Being a hyped new artist in 2021 has come to mean something distinctly different compared to those who’ve run the gamut in previous years. With live shows all but wiped out until midway through summer, packed out showcases were swapped for streamed bedroom performances and IG Live sessions; success was measured more than ever through metrics and streaming numbers instead of physical fans congregating in a room. For the artists themselves, meanwhile, it’s been a rollercoaster ride that they’re still only just getting used to.
“I’d never really, truly believed that it was real,” admits 21-year-old Holly Humberstone - undoubtedly one of the year’s biggest breakthrough successes. “It was really hard for me to fathom what was happening and grasp that there were people out there that my music was connecting to.”
Having released debut track ‘Deep End’ in early 2020 - a touching ode inspired by certain struggles her sister was facing, and Holly’s own feelings of helplessness in their wake - most of what followed would become impacted by some sort of restrictions. Over the next six months, her brand of confessional but confident emo-pop quickly caught on, with the candid songwriting of her first EP, that August’s ‘Falling Asleep at The Wheel’, quietly converting fans throughout lockdown. But her rise was a steady one, happening mostly behind the closed doors of the pandemic.
“As a female, we’re trained to set [ourselves] against each other, but it’s been crucial for me to take a second and really feel proud of myself.”
Though the conditions of these first moves are unlikely to have been anyone’s top choice for breaking through, there’s something about the more meditative, unshowy way Holly’s been introduced to the world that strangely suits her. Take one listen to her musical offerings so far and it probably comes as little surprise to learn that, for Holly, songwriting is the way she sets her world to rights.
Something she’s been drawn to even as a child - her parents encouraged creativity from an early age for their four daughters - the intimacy and honesty the singer breathes into her songs is also her way of processing emotions. “It’s my way of sorting things out in my head, putting something behind me and making sense of stuff,” she nods. “Quite a lot of the time when I don’t understand how I feel about something, if it’s confusing me or weighing me down, I’ll just go into the studio and get to the core of it. It’s honestly so therapeutic for me and so important for my mental health. It always has been, and I think it will always be my way of coping with things.”
It’s something she found particularly important throughout the making of her most recent EP, November’s ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’. Plotting a series of major changes in her life (moving out of her childhood home in ‘Haunted House’, relocating to an anonymous London flatshare in its title track), the EP doubled as an opportunity for her to reflect on how to move forward from these events. “The EP is so personal to me; I wrote it at a time when I felt like I was growing up.
“I remember writing ‘Friendly Fire’ and I was in this relationship,” she begins. “I’ve never really been very good at relationships, so this was my first proper one that had lasted over a year. I realised I really cared about the person, but it was really hard for me to figure out how I was feeling about this guy. I knew something was wrong and was weighing me down, then I went in and wrote ‘Friendly Fire’. I came out of the studio and was like, ‘OK, I know what I need to do. I need to put my happiness first even though I don’t want to hurt this person.’ [Songwriting] honestly just sorts me out when I’m confused and chaotic, which is most of the time…”
“Songwriting is so therapeutic for me, and so important for my mental health.”
Closing out 2021 with a slew of sold out gigs, and with a spring US tour and her biggest ever London headline at O2 Kentish Town Forum set for next June, life for Holly Humberstone these days however is the opposite of those quiet first moves. “It literally went from zero to a hundred for me,” she nods of the speed at which things changed since live shows were once again allowed.
“I’d done no headline shows before the summer, so I just went from never playing a show whilst I’ve had music out, to playing festivals. Having people show up for my set was just really beyond me and strange. Until this summer, I’d never really seen physical evidence that these people really existed.”
As it sounds, the past few months have seen her life take a full 180-degree turn. From working with The 1975’s Matty Healy - who co-wrote her newest EP’s track ‘Please Don’t Leave Just Yet’ - earlier in 2021 to making her first trip to America (“I never thought I’d even be able to tour in the UK, let alone out there!”) via a summer of festival performances and headline shows, the rollercoaster is very much back in full force. And while a debut album may still be a little while away (“The thought of [making] an album right now is quite terrifying! I just need inspiration and time to think about how I want it to be, but I’m excited”), she’s embracing this new kind of chaos, and taking it one day at a time.
“I haven’t even had any time to write!” she laughs, on whether being busy again has helped her creative flow. “I was finding it really hard to tour; I really enjoy travelling and meeting people but it was really hard because I didn’t have any time to write, and I felt like I didn’t have any way of expressing myself because I didn’t have time. Coming back now to write is just the best thing ever, and it reminds me of the reason I wanted to make music in the first place.
“I think because I have been so busy, it’s been really hard for me to find a second to be objective about everything,” she surmises. “To think rationally that this is really happening and feel proud of myself as well. Especially as a female, we’re trained to be competitive and set [ourselves] against each other, but it’s been really crucial for me to take a second and really feel proud of myself. Yeah, I’m really tired and stressed but I’m getting to do this job as a career, and this is what I’ve always wanted to do. Not many people get to do it, and this past year has just made me feel so lucky.”
Encouraged by her mum to keep a diary so she can one day reflect back on the whirlwind that’s slowly becoming her reality, even in a period of successive peaks there’s one clear highlight that’s stood out so far. “The Shepherd’s Bush [Empire] show,” she nods. “I haven’t seen so many people in one place in such a long time! The thought that they’d all bought tickets to come and see my show was bizarre. Having them all sing the words back was just really emotional and the most affirming thing ever that this is what I’m meant to be doing.”
Holly had better get used to people clamouring to come see her; now that the floodgates have been opened, it doesn’t look like they’ll be relenting any time soon.
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