Earlier this month, Holly Humberstone followed one of 2020’s most promising debut EPs, Falling Asleep At The Wheel, with a project that expanded the boundaries of the British singer-songwriter’s pop aesthetic. Six-song follow-up EP The Walls Are Way Too Thin is marked by instantly arresting melodies — one of which, from “Please Don’t Leave Just Yet,” Humberstone crafted with The 1975 leader Matty Healy — and bolder experiments from the 21-year-old artist, who tries out piano balladry on “Haunted House” and gentle pop-rock on “Friendly Fire.”
The release of The Walls Are Way Too Thin through Darkroom/Interscope/Polydor was preceded by Humberstone’s first-ever U.S. headlining dates — New York and Los Angeles showcases that all sold out quickly. Ahead of the EP release, Humberstone also answered Billboard’s 20 questions about her upbringing in the countryside, secret nerd status, and what’s next up in her career.
1. What was the first piece of music that you bought for yourself?
I think it was probably a Backstreet Boys CD. I was obsessed with them and would listen to them all the time. I still love them to this day.
2. What was the first concert you saw?
The first concert I saw — I actually feel pretty cool — it was a Tame Impala concert in Nottingham. I was 13, and the demographic was definitely 20-year-old boys. I went with my sisters, and it kind of put me off concerts, because I feeling [claustrophobic] and my sisters had to save me. But it was kind of a legendary first concert experience, and obviously Tame Impala are sick.
3. What did your parents do for a living when you were growing up?
My parents work for the NHS [National Health Service], so they have always been very busy. But I think my sisters also raised me, for the most part. My parents obviously did an amazing job with us, and I have them to thank for a lot of things. My sisters and I are like a little squad, and we hang out all the time, and there was never really a boring moment in our house growing up. But my parents have the most amazing music collection ever, and were just really nurturing of the creativity of all four of us. It was a lovely environment to grow up in and create in.
4. Who made you realize you could be an artist full-time?
I think I didn’t really realize until I was actually already doing it, which is kind of sick. I grew up in like the rural midlands of the UK, and I didn’t know anybody else who was a musician or anything like that. I went to a really competitive all-girls school, and everybody was going off to university at the end of school to do more academic stuff like law or like, geography. I just wasn’t really interested in [those], and I wasn’t very good, either. I would go home, get my work done, and then all I’d want to do is sit at the piano and write. I don’t really know when that started or where I got it from, but I was really encouraged by my parents and my friends and my sisters to carry on and to stick at it. I wrote more songs, and then I just happened to fall into doing it as my job. It was just the luckiest thing ever.
5. What’s at the top of your professional bucket list?
There’s loads of stuff I would love to do, and I’m really ambitious and everything is so inspiring at the moment. Obviously I want to be all over the world, playing lots of massive shows. But I think probably at the top is, in 10 years’ time, still be writing songs that I really love. I feel like it’s really easy for me to kind of take for granted what’s happening now, and the cool stuff that’s going on. It’s easy to forget to enjoy the ride as it’s happening, and to not think about what more I could have and what opportunities I could be getting. I’m constantly in competition with myself, and I feel like I’ll never feel like I’ve written my best song, or be quite satisfied with where I am. If I’m still able to be writing songs that I truly love — which is why I do it, my favorite part — that’s all I really want.
6. How did your hometown shape who you are?
So I grew up in the countryside — I lived in a tiny village with my family — away from everything, away from London and kind of secluded, in this weird house. I have all of my family memories there, and it’s just like nowhere else in my life. I have a soul bond with the place, just because it’s so quirky and definitely haunted. We have a basement, and there are frogs in the cellar. My friends come over and they’re so freaked out, but I love it. It’s just such a weird place, and just like an amazing space to create and feel inspired by.
7. What’s the last song you listened to?
It’s a song called “Linoleum” by Harrison Whitford, which I think is sick. I recently found it, I think somebody shared it on their [Instagram] story.
8. If you could see any artist in concert dead or alive, who would it be?
Oh, without a shadow of a doubt, it would be Prince. I’m obsessed with Prince — like, fully obsessed. I watch Prince’s music videos all the time, I just love seeing him hop about in his little high-heeled boots, and I just think there’s no performer who can do it like Prince. I have really early memories — my parents had this massive CD collection, and we basically would just go off the album art and pick out a CD that looks cool and played it. I remember seeing the Prince artwork, and putting it on, and the first time I ever heard Prince. I was so confused for a second, and my sister and I were like, “What is this? What is this feeling that we’re feeling right now?” I still kind of get the same feeling every time I hear him. I’d love to have seen him — I’m so, so upset that I can’t see him ever. I feel like he’s kind of an ethereal being to me, like he was too good to be true.
9. What’s the wildest thing you’ve seen happen in the crowd of one of your shows?
I don’t think I got, like, ‘wild’ fans? And I’m just starting out. I think it’s wild to me just to be playing a show here — I can’t really fathom it. It’s wild to even come to America, to the other side of the world, because you never really expect to sell any tickets and that there are physical people here that want to see you.
10. How is the pandemic affecting your creative process, and has it changed it at all?
I don’t think it’s changed — I think it made me understand how I work better. I feel like I’m most inspired when I’m really busy, and I’m doing lots of writing and being in a city and working and going up to see my friends and hanging out with them. When I have a really crowded schedule, I’m so inspired. And I found it really hard at the beginning of lockdown to have any ideas, because there’s nothing inspiring about a pandemic. So for ages I just didn’t write anything, which would stress me out, and I feel like it was a vicious cycle. I just couldn’t do anything creative for months. I think the thing I was stressed about was, I suddenly had all this time and I had nothing to say. And because I would spend all day on social media, I felt like everybody else was writing albums with this time, and I was going to be left behind. But I think it’s made me realize that it’s okay if I’m not creative 24-7 — it’s just not how creativity works for me anyway. I’ve learned to be kind to myself and to trust the process and not try and force creativity.
11. In a press release, you said that your new EP represents “a feeling of being lost.” When did you know that this feeling was going to define this project?
I think it was after I’d written them all, and I stepped back and looked at them as a project. I like releasing EPs, because they kind of feel like a bit of a time capsule for me. This second EP, I moved out of my home and moved away to London and was living on my own, with housemates who I didn’t really know. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have any friends, and I found that I was going out of London as much as I could, to go out to see my friends. A lot of my friends were at universities up north, so I would go off and have a really good time with my friends, and then I would get on the train in the morning, kind of hung over, and have quite a lot of ideas for songs. I’d just be really inspired when I was hung over — I can’t really unfiltered my thoughts, so it was like I had to confront everything.
12. Moving on from your first EP, did you set out to accomplish anything specific, in terms of the growth of your sound and style?
I don’t think I tried to overthink it. I go into the studio and I have a creative process that’s always been similar. It’s my way of working through everything. I don’t think there was a massive difference between [projects] — I was just listening to different music, and I think that’s why it sounds like a progression, I guess.
13. What’s been your favorite fan reaction to the new songs?
I love seeing people doing covers and things like that online — it’s just really nice to see people having different takes on the songs. I also really enjoy, during these last few shows and especially here in America, playing songs from the EP that aren’t released yet and seeing people’s reactions when they hear them for the first time. It’s really nice to see what people think of them, and everyone’s been so lovely and really supportive.
14. The 1975’s Matty Healy co-wrote and co-produced “Please Don’t Leave Just Yet” on the EP. What was it like working with him?
Oh my gosh, it was amazing. He’s so lovely. That’s another thing, actually, to answer your previous question — he’s got fans that are just obsessed with him, and I think somehow they found out the name of the song, because I think we had to register it for publishing. And they found the name of the song and the writers on the song, so they knew about it in advance. It was so bizarre and so funny. But working with him was just so lovely — I’ve written with a lot of writers who are all really great, but I think there’s something really different about working with another [vocalist]. We are the ones that kind of have to bare our souls and write about stuff that we’re going through, and perform those songs live. It was just really cool to be part of his process and see how he works. Hopefully we’ll be releasing more together, but who knows.
15. Are you writing more, and thinking about a proper full-length?
An album seems like such a terrifying concept to me, because it seems so final, and I’m such a perfectionist. It’s just kind of scary for me to think that I could ever pull out an album that’s finished, that I can’t change once it’s out. I’ve been really enjoying my thing, and over the past few months as more things have opened back up, we’ve been able to do sessions again. I’ve had so much fun writing, and playing gigs is just the most inspiring thing on my show. I can’t wait to go home and write more — I have a month or two later, where I’m just going to write and focus on that, and that’s my favorite part of everything.
16. What’s your karaoke go-to?
“Islands in the Stream.” I love that song, it’s the best. I think I wrote a song once and thought, “This is amazing!” And then I realized it was the exact same melody as [“Islands in the Stream”]. And it was like, oh, that’s why it’s amazing.
17. What’s the one thing you’re most devoted fans don’t know about you?
I’m a massive nerd — I love adventure and fantasy books and films. The most comforting thing in the whole wide world to me is Lord of the Rings. I love it so much, it just sets my soul on fire. And obviously The Hobbit is amazing too, and Harry Potter of course. But my favorite thing to do is watch Lord of the Rings.
18. What is one movie or song that always makes me cry?
Can I do an album? Damien Rice always makes me cry, just because I feel like his lyrics are just so savage and brutally honest. His delivery just sounds so raw and unfiltered, in a way that’s just heartbreaking. The album O is an emotional rollercoaster for me to this day. I love it so much.
19. Which TV show do you recommend binge-watching?
Adventure Time. I really don’t love watching stressful TV. I feel like everything else in life is stressful enough. I want to be able to sit down and watch TV and just completely zone out and watch something really stupid. I love cartoons — they’re so comforting to me. And Adventure Time is the best one! And there are so many episodes, you feel like you’re never going to run out.
20. What is one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
Don’t let things, outside pressures, change you, or change how you work, or how you see yourself. Just trust yourself, because I know me best and I don’t know myself then nobody else will. Be true to yourself! It’s so cheesy, but it’s so true.