HOLLY HUMBERSTONE INTERVIEWED: “There’s no mystery in my music – It’s just me.”

The rising British pop star on being brutally honest and using music as therapy.

Holly Humberstone by Emma Ishøy
Photo by Emma Ishøy

Holly Humberstone can’t remember exactly when she started writing music, but she was quite young and in primary school. She would come home, sit by the piano, and work through everything that was confusing her. It was her comfort zone and her therapeutic space where she could take all of her worries and troubles to. Music has stayed the same for her, but some things have changed. Instead of just keeping the music to herself, she started sharing it with other people about a year ago. Now, more than 2 million fans listen to her stories and melodies on a monthly basis.

Holly Humberstone released her second EP, The Walls Are Way Too Thin, on November 12th, and the tracks have already racked up millions of streams. I met with her just a few weeks prior to the release when she was in Copenhagen for the first time to play an intimate show for a few of her most hardcore local fans and some industry reps on the lookout for the next big thing.

Adapting to a “new normal” is something we’ve all had to do since the virus outbreak. For Holly Humberstone that also meant creating her own new normal of what a musical career can look like. 

Her first song came out just a few weeks before lockdown in the UK, so she built up a fan base at a distance, skipped playing tiny shows for no people in smelly venues, and went straight into selling out legendary concert halls like London’s OMEARA, New York’s The Bowery Ballroom and Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles.

– It’s just so weird to come into a room full of people that are rooting for you! Over the past year and a half, I’ve just been judging myself on statistics and the comments I was getting and it’s been really hard to gage that there are actually literally physical people that are connecting with me and are going through similar stuff to me and listening to my songs. It’s been so sick to play shows and see people turn up. I’m still floating and trying to make sense of it all, she says, still overwhelmed. 

Right now, Holly Humberstone is one of the most talked about new artists in the UK and beyond. She’s number 2 at BBC’s prestigious Sound of 2021-list, one of Apple’s Up Next artists, has played live at Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and James Cordon, and has gained support from artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Camila Cabello, FINNEAS, Dermot Kennedy, and Demi Lovato (to name a few).

To say that things are working out alright for Holly Humberstone is an understatement of dimensions. 

No Filter

One thing that keeps reappearing in the endless praise of Holly Humberstone is the word “honesty”. It’s at the core of every musical step she takes.

– The moment I try to write something that isn’t natural to me, or if I was trying to be too commercial and write like “a banger chorus” it would be sh*t! It just wouldn’t be good! She says and starts laughing. 

We’re back at the whole ‘music as therapy’-thing that Humberstone discovered back in primary school. To her, music is a way of dealing with life and changes and stuff that she’s going through. And that’s probably the reason why people can connect to her music in the way they do. At least, that’s what makes Holly Humberstone connect to other artist’s music. 

 I try not to filter what I’m saying and filter myself. I connect to music that I feel genuinely means something to the artist. A genuine truthful story or genuine stuff that they’re going through. That’s the type of music I listen to for comfort or something to connect to. 

There are different themes running through Humberstone’s storytelling. On her 2020 debut-EP, Falling Asleep At The Wheel, you found the tear wrenching “Deep End” written for her younger sister that was struggling with her mental health, and the relatable “Overkill” about falling for someone and not daring to tell them because of the fear of rejection.

Her new EP is even more introspective, she tells me, and the thematic diversity continues on The Walls Are Way Too Thin.

“Haunted House” sees Humberstone dealing with all the emotions surrounding having to leave her childhood home while “Scarlett” reflects her experiences witnessing her best friend in a break-up from a toxic relationship.

Although artists always seem so very different from “the rest of us”, the root to Holly Humberstone’s success appears to be the fact that she isn’t. 

– I guess I’m not really going through anything particularly unique with stuff in my personal life. I’m just trying to figure out things as I go along. Trying to figure out being an adult, whatever that means, she laughs.

Offloading and oversharing

For someone like me, who’s not used to sharing my inner self with the rest of the world, releasing songs about your own failed relationships, your sister’s depression or your best friend’s breakup seems like such a brave thing to do.

To Humberstone, it’s a bit different. 

I don’t really think about it until the week it has to come out and I realize that I’ve really overshared again and I’m really exposing myself. I’m not leaving much for the imagination. There’s no mystery in my music. It’s just me. I don’t really filter it. But I think it’s so cool and there’s something really empowering about it. 

Holly Humberstone’s will to share is sort of fuelled by positivity. Writing the songs was always the best part for her, but for a long time she would mainly keep the songs to herself, until her friends encouraged her to put it online. She realised that the more positive feedback she got, the more she wanted to share. 

Obviously getting a reaction from somebody saying: “I connect to this” or: “I had a similar experience with my sister or my best friend” or: “a relationship I was going through has just ended and I feel the way that you feel in this song” is just so encouraging to hear and it just makes me wanna write more, expose myself more and give more of myself to the music. 

Holly Humberstone by Emma Ishøy

The feeling after I’ve written a song and feel like I’ve offloaded a lot of stuff or worked through some stuff is just the best feeling ever. Especially if it’s about something that’s been weighing me down or stressing me out.

The musical process has kind of become full circle: Humberstone’s music is therapy for her fans, and writing the music for her fans is therapy for Humberstone. 

Going into the studio is so important for my mental health, she tells me and continues: The feeling after I’ve written a song and feel like I’ve offloaded a lot of stuff or worked through some stuff is just the best feeling ever. Especially if it’s about something that’s been weighing me down or stressing me out. I’m a very chaotic person, haha! So I have to go in and just write.

Young female artists bring the real stuff

When talking about honesty, Holly Humberstone doesn’t see herself as a first mover. In fact, she celebrates what she calls “a trend at the moment” with young, especially female artists who’re being brutally honest with their work. Artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Julia Jacklin and Lorde. Artists that she looks up to, who keeps her inspired and in love with music. 

– I think a lot of people are oversharing and I think it’s such a good thing. People are just talking about how they feel now. 

It’s a thing that’s happened even more during the pandemic, she reflects: 

– Talking about mental health or feeling really bad isn’t as taboo and it shouldn’t be cause we’re literally going through a global pandemic. We need to talk about it! Lots of inspirational young female artists have come up through the pandemic and the past few years and it’s been really inspiring me. 

Although Humberstone has known that music can be therapeutic since she sat by the piano in her childhood home, the pandemic has amplified the power of music. 

– I’ve needed real stuff to really connect to, cause I haven’t had any other personal connection. Having music as something really personal that somebody’s made has been my only form of human connection or my only form of connection with a stranger or anyone from the outside world that isn’t my mom, dad or sisters, she reflects. 

– So maybe people have relied on music more. I definitely have. 

Holly Humberstone’s new EP The Walls Are Way Too Thin is out everywhere

All photos by Emma Ishøy

Holly Humberstone by Emma Ishøy

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