U.S. headline tour taking in iconic venues such as New York City’s Bowery Ballroom and The Roxy in Los Angeles. Both of these sold out in under three minutes, leading her to add an extra night at each to her tour schedule. She was also invited to perform on The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and at the Austin City Limits festival. All the while having no album to her name.
For Humberstone, being able to scratch the surface of America was always the pinnacle, something she had held in her mind as a sign that she’d truly made it. Just being able to tour there would have been enough, but in reality, she’s been gifted with more than she could have ever imagined doing. She’s still in disbelief: “It just seems very bizarre to me that somebody on the other side of the world, who I’ve got nothing in common with, can connect to my music. I think that’s so powerful. [It speaks for] the power of lyrics. It’s cool that I can have such an intimate connection through a song with somebody I’ve never met, [who] might be a total stranger who’s completely different to me.”
[Photo by Paul Harries][/caption]Humberstone is set to return to the U.S. this year, supporting Olivia Rodrigo on her first major U.S. tour in support of her recent smash-hit debut, SOUR. There are plenty of comparisons that can be drawn between the ascent of these two young women, from their explorations of the sort of devastatingly intense feelings that characterize growing up to the minimalistic, intimate approaches they take to their music. Rodrigo also announced her arrival onto the scene during quarantine, with her breakthrough hit “drivers license” clinging to the top spot in the charts during a despondent winter where COVID-19 restrictions were once again tightened. Her name is frequently mentioned in the context of Humberstone’s career, too, with Rodrigo fans looking to discover new artists often pointed in the direction of Humberstone.
For Humberstone, such comparisons are a huge compliment. “She’s an amazing songwriter. I’m such a fan of hers,” she enthuses. The two met briefly during Humberstone’s first trip to America, having messaged each other on and off during quarantine before Rodrigo personally invited Humberstone to support her on tour across America. “She’s somebody who’s inspired by a lot of music. She just wants to support other female artists who are doing a similar thing. I feel so honored. I can’t wait to watch her every night of tour.”
Indeed, Humberstone identifies a network of emerging young songwriters to which both she and Rodrigo are part, who have connected with other artists who are currently dominating conversations around music. There’s a strong argument to be made, after all, that the COVID era has been the area of the introspective songwriter, from Fiona Apple speaking to the desire to break free with Fetch The Bolt Cutters at the start of the pandemic to Phoebe Bridgers digging into the heart of depression on Punisher.
[AP #402.2][/caption]These women have nudged guitar music back into the mainstream, too, as Humberstone is also doing, usually seen with a six-string in her arms when onstage. She particularly resonates with those who share her experience of exiting lockdown more famous than she was when she entered it. “It’s been a weird time, and it’s been a bit of a niche experience that we’ve had. I think only we understand what it’s been like going through it. It’s nice to know that I have other inspiring females [around me] that have been through a similar thing. I’m really grateful that they’re championing my music.”
There’s no rest for the wicked, and there’s no rest for rising stars either. After finishing her touring for 2021, Humberstone recently began work on her debut album, which she estimates will be out in late 2022 or perhaps early 2023. While she’s enjoying the process, the joy of being in the studio comes with slight trepidation.
“It’s a bit of a terrifying concept for me,” she says of the idea of making a debut album. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I’m probably never going to feel like it’s done. I have a lot of songs that I really love and I’m excited about, but at some point, I’m just going to have to stop writing and say, ‘OK, that’s it.’ To finish a debut album feels very final. It has to be perfect. The thought that one day it’ll be out and I can’t touch it and mess with it anymore is scary for me.”
Given her journey to date, Holly Humberstone needn’t worry.
This interview first appeared in issue #402 (22 for ’22), available here.