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Holly Humberstone wins BRITs Rising Star award supported by BBC Radio 1

"Honestly, I’m just pinching myself,” says Holly Humberstone of her BRITs Rising Star win

By Elizabeth Aubrey

Holly Humberstone
Holly Humberstone was the winner of the BRITS rising star award (Picture: Press)

Holly Humberstone is taking stock after just hearing the news that she’s been awarded this year’s BRITs Rising Star award supported by BBC Radio 1. The 21-year-old is talking to Rolling Stone from her London flat, her beaming smile lighting up the screen. “It hasn’t sunk in yet at all,” she says with a laugh, gesturing her hands in disbelief. “I’ve not really been sleeping since I found out I was nominated,” she explains. “It was so cool to even be nominated, but I was just shit-scared and nervous about the results. Honestly, I’m just pinching myself,” she smiles, wide-eyed and visibly thrilled with the news.

It’s the first extended period of time that Humberstone has had to pause, take a breath and think about her many achievements over the last two years. Her debut EP, ‘Falling Asleep At The Wheel’ – made entirely in lockdown – earned her comparisons to Phoebe Bridgers on account of her confessional, heart-on-sleeve lyricism. Her songs explored far-reaching topics such as her sister’s depression, the anxiety that comes from being in the space between adolescence and adulthood, and relationships gone awry on songs where astute lyrics defy her young age. That EP had the feel of unspoken stories and secrets being told for first time, the honesty of which chimed heavily with lockdown listers: Humberstone became a breakout star

The follow-up EP, this year’s ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’, leaned into a fear of adulthood more, as did the worries that came with leaving the family home in Lincolnshire (where she lived with her parents – two NHS medics – and three sisters), for a life in London. The EP’s title track captured the claustrophobia of living in a tiny flat with no space, as well as the loneliness she felt being apart from her family for the first time in her life. A collaboration with The 1975’s Matty Healy (who she’d idolised throughout her teenage years) followed, as did a second place in the BBC Sound of 2021 poll and a UK and American tour.

It’s been a “breathless” couple of years, she says. “It’s been really hard over the last few months to take a second to reflect and just be proud of myself and think about how hard I’ve been working and all the stuff I’ve achieved,” she smiles. Humberstone admits to putting herself under a lot of pressure – something that’s contributed to her not having time to really take stock of her achievements. “I have no idea why I put so much pressure on myself,” Humberstone says.

“It’s a bit of a blessing and a curse because I really want to succeed and take my music further, but sometimes I forget to take the time to live in the moment and appreciate the things I get to do now. I think winning this BRIT award has forced me to stop and reflect on the last few years and I feel so incredibly lucky that it has all happened.”

Another thing that stopped her enjoying the moment at first, she says, was the industry pressures on young women too. Humberstone says constant comparisons and the pressure to quickly move onto “the next thing” weighed heavily on her at first. “I feel like, especially as a female in this industry, we are constantly being pushed for the next step and this has been the first chance I’ve had to be thankful for the last two years.” 

Holly Humberstone's Rolling

She continues: “I feel like women are still constantly being set against each other too. Society still teaches women to compare themselves and I found it a bit of a struggle at first,” she admits. She says she’s now overcome this pressure thanks to being around more women in music who are choosing to follow their own paths, at their own pace.

“After meeting other young female artists that have been going through exactly what I have during these past few years, I realised that we can all succeed and support each other while doing it…doing it the way we want to do it,” she says, explaining that she’s proud of the creative control she has over her work and release schedule. 

Humberstone is part of a new wave of female musicians whose songwriting is more emotive and candid than ever too. “There’s been this great trend where young, female artists have been oversharing and just writing brutally honest lyrics,” Humberstone says. “It’s so cool [that] this is happening now and it’s empowering to be able to share so much of myself with people.”

A good example of this is the delicately crushing ‘Deep End’ which captures her sister when she was suffering from depression. Humberstone sings: “You’ve practised your lines to convince us you’re fine / But I know that’s not where you are.” Lyrics like these are second nature to Humberstone – not least thanks to the poetry books her father gave her as a child: she often read poetry that dealt with challenging themes.

Humberstone says it’s important for her to address complex themes like mental health and depression in her music and lyrics. “Most of the time I write for myself and my own mental well-being. But it’s the reason why I started writing I guess and it’s crucial for me to do it,” she says. “Everyone is struggling with something, and everyone knows somebody who is struggling. Everyone’s felt these things that I’m singing about, especially when I think during the year we’ve had. The pandemic has heightened all of these mental health issues and brought them all to the surface. It was so important for me to be honest with people and let them know they’re not alone.”

Humberstone herself knows this feeling well. She’d moved to London shortly before the pandemic and was lonely, the feeling of “isolation” she felt being frequently overwhelming. Away from her family for the first time – as well as her childhood friends who were now all away at university – Humberstone was largely alone, living in a tiny flat and struggling with little personal space to write.

The song ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’, captures the experience well: “I heard you talking ‘til the morning/Heavy whispers from the next room,she sings on the upbeat pop-tinged track, the sonic style of which is often at odds with the song’s more mournful message. “I think that’s just my kind of way of coping and turning negative stuff that was stressing me out and worrying me into something that I liked the sound of,” she explains, saying the process of writing upbeat songs and turning dark themes into indie-pop anthems was “therapeutic”. The records she listened to growing up (like Prince and Fleetwood Mac) were frequent musical touchstones. “There’s nothing more satisfying to me than going into the studio with something that’s weighing me down and turning something a bit shitty into something that I really love.”

Holly Humberstone is the winner of this year’s BRIT Rising Star Award

When the pandemic hit, Humberstone returned to her childhood home, a cottage in rural Lincolnshire. The house, she explains, is falling down due to its age (“it’s literally a building site right now”), but during lockdown, the magic of the old, crumbling, cosy house and being back with her entire family fuelled her creativity. As children, Humberstone and her sisters were encouraged to be creative; being back in the same place reignited that feeling once more.

“All of the songs on my [debut] record were about experiences that I’d had whilst living there,” Humberstone says. “Growing up, my parents were huge music fans and as a child, I would go into their room, sit on the carpet and look at all the CDs and pick the ones with the covers I liked.” Those CD’s included ones by Radiohead (“one of my parent’s favourite bands), Prince (“we all love Prince”) and Damien Rice (“we listened to him in the car, the kitchen, eating dinner, everywhere”).

Humberstone explains that the house is at the core of her first record. “We filmed all the videos around the house, too. The whole project just felt like it came out of that home, so I think it’s why that first EP is really special and always will be…because it’s essentially a time capsule of home and my childhood.”

By the time the second EP came around this year, Humberstone says she had to “leave the house behind” and travel back to London once more. “The house kind of felt to me a bit like a metaphor for my childhood. I felt like a lot of things were changing. I was growing up and there were a lot of firsts for me – moving to a strange place and living on my own was really something that I wasn’t used to.” Track ‘Haunted House’ is a mournful ode to her childhood surroundings. “As it slips away from me, I still hold on hopelessly / I lay my head to sleep and say goodnight,” she whispers over a solitary piano.

She continues: “With the second EP, going into the studio and writing about it here in London was my only way of processing the changes I was going through, accepting the fact I’m not a kid anymore and that I’m adult now with responsibilities.” It also coincided with the loss of her grandma. “I’m at the age now too where older family members are dying. It was such a strange time.”

Lots of positives came out of this time, however – not least working with one of her childhood heroes – The 1975’s Matty Healy. “We wrote a song together called ‘Please Don’t Leave Just Yet’ during the summer of the pandemic, where everything went normal for a short while,” she says. “We managed to get into the studio and he was such a cool guy. He’s so excited about new music and is always wanting to collaborate with new artists, just lending a hand and supporting as he did with me,” she smiles, explaining that The 1975 “soundtracked her teens.”

The experience was “incredible” she explains. “It was so lovely because I’m massively influenced by their music and I think he’s one of the best writers of our time. Just getting to be in a room with him and see how he puts his lyrics together was super interesting. I’ve worked with a lot of writers all of whom are amazing, but there’s something extra special about working with somebody else who is the frontman of such a huge band and who comes in and really spills their guts out to the people they’re writing with.”

Humberstone says she went into the studio once more with some “tough feelings” but worked on turning them into positive ones. “I was feeling lonely and dependent on other people at the time,” she says. “He helped me turn that into a song that made me feel loved and happy.” Humberstone says there’s more stuff to come from their collaboration – including music for her upcoming album. “Hopefully we’ll have some more stuff we’ve done together coming out. There’s just some really exciting new music and I love it all,” she beams.

Working on her first full length album project was “daunting” at first she admits, but now that initial anxiety has turned to excitement. “The idea of an album is still a bit terrifying to me just because it’s so final,” she says, mock grimacing. “But it’s exciting now, too. Hopefully in the next few months people will hear more about the new music. I’m trying not to overthink it,” she continues. “I’m trying to make the music that I love and hopefully people will connect with that if I’m honest and vulnerable. I put all of myself into my work and I hope people can connect to that.”

People have been connecting with her music in droves. As well as earning 2.2 million Spotify steams each month, she’s also selling out gigs as a headline artist – both here and in the US, the latter feeling like a huge marker of success for Humberstone. It was her dream to tour the US since she started writing songs, aged eleven. “I’d never been to the US before,” she smiles, recounting her tour with fondness. “I was freaking out on the plane just knowing that I was going there for my music.” It was here where having a breakout success during the pandemic felt weird, she says, as she started to worry if anyone would “turn up” to her live shows, having not played one since pre-lockdown.

“I had never done a headline show before,” Humberstone begins. “I never knew how it felt to have people show up for me and for my show. I’d never ever experienced anyone coming to a show just to hear my music,” she says having only done support shows. “I never really expected people to show like at the gig just because I’d never seen any like physical proof of like fans and people that were listening to my music that weren’t like my family members. I remember feeling that this was real now, and that people had actually listened to my songs and connected with my music,” she explains, saying she still feels disbelief at selling out events even now.

“I just think the concept that people buy a ticket to come and see me and that everybody in that room was there because they connected with me was just like the most heart-warming, lovely thing. It’s still a very weird thing to get my head around. I feel like I’ve finally have gotten a chance to thank these people who have been supporting me and allowing me to actually have a career throughout lockdown.”

As well as playing live gigs, Humberstone has been a recent vocal supporter of safe gigs for her female fans, having recently signed a joint letter from the UN’s Safe Spaces initiative and festival Strawberries and Creem that’s campaigning for gigs to be sager for women. “I have three sisters, I went to an all-girls school so pretty much been surrounded by females and inspired by females my whole life. The only thing I really care about at my gigs is that people feel safe and feel like they’re having a nice time and that they don’t have to worry about being in danger,” she explains, saying that signing the letter and sharing her support of safe gig spaces for women was important to her.

“Yeah, it’s just music should be something that we can enjoy without having any kind of worries that. It was so important for me to chip in on that and say something about that. All of my female friends at the moment go to university and they’re constantly saying how careful they have to be. It doesn’t just affect us in the venues, it affects us in every single part of our day you know, leaving the house in the morning to coming back at night. We have to be thinking about protecting ourselves all the time, even though we shouldn’t have to. Music should be a safe space for us all, as should everywhere else.”

Right now, Humberstone is getting ready for a short rest before continuing work on her album – and she says she has more ideas than ever. “I feel like my writing was drying up a bit towards the end of the pandemic because I’d had no fun experiences to write about for a long time. I hadn’t seen my friends in a long time and a lot of writing was done on train journeys back and forth when I’d been to see them.” Playing live, she says, has given her lots more inspiration.

“I hadn’t really seen any physical proof that people were connecting with my music, but when I finally got to see that and saw people connecting me, it encourage me so much. It made me want to write more songs for people, play more songs live. It’s quite an addictive feeling being on stage,” she smiles. “And I’m not ready for it to stop anytime soon.”

The EP ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’ is out now.

Nominations for The BRIT Awards 2022 will be announced on Saturday 18th December.