Holly Humberstone Is Using Vulnerable Songwriting To Carve Her Own Path To Pop Stardom

Holly Humberstone is sitting in Central Park on a sunny early fall day, watching the boats and raving about her first time visiting New York City. “Oh my gosh, it’s so lovely,” she exclaims. “Everything looks like a movie. It looks like a film set. It’s amazing. I’m having a lovely day.”

It’s safe to say the Grantham, England, native has been enjoying a string of lovely days as of late. The previous night, Humberstone played her second sold-out show of the week at the Bowery Ballroom. These gigs came on the heels of a pair of sold-out shows in Los Angeles. And, just hours after our interview, she’ll appear on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, performing the synth-dappled “Scarlett” for an adoring audience.

For Humberstone, playing live gigs is a slightly disorienting experience. Incredibly enough, her entire career has unfolded — and taken off — within the last two years, as the world navigated the extended pandemic-related break. Her first single, the spare and searing “Deep End,” arrived in early 2020, right before the first lockdown in the UK, while the piano-sprinkled “Falling Asleep At The Wheel” arrived in March 2020.

“I found it hard to gauge if my music is connecting because everything was online and over social media,” she says. “I’ve really never toured these songs. Getting a chance to play these songs and seeing people singing them back [to me] is so, so, so surreal and bizarre. But so cool — and so affirming, encouraging, and inspiring.” Naturally, she’s found the crowds to be extra energetic and supportive. “Everybody has been so excited to be there,” she says. “I feel like I don’t have the type of music where people get rowdy and jump around. Everyone’s been so excited to be there and just rooting for me as well. I feel like I have them to thank for everything.”

Holly Humberstone Portrait
Philip Cosores

Humberstone herself turned to music as solace during the pandemic, especially as a listener; Phoebe Bridgers and Flyte were faves. “I found throughout lockdown I really relied on music for my personal human connection to the outside world,” she says. “Because there wasn’t really anything else.” However, during lockdown, she found writing for herself much more difficult. “I find that I’m most inspired when I’m really busy, seeing my friends, [being] in the city and out and about and doing things. When my senses [are] overloaded, I find I’m really, really good at writing and creating. [During lockdown] I didn’t have anything going on apart from the pandemic, and there’s nothing inspiring about being trapped inside for months and months.”

Like many artists, Humberstone started to put pressure on herself to be creative, and began comparing herself to other people and what they were producing. “[I thought] everyone’s going to come out the other side of that albums and albums, and I can’t even write, like, a word,” she says. “I had all the time, suddenly — and I couldn’t even write.” Once she eased off and started being kinder to herself, the words started flowing once again. “But it was months and months before I could even kind of think about doing it,” she admits. “I learned creativity is just something that I can’t really force. I have to strike when I feel inspired and squeeze the creativity out of me then.”

Her instinct to wait for the right inspiration elevates the forthcoming The Walls Are Way Too Thin EP, which is out November 12. The release encompasses sinewy electro-pop (“Please Don’t Leave Just Yet,” a song co-written and co-produced by The 1975’s Matty Healy), somber piano balladry (“Haunted House”) and folk-pop (“Friendly Fire”). The diverse release reflects her changing personal tastes. “A lot of the first EP, I was listening to a lot of pop music and I was trying to figure out what I wanted my sound to be and how I wanted to kind of come across,” she says.

While writing The Walls Are Way Too Thin, Humberstone instead was listening to ’80s music, such as that decade’s offerings by Fleetwood Mac, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen. You can pick out these inspirations here and there on the EP, both lyrically (excellent pointed lines such as “We had a shelf life, but neither believed it”) and musically (the title track is very reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night). However, The Walls Are Way Too Thin is pleasingly eclectic.

“I don’t know how to describe my music; I think it changes all the time,” Humberstone says. “I don’t really think that I have one particular kind of style or way of making music that I stick to. I make what I’m into at the time. The sound just changes with life. I’m not the same person as I was when I wrote the first EP, so it’s going to sound completely different. I’ve got different things going on in my life now.”

Indeed, in addition to navigating the emotional and creative ups and downs of lockdown, Humberstone has also experienced some major life changes since early 2020. The decaying old house in which she grew up and wrote the songs on Falling Asleep At The Wheel was deemed unsafe, meaning her family would have to move. This was no ordinary crumbling house; in fact, Humberstone describes an idyllic, magical home where she and her three sisters flourished.

“We didn’t have a TV, so we did art and did music and made things with our free time,” she says. “I was really lucky, because my parents are really nurturing and they just said, ‘Use this space — use the house as just your space to create and do creative, fun things.’ I love the house and I feel like it’s a seventh family member. It’s so scruffy, but it’s like my sacred place.”

At the same time, Humberstone also moved away to London and started living on her own. This was also tough: She didn’t know the city well and was separated from her friends and sisters, all of whom were away at different universities. “Everything seemed to be changing at the same time,” she says. “Everything all at once was changing around me. There wasn’t really much that was familiar anymore from my own my old life, I guess.”

Holly Humberstone Portrait
Philip Cosores

These changes also inspired The Walls Are Way Too Thin. “I kind of just got a bit lost, really, in London and didn’t really know who I was anymore. It was just a really weird time. And the only way that knew how to process it was going into the studio and writing. That was the only thing I thought that I had still left from what I knew.” She starts laughing. “And that’s why the EP I think is quite pathetic. I think it’s got quite a lot of pathetic, ‘feeling sorry for myself’ songs on it.”

Humberstone’s self-deprecation is charming, but isn’t necessarily warranted. Her willingness to be open and vulnerable is refreshing and compelling, and has already led to gigs such as opening a massive Girl In Red tour in 2022. “To be able to work and to get opportunities in a pandemic, and still be busy — I’m feeling really, really lucky and just really grateful that I’ve managed to come out the other side and still able to do music,” Humberstone says. “I’m still able to do what I love and that be my job. I’m pretty much the luckiest person in the world.”