Holly Humberstone’s #SadGirlAutumn Is A Way of Life

Holly Humberstone
Phoebe Fox

Holly Humberstone just got off a flight from Copenhagen, where she had just performed her first show in Denmark. Onstage, the 21-year-old singer-songwriter wears fishnet gloves and platform boots. On Zoom, she’s in a fleece adorned with puppies. Despite coming off of a long flight and sitting in gridlock traffic, she appears refreshed and cheerful, with her hair neatly pulled back and complexion free of make-up. 

Over the last year, Humberstone has amassed over 150 million streams, performed on various late-night shows, earned recognition as an up-and-coming artist by BBC, Vevo, YouTube, and Apple Music, and taken on headlining shows around the world. Her sophomore EP, The Walls Are Way Too Thin, was released on November 12. She writes her own songs and performs on stage with no accompaniment other than her white Fender Player Lead III, a keyboard, and a looper. The dusky croon she extracts from within and her punk-rock attire can give off an intimidating vibe. When she speaks, she’s as sweet as Bambi. 

Even more so this Sad Girl Autumn, young, “sad girl” artists have dominated the music world—Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Lorde, King Princess—and Humberstone is on her way. Crowning a collection of her tracks on Spotify, “same old sad songs,” Humberstone has always taken inspiration from her upbringing, and now her peers. She listed her favorites as “Jolene” by Ray La Montagne, “I’m On Fire” by Bruce Springsteen, “Don’t Let the Kids Win” by Julia Jacklin, and “every single Phoebe Bridgers song.”

She is currently working on her first studio album. “I’m a massive perfectionist, so I think it’s gonna be really hard for me to feel like I’ve truly finished.” Humberstone is hands-on with all of her productions, and won’t let the slightest, bothersome suggestion from producers deter her from her favorite part of her job: writing music. As carefully plotted and executed as The Walls Are Way Too Thin, Humberstone continues to strive to create something for both herself and her listeners that can allow more breathing room in times of loneliness, heartbreak, and self-exploration—and, of course, sad girl hours.

 

Holly Humberstone
Phoebe Fox

Like a modern-day Little Women, Humberstone is the second youngest of four daughters. They grew up in the home her track “Haunted House” paints, in what formerly were servants’ quarters for a nearby castle in Grantham, England. The four made the house a fortress, loving on their neighbor honey bees and ghosts as if family. With a six-year age gap between the youngest and oldest, they could all be little doppelgangers. They were raised painting, learning to play instruments, and swapping clothes with one another. When the sister-quartet would go out on the town, neighbors would take the piss out of them by cracking “the hobbits are out today,” because of their similar mugs. Outside of their front door sits a vast green countryside, where they ran on its hills and conversed with their more elderly community. Her parents’ favorites of Radiohead and Damien Rice were always singing in the background. It was Humberstone, out of the four, that would scour through the family’s high stacked collection of CD’s. Beginning when she was six years old, she would sit at the piano, attempting to mimic the lyricism of Regina Spektor and Stevie Nicks. Louisa May Alcott said it best in her novel: 

… she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and fall into a vortex, as she expressed it, writing away at her [music] with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.”

While attending an all-girls secondary school, Humberstone realized she wasn’t as straight-laced or clever as everyone else. Her teachers were prepping her to be a lawyer or doctor, yet she just wanted to be at her piano. The uncomfortableness of education would burden Humberstone throughout her university application process, to the point of dropping out of the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. Not long later, her solo move to London also surrounded her with new people and a lack of comfort. “I’m shy and I just kind of closed myself off. I felt kind of different from everyone, but I probably wasn’t.” Traveling on the weekends to go home, she figured she might as well move back, where her home-body self could finally relax. 

Humberstone’s first track “Deep End” was released in January 2020. A part of her first EP, Falling Asleep At The Wheel, was set for release on March 19. Little did we all know that a global pandemic would halt the world that month, and what should have been the hit-the-ground-running beginning of Humberstone’s career. 

In a way lucky for Humberstone, the pandemic locked us all down, and the hobbits finally reunited at home. Like most of us, mornings that began in the afternoon became her norm. Writer’s block kicked in fairly early, and hovered over Humberstone for the first few weeks—“just nothing was inspiring to me about the pandemic.” A lack of inspiration turned into stress and frustration, yet the beautiful British sun energized the sisters for long walks. “… probably sit in the garden, and try and do some music again, and probably fail again, and just hang out.” A few Zoom hangouts with her friends became depressing, but she wouldn’t have traded the wholesome time with her sisters for anything else. 

“I’ve been in lockdown for my whole career,” Humberstone said, “which has been weird I guess, but I don’t really know anything different.”

Crammed at home, she could only receive feedback on her music through social media and streaming statistics. Humberstone’s inner demons brought to doubt and judge herself, as simultaneous feelings of weirdness and gratefulness rummaged her head: “A lot of the time, I’m in competition with myself. I’m really driven, which is a really good thing, but it’s also a bit of a curse. I feel like there’s always something; I could always be doing better and there’s always another opportunity that I could have.”

 

Holly Humberstone
Phoebe Fox

All of The Walls Are Way Too Thin but “Thursday” and “Friendly Fire” had previously been released as singles. A follow-up and sister track to her hit “Scarlett,” “Thursday” is a promise to do anything for him, when deep down Humberstone knows he doesn’t really care. On the other side of heartbreak, “Friendly Fire” details how Humberstone couldn’t give another everything that they deserved. “I was starting to get busy with music … I just didn’t have the mental capacity for this person anymore and it was really sad.”

Throughout the writing processes of both EP’s, Humberstone grew to favor her collaborations with other artists over songwriters. “​​… different writing sessions with different, random old men is just very strange and unnatural.” She teamed up with a fellow, vulnerable Brit, the 1975’s Matt Healy, for “Please Don’t Leave Just Yet.” That experience, alongside her giving a hand to Glass Animals’ Dave Bayley for an acoustic rendition of the band’s “Heat Waves,” made Humberstone realize she too could break down her own thin walls.

“There’s something about working with somebody else who is an artist, and it’s them who has to talk about their feelings and bare their souls,” she said. “They understand because they are in the same position as you.”

The recent dwindling down of the pandemic has permitted Humberstone to finally headline her own shows. Having found comfort with the lessened pressures of an opening act, she now tackles her new challenges of performing at drunken festivals and larger venues. This month she closed her Deep End UK tour in Dublin, and is off next spring to support Girl in Red throughout the U.S. Yet, just as delicate and intimate her songs are, she prefers the cozy aura of a smaller show. “My songs are obviously quite personal. I personally enjoy [seeing shows] in smaller venues where I can hear the artists and feel like I’m in the same room as them and I can hear every word that they’re saying.”

“I live for the feeling after I’ve written a really good song that I really love. …There are a lot of pressures on many young, especially young female artists, and I just really hope that in five or 10 years that I can still be writing songs that I feel are honest and true to me, and that I really love.”

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