Just like a lot of the musicians that have started to make waves in the industry recently, Holly Humberstone first caught people's attention during the coronavirus pandemic. Her vulnerable yet empowering songs resonated with millions around the world and quickly propelled her to where she is today.
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Words: Fabio Magnocavallo
Just like a lot of the musicians that have started to make waves in the industry recently, Holly Humberstone first caught people's attention during the coronavirus pandemic. Her vulnerable yet empowering songs resonated with millions around the world and quickly propelled her to where she is today. Less than two years after debuting her first single, the 22-year-old from Grantham, Lincolnshire, was honored with a huge accolade -- the Rising Star award at this year's BRIT Awards, previously presented to Adele, Florence and The Machine, and Jorja Smith.
“I was gassed to be nominated in the first place because I wasn't expecting to be,” Humberstone tells MOOD after being congratulated on her win. It was Sam Fender who broke the exciting news to her. Soon after the pair teamed up to record an acoustic version of Fender’s song Seventeen Going Under, a surprise announcement was filmed in advance. “I had to keep it a secret which I'm not very good at because I've got a big mouth. I know that Sam had won it two years ago and I remember watching the BRITs at home with my mom, watching him win that award. So, it's a cool full-circle pinching-myself moment.”
“Me and my sisters live together, and we're trying to figure out where we should put it. We're debating on putting it somewhere really stupid like on top of the toilet or somewhere really funny,” Humberstone jokes, adding, “Who knows, I probably won't do that. I'll probably have it on display somewhere.”
The BRIT Awards are just weeks away and Humberstone has been asked to perform on the big night to a crowd of 20,000 people at London’s iconic O2 Arena and millions of others watching at home. “It's going to be my first award show. I'm going to have to be sociable which I'm not very good at, I'm very awkward socially,” Humberstone says. “Red carpets seem a little silly to me. I feel it's very serious and I don't take myself that seriously to kind of pose and be all sultry on the red carpet.”
Even though Humberstone’s rise to becoming an award-winning star has been a quick turnaround, that doesn't mean the journey has been all fun and games.
Humberstone inherited her admiration for music from her parents. Unlike most kids, she recalls spending a lot of time with her three sisters, who Humberstone says are all identical in personalities, and not being too bothered about watching TV. Instead of being drawn to MTV or Disney Channel, she would rummage through her parents’ CD collection, pick out her favorites, and make up dance routines while listening to them in her bedroom. “I grew up in a very creative household. My parents have an amazing music taste and were always encouraging my sisters and me to spend our time doing music or something art-related. It sounds really pushy but they weren't. We never had a TV really. There were just four of us girls who played together and basically trashed the house and did fun stuff,” she explains. “My mom played the piano, and I used to love coming home from school and playing on her piano. I'm not a very technical person so I found it hard to read the music, but I knew what sounded nice.”
Spending her adolescent years in the small town of Grantham resulted in Humberstone believing being a musician wasn’t a “legit job.” In addition to having no one to look up to musically, her secondary school also wasn’t supportive of her desire to be a singer. “The school I went to made it seem like you had to be a doctor or a lawyer, you have to be good at maths and go to uni if you want to make a dime. Nobody at school took me seriously,” Humberstone says. “There were two people in my music GCSE class and the teacher was shit and didn't care. I had to figure it all out myself."
Humberstone would follow in the footsteps of her friends and sisters by going to uni after she got her A-levels. “I saw all my friends applying for uni in the last few years of school and I thought I might as well apply to see if I would get accepted,” she says, adding, “I'd seen my two older sisters go to uni and have a fun time, make loads of friends, and go to wild parties, and thought I wanted that.” Humberstone attended the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, founded by Paul McCartney, to study music. “I remember having to have meetings in school because they were worried about me doing music because they didn't take it seriously,” she shares. However, after a year, she decided to drop out and leave the city for good. “I wasn't there a lot of the time because I was in London writing doing sessions. So, a couple days a week I would be away. I didn't make many friends. I think moving away from home turned me into a shy person,” Humberstone explains. “I didn't see the point in being there anymore because it wasn't making me happy or doing anything for my career.”
She continues: “I moved down to London and it was kinda similar for a year. It was even weirder because I had less structure. I grew up in the countryside and it was a huge, drastic change I wasn't ready for. I didn't have anyone but the people I would write with. I remember feeling shitty at the stage. Going into the studio to write was the constant thing I had that I could vent all of these feelings.”
Despite remembering the uncertainty and lonely emotions felt during that period, Humberstone is now able to look back with a positive mindset. “I appreciate all those times now because they were the best times as well as the worst because I learned how to appreciate seeing my friends and having my boyfriend come stay with me. I feel really grateful for it because I think it was good fuel for a lot of great songs that have come out,” she says.
Storytelling and songwriting were what Humberstone was always destined to do as she started writing songs before she reached the age of double figures. “I'm sure they were really rubbish,” she mentions. “I used to perform in assemblies and I'd do little concerts for my parents at home. I'm really lucky to have had really supportive parents.” However, she didn’t start to take songwriting seriously until she played her material to her friends who assured her she had the talent to take it further. “I'd record these really rubbish recordings on my dad's laptop on GarageBand. Listening back now, they were really, really trash. They were awful,” Humberstone insists.
Interestingly, a friend's dad ultimately helped Humberstone get noticed as he suggested she should upload her material to the BBC Introducing website. “I would share these rubbish new-recorded songs to their site and I ended up getting loads of support in the regional centers,” she explains. From there, Humberstone managed to get played on BBC Radio 1 in the early hours of the morning, got discovered, and found her team. “It kind of just became my job. I was OK at school but there was nothing else I was interested in except music. I'd be excited to get home so I could play the piano and write. I'm very lucky to be doing this because I don't know what else I'd be doing.”
Before officially releasing a song, Humberstone secured herself a slot on the BBC Introducing Stage at the legendary Glastonbury Festival in the summer of 2019. “I was really lucky. I think I was first on and it was the best day ever,” she states, adding, “I went with my dad and sister. I played my set at midday and I was like, 'Great, I'm at Glastonbury for the first time.' Through that, I managed to get the support tour with Lewis Capaldi because I think he'd seen my set. It's a series of good luck for me.”
Her early days in the studio weren't the easiest for the then-teenager. Humberstone struggled to connect and express her feelings with “random strangers” as the whole process was all so new to her. “I was 17, 18, 19, and I felt like I was meeting with another 30/40-year-old dude every day. I had nothing in common with these people. It was a really bizarre experience writing something really personal with someone I hadn't ever met before,” she says. It wouldn’t be until she started working with Dog Is Dead frontman Rob Milton that she found her confidence and the direction she had been struggling to find. “We wrote Falling Asleep At The Wheel together, and it was a lightbulb moment of this is what I want my music to sound like,” she recalls. “It was strange because I had the opening verse for that song for ages, and I had taken it to different sessions but nobody really clicked with it.”
Initially, Humberstone felt that launching her career with Falling Asleep At The Wheel, the EP title track, would have been the most obvious choice because it was the “first song I wrote that I loved and was excited about.” However, after writing Deep End during another studio session with Milton and Benjamin Francis Leftwich, she soon changed her mind due to the strong message behind it. “Everyone knows someone who is struggling with some sort of mental illness, and I saw that in a lot of my friends and my sisters. It's really frustrating to see someone going through something really hard and you can't do anything to help. I find conversations and talking about feelings really hard because it's awkward and still taboo, even though it shouldn't be because we're all going through the same shit. I decided it would be better to put it in a song,” Humberstone explains. “It felt like the most I'd ever put of myself in one of my songs because it's so personal. I think that's why it had to come first and be the introduction to my music. I put so much into it, it's so vulnerable. It's still one of my favorites because of that.”
Deep End dropped in January 2020, before anyone knew a global pandemic was on the horizon. In order to keep the momentum going, Humberstone took the risk and put out her debut EP, Falling Asleep At The Wheel, months later, at the height of nobody knowing what the future held for everyone. With so much doubt in the world, Humberstone believes the 6-track project benefited from listeners being in lockdown as that helped people to find comfort in the raw emotion she was expressing. “It's been really surreal,” she says about taking off during a pandemic. “I feel incredibly lucky I've been able to keep my career ticking on during a pandemic. In some ways, I think it's kind of helped me in a weird way, especially when everyone is in a pandemic and feeling shitty and stuck inside where there is no other human connection outside of music.”
During the on-and-off lockdowns in the UK, the only way Humberstone could initially see how she was progressing was by scrolling through social media comments and constantly watching her streaming statistics increase. “It's cool but it didn't compute in my head, it didn't mean anything to me because I hadn't seen any of these people,” she explains. As a result, she reminisces about the first time she got recognized at the local pub where she now currently lives. “We went there for the first time it opened and I remember sitting there and three different people came up to me and told me they loved my music. I was like, 'Sorry, what?!' all confused, wondering who these people were. It was so nice.” Humberstone continues: “The weirdest time has been last year, coming out of lockdown in the summer. Suddenly playing festivals and to crowds of people where people knew the words was super strange. I've been so busy and chaotic, but in the best way.”
Humberstone, obviously, isn’t the only rising star to emerge from the pandemic. There’s a whole bunch of young talent – Baby Queen, Dylan Fraser, and Griff – who have been in the same boat as her who have shared very similar journeys that others may not be able to relate to. Once the world opened up a little, she finally bonded with a number of them and made friends with her peers. “This past summer I got to meet a load of the other people who had been releasing music for the first time during the pandemic. We got to meet each other at the festivals which was nice because they know what it's like better than anyone else.”
Humberstone’s latest project, The Walls Are Way Too Thin, came out in November last year and served as her second EP. When questioned how her debut differs from her sophomore, she reveals she tries not to look back at her previous work and compare as she is all about being an evolving artist. “I am constantly changing as a person, so my music will too,” Humberstone insists. “I think for the first EP, I was writing so much and trying to pinpoint the sound I wanted to make and the universe I wanted to exist in with my music.”
After establishing herself with Falling Asleep At The Wheel, Humberstone insists she was able to go “crazy and experiment” with the sonics. “I remember listening to a lot of '80s music, lots of Fleetwood Mac and Prince, and having loads of fun,” Humberstone says. “Realizing that people were connecting with my lyrics helped me do what I want as long as the lyrics are vulnerable. The more pressure I put on myself to create Falling Asleep At The Wheel again would just be shit, I've already done that.”
One of Humberstone’s favorite songs, Scarlett, was inspired by her best friend’s crappy relationship with her boyfriend of three years and has become a treasured number among fans too. “She put all of her hopes and dreams into this guy. I feel really bad because I've really ripped into him now in a lot of interviews, but he was not good enough for her,” she admits. “The way he was breaking up with her seemed really cruel and he was not giving her any closure but backing away slowly, airing her out a little bit.” Humberstone did not inform her friend about the song until it was complete. Fortunately, she loved it and has been on board ever since, appearing in the music video. “There's something really nice about turning heartbreak into something that sounds really fun, optimistic, and empowering. It's a bit of a fuck you to the guy. I do feel a bit bad for him now that I've slandered his name, but oh well, what are you going to do?” she says while feeling slightly guilty.
Rob Milton has continued to work closely with Humberstone since their first studio session and can be found in most of the credits of her songs, whether under songwriter or producer. For The Walls Are Way Too Thin’s third track, Please Don’t Leave Just Yet, the duo teamed up with The 1975’s Matty Healy to create something that is an obvious ode to the talented frontman. “I think he's just a cool guy who loves making music and is just down to support new artists and work with them,” Humberstone explains. “I think it takes a certain type of person to make you feel really comfortable. Even if it's a shit idea, they shouldn't make you feel embarrassed and let you say how you really feel. He's just as amazing as you'd expect in the studio. We came away from it with a song I really love about not wanting to leave my room in London and being alone.” For those anticipating more of Healy’s input in her songs, that might just happen in the near future. “We may or may not have done more stuff. Who knows, who knows,” she teases.
Listeners will be happy to hear that Humberstone’s highly-anticipated debut studio album is on its way. In fact, she’s had enough material for some to put one out for some time now. “I'm a huge perfectionist and I want to constantly beat the songs I've already got,” Humberstone mentions, adding, “I think because I've had the last few months to write and I've got some time this year when I'm not touring. I love touring but the whole reason I'm doing this is so I can write songs, it's my favorite thing.” Humberstone hasn't been given a deadline to hand in her album, but envisions it to come out at the end of the year or at the beginning of the next. “At some point, someone's going to have to stop me and tell me to stop writing,” she says. “I think one of the main things I have established really well is that I can't deal with pressure and my team understands that. I basically want space so that I can finish my album in my time and make it as good as I can.”
Humberstone continues: “The EPs have worked really well and I'm really proud of them because I didn't think too much about them and put them out. They felt good because they felt like a time capsule. I recorded the songs in the sessions I wrote them in and didn't change much with the actual tracks that came out. Most of them were the first vocal take that I did when I was writing the song. I want to keep it like and not over-process the songs because there is definitely is a danger of me not thinking they're perfect enough. But, I think that's what makes it perfect and relatable and human.”
London Is Lonely became Humberstone’s first single release of 2022 and is a track she’s kept quite close to her for two years. “I knew it was going to go on the album when I wrote it. It felt really special to be writing it on my own on my childhood piano where I used to write songs,” she explains. ”A lot of the time I'm not feeling creative at all, and I have to force myself to be 90 percent of the time because I have fuck all going on in my personal life. That one needed to come out, it kind of wrote itself. It felt really special as if it was my little secret.”
“I felt it was really important to release it now because it's winter and everyone is depressed here in London. It's not a nice place to be at the moment,” Humberstone continues. “I still have such a weird relationship with London because when I'm away, I really appreciate it and wanna come back but when I'm here I question why anyone would want to. The only reason I do is because of music. Sometimes I love it, but it's so huge to feel like I'm really part of some community.”
Keeping the ball rolling, Humberstone treated listeners with a stripped-back cover of her favorite Prince song, I Would Die 4 U, which was soon after followed up with her most recent single, Sleep Tight. “It’s awkward trying to navigate catching feelings for a friend, as they are often feelings we might have been suppressing for some time. When they float to the surface, you have to weigh up the risks of getting hurt and potentially losing them in your life,” she says about the song. “I wrote ‘Sleep Tight’ about the uncertainty of friendships evolving into something more. The first summer out of lockdown was pretty crazy for my friends and I because we finally had our freedom back and acted like we had nothing to lose. This song takes me back to that time of what felt like no consequences and impending heartbreak."
Last year allowed Humberstone to tour America for the first time, which was always one of her childhood dreams. “This sounds so cringe and cheesy but as a small girl, I wanted to sing and go to America. I always had in the back of my head that if I get to fly to America and play a show there I had kind of made it,” she says. With a career that continues to re-peak, she played Coachella and hit the road as Olivia Rodrigo’s support act for her Sour tour shortly thereafter. In the upcoming months, she will embark on her largest tour to date across the UK and as well as return to the States.
With everything going to plan, 2022 is becoming a defining year for Humberstone. While admitting the BRIT Award win has added pressure for her to succeed, she notes that it’s not a bad thing. “The only pressure I really feel is the pressure I'm putting on myself. I'm so driven, and I wanna go so much further with my music. I'm very aware that I've got to write the songs and deliver. I go through periods where I feel a lot of pressure to write and deliver really personal songs,” Humberstone says. “To be honest, more than anything, it's encouraging, affirming, and reassuring that my music does connect with people and remain authentic.”
Humberstone concludes: “I just hope in five years I can write things that I genuinely connect to and not just try to get something commercially sellable. I hope I can ignore all of that.”