Holly Humberstone grew up in a house that was collapsing in slow motion. The building had deep structural flaws: at night you could hear it groan and shudder as it was gradually devoured by the earth. In her sometimes scarily intimate songs Humberstone communicates that same sense of walls closing in and dark secret spaces opening up. She is keenly aware of how risky this approach is in a business in which you are encouraged to display emotion – just not too much emotion.
“The music industry is 97 per cent male and there is a lot of pressure on female artists not to be overly emotional,” says Humberstone. “[The message is] that it’s a weakness to be emotional and to show how I feel.”
Humberstone (21) is speaking over Zoom from her parents’ living room. This is not, it should be noted, the crumbling childhood home about which she sang on her single Haunted House (“They say this house is haunted/But all these ghosts I’ve grown with”). A few months ago, her mother and father finally gave up the ghost on their tottering property near Grantham, in the English East Midlands, and moved to North Wales. Which is where Humberstone sits folded on a couch, on a stop-off on her tour promoting her new six-track EP, The Walls Are Way Too Thin ahead of its release on November 12th.
“The house is falling down,” she says of her childhood home. “Basically we’d been kicked out because it’s too old to live in now. My parents have been trying to move out for a long time.”
She has moved on as well – to brighter and better things. Humberstone placed second on the 2021 BBC Sound Of poll, behind Coventry rapper Pa Salieu. And she has clocked up A-list fans in Lewis Capaldi (who brought her on tour) and Matty Healy of The 1975, with whom she collaborated on new number Please Don’t Leave Yet. There have also been appearances on Later…With Jools Holland and a US talk show debut, on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.
“Until recently I’ve had a lockdown career,” she says. “I feel it benefitted me in a way. A lot of people needed music. I have relied on music for human connection. And now I find it bizarre to be able to play in America and to have people connect with songs that are personal with me.”
There is a lingering and depressing tendency in the record business to lump female artists together. Yet it’s hard not to fall into that trap slightly with Humberstone. Her music has a bruised, left-of-centre intensity, fuelled by wonky loops and guitars that burst through like jump scares in a horror movie.
Humberstone’s lyrics are meanwhile often characterised by a laser-eyed specificity. It’s an approach that places her on the same page as peers such as Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish. In the United States she is even signed to Eilish’s label, Darkroom Records.
“I feel there’s a bit of a…I don’t know what it is,” she says. “People are talking about their feelings more. It’s become a trend. But a good trend because it encourages people to express how they feel and be honest with themselves and with everyone else. There’s a generation of young female artists who are all about oversharing. It’s nice because we’re all going through the same things. Nobody is writing about anything particularly unique. All of these things are universal. Everyone can connect and relate.”
But if these young singers have been hugely lauded they are also subjected to social media’s cruellest tendencies. They are judged for the tiniest perceived infraction. And held to account for things that have nothing to do with their music – whether that be their choice in fashion or their dancing style.
“I think that’s a societal thing,” she says. And it hasn’t put her off. “There’s something empowering about being able to share so much of myself with people. To be able to connect and put so much of myself out there. It’s nice that we can all support each other. It’s empowering.”
She grew up the daughter of NHS doctor parents, the third youngest of four sisters in a big, rattling house a few miles from Grantham (famously the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher).
“We were in a tiny little village, full of old people. We had a rural upbringing. Me and my sisters could make as much noise as we wanted. There was never a dull moment. My parents said ‘we don’t care what goes on – use this creative space’. It was a nurturing environment.”
Her mother and father are huge music fans. It was through them Humberstone was introduced to one of her enduring influences, Kildare songwriter Damien Rice.
“He was one of my favourite artists. I remember liking his music, though obviously not having a single clue what he was talking about. He was talking about messed up things. There was something about the delivery and the intricacies of his voice. It’s like he hit record and didn’t mess around too much. It’s so raw.”
Softly spoken and disarming, Humberstone has a lightly-worn charisma. This confidence hasn’t come naturally. Moving to London to pursue her career, she withdrew into herself. It was a lonely period that she recalls on The Walls Are Way Too Thin.
“I’m definitely not a confident person,” she says. “The opposite to be honest. I struggle with self-doubt and a lot of imposter syndrome, for sure. There was a period of time where I felt I was growing up too quickly and going through quite a lot of change at once. I moved to London and I didn’t have any friends. And if you don’t have any friends, London is such a busy, chaotic place. I shut myself away, didn’t want to go outside.”
Humberstone is nursing a slight cold, which will become more serious in the next 24 hours and will ultimately force her to postpone her debut Irish concert. It’s no surprise that she’s under the weather, given her breakneck recent schedule. Having sat out the lockdown like the rest of us, the unrelenting pace of the past several months has been mildly disorientating.
“At the start of the summer I started doing festivals. Those were my first shows. It was bizarre. I didn’t know what to expect. Over the past year and a half everything has been on my phone screen. Judging my progress has been through statistics and stuff. So it is genuinely bizarre to see people turn up to a gig. It’s weird to see physical people. I’ve gone from doing absolutely nothing at all to 100 per cent full throttle. It’s amazing.”
The Walls Are Way Too Thin is released November 12th