For Holly Humberstone, Baring Her Heart and Soul Comes Naturally [Q&A]
Holly Humberstone has been championed as a future voice of a generation, and one listen to her budding discography makes it easy to see why. Emerging from rural Lincolnshire in the UK, her equally tender and cutthroat lyrics laid over a foreboding amalgamation of acoustic and electronic sonics speak as much to the likes of Damien Rice and Bon Iver as they do Phoebe Bridgers and Frank Ocean. It's a testament to the one constant that pervades all her work, from her debut EP to her sophomore effort, The Walls Are Way Too Thin. An unrelenting honesty, an unflinching portrayal of herself and those she holds dear.
For as long as she can remember, songwriting served as the medium for Humberstone to make sense of the world around her. However, transposing the dizzying blur of what occurred inside her head into sonic form came as a double-edged sword. "I find it quite emotionally taxing having to write about my own personal experiences all the time and essentially bare my soul and pour my heart out every time that I want to write a song," she confesses to me in a backyard in Los Angeles while a number of small dogs fight for our attention.
Yet, exposing her heart and soul has allowed her to form a one-of-a-kind relationship with listeners the world over, a fact she's quick to admit, "I feel like when you connect through a song, you connect on such a deep level. It's such an intimate connection. It's sick that I can connect in that way with a random person somewhere else in the world that’s living a completely different life."
Ahead of the release of The Walls Are Way Too Thin, due out November 12 via Darkroom / Interscope / Polydor Records, I had the chance to sit down with a Humberstone who was still reeling from finally being able to play her first-ever run of sold-out US shows. We talked about working with Matty Healy, how isolation informed The Walls Are Way Too Thin, and the chances she'll pass her driver's license anytime soon.
Ones to Watch: How's LA been treating you?
Holly Humberstone: I feel like I’m just ticking off all the tourists landmarks to go to in LA. People were pissed off with us, like the locals. We were taking pictures of the Hollywood sign. I'm loving it.
What's your earliest music memory?
Just being exposed to a lot of music growing up. My parents were always obsessed with music and had a massive stack of CDs in their room, and I'd look through them and the little booklets in the in the back. They'd fascinate me. They were obsessed with everything from Damien Rice, Laura Marling, Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, to Pink Floyd.
At what point did you first start to pursue music as less of a bystander and more so as an active participant?
I don't really remember the first time I sat down and was like "I'm going to write a song." My house where I grew up was kind of a tip. It's a massive, really shabby, falling down old house in the countryside. I have three sisters, and my parents were basically like use the house as your creative space. It's always trashed, but it’s hilarious. Everybody's doing something creative. Somebody’s making clothes, somebody’s making up dances, or somebody’s playing music together. My parents really encouraged us to be creative and were just really nurturing.
I guess music was always my way of figuring things out at school that were confusing me whilst I was growing up or just dealing with stuff. Putting something into a song rather than having it in my head, which is always a bit of a blur. Working through stuff that I’m feeling and putting it into a song is a manageable bite-sized way for me to understand things. I'd rather have it in a song than in my head.
In a way, music served as your form of journaling? A sonic form of therapy in a way.
Exactly. I don’t remember the first time I started doing that. It was something I just really loved, and I'd idolized all of all of these musicians that I’d heard my parents playing. Before I really considered doing it as a job, I was already doing it.
And at what point then do you go from making music for yourself to it being something you're comfortable sharing with the world?
I feel like I’m a bit of an introvert and the songs are really personal for me, because it’s just me working through everything that I'm feeling and me trying to figure out how I feel. So, the thought of putting something online was pretty scary. But, I just thought, I guess if I’m honest, people are going to connect with them. I'm not going through anything particularly unique.
I went to an all-girls school, and it was really, really academic, which is cool, but I wasn’t really that interested in schoolwork or doing my homework. I grew up in rural Lincolnshire, so I had no idea how to even start my career or attempt to get my music heard by anyone. I didn’t know anybody else that was a musician, so I pretty much just said "fuck it" and put it on SoundCloud and shared the link with all my friends. They were really encouraging. So, I uploaded a couple songs [on BBC Introducing] and luck was on my side.
Was it difficult going from releasing your debut single to months later having to enter lockdown?
It’s really bizarre to me that people, like physical, actual people listen to my music. But yeah, going from releasing a song to just locking down was obviously a bit of an anti-climax. This is the weird part now actually, coming out of it. I’ve never experienced any of it before. I didn’t know what the normal is, because my music had only just started being released, so I didn’t know what a normal career was supposed to feel like.
As someone who is about to play a series of sold-out shows in LA, does it all still feel a bit surreal then?
I think after the year that we’ve all had, I’m not taking any of it for granted ever again. It’s so sick that I can come out here, actually leave the UK, and play shows to people that are so far away. It's so bizarre to me that it’s reached a few people out here.
I would say more than a few people.
I don't know! It's really hard for me to know. I’m so just so excited to be here, and it's really lovely to know that people are connecting with it. I feel like when you connect through a song, you connect on such a deep level. It's such an intimate connection. It's sick that I can connect in that way with a random person somewhere else in the world that’s living a completely different life.
Were there any artists growing up that you felt that same sense of connection with?
100%. Most of my favorite artists, I have to be able to connect with the lyrics and what they’re saying. To me, that’s what a good song is. I remember finding Damien Rice at a really young age and not knowing what the hell he’s talking about but just really feeling it anyway. Just how his songs sound so raw, like he’s just hit record and is playing the song completely unfiltered. They're just so vulnerable. There’s so much pain in his voice. Another one of my favorites is Prince, because I feel like you can also connect really personally with the way Prince's music can make you feel. I remember putting it on when I got home from school and just getting lost in it.
When it comes to your own work, is it largely taken from your personal life as opposed to creating narratives out of thin air?
I kind of wish I could do that, because I find it quite emotionally taxing having to write about my own personal experiences all the time and essentially bare my soul and pour my heart out every time that I want to write a song. I find it really hard to make shit up. For me, I always wrote for myself and wrote as my form of therapy. I wish I could do it, but I just can’t. I either have to be writing about my personal experiences or somebody close to me and what they’re going through. I think that’s why it’s so important for me to have that part of life as well, to really live, because i don’t have shit to write about all the time. I really don’t have that much of an interesting life (laughter). Who has that much to write about every day?
Yeah, I'm hoping no one is experiencing world-ending love and heartbreak every day. Speaking of writing about close friends, how is Scarlett doing?
She's good! She’s good! That's another example. She's really close to me. I saw everything that she was going through, and it was not nice for me to watch her go through it. But, yeah, she’s doing good. She’s thriving.
Love to see it. Being called an emotional grim reaper is a lot.
I know, it's savage. To be fair, I didn’t know how she was gonna react to it. She would have been fully justified if she was like "Fuck you. You've written this savage song about me." I think when it had come out she was panicking a little bit, because I fully outed the guy. Whatever. Shouldn't have been a dickhead.
How has the songwriting process differed at all between your debut EP and The Walls Are Way Too Thin?
The first EP felt like a real time capsule of the last few years when I was living at home, so my final school years. Everything was really written in and around that house. I was writing about experiences that I’d had in that house growing up and we filmed all the videos around the house, so that project felt really from my roots and where I grew up.
I think [my songwriting] definitely changed when I moved away from home and up to Liverpool for a year of university and didn’t really like it. I just found it depressing and realized I was actually an introvert. My school friends are friends that I've had since I was four, so I didn’t have to try and make friends. I realized that it’s actually real effort to make friends.
It's hard to make and maintain real friendships.
How do you make friends? I have enough that I already like (laughter). So, I was in Liverpool for a year, and I didn’t enjoy it, and I was in London a lot of the time during that year, because that’s where I was working. Then I moved down to South East London, so I felt I was kind of here there and everywhere during the time that I wrote the second EP. I just found it really isolating and lonely. I shut myself in my room and going to the studio was the only safe space I had. It was the only familiar place for me where I could feel at ease and be in a comfort zone where I could write about missing my friends and feeling isolated. I had nothing to familiar to hold on to.
It was different in that way, but the same in a lot of other ways. I find writing with a load of different people really hard, because it’s such a personal and therapeutic process for me. When you start doing writing sessions, a lot of people go through like five different sessions with different forty-year-old men that I have nothing in common with. I found that really hard and that just made me realize that I need to pick my people and just the ones I can trust, so I really only write with one or two people. The process is always really fun. I love going into the studio; I feel excited to go in every day. It’s still my favorite part of everything that I do, because writing is where it all started with really. The actual songwriting process has stayed the same.
It's interesting that when working on this EP you mentioned themes of isolation and searching for familiar feelings of comfort, which strangely became universal sentiments for a world coming out of lockdown.
Exactly. It’s funny how music, like a song meaning can be one thing for me and it can be something else for somebody else. I wrote The Walls Are Way Too Thin before lockdown. A lot of people have said, "Do you find it weird did releasing this music during a pandemic?" And it was weird, but I feel like I needed music to come out during that time for my own personal sanity and having that kind of human connection is so important. It was the only real human connection I was getting, when people were releasing their albums during lockdown. Maybe that’s why people have connected with this so much. They needed some personal stuff to latch onto.
What was it like working with Matty Healy?
Sick! He's really cool. It was amazing, because we all love The 1975, and I feel he was responsible for writing quite a lot of the soundtrack to my teenage years. It was lovely going into the room with another artist. I've written with a lot of writers, but I think it’s always more to take on as an artist, because you have to be the one that is picking apart your brain and sharing all of these really personal experiences to try to put it into a song. So, I think he just really understood that. I’m so happy with the song as well, but it was also really, really sick to see how he works and be a part of his creative process. He really is a genius. Maybe we’ll be releasing more stuff that we’ve done together. Who knows. Who knows.
When you go back and listen to old songs or projects, does it feel like you're reliving past experiences or looking back at a completely different person?
It does feel like I relive them. The way that I actually record the songs is a big thing for me. I find it really hard to write a song and then have it for a while as a demo and then go back into the studio and re-record. Demos are always so much better when you’ve just written the song, it’s fresh, and you haven’t had time to overthink. And then you sing it, and you’re still in the same headspace as how you were feeling when you wrote it. It's a really emotional thing. I can never re-record it with the same amount of emotion. When I listen back now to songs that I’ve written, it really transports me back.
Coming off a critically-acclaimed debut EP, do you feel that there's more pressure or has that all subsided?
Oh god, no. There’s so much pressure (laughter). I don’t think I need a label to be chasing me for shit, because I put so much pressure on myself. I think the biggest thing is trying to deal with that and trying to be satisfied as well. It’s really strange. I always thought that if I was young again, and I looked at what I was doing now, I would be so gassed. I’d be like "Oh you’ve made it! You’re chill, you’re fine. It’s all good. You’re in LA, playing sold-out shows." But it’s really hard to be objective about it when you constantly want to better and beat yourself. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’ve written my best song. It's a blessing and a curse. It’s good to have a drive to always beat my best score, but I think I need to chill a little bit. If I like this song and it’s out in the world, then it’s a success, whatever happens with it. Learning to appreciate what’s happening now and be happy with like the progress that I’ve made has been really hard over this last year. The only interaction I’ve had with other people has been over social media or comparing my statistics with somebody else’s or worrying that somebody’s writing an album during lockdown and I'm completely uninspired because we’re literally in a global pandemic.
Yeah, it can be rough to try and be constantly inspired during a pandemic.
Exactly. It can be really draining to constantly be stressed about that sort of thing and comparing yourself to other people 24/7; it’s just not nice. And I can’t be creative if I’m putting a shitload of pressure on myself. So, I've kind of learned to chill out a bit, be proud of myself, be happy with how it’s going at the moment, and not think too much about what other people are doing or whether it’s going to be as successful as my other stuff.
Speaking of comparing yourself to others, have you passed your driver’s test yet?
Nuh-uh. Nope. Which is funny because a lot of my music is about driving, and it’s such a lie. I’m such a fraud. I don’t know! I feel like like driving in a car is such a vibey thing to do, and I’d love to be able to do it. Everyone can do it. Why can’t I do it!?
Guess you'll just have to call an Uber for now.
Literally. Just get an Uber down the coast, roll the window down, and pretend like he’s not there. But, yeah, I can’t do it. I find it so hard. I just don’t think I have a lot of common sense, and I don’t trust myself. I'm not mature enough to be driving around with my friends or my sisters in the back. Their life in my hands, I cannot be trusted. One day it will happen.
Give it 10 or 15 years.
Yeah, 10-15 years! Hopefully, by the time I'm 50, I can drive.
Holly Humberstone's The Walls Are Way Too Thin is available everywhere you can stream it.