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‘I have chaos in my head all the time’: Holly Humberstone, pop’s pandemic breakout star

Perched on a wall outside a cafe in Haggerston, east London, Holly Humberstone looks like a harried off-duty waitress. She leans on her knees and stares at the pavement as she smokes. It is only when she looks up, revealing racoon-sized orbs of copper eyeshadow at odds with her well-loved brown hoodie, that her identity becomes clear.

She is, in fact, a harried, very briefly off-duty pop star. The makeup is from a photoshoot that had her holding uncomfortable poses in the street while van drivers yelled abuse. After returning from her first US tour two days ago, the 21-year-old songwriter from Lincolnshire found that the London flat she shares with her older sister had been burgled. Work has left little time for her friends back home, relationships she is trying to hold fast to because “everything else is so alien to me,” she says of life now, sounding shellshocked. “It’s a weird job.”

Most of us returned to some version of our old realities post-lockdown. Humberstone was thrown into a new one. Her debut EP, last year’s Falling Asleep at the Wheel, made her a rare breakout singer during a pandemic that has blocked most traditional routes to success. Her intimate music thrived in the circumstances. The quaver in her voice gives her detailed lyrics the sense of uncomfortable truths being spoken aloud for the first time, to ex-boyfriends and sisters struggling with depression. Her silvery sound, which earned her second place in the BBC Sound of 2021 poll, is sombre yet tender, flecked with pop’s pulses and worthy of comparison to her songwriting heroes Phoebe Bridgers and the 1975 (her recent single Please Don’t Leave Just Yet was co-written with Matty Healy).

Listen to The Walls Are Way Too Thin, from the EP of the same name.

The purpose of her songwriting hasn’t changed since she was 11, she says. “I have chaos in my head all the time. When I sit down to write, it’s working through all these things that I’m going through. When I put it in a song, it’s a more manageable piece to understand. It’s really my therapy.”

When real life resumed, Humberstone had a small kind of stardom to reckon with, alongside the regular worries of young adulthood. Her new EP, The Walls Are Way Too Thin, brims with the fear of change. On the advice of surveyors, her family left the crumbling rural cottage where she had spent her life. “My ultimate comfort, sacred space,” says Humberstone – the place where her parents, NHS medics, encouraged their four daughters to be creative and make a mess. She moved to London (“overwhelming”), her parents went to Wales and her sisters scattered around. They recently lost their grandma, too. Growing up with three sisters left her shocked by the reality of touring with an all-male crew in the US: “Them coming into my room and there’s sanitary towels everywhere and I’m like: let’s just clear that away …” (Next time, she wants an all-female band.)

“It’s a really awkward age where you have to face all these things for the first time,” says Humberstone, a sweetly nervy talker who persistently describes herself as “awkward”. On her right hand, a ring spells out “SISTER”.

Change, however, is speeding down the pipe. Humberstone is trying to appreciate the shock of realising her lifelong dream as success uproots the stability on which it was founded. Going to the US had always been her yardstick for “making it”. She couldn’t believe anyone turned up to her sold-out gigs in New York and Los Angeles, let alone knew her songs. (She once said her lyrics had to be tattoo-worthy; several fans asked her to handwrite lines to get them permanently inscribed.) She performed on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show, appearing alongside Victoria Beckham, whom she was too scared to meet. “When I see somebody that I really idolised, my first instinct is to run away.”

But the shows did neutralise one fear. In lockdown, “the only way of judging my success was statistics on my phone screen”, says Humberstone. She would look up peers and compare streaming figures. “Constantly! It’s shitty, and I know other people were doing it as well.” That conditioned state of comparison felt familiar from attending a girls’ grammar school. Finally meeting fans and other musicians dissolved it. “We’ve all come through a pandemic, we’re all still working and it’s sick to see how many other amazing young females are doing so well,” she says, proclaiming her love for Matilda Mann, Gracie Abrams and Dora Jar.

With 2.2m monthly Spotify listeners and tour dates stretching into next summer, Humberstone is now trying to protect the conditions behind her vulnerable songwriting and reckon with her ambition. In March, she announced that she had left the Apple-owned label services company Platoon (which supplies industry infrastructure while allowing artists to remain independent) for Polydor, a major. “The songs were connecting people and I thought I might as well try to reach a wider audience,” she says. She is aware that some young women report having an awful time at major labels. “I don’t know how much you can prepare for that,” she says. “The best thing I can do to protect myself is to have people around me who understand what’s going on.” She says she puts more pressure on herself than the label ever could.

On stage at All Points East festival in Victoria Park, east London, this summer
On stage at All Points East festival in Victoria Park, east London, this summer. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

She is still working with her small team and retained her master recordings in the deal – as well as her creative control. “I made it very clear that I don’t want any fingers in the pie,” she says. “I feel really uncomfortable about people who aren’t involved in the creative process telling me how I should write my songs.” She has made most of her music to date with Rob Milton, formerly of the Nottingham-based indie band Dog Is Dead, and finds writing with strangers anxiety-inducing. Yet she looked up two blue-chip songwriters during her trip to LA to see what they might come up with. “I idolise these people and it was fun, but still tricky,” she says. The point, she insists, isn’t striving for pop hits. “I just go in with my baggage and my feelings.”

After her autumn tour concludes, Humberstone has time off to write her debut full-length. “An album is the most terrifying thing ever,” she says. “It’s so final and such a big piece of work to be happy with.” The songs written so far touch on the return of her social life and some decisively brief flings. After the end of a three-year relationship, documented in her debut EP, she has decided her career means she doesn’t have the energy for romance: “And I like being on my own at the moment.”

Success hasn’t changed how she sees herself. She is always going through an awkward phase, she says. “And I still have major impostor syndrome.”