Critical acclaim, start of year hype lists, big US telly performances and superstar collaborations – Holly Humberstone is ticking off all the checkpoints on her route to the top. As her new EP approaches, she’s just trying to stay true to herself.
Words: Martyn Young. Photos: Jordan Curtis Hughes, Zac Mahrouche. Stylist: Amy Holden Brown.
In many ways, the last 18 months have been terribly normal for Holly Humberstone. In other ways, however, they’ve been the most surreal experience a person could ever go through. It’s the story of a gifted and supremely talented songwriter living in blissful tranquillity amongst sleepy English fields, while the beginnings of a pop icon bubble up around her as new fans fall into her world and get lost in the dream.
“I’m living at home where I grew up, in the countryside,” begins Holly, as she tells us about her year spent primarily in Covid lockdown. Right now, things are quiet and sedate – a time of reflection and creation. “I’m really enjoying having some time with my family, and my sisters are home which is really lovely,” she says contentedly. “I’m commuting to and from London a few days a week, just doing some writing. My new EP has been finished for a long time, so I’ve just been having lots of fun doing some cool performances, and I’ve really been loving writing.”
It’s been a strange feeling to have your career take off while you’ve been stuck firmly in one place, but it all adds to the mixed up whirl of emotions that make Holly such an exciting new artist. “It’s been a weird blur,” she explains. “It’s been so bizarre. My first song, ‘Deep End’, from my first EP, came out on the last day of January 2020, and then we went into lockdown in March. The whole time I’ve had music out and properly working as a musician has been really strange. I haven’t been able to do live shows like everyone else, so I haven’t really seen any tangible proof that people are listening to my music. I haven’t been able to meet anyone who is enjoying my music. It’s all been online.”
“I dropped out and moved to London. It was so terrible. The walls were damp, there was mould inside the fridges… It was something out of a horror movie”Holly Humberstone
It’s a sign of the mixed-up times that one of the most talked-about new stars on the planet can’t even be sure if people like her music, but it’s a feeling we can all relate to. A nagging uncertainty and trepidation we’ve all experienced. That’s the thing with Holly. She knows what we’re thinking because she’s thinking it too. We’re all just trying our best to navigate life, and she’s going to do that in her own unflinchingly honest and candid way.
The last year has undoubtedly been challenging for an artist who thrives on social interaction and documenting her innermost feelings and desires on a profoundly human level. You can’t make many human connections when you’re stuck within four walls with only a blown lightbulb for inspiration. “I’d struggled during the first lockdown with being stuck inside,” she admits. “When I’m really busy, I feel like I’m overstimulated and at my most creative, and I want to write more. I found that really difficult. I wasn’t seeing my friends; I wasn’t having any inspiring experiences. I was getting real FOMO sitting at home thinking, what am I supposed to write about? I didn’t actually write anything for a few months. All of my interactions were on social media, where it’s really hard not to compare yourself with other people. Because that was my only interaction with the outside world, it was hard for me to stay grounded and work the way that I’m used to.” Fortunately, though, things are looking up. It’s hopefully time for Holly to start living her best pop star life. “Now, I’m cherishing getting to write and see my friends,” she says.
One of the most important things she is looking forward to is getting out there and playing live. She had played shows before as a complete unknown, road testing early versions of the songs that would make up last year’s ‘Falling Asleep At The Wheel EP’, but she hasn’t yet been able to experience the visceral thrill of performing in front of a packed audience. “It’s been hard to believe that all of these things I’m doing are real,” she says. I’ve been lucky enough to do some TV shows, but I’ve been doing everything from home, so it’s been hard to believe that I’ve been able to do all this cool stuff. I would never have thought I’d be able to do anything like this. It’s going to be a huge shock when I’m able to play live shows. I’ve not met a single person who hasn’t been a friend or family member who has liked my music. When I do a show, it’s going to be extremely bizarre but really amazing and validating.”
Despite her trepidation at the big steps still to be conquered, there’s a steely determination that runs through everything that Holly does. She’s intent on doing things her own way, on being absolutely true to herself. She’s not interested in following trends or perceived notions of cool. “I love really nerdy stuff,” she laughs as she tells us of her love for The Lord Of The Rings series of films and Harry Potter books. “I like to get lost in that,” she says. When you look at the rich and evocative storytelling of her songs, it all makes perfect sense.
Holly’s songs are primarily about searching within yourself – deeply human feelings and emotions. Her songs are about relationships. Family and friendships are constant touchstones, supporting others and nurturing those relationships that we hold dear. “It sounds a bit lame, but I just love hanging out with my friends. That’s the thing I value above everything else,” she explains. “When I’m not writing, my number one thing I want to be doing is seeing friends and socialising. I feel so inspired around everyone that I love.”
It’s no surprise that a loyal and fervent community has fallen in love with Holly and her songs. Never judgemental, always open-hearted and enveloping, it goes right back to her first-ever song. “When I’m going through something, I always turn to writing. It’s really special to see people relating to that,” she says thoughtfully. “It’s validating to know that a song that I wrote could be a comfort to someone. ‘Deep End’ was the first song I ever wrote. It’s about not knowing how to deal with a loved one going through a hard time – feeling all sorts of weird emotions about caring for someone but also feeling helpless. I didn’t hear any songs that were about that for me, and the thought that song could be like that for someone else is really rewarding.”
Some of Holly’s songs’ comforting and engaging qualities can perhaps be ascribed to the environment in which they were created. “I grew up with three sisters. We’re really close in age and really similar – all pretty much the same person,” says Holly of her close family relationships. “My parents were really encouraging for us to use our time creatively. We live in a huge old house that’s falling apart a bit and really quirky. It’s always been such a creative mess. We were encouraged to use the space to do art and music and stuff. They had an amazing music taste that we’ve all inherited. Music was always playing when I was growing up.”
Holly swiftly discovered that writing stories and setting them to music was her true passion. “I’ve never stopped,” she says proudly. “It’s my hobby, and it’s my form of therapy. I write about all the things that have changed in my life but writing songs is the one thing that feels like a constant. It’s my comfort zone. If I’ve had a terrible day and something horrendous has happened, I know that I can always go back and write a song about it and make something beautiful out of something horrible. It’s always been a positive thing in my life.”
Many new emerging artists have found their feet making songs online, but for Holly, her earliest days making music were a more private experience. “One of the reasons I didn’t go on YouTube was I’m quite shy,” she says. “I had lots of friends, but I kept the demos between us. It was a really personal thing, so I only wanted to share my songs with my family and friends. I didn’t want to put myself out there too much.” Instead, with the encouragement of said friends, she uploaded one of her songs to the BBC Introducing website. That provided the catalyst for a rolling wave of hype as she got to play Glastonbury and begin to realise her artistic vision.
One crucial part of that vision is the desire to always keep on making new stuff. Keep on exploring. Keep on pushing. “I never played covers,” she says as an example of that early rush of creativity. “The fun of playing music is the creation. When you’re young, and you’re just so creative, your imagination is wild and eager to create. Once you write one song, it’s like, right, what can I write about next. These things inspire you when you’re ten years old.”
At the heart of everything Holly does is the importance of the songs. Holly makes deep, evocative music on an emotionally resonant level. She also does it in a hugely fun and engaging way. It’s a rare talent. “Writing makes me the happiest,” she says. “It’s my way of working through all my feelings. When I write a song, there’s a sense of satisfaction that I can’t really get from anything else. I’m massively ambitious and would love to travel the world on a global tour selling out venues, but my number one ambition is to just keep on making music that I love. If I can keep on doing that, then I’m all set. I make music for other people to enjoy, but I think the main reason people connect to it and I love doing it is because I’m writing for myself. That’s something I hope I’ll never lose.”
Being truthful is a theme Holly regularly comes back to. She may only be 21, but she knows that being honest with yourself and, more importantly, your fans, is the key to a successful career. People can spot bullshit a mile off. With Holly, everything you see or hear is intensely real. “I think the reason people can relate to the songs is that I’m writing about pretty universal situations,” she ponders. “I’m in a weird, confusing stage of my life where I’m in between being a teenager and living at home and moving away from my parents. A lot of people know how that is and remember those feelings. They might be going through that now. If I’m writing about something I don’t believe in, then I’m just going to scrap it. I have to feel like I’ve poured my heart and soul into the song and been really vulnerable. Otherwise, it’s just shit, and people can’t relate to it.”
The songs Holly creates are little vignettes filled with heart-stopping lines, striking turns of phrase or piercing emotional twists. There’s a cinematic quality to the way she crafts stories that weave and thread their way through both the songs and their accompanying visuals. There’s no formula or plan, though. It’s mostly the result of a little bit of pop magic that can appear at any time. Think of it like the genie in Aladdin popping up with a moment of striking inspiration. “It always comes in a different way,” explains Holly. “There’s no specific mood or environment that I have to be in. Sometimes I’ll be on the train and inspired by something I’ve seen out the window, or I’ll be walking around and see interesting little phrases or words, and a whole song will come from that. ‘Falling Asleep At The Wheel’ just came from a random phrase that I had written on my phone. Sometimes it comes straight from the song title and works backwards, and I’m relating the title to what I’m going through. I really enjoy either being in the studio or in my house, sitting down at the piano and writing down how I feel. I’ll come up with a cool riff, or I’ll have a jam in the studio.”
If there’s any creative principle that Holly sticks to, it’s the importance of lucidity and focus. It’s most apparent in the imagery that she creates herself to complement the music. See, for example, the stunning one-shot 14-minute short film ‘On The Run’ from last year that ripples with intensity. “A lot of the time, I do have a visual in mind while I’m writing,” says Holly about her all-encompassing creative approach. “I think about how I want the song to look. When I listen to songs, I build a picture in my mind. The most important thing is just to be as vulnerable as I can, be my own authentic self in everything that I do and all the aspects of the visuals. Keeping it simple really makes a difference. Less is more. It’s important not to overcomplicate things and keep it pretty basic.”
“It’s mad I managed to pin down Matty; it was such a fun day”Holly Humberstone
On her forthcoming as-yet-untitled EP, Holly strikes the perfect combination of emotional pop and expansive songwriting. At its centre is perhaps the most important song of her career so far. “’The Walls Are Way Too Thin’ is a really important song for me,” reveals Holly. “It’s a banger and really fun to listen to, but I was feeling really, really sad at the time that I wrote that song about. I wrote it when I moved away from my parents. I had just done a year away at university a bit further north, and I didn’t really like it. I didn’t make any friends. I was put in a random house. I had loads of friends at school, but when I moved away from home, I was away from my sisters and my family and everything I knew. I just became really introverted and didn’t leave my room. I dropped out because it wasn’t for me and moved to London for a year. I remember the first day was completely mad and hilarious. I literally did not know anyone in London apart from my manager. I didn’t know where I was going to live, who I was living with and just rocking up with an overnight bag. It was so terrible. The walls were so damp, there was mould inside the fridges. There were filthy mattresses. It was something out of a horror movie. I felt like everything was really odd, and everything I knew to be normal was changing.”
“I would go out to work but the rest of the time, just shut myself in my room,” she continues. “There would be really fun stuff going on in the rest of the house, but I just felt really down. I felt lost. I didn’t understand who I was anymore. I was unsure of my place. I had a little quarter-life identity crisis. It was one of those classic situations a lot of people have when they’re moving to the city for the first time. It’s a bit awkward with everyone living on top of each other. There’s no privacy, and you can’t fully relax. You’re always trying to avoid people and make awkward conversations.”
The EP marks a significant step up for Holly. Again working with her close collaborator, Rob Milton – best known for his work with Easy Life and a whole host of exciting people like Maisie Peters and Rose Gray, amongst others – the pair honed Holly’s songs with a broader sonic palette and sharp clarity. Rob is really important to Holly’s story, a person she clearly holds dear. “The key to working with someone is that you can trust them. The things I’m writing about are so personal. If you can’t be fully comfortable or honest with someone, then you’ve got no hope,” she says. It also helps that they had something of a prior acquaintance. Sort of. “He was the lead singer of Dog Is Dead and, because I went to a school in Nottingham, Dog is Dead were the local band. Everyone would go to the shows,” she explains before laughing, “They were iconic in Nottingham!”
Another iconic figure Holly got to work with on this EP was a certain Matthew Healy – an experience that was slightly surreal but hugely rewarding for Holly. “I’m not sure how it happened,” she laughs. “I love The 1975. They’re one of the bands that I reference the most when I’m writing. It’s crazy that I’ve been able to meet him. I think he really liked what I was making and took me under his wing for a bit. Matty was one of the people I wouldn’t normally have been able to work with in non-coronavirus times. He would be off touring the world or living his rock star life. Because they’re just sitting at home, these people are willing to take time out of their own projects. It’s mad I managed to pin down Matty. It was such a fun day, and we wrote [new EP track] ‘Please Don’t Leave Yet’ really naturally. We were just jamming. Matty was being a genius on the piano, and it just came out of nowhere. It’s a really special song for me.”
Note that Holly says “one of the people” there as she teases that there may be other exciting names that she has worked with. “I’ve been doing all sorts of collabs with other people, but I’ve been doing stuff with Matty that maybe will lead to more stuff.” Exciting times ahead, then.
The future is an interesting concept for Holly. “I don’t think about the future too much because it’s scary,” she laughs. “Maybe an album will come next, but that’s really scary as it seems like a massive commitment. I’m a massive perfectionist, so it’s going to take me a while to get that right,” she explains.
That’s ok, though. Instead, we get to experience Holly building her own idiosyncratic universe bit by bit, playfully dropping little nuggets of references to forthcoming songs or call-backs to the past. Holly is super smart, and it’s this attention to detail that sets her out from the rest. “It’s so much fun building a storyline between the videos and leaving little easter eggs, snippets of the next track in the video,” she says excitedly.” I love reading the comments and seeing if people have figured it out. The story is almost as important as the music for me. I need to know what an artist is about to buy into them. I need to understand their world. Storytelling is so so important.”
If any phrase defined Holly Humberstone right now, that would be it. An auteur for a new generation, her story is set to run and run.
Taken from the June 2021 edition of Dork, out now. Holly Humberstone’s new EP is coming soon.