Holly Humberstone: haunting synth-pop to soundtrack coming-of-age anxiety
When Holly Humberstone was two-years-old, her family moved into a quirky old house. If the singer-songwriter’s friends came over, they’d be spooked by the weird cellar where frogs live, the meat hanging rooms, and the spiders. It’s the place that if she feels unmoored, Humberstone can return to; she can sleep in her childhood bedroom – with its unchanged pink wallpaper – and feel like nothing can touch her. In recent years the house has started to crumble, and Humberstone has had to come to terms with the fact that later this year her family are having to move out.
She wrote the stunning ‘Haunted House’ as an ode to the Lincolnshire home she grew up in with her parents and three sisters. “They say this house is haunted/But all these ghosts I’ve grown with” she begins, whispering over crackling piano lines. “As it slips away from me, I still hold on hopelessly/I lay my head to sleep and say goodnight”
“It’s such a sacred place for me,” she explains over Zoom today, calling in from the living room where she’s isolating due to a positive COVID-19 result, her cat Momo snoring on an armchair beside her. She explains she’s currently in the “nice room – but if you go out there”, she points to a door, “it’s pretty much a building site”.
‘Haunted House’ was penned when Humberstone was stuck in the strange flux between teenage years and young adulthood. “I felt like I was growing up and all these things from my childhood that I really treasured were slipping away all at once,” she says. “I still feel fourteen, and I’m not ready to be an adult yet. Writing the song was my tribute to the house.”
Growing up in Grantham, Lincolnshire, writing was her “safe spot”. She’d come back from school each day and write about everything that happened, “and it’s not changed at all since then,” she says. In her music she has a knack for pairing her astute observations with soaring instrumentals, and her upcoming EP ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’ (released November 5) sees her powerful songwriting at its best.
While Holly’s debut EP ‘Falling Asleep at the Wheel’ – released in August of last year – was a time capsule of her final years living in her family home, its follow-up depicts her move to London in early 2019.
She found a flat-share with strangers on Facebook and made a snap decision to move as she was “desperate” to live in the city instead of commuting each day. Packing an overnight bag, she hopped on the train, arriving at a flat in south east London that was “horrendous”.
“I really don’t have standards,” Humberstone begins, recalling her time spent in digs in the capital, “but it seemed like it shouldn’t be allowed to be rented out. It was damp, everything was mouldy; the mattresses, the fridge, the carpet. There was broken glass everywhere, it was a serious shock to the system.” Humberstone’s move left her feeling isolated, with all her school pals studying at university up north. “I didn’t have anybody that I knew down there,” she says.
“Most of the time I was scared to leave my room. For some reason I became introverted. I never really had a problem with going out and making friends before, but there was something about London outside the walls of my room that was too overwhelming.”
The EP’s title track depicts this uncomfortable living situation where the walls of her flat were literally way too thin. Able to hear everything that was going in the shared home, she could never fully relax: “I heard you talking ’till the morning/Heavy whispers from the next room” she recounts.
The one constant that she had throughout her year in London (she returned home to Grantham when the pandemic began last March) was going to the studio, where she could vent her emotions freely. This project was written both during these sessions, and in the moments Humberstone had been coming in and out of the city.
“A lot of the EP came from when I used to leave London to go visit my friends at their universities. I remember having the best of times, where I’d get a little bit of human connection I’d been craving, and then the worst of times where I was just really, really lonely.”
On her hungover journeys back to the city she’d come up with ideas, humming melodies into her phone or scribbling down lyrics. “For some reason waking up really early, really hungover, you’re so raw and you can’t filter your thoughts. I came up with loads of stuff on my way back down to London in a terrible state.”
One song that depicts this time is recent single ‘Please Don’t Leave Just Yet’, a stunning, slow-burning synth-pop moment that sees Humberstone illustrate the aching loneliness she felt in London. The vulnerable cut was co-written with The 1975’s Matty Healy, who Humberstone spent a day collaborating with during the easing of the first lockdown last year. “I’ve always been a fan of The 1975; I feel like Matty basically wrote the soundtrack to my teenage years,” she says. “I think one of the main things I learned from him was to have a bit more confidence in my ability, and a bit more confidence in my writing.”
On ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’ Humberstone’s music heads in a more pop-leaning direction, inspired by Prince and ’00s popstars like Avril Lavigne. She’s a pro at coalescing devastating subject matter with euphoric melodies, like on ‘Scarlett’, a fizzing fusion of Taylor Swift-styled lyricism that’s spun over glittering production.
“I was going through a lot of stuff I was struggling to process, and it was quite overwhelming and bringing me down a lot mentally. Going into the studio and writing a really positive, uplifting sounding song about the shit I was going through was the best thing ever. It was so therapeutic”.
Between the EP’s release in November and now, Humberstone has four sold-out headline shows at Omeara in London and a bevvy of festival dates. Entering the first lockdown last March, she was a buzzy prospect midway through a support tour with Scottish belter Lewis Capaldi; now she’s emerged from this period with a host of new fans, and a jam-packed gig diary.
“One of the things I realised recently is I’ve just been watching numbers. I’ve just been looking at statistics on a computer screen all year and answering Instagram DMs and seeing monthly listeners on Spotify, that’s the only connection to these people [fans] I’ve had.”
When we speak, Humberstone has already returned to the stage a handful of times, including a performance at Latitude last month. Peeking at the audience 15 minutes before show time, she saw a small crowd that included her family. “I was like, ‘OK cool it’ll be an easy set’”; but by the time she walked on-stage, the tent was rammed, filled with fans singing along. “It was more people than I’ve seen in one space before. It was so sick, I feel like I’ll remember that show for a long time” she grins. “I felt so badass!”
It’s a first tangible taste of the fandom her honest and open music has earned her, fans finally able to sing along to Humberstone’s exhilarating synth-pop in person; with the quality of her next release, it’s a sight Humberstone ought to get used to.
Holly Humberstone’s new single ‘Please Don’t Leave Just Yet’ is out now
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