Holly Humberstone ended 2021 with the double whammy of being crowned BRITs Rising Star for 2022 and announcing a US tour supporting Olivia Rodrigo. At the start of what promises to be an epic year, Music Week meets the singer, plus Polydor, UMPG and Closer Artists, to talk new music, the future and her mission to make the music industry a better place...
WORDS: Charlotte Gunn
It’s all so crazy at the moment,” begins Holly Humberstone, without a hint of understatement.
And it really has been quite the six months for the 21-year-old Grantham artist, who only got to play her first ever headline shows and festival sets last summer. Just before Christmas, she was announced as the support slot on Olivia Rodrigo’s 2022 US tour, and in the same week, bagged herself the prestigious Rising Star Award at the BRIT Awards. It’s an accolade previously awarded to an array of stars including Adele, Florence + The Machine and most recently, Sam Fender, who passed on the baton personally, surprising Humberstone in the studio with news of her win.
“If I could have seen a year ago that I’d win a BRIT Award, I would have been freaking out,” she tells Music Week in a break between breakfast TV and radio appearances, things that come with being tipped as the country’s Next Big Thing. “And I am, of course, freaking out. But I’m also like, ‘OK, what’s next?’”
Humberstone is one of a handful of young artists who broke through during the pandemic. Locked away in her bedroom, writing deeply personal songs set to piano and guitar, she could see the stats that indicated her fanbase was growing – she now has almost 2.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify, where her top song is Falling Asleep At The Wheel on 40m plays – but it wasn’t until she did her first shows this summer that it really sunk in.
“Latitude was one of my favourite moments of the summer,” she says. “I remember looking out 15 minutes before my set and thinking, ‘OK, there’s a couple of people here, like my uncle and my cousins, that’s cool.’ And then, I came back out for my set and the tent was full. I was like, ‘Who are you guys? And how do you know the words?’”
With a debut album still ahead of her, Humberstone’s fans have her EPs – 2020’s Falling Asleep At The Wheel and 2021’s The Walls Are Way Too Thin – on repeat. Both are beautiful works that lay her affecting vocal, with just the right amount of quiver, over a mix of instrumentals, from stark piano tracks to glitchy, electronic beats. Now, the question is, just how far off is that debut album?
“I’ve got enough songs, but I just feel like I can top them,” Humberstone says, the perfectionist in her on full display.
By her own admission she’s a “chaotic person” who is the first to pressure herself to be better, to do more. Getting her debut album spot on is clearly the cause of some anxiety.
“It’s so terrifying to me that one day it’ll be done and I can’t change it,” she says. “It’s very final. And I feel like for a debut album, it just has to be perfect. So yeah, I’ve got enough songs for an album, but I don’t feel quite satisfied yet.”
Until now, Humberstone has kept her creative circle small. There’s Rob Milton, from mid-noughties indie band, Dog Is Dead, and she’s also found a kindred spirit in The 1975’s Matty Healy, with whom she penned recent single Please Don’t Leave Just Yet. While she’s vague about just how involved Healy has been in the genesis of her album, there’s definitely more to come from the pair.
“There’s one more song [with Matty] that isn’t out yet that I’m really excited about,” she says. “I feel like it will be out pretty soon. I get bored of my songs so quickly, so I need it out before I start hating it!”
As a young woman who writes candidly about her own personal experiences, collaboration has at times felt uncomfortable for Humberstone.
“I can’t think of anything more terrifying than a writing session with a new person,” she says. “It’s so unnatural to go into a room with a 40-year-old man and try to tell them what’s going on in your life and spill your guts out to someone you have nothing in common with.”
Having grown up in a house with three sisters and attended an all-girls school, Humberstone admits the male-dominated industry can feel intimidating.
“I’m surrounded by older men, every single day when I come to work, in every part of the job,” she says.
“Going from spending all my time with girls, to suddenly being put into a job where I’m not surrounded by women is weird and sometimes uncomfortable. There needs to be more women in positions of power in the industry. I know I feel more comfortable when women are present in the decision making.”
Fortunately, she has found community in her peers – young artists such as Olivia Rodrigo, Griff and Baby Queen – who have found themselves in a similarly unique situation, becoming famous in a pandemic. Though, in the dark days of the lockdowns, Humberstone admits, the success didn’t always feel like a positive.
“As women, we’re trained to be pitted against each other,” she says. “We’re trained that it’s a competition and there’s not space for all of us. But it’s not true at all. We’re all making different music and we’re all being truthful.”
The “only space for one of us” narrative has, she believes, prompted endless comparisons between herself and Billie Eilish, for little more reason than both are young women.
“We sound completely different,” she reasons. “You would never compare two guys, never ever. It’s bullshit!”
She continues: “In lockdown, when everything was online, I felt like everyone was a competitor. But it’s been so nice that, since the summer, I’ve got to meet these inspiring women and connect with them, so we can all support and be there for one another. Last year was such a weird time, nobody else would know how we’re feeling apart from each other.”
Humberstone is passionate about safe spaces for everyone at her shows. In August, she signed an open letter as part of the UN Women UK’s Safe Spaces Now campaign to call for the return to live music to bring a safer, more inclusive experience for all.
“It’s something I’m so passionate about,” she says. “Being spiked is so common. It’s happened to my friends, it’s happened to me. I just want people to feel safe, relax and enjoy spending time together. I think security [staff] at venues need to be respectful towards it. We all just need to be aware that it’s a thing, it’s happening and you can’t always see it.”
The shift from pandemic success story to out-in-the-world artist has been something of an adjustment for Humberstone. Personally, her life has changed a little. She spent much of lockdown in a tiny house share in South East London, having moved to the capital after spending her childhood and teenage years in the countryside. New to the city and its people, it was quite an isolating experience. She wrote The Walls Are Way Too Thin about living in a house with strangers, hearing their every move.
Now though, she has moved in with two of her sisters. Her bond with her siblings, coupled with her passion for sustainability, inspired her Fifth Sister Swap Shop project, where fans can exchange items of clothing with Humberstone. All four sisters are very close to their parents, who encouraged Humberstone to make music from a young age. She admits to missing her parents and “mum hugs” every day, and likes the familial closeness she now has in the city.
“In a weird way, I miss the drama of that flat, though,” she smiles. “It was so chaotic. The passive aggressiveness of the group chat, people not doing the washing up… But I spent so much time in that little room, it kind of became my little safe space where I could shut myself out from the rest of London.”
Professionally, things have changed, too. Having previously put music out via Platoon, Humberstone signed to Polydor and Interscope/Darkroom in March 2021, and inked a deal with Universal Music Publishing Group during the same month. But, she says, the change hasn’t impacted her day-to-day all that much.
“I signed to a major label because I wanted my music to be heard by more people, and they have the infrastructure for that,” she says. “But I made it really clear that I didn’t want people interacting with my songwriting and creative process because I knew that would just really piss me off.”
The label, it seems, listened.
“They’ve been so lovely, nothing but supportive and nurturing,” she says. “They’re just really cool people – they just leave me to it, to be honest.”
Creatively, the singer is feeling inspired by the incredible life experiences that were waiting for her when lockdown lifted, fuelling her will to write more before finishing her debut album.
“I’m so inspired, because there’s stuff going on all the time and I have stories to tell,” she says. “When we first went into lockdown [in 2020], I felt like social media was really toxic, because I was looking at it every day and seeing that people had ‘all of this time’ to write albums and stuff. But I was just so uninspired – I didn’t want to get out of bed, let alone write songs. But I feel like I learned quite a lot about myself, and that that’s OK. Because you can’t force creativity. And it’s a cycle. And I feel like you have to trust the cycle, you know?”
And as work continues on her debut album, 2022 is going to be non-stop for Holly Humberstone. There’s the BRITs gig in February, plus the Olivia Rodrigo tour and one of her own, which gets underway in June. Plus, more new music along the way.
“I am a little worried about burning myself out, but I’m so excited,” she says. “I’ve got such sick opportunities right now, I’d be such a fool to turn them down. I just have to embrace it...”
Meet The Team
Ben Mortimer, co-president, Polydor: “Winning the BRITs Rising Star award is an incredibly exciting moment. I’ve been lucky enough to be here with artists before, and it can be a real make or break. However, Holly’s amazing songwriting and fantastic live performances mean she’ll be just fine. She already has strong plans in place for 2022, such as supporting both Olivia Rodrigo and Girl In Red on their US tours. And her debut album will be outstanding.
Helen Fleming, marketing manager, Polydor: “Holly is one of those exceptional artists with a clear vision of who she is and where she wants to be. You can see that in how her audience has grown over the last 12 months, fans just get her and they fall in love immediately. There’s a lot of work to do, but this year is shaping up to be incredible. The performance at the BRITs is a huge opportunity and I can’t wait to see the show that Holly will put on – I know she’s going to smash it.”
Josh Sanger, manager, Deep End Management/Closer Artists: “It’s very rare to hear a demo that stops you in your tracks, especially from an artist who’s only 17 years old and is writing songs in their bedroom. Four years ago, Holly’s track Hit And Run did exactly that. Michael Jarman [Closer Artists A&R] and I went to visit her family home and see her play. It was obvious that Holly would become a very important voice in music. She couldn’t say how she felt out loud, so needed three or four minutes to tell us in a song. She’s a true storyteller and this is just the beginning.”
Mike McCormack, MD, Universal Music Publishing Group UK: “Determined, charismatic, multi-talented and utterly charming, Holly has it all in abundance. Backed up by a brilliant team, she is perfectly poised to be a global superstar in 2022.”
Industry tastemakers salute the class of 2022...
Jack Saunders, BBC Radio 1, @jackxsaunders
“Holly Humberstone has developed into one of the most unique voices of her generation and the scary thing is, she’s only getting better. She speaks freely and unequivocally on the emotions and experiences her fans go through, which allows them to be closer to her. That responsibility is a lot to take on for a young writer, but she seems to be handling it with a calm maturity. As an artist, you have to be willing to offer up a certain amount of your own emotions and experiences. Holly thinks carefully about what will connect the best, allowing more of herself to sneak out in the process.
“Radio 1 has recognised her special talent for songwriting right from the beginning, with support across specialist from myself on Future Artists, Annie Mac and Clara Amfo on Future Sounds, Sian Eleri on the Chillest Show and Gemma Bradley on Introducing. Because of that support, each new song is always in contention for a playlist spot. In 2021, she was the runner-up of the BBC Sound Of poll, which means Holly is very much one of our own at Radio 1.
“I’m not sure Holly realises her own potential yet, nor do I think she should worry about that. If she keeps writing with the same creative freedom, then she will have no problems acting on any of the pressure that comes from tastemakers, algorithms or awards.”