As the days get shorter, the nights longer and the air chillier, the music industry’s wheels begin to turn towards a vision of the future: tips season. Rising artists are anointed as soon-to-be superstars and, in the case of some, the verdict seems to unanimously point towards their coronation as The Next Big Thing. The latter scenario was Holly Humberstone’s fate in the frosty hinterland of 2021, when she was crowned the BRIT’s Rising Star for 2022 and named in practically every ones-to-watch list going, having already placed second on the BBC’s Sound of… list the year before.
“That was a bit daunting,” she recalls now, sitting at a table in a back corner of a London hotel amid another whirlwind day of promo. “The music industry is a scary place and I felt like I had to impress and prove myself to a lot of people – including myself.”
When the now-23-year-old was on the receiving end of these big proclamations, she was only two EPs (2020’s ‘Falling Asleep At The Wheel’ and its 2021 follow-up, ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’) into her career. Although she describes such early recognition as “the most incredible, so sick” confidence-booster, once the novelty of it all wore off, confusion and overthinking set in. With the world watching, the pressure was now on for the singer to live up to the grandiose labels that had been thrust upon her. “I was like, ‘Oh my god’,” she remembers. “‘I actually have to deliver something that’s groundbreaking and amazing’.”
From the outside looking in, Holly has taken her time since this starry period to slowly work on her debut album, ‘Paint My Bedroom Black’. But, she says, she did initially try to rush it out as a response to the hype around her, attempting to shape the release into the kind that she thought was expected. “I felt like I had to match or top what I’d released before, and I felt quite a lot of pressure to write more bangers,” she explains. “I went through a bit of a really-not-great phase, and the songs I was coming out with were just really not making me very happy, and they just weren’t me. If I’m writing about things I genuinely care about – and not fabricated, crazy love stories that didn’t really happen – then it’s going to be more authentic.”
And so, realising that going full-on banger mode didn’t suit her, she reverted to doing what she’s always done: writing songs that she likens to “diary entries about my life”, with her quiet-but-incisive way of capturing specific moments at the fore. Take ‘Elvis Impersonators’, in which she describes missing another sister on the other side of the world, or the longing ‘Superbloodmoon’, where she asks if a lover is looking at the same sky. It was an endpoint that took a while to reach (“Most of the time [in my life], there’s not that much going on,” she laughs. “I don’t have that much drama in my life to be writing songs like that”), but eventually, she began to trust herself and follow what came naturally. “I think that’s what the album is now to me,” she nods. “I’m really proud of it and I feel like it’s stayed true to what I wanted to make. It’s my favourite music I’ve made so far because of that – I’m sharing way too much as usual and showing different sides of me.”
With a little bit more hindsight, Holly has taken some lessons from this period too. “Don’t let the pressure change your process – people like what you’re doing already,” she says of the advice she’d pass on to the next wave of artists in the same situation. “Don’t let it change you or make you feel like you have to do anything extra than what you’re doing. Just stick to what you’re good at, trust yourself and try not to let external pressures stop you from loving making music.”
“I felt like I had to impress and prove myself to a lot of people – including myself.”
Another byproduct of being granted ‘next in line’ status often ends up being a relentless tour schedule. Over the last two years, Humberstone has hit the road incredibly hard, travelling all over the globe to perform – a dream situation, but also one that turns your whole world upside down and comes with extreme highs and equally as enormous lows.
“Being on tour is a really strange and weird double life,” she nods. “You have these really intense, over-stimulating days where you have shows or you’re in a new city, doing promo and stuff all day. It’s intense and crazy, and then you get to your hotel at night and shut the door and it’s so silent.” For a while, she got into a bad habit of spending hours in whatever temporary lodging she was in that evening, doom-scrolling on her phone and “feeling so shit”. It was during those times, however, that many of the seeds of her debut album began to germinate. After pulling herself out of the black hole of her screen, Humberstone would jot down what she was thinking and feeling. “That was the time I had to write and the time I had the most to say,” she explains. “I felt, at the time, that I was neglecting relationships and my friends back at home and being a not great friend. I didn’t even really have the mental energy to call my Mum a lot of the time, and that’s just obviously really sad.”
For all the bleak times, there were also some of the best times. She points, in particular, to support tours she did with girl in red and Olivia Rodrigo. “It was the most inspiring three months ever,” she smiles of the back-to-back trips. “I got to see so much of America and ended up in places I never thought I’d end up in, and got to see two of my favourite artists perform every night.”
Those tours also helped the singer get out of another unhealthy mindset – one where she saw other female artists around her as competition. The pressures put on women to break through in music before their youth is considered to be ‘gone’ are still prevalent, and Humberstone was sucked into the notion that getting ahead was a race against her peers. “I think because I went to an all-girls school and I have three sisters, there’s always some weird competitive vibe that gets instilled in you from a really young age,” she suggests.
Being around Olivia, and girl in red’s Marie Ulven, getting to know the people behind the music, was a huge help in overcoming this constructed pressure. “They’re literally exactly like me, they’re just real people,” Humberstone smiles. “Obviously people know their image and how they are online, but to get to know them was so nice – they’re just really normal!” Since then, she explains that she’s shaken off her old outsider ways and become part of a larger pop support network with those two artists and more. “It’s lovely that I’ve got people that I feel similar to me and that I feel like I can talk to about all this,” she nods.
“Because I went to an all-girls school and I have three sisters, there’s some weird competitive vibe that gets instilled in you from a young age.”
That loosening up aligns with a notable portion of what ‘Paint My Bedroom Black’ is all about. If one side of it finds Humberstone “shutting out the world”, then the other feels like her letting love – in all forms – in. On the gently buzzing ‘Ghost Me’, she reminisces about karaoke nights with her mates and urges them to stick by her even in her absences, while on the acoustic strum of ‘Kissing In Swimming Pools’, you can sense her tumbling into a new romance. “A lot of the songs are just about how much I love my friends,” she grins. “And hoping they won’t leave me in the dust!” ‘Kissing In Swimming Pools’, though, was written about a new relationship and, despite its gorgeous detailing of new love (“Can we kiss in your swimming pool? / In this bathing suit, I would die for you”), Humberstone says it’s a bittersweet document for her.
“I wrote songs like ‘Antichrist’ and ‘Flatlining’ about relationships that have just been ruined because of my job and not being present or being able to properly give somebody the energy or time that they deserve,” she explains. Even though she was so far away from home, she was willing this new connection not to head in the same direction. “Writing about it connected me back home to that,” she says before confirming the relationship’s fate coyly: “It’s all good, it’s worked out.”
Happily, it’s not just Humberstone’s love life that’s sailing smoothly right now, but just about everything. After refusing to be chewed up by the expectations of the hype machine, she’s stepping out the other side with a triumphant debut album – one not devoid of bangers, but still retaining what makes her so special, and letting us into her unique little slices of life. Next Big Thing? On ‘Paint My Bedroom Black’, she’s surpassed that label to secure her place as a star who’ll stay fixed in our skies for quite some time yet.
Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few Holly Humberstone lyric tattoos being inked these days, but what would the singer herself choose to make permanent?
“I think I’d get one from ‘Room Service’ because that’s one about my friends. That song is one of my favourites because it’s about people that I love so much – maybe the first line: ‘I am carrying roses to you’. I think it’s very sweet. I remember writing that song and sending it to all my friends and they were like, ‘Is this about us?!’”
'Paint My Bedroom Black' is out now via Darkroom / Geffen / Polydor.
As featured in the October 2023 issue of DIY, out now.