Holly Humberstone is a nearly 22-year-old British singer-songwriter who has become one of what I guess we can call “pandemic babies” — artists who have seen their careers rise almost entirely during the Covid-19 lockdown.
After dropping several songs online, in 2019 she posted in BBC Music’s “Introducing” page and was almost immediately booked for the network’s stage at the massive Glastonbury festival, which ended up being one of her first-ever gigs. She played a series of small solo gigs and then a European tour opening for Lewis Capaldi just before the pandemic — during which she played to 12,000 people at London’s Wembley Arena — all before she’d released more than a handful of songs; her debut EP, “Falling Asleep at the Wheel,” didn’t arrive until the summer of 2020, by which point the world was in lockdown.
Yet her career has taken off, and it’s easy to see why. Humberstone has a lovely and versatile voice and a remarkably effortless way with a melody. While there are flashes of several other artists in her songs — Sia, Lorde, Haim, James Blake, Billie Eilish and especially Phoebe Bridgers — her debut EP and the new one, “Walls Are Way Too Thin,” out Friday on Darkroom/Interscope, find her arriving nearly fully formed. In fact, there almost seems to be two different artists on display here, one who leans toward more melancholy, at times quavering songs about mental health and toxic relationships, and another who almost seems to be fighting off an innate pop ability.
Variety caught up with Humberstone just a few days after her triumphant debut U.S. tour — just a couple of hours after she’d returned to London from a gig in Copenhagen, and days before a full British tour — to talk about the strangeness of seeing her career take off during lockdown, songwriting, and the hectic schedule she’s suddenly on.
How was the U.S. tour? The New York crowd certainly loved you.
It was really, really amazing, I’m still kind of floating trying to process what happened in America. I never thought I’d be able to sell out an iconic venue like Bowery [Ballroom in New York] or the Roxy [in Los Angeles] so I’m still pinching myself that it happened. I’m having the best time — especially after a year and half of not being able to play these songs live and just being sat at home on my phone, looking at statistics. It’s lovely to be able to see people abnd see them connect with the music.
What was it like seeing your career take off in lockdown? Was it almost like it wasn’t real?
It was really weird, but I don’t know any different, really: My first song came out a couple of weeks before we locked down in the U.K., so my whole career, whatever that means, has been over the course of the pandemic. I hadn’t really experienced any of what I’m experiencing now. It was really hard to try and be objective about everything, and I was really uninspired during the first few months of lockdown because I had nothing going on and nothing to write about, so it was like a weird, anticlimax time. I was finally getting to release all of this music I’d been excited about for such a long time, but stuck in lockdown. I had been so prolific before [the pandemic] and had so much going on — I was in London every day and then get on the train and live it up in Manchester or Nottingham with my friends, life was chaotic but there was so much to write about. And then literally overnight we were in lockdown and I had nothing to write about.
But now there’s a lot, right?
How much had you even played live before? You played on the BBC stage at Glastonbury before you even had any records out.
That was one of my first ever live shows. I didn’t really love doing open-mics because I was quite shy as a teen and I thought my songs were embarrassing and very personal, and I didn’t really know any other musicians I could look to for advice or anything. I was uploading really rubbish demos that I made at home in my room to this site we have called “BBC Introducing,” and I think they were just nice people and said I could have the first slot on their stage at Glastonbury. That was amazing — my sister and my dad came with me and after I played I went on a rampage and had the best night and we stayed up until 7 a.m. just exploring and partying and having loads of fun. Before the pandemic I did a few smaller solo dates and U.K. support tours, but of course I had no music out so nobody knew any of it — that was kind of fun as well, less pressure and it’s kind of a nice challenge to get people on board with you. And just before lockdown I did a support tour with Lewis Capaldi in Europe and that was the biggest shows I’d ever played — an amazing experience because I’d always gigged on my own playing small rooms.
You toured the U.S. solo — have you ever played with a band?
No, never! I don’t really know what it’s like. I think it would be so fun and my music really lends itself to it.
You’re one of four sisters, where are you in the chronology?
Second youngest. We’re all very similar, there’s four of us — the youngest is 19 and the oldest is 25, so we’re really close and basically the same person. We were always creative growing up, we lived in this crumbling old house and my parents were like “Use this as your creative space,” and we basically just trashed the place, lots of art and music and we made a lot of stuff. It was a really nurturing, creative environment to grow up in. We’re all creatives.
What do your sisters do?
[The eldest] is studying a masters in English and art, but she loves creative writing and poetry, and the other middle sister is living with me here in London; she makes clothes and is amazing at designing them and sells them, she’s totally self-taught. And my little sister is an artist and studying in Manchester. My parents were very supportive but they were working a lot, so my sisters and I really raised each other.
Is that the house that’s in some of your videos?
Yes, we’re in the process of moving out because it’s really old and the owners have just sort of let it fall apart, which is really sad because it’s a sacred place to me.
What music influenced you the most growing up?
My sisters were all into music and my parents had amazing taste and we loved going to concerts and festivals together. I remember they had a massive pile of CDs in their bedroom and I’d go in and pick things up and read the booklets and take the CDs into my room. Damien Rice was one of my first favorites, my parents were big fans and I caught on really young, I just remember really feeling it for some reason, the relationship between how personal and savage his lyrics are and the little subtleties in his voice. But also they loved Led Zep and Pink Floyd and Radiohead and Fleetwood Mac and Springsteen … Prince, he’s one of my favorites to this day. They really listened to everything so I don’t have one certain type of music that I love.
Anything you’ve been listening to lately that you really like?
I love the Killers album, especially the song “Pressure Machine.” Del Water Gap, who supported me in L.A., his new album is exquisite. A lot of Muna, and Dora Jar, she’s from the U.S., she’s amazing.
Have you been writing recently?
Because I’ve been touring and my energy has been focused on that, but I wrote a lot over the summer. I was finally able to do festivals and that was quite inspiring, but I found time during the week to write and focus maybe on an album — even though that’s a terrifying concept to me. I have a lot of songs from the summer I really like, but I think it’s important to me to feel relaxed and not have chaotic energy around when I’m writing so after this tour I’m going to focus on writing. I kept a diary during the U.S. tour and it’s really good for me to have that so I don’t forget what’s happened, and I have loads of cute little notes and letters people gave me in the so I can just read them all and process everything — and having a bit of a social life as well! Writing is my favorite part of the whole process.
What are the new songs like?
I think they’re a progression of what I was doing before, although they are a bit different. I’m just trying to be myself and be honest. I only write with a small group of people — mainly [chief collaborator] Rob [Milton]. I don’t know how people go to these songwriting camps and all that, I know some people really like it but it’s my worst nightmare, to be honest, it’s the most terrifying thing to me — like, I often have stressful panic dreams about being in a session with a bunch of people I don’t know and not having any ideas!
I also enjoy writing for other people, that takes some of the pressure off. I’ve only just started doing that though — there’s a song by Aaron Smith that came out [last fall, called “Unconditional”], and I’ve done a few others and hopefully they’ll come out. There’s a Hybrid Minds song that’s dance music, that just came out.
So that’s something totally different for you.
That’s just it — it’s like exercising a different muscle, and there’ not so much pressure. I love songwriting but I can’t just make stuff up, so I like to strike when iron is hot.