Holly Humberstone Is Sticking To Her Guts
With a U.S. tour and deluxe album on the way, the singer-songwriter is finding more confidence in herself.
Holly Humberstone has gone cozy mode.
Though the 23-year-old songwriter usually sports mall-goth-lite ensembles culled from Depop, she appears in an early December video call dressed in her snuggly best. She’s spent the past few weeks holed up in the London apartment she shares with a sister, organizing her bedroom, cooking stews, and marathoning The Bear and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. “I haven’t left the house for a few days, it’s quite nice,” she says. “I brushed my hair for this interview!”
The downtime is welcomed. In October, Humberstone released her long-awaited debut album, Paint My Bedroom Black, a collection of moody pop songs that shapes emotional turbulence into compelling and glossy compositions. She busily book-ended this accomplishment with intimate acoustic gigs for fans in hotel rooms in New York and London, appearances on the typical YouTube channels, and other press to build hype for the record she’s been working toward for years.
But as 2023 winds down, Humberstone is getting excited about 2024, which kicks off with a slew of European dates followed by her first North American headlining tour. There’s also a deluxe version of Paint My Bedroom Black, featuring reworkings of songs by some of her favorite artists, arriving at the top of the year (MUNA’s gorgeous rendition of “Into Your Room” is a tantalizing preview). Though she can’t divulge any names, a grin stretches across Humberstone’s face as she describes the process of curating these bonus tracks. “I’m not the most outgoing person, I’m often intimidated by this job and by my peers, but this project gave me a chance to connect with some people that I love and respect,” she says.
Insular by nature, Humberstone has been connecting with the world by way of songwriting since childhood. Raised in Grantham, England, her parents encouraged her to pursue music, play the violin, and eventually make Garageband demos on her father’s computer. After dropping out of a performing arts college, she began commuting into London to work with potential songwriting partners, eventually meeting producer Rob Milton who’s been her go-to collaborator ever since.
She released her debut single, “Deep End,” in 2020, and though her momentum was interrupted by lockdown her career still surged as listeners connected to the intimate storytelling of her August 2020 debut EP, Falling Asleep at the Wheel. Her 2021 was a whirlwind as she scored a deal with major label Polydor, released her second EP, The Walls Are Way Too Thin, and won a BRIT rising star award. By 2022, she was opening shows in North America for girl in red and Olivia Rodrigo.
She recalls her first show with Rodrigo, at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, as “shaky and all over the place,” but to her fans she appeared assured standing alone in front of thousands of people accompanied by an electric guitar, a few synths, and a loop pad. “Those shows were the longest stretch that I had ever been away from home, we did two whole laps of the U.S. across three months,” she says. “It was such a learning curve in so many ways but it definitely helped build my confidence.”
Most of Paint My Bedroom Black was written during that period on the road as Humberstone struggled to adjust to life without her familiar anchors. Likening that experience to a “fake existence,” she says there weren't any constants tying one day to the next apart from the shows. She points to a lyric on the pedal-steel-tinged “Ghost Me” that aptly captures the false reality of this period: “The more I see, the less I know/ And this feels like The Truman Show.”
“I’ve only just realized that I can pick what I want to do, that I’m actually sort of the boss.”
That Truman Show lyric is now the tagline for Humberstone’s upcoming tour, but this time she’s hoping to prioritize herself by spending less time “meeting people and talking,” which she considers to be the most exhausting part of touring. “I’ve only just realized that I’m actually sort of the boss,” she says, before acknowledging that the music industry’s dismal economics do not exactly encourage self-care. “There’s pressure to be on your A game all the time and squeeze as much into every single moment as possible.”
In the years since Humberstone emerged as a breakout star she’s struggled to navigate an industry that now strives for hits with the potential for TikTok virality, and she felt those pressures came to a head toward the end of writing Paint My Bedroom Black. As she attempted to pump out another major commercial hit like 2022’s “Scarlett” again, she found these internal expectations began to negatively affect her writing, penning “crap songs that weren’t making me very happy.”
In the end, she stuck to her guts and made a record she now looks back on with pride. “I wanted to make something [where] every word was genuine and I feel like I did that,” she says. “The only thing that's going to make me happy is to keep writing stuff that I really love and believe in. The rest is out of my hands.”
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