- 08 Dec 21
Currently causing a serious buzz thanks to new EP The Walls Are Way Too Thin, Holly Humberstone discusses cathartic songwriting, appearing on Jimmy Fallon, and taking inspiration from Damien Rice with Kate Brayden. Photography: Jordan Curtis-Hughes
Having initially traversed land and sea (well, mainly sea) to arrive in Dublin three weeks ago, Holly Humberstone lost her voice and was forced to cancel her debut Irish headline gig. She returned on November 23 for a rescheduled headline performance in Whelan’s, fresh from the release of her intimate new EP, The Walls Are Way Too Thin, and a pandemic ascent into stardom.
Her streaming numbers alone prove that her vulnerable, clever lyrics are (deservedly) attracting the masses. Having signed with Polydor, she now has tastemakers like The 1975’s Matty Healy championing her. During a Zoom chat, the 21-year-old artist from Grantham in the English East Midlands starts by reflecting on a previous Irish visits.
“I played in Ireland once before my headline Whelan’s gig,” notes Holly. “I supported Dermot Kennedy at Ormeau Park with Ryan McMullan back in September. The crowd was hilarious. Everyone was so rowdy, even though it was a Dermot show.”
Humberstone first burst onto the scene with her 2020 EP, Falling Asleep At The Wheel, which articulated a painful kind of loneliness on tracks like ‘Deep End’, ‘Overkill’ and ‘Drop Dead’. Having made an initial mark, the singer subsequently earned second place in the BBC Sound of 2020 poll.
Powerful visuals equally as magnetic as her tracks began to draw a wide audience, with Humberstone later earning second place in the BBC Sound of 2020 poll.
From familial love (“Sister, I’m trying to hold off the lightning/ And help you escape from your head”) to frayed romantic relationships and the loss of a beloved childhood home (“Nowhere else would sting as sweet/ Can’t believe we’re turning off the light”), no emotional stone is left unturned in Humberstone’s work. Does she think this style of writing is now a trend in music?
“That practice has really changed over the last two years,” she considers. “I don’t know what has happened. Oversharing has become a bit of a trend, but a good, healthy trend to be around. Especially going through a global pandemic, I needed that style of music more than ever.”
With Olivia Rodrigo being crowned queen of the charts this year after releasing turbulent break-up album SOUR, not to mention the acclaim afforded Phoebe Bridgers, Japanese Breakfast, Snail Mail, Julien Baker and more, emotionally direst music made by women is now to the cultural fore.
“I remember Punisher coming out around the same time as ‘Overkill’, and I was feeling really isolated from everything and disconnected from the world,” Humberstone recalls. “Having that deep, human connection with somebody that I don’t even know was so special. I listened to that album so much. There are a tonne of inspiring female artists who are just doing their own thing.
“I obviously don’t want to be put into a box or compared to other people, because it’s not healthy. We’re all very different people. But to be part of that next generation of artists is a really cool thing. I’ve been inspired by them for such a long time, so it’s really empowering to be able to share that much of myself with the world. I write mostly for myself and for my own mental health. I’m not an extroverted person at all. I usually keep my feelings to myself, but there’s something really powerful about releasing a song about these thoughts. It makes me feel like I’m not alone.”
Throughout The Walls Are Way Too Thin – which notably includes a co-write with the aforementioned Healy, ‘Please Don’t Leave Just Yet’ – memorable choruses add pop dynamism to Holly’s tender lyrics. The narrative of ‘Haunted House’ sees her leave the crumbling rural cottage where she had spent her life, on the advice of surveyors. “The ultimate comfort, sacred space” was where her NHS medic parents encouraged their four daughters to be as creative as possible.
The loss and isolation she felt after heading to Liverpool for university, and London afterwards to pursue music, adds more gravitas to the words on the record.
“All of the songs mean so much to me, so I’m excited to finally share them,” Holly enthuses. “I wrote all of them at a similar time. Most of them are really pathetic! They all came about when I was dependent on someone else for my own happiness and mental wellbeing. I wrote ‘Thursday’ about my friend Scarlett, who was in denial that this guy she dated was slowly ending things.
“He was basically doing it in a really cruel way. I knew how it felt, personally. They’d been together for a long time and he essentially wasn’t giving her any truth. You’d do anything to make that person notice you and you can’t really understand why they seem to give zero shits. They don’t seem to have any emotions about the break-up even though you’ve spent so much time together. It’s so emotionally draining writing about your own feelings 24/7, which is why I write about my friends and family.”
Nonetheless, some of the songs are autobiographical.
‘Friendly Fire’ is about a situation that I’d been in myself,” says Humberstone. “I was with this guy that I really, really cared about. I’m not really a relationship person, I’ve never been that way. I’ve always been fine on my own. Then I moved to London and had a weird year where I had no friends there and nothing felt familiar to me anymore.
“I was with this guy at the time, and I was basically in denial about the fact that I wasn’t in love with him. It had been about two years and I just knew that there was something missing. The fear of breaking up with him was overwhelming. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings but also didn’t want to accept being alone again.
“The song was basically me saying: ‘If I hurt you somewhere down the line, I’m sorry and I really care about you’. I came into the studio and wrote it with my friends Rob Milton and Ben Leftwich. It was a really tough thing for me to do, but I knew I needed to end things. It was a relief to say it out loud after feeling so weighed down by it all.”
Was her ex aware of the song before release?
“I write the songs and then feel really guilty after they come out,” Holly admits, grinning. “I don’t know how that guy is going to be feeling today. I actually haven’t spoken to him since we broke up. We were best friends for such a long time. He was in a different place to me. I tried to speak to him but he doesn’t want to talk. Maybe he’ll hear the song and want to be friends again.”
Perhaps being the dumpee for once would lead Humberstone to write The Ultimate Break-Up Record, à la Adele’s highly-anticipated divorce album 30.
“It probably would,” she nods. “One of the reasons it was great to write ‘Scarlett’ and ‘Thursday’, which weren’t about myself, was because of how exhausting it is to focus on yourself all the time. If I did go through something like that, writing is the only way of processing things for me. I honestly don’t know how it feels to be heartbroken, but having to break someone else’s heart is also shit. Writing those tracks helped me to feel okay about myself and let go of some of the guilt. I’m sure the heartbreak album will happen eventually, though!
“I sabotage things a little bit because I’m bored. I’m an unsatisfied person. I always feel like if something’s good, I have to pick holes in it and find problems. It’s a blessing and a curse, but it makes for good writing.”
Last month, Humberstone travelled to the US for the first time for sold-out concerts in New York and Los Angeles, as well as a performance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. The Walls Are Way Too Thin also kickstarts her deal with Darkroom, the same label that introduced us to Billie Eilish.
“Honestly, just the fact that I got to go to the US is still beyond me,” she says, shaking her head. “When I was really small, I always wanted to do this as a job. As a little girl, it’s what I dreamt about doing. I had it in my head that if I’m on a plane to America to perform, my dreams of being a musician would be realised. That was the milestone I set for myself. I never really thought I’d get there. Getting to play the Bowery in New York and The Roxy in Los Angeles was crazy. Eleven-year-old me would be dying. I’ve been able to tick that box. The entire trip was amazing.”
Did any Irish artists inspire Holly when she was growing up?
“I remember finding O by Damien Rice when I was really small,” she replies. “Obviously I had no clue what any of it meant because I was so young. All of that album is just amazing. ‘The Blower’s Daughter’ has something inside of it that makes me feel so much emotion. It sounds like he’s just pressed the record button and didn’t mess with the live performance at all. There’s a magic in doing an album that way.
“He’s still a huge inspiration to me. It’s easy to get lost as a songwriter and lose your sense of direction, and when I want to feel grounded again, I listen to that album. It was one of my earliest influences in terms of songwriting. It just makes me feel at home again. I love it so much, it’s timeless.”
• The Walls Are Way Too Thin is out now on Polydor.
Read the live report of Holly Humberstone's dazzling Whelan's gig here.