Holly Humberstone: „I have no idea what ’normal‘ feels like“

„Sorry, I feel like I’m rambling at you,“ Holly Humberstone laughs at some point during our conversation. It’s not completely down to her that she gets to talk so much when we connect via Zoom. Listening to artists talk is probably my weak spot, especially when they have as much to say as Holly Humberstone – and I don’t mean that in the sense of quantity. Still only 21 years old, she started releasing her music solely during the pandemic, while not being able to play one single live show. Despite this, during the past eighteen months she has become one of the most curiously watched young British artists, and when she returned to the stage only a couple of weeks ago, she found out that she is selling out shows not only in the UK but also in the US, that people show up early for her festival slots and that they can already sing all of her songs by heart. 

These kind of COVID careers are quite a surreal thing. And hearing a young, aspiring artist talk about her music with so much confidence and hope for the future is simply inspiring. Her new EP „The Walls Are Way Too Thin“ will be out in November, and listening to it you will meet a young woman, who has a knack for irresistible hooks and melodies and a way of sharing her thoughts and feelings with admirable honesty. Or maybe you have already heard the singles she’s released so far, like „Haunted House“ an emotional ballad about the time she moved out of her parents‘ house or the equally emotional „Please Don’t Leave Just Yet“, which she wrote together with The 1975 frontman Matty Healy. So maybe you love her already, but I am happy to open your hearts even more to her.

She is still recovering from a cold when we talk, telling me she’s been using the day to “relax and chill”. She’s still bursting with energy, though, telling me in detail how lucky she feels to be able to be doing what she is doing.

„I feel like I have to call you more often, because you’re happy to just listen to me. So good for my ego!“ she jokes, when we finally wrap it up. At your service, Holly: you can call me any time! 

Holly, tell me, how has your life been? Your day might have been relaxing, but I bet your life hasn’t been in general.

(laughs) Yeah, I mean it’s been in general pretty good, thank you. I feel really lucky. Obviously the past year’s been a bit weird, but also I’m really grateful for everything that sort of happened in the last year. To still be able to work and to have all these opportunities. I’m just really lucky right now, I feel so lucky that I’m still able to do what I love, to be doing it every day and to be busy with it. I feel pretty blessed.

I remember you opened for Lewis Capaldi last year. It was super short before everything shut down, wasn’t it?

Yeah, it was! I think the last show that I did with Lewis Capaldi was at Wembley in London. I think it was one of the last shows to go ahead in the UK before everything shut down for COVID. I’m so glad I got to squeeze that in before everything went under. Because that was a huge, huge learning curve of a tour for me. It was amazing for my self confidence and stuff, to experience the touring and everything. 

But didn’t that feel brutal, to be stopped in your tracks just when everything started picking up for you? 

It was weird. It was quite hard, it was a bit confusing. At the time I hadn’t released any music. Or I think maybe my first song came out in February or something, and everybody locked down in March over here. I didn’t really get much of a glimpse of what a normal career would be like for somebody who does my job. I have no idea what ’normal‘ feels like. I guess it’s been kind of surreal over the past year. Seeing all of these figures and all of these numbers, interacting with people online, seeing DMs and YouTube comments, but not being able to go to a show and see these people that really exist. I was getting all of these cool opportunities from home, but the whole time I was just sitting at home, seeing everything kind of come through on my phone. It didn’t really feel that real until pretty recently, when I managed to get my own shows and started doing live stuff again. Which has been really, really bizarre, but really, really cool.

I think you are the first artist I’ve talked to who has played proper shows again. You played your own shows and you played these crazy festivals. To witness that from over here in Germany is quite surreal.

I know! I mean, I think the reason we’ve been able to have this is because lots of the festivals have applied to be test festivals, to see what happens. I don’t know what they expected to happen, but loads of people have got COVID now again because of these festivals… I don’t know. It was so bizarre, going to a festival and having people actually show up for my set, seeing them singing the words, people actually coming early or coming to the front, dancing… There is an atmosphere at a festival that is so rare, you don’t really get it anywhere else. So it’s been really nice to have that. I never played festivals before and now I’ve been lucky enough to have a proper round of them this summer. And obviously, doing my first ever headline show was so cool as well. Just the thought that people have been buying tickets to see my show is very strange. I’ve always been a supporting artist, which was really fun. But it was a lot of extra pressure, because it was my show and people bought tickets to come and see me… it as very surreal. 

Did you go a lot to festivals as a spectator, before you started playing them yourself?

I did! I used to love going and I still do! I went to one just this weekend called End of the Road, not playing, just for fun. I go every year with my family. I love the atmosphere at festivals, sleeping in a tent and being a bit gross for like a week (laughs). I love live music. I always feel like I leave a festival with so much new music, so much to listen to, it’s so inspiring. I just played at Leeds and Reading Festival. Leeds Festival was the one I used to go to with my friends at school. That was so cool, going there and having my own set, seeing some people from school come to my set and spotting them in the crowd. 

Oh my God, that’s so cool!

It is. It was a real „pinch me“ moment. 

I have to say I am so impressed by all the artists starting out this and last year, with their, let’s call them COVID-careers. I imagine it must be so hard not to know what is going to happen with your music once you put it out, if you’ll be able to support it properly. It’s so good you got to have these moments!

It is really wild. But to me, I never knew it differently. Because I only just started releasing music when we locked down. I didn’t know what touring was like and what it should have felt like. So I really didn’t feel like I was missing out so much. I didn’t know what the alternative was. But the cool part of it all now is this part, where I get to tour, and where I get to come to Europe next year, which is going to be amazing, because it’s my favorite place. I’m going to America next month and I’ve never been before. I got some sold out shows there. Fingers crossed it all works out with COVID! Anyway, soon I will be able to travel and come out and play my music to all of these people who have been connecting with me over the last year, when I haven’t been able to actually see them in person. 

So how was it to write these songs in a time when you couldn’t perform them live – and then suddenly go out and play them to people?

I guess usually artists would write a song and then play it live first and see how it went down with the crowd and kind of figure it out, based on what the crowd reaction to the song was. Maybe that would have been a good way of testing how it works with people. But I obviously haven’t been able to do that. It’s weird, because I had to sit down and actually figure out how to play the songs again. So strange! I write lots of the songs on the instruments; I can obviously play them when I’m writing them. But then I have the song and it’s finished, and I put it to one side and think about the next song. So I really had forgotten how to play those songs live and it took me quite a lot of rehearsing to get them back up to scratch. Putting the set together was a big drop after having played nothing for a year and a half. I guess it’s going to be fun playing unreleased songs now when I go out, see how they go down. That must be kind of a weird one, I guess. If a song doesn’t go down well I’ll probably know not to release it (laughs). 

But apart from this, would you also say this time shaped the songs on your EP? Tell me how they came to you.

I wrote the majority of the EP before lockdown. Basically I get bored of my songs really quickly so I have to kind of write them and then set them aside. But the EP was written over the course of two years when I felt like everything was changing really quickly. And I felt like I was growing up really fast. I often still feel like a little kid and like I shouldn’t have responsibility. So everything was changing all of a sudden. I moved out of my childhood home where I always lived and I moved to South East London on an absolute whim, without even meeting the housemate, or to visit the house or the area. I literally just threw myself right into it. I didn’t have many friends down there: all of my friends are here back up North and in different cities all over the country. I was really on my own down in London. I feel like London is such a busy, chaotic place. There’s so many people there, but I felt really, really lonely. It has probably to do with the size of London and how scary it is. I shut myself away from it and stayed in my room for quite some time. The only safe space I had was going into the studio and writing songs about how lonely I was or all the people I missed. I guess that’s where most of the EP came from: just going into the studio and unleashing all my feelings into these songs. I think I called it „The Walls Are Way Too Thin“ because I was physically in a tiny little room with thin walls in a tiny flat in South East London. I could hear all of this stuff going on outside my room. But also I think it’s kind of a metaphor for feeling a bit trapped, lonely and on my own. It’s funny now, like since COVID has happened, I feel like even though I wrote the songs before any of this happened, they’ve taken on kind of a new meaning for people. Some people would have been physically trapped in a tiny flat, like I felt like I was. So that’s kind of what the EP feels like to me. I like listening back to it, because they were kind of therapy songs. They were my way of getting everything out and off my chest. So it’s nice looking back at them, now that I am out of this situation and hearing how the songs kind of helped me. Hopefully they can help other people, now that they are out and people can listen to them.

I mean, you are in your early twenties! Everything changes and shifts so quickly at that time. And honestly, I think it’s a sign of a strong character when you can still go back and feel connected to things you created some time ago. 

I so get what you mean and I can completely understand. I feel a little bit that way about the first EP that I put out. I cringe a little bit at some of the songs, because I wrote them when I was like 17/18. I don’t know… it doesn’t feel like it is me anymore. Obviously I still love the songs, but I don’t really connect to them in the same way that I connect to these songs. Maybe it has something to do with that now I’m touring them and the EP is only just coming out and I feel really connected to the songs, because I am playing them live now. I also feel like when it comes to putting music out, you feel a new love for the songs. So I put them to one side for a bit and focus on other things. But now I’m going back to them, and maybe it’s also because not so much has changed over the past year that we’ve been in lockdown. It’s been kind a bit of a nothing year, where nothing really happened, so I still feel like I’m in the same headspace as I was when I wrote all of these songs. So maybe that’s why I haven’t got bored of them yet. I’m really happy to share them now. Also, the stuff that I talk about in my music is really universal stuff. I’m not going through anything unique or different. I think everybody is going through all of these things. People can use the songs to help them with whatever they are going through at the time they are listening to them. If that does make any sense…

It does! I had already thought about that when you talked about being in a tiny room all by yourself and how that picture took on a completely new meaning during the pandemic. 

Exactly! And that’s the cool thing about music. As long as I’m open and honest and the words are true and I am really vulnerable in my music, people are going to connect to it somehow. Because everybody’s felt exactly the same feelings that I’m going through. We are all human and we are all going through the same stuff, especially the people my age, who are going through a bit of a weird change, a period of time when you are a young adult and you’re just trying to figure out what the fuck is going on half the time. Because you literally don’t know! You probably never figure out what’s going on (laughs)

Photo © Phoebe Fox