Holly Humberstone is pretty sure her childhood home is haunted.
Sitting in an average-sized hotel room in New York’s Gramercy neighborhood, the 23-year-old songwriter gets excited discussing the home she grew up in, which is 3,000 miles away in Grantham, England. “There’s this huge basement and just spiders and frogs down there,” Humberstone says. “There’s this whole grim room in the cellar that has meat hooks and then gutters so all the blood can run.”
Humberstone and her three sisters let their imaginations run wild in the old home while their parents stayed busy as National Health Service medics. (She thinks the house might have originally been built as servant’s quarters for a larger residence.) “It was like our own little universe,” Humberstone says. “We’d fuck about and do creative stuff, just mess the house up, do art, do music, play games, create stuff, play outside, scribble on the walls.”
These days, Humberstone is busy making a name for herself as one of the most candid new songwriters in pop music. Since summer 2020, she’s released two EPs; picked up a Rising Star Award at the 2022 BRITs, a category previously won by artists like Adele, Sam Smith, and Florence + the Machine; and toured North America as an opening act on Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour tour, along with another stint opening for Girl in Red. “There’s nothing more inspiring than watching two fucking rockstar young girls every single night for three months,” she says.
On her debut album, Paint My Bedroom Black, out Oct. 13, Humberstone builds on the diaristic storytelling from her first couple of EPs and expands her emotional range. As heart-wrenching as her music can be when she sings about expired love, like on 2020’s “Falling Asleep at the Wheel,” this album shows some of her best straight-up love songs.
On “Kissing in Swimming Pools,” Humberstone sings, “Can we kiss in your swimming pool/In this bathing suit/I would die for you/Maybe I don’t have to leave so soon/You look heavenly in this shade of blue.”
Humberstone is currently in a relationship with the person she wrote that song about, though she took some dramatic liberties in the lyrics. “I don’t think anybody I know has a swimming pool,” she admits. “I guess I properly fell in love, which is really cool.”
Other songs, like the moody single “Antichrist” (“Am I the Antichrist?/How do I sleep at night?”), address the guilt she’s felt over how certain other relationships have run their course.
“I remember writing that song and it being a little difficult,” Humberstone says. “I just didn’t have the spare mental energy for it, and I neglected this person that was the best and didn’t deserve it.”
The last song Humberstone made for Paint My Bedroom Black was about missing her oldest sister, Emma, who now lives in Japan getting a master’s degree at Tokyo University. On the track “Elvis Impersonators,” she sings, “I need you next to me, I’m spiraling/I miss your bones, selfishly/I need you next to me, I’m spiraling.”
As far and wide as her travels have taken her, Humberstone keeps going back to family — and more specifically, sisterhood. The second-youngest of the four sisters, Humberstone says writing about her experiences with them is the most rewarding.
“If I dig down to the core of why I do things, I’m probably just doing it to impress my sisters,” says Humberstone, who wrote her very first single, “Deep End,” about one of her sisters’ mental health. “Their approval is above everyone’s.”
During our chat, Humberstone shows off a “17” tattoo on the inside of her left arm — she and her little sister Lucy share a December 17 birthday — and reveals another tattoo that Lucy drew.
“Do you want to see?” Humberstone asks, removing a very large black boot to reveal a small tattoo of a personified strawberry with legs. “Basically, I had a really shit time at uni, and I was really lonely. Lucy would write me little notes, she’d send me postcards…and she would put this little strawberry character on them.”
Growing up in the countryside, Humberstone loved the musical Annie (“I was fucking entranced”), and she was surrounded by instruments. Her mom played the cello and the piano well — the latter was Humberstone’s first instrument — and her dad had loads of violins laying around after becoming obsessed with collecting “hundreds and hundreds of stringed instruments.”
Humberstone claims her singing used to be “shit,” but she took lessons and started writing music at “maybe seven or eight.” Later on, she went to the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts somewhat begrudgingly (“You’re going to basically be completely fucked if you don’t go to uni,” she says sarcastically), but dropped out after a year when she realized she was learning more by actually making music in London.
Once she moved to the city to pursue her career, she struggled to make connections. She wasn’t used to being around so many older men (she’d gone to an all-girls high school), and she wasn’t used to being alone (her sisters had always been there). Writing sessions were hard before she met her now longtime producer, Rob Milton.
“Writing sessions are so scary,” she says. “It’s middle-aged man after middle-aged man after middle-aged man that have all written all these amazing songs, and you’re just like, ‘I’ve got to fucking prove myself to all these dudes that I have nothing in common with.’”
Touring with Rodrigo and Girl in Red did Humberstone good. “It was so nice to get to actually spend some time with some other younger females,” she says. “I love my whole team, but obviously most teams are just dude-heavy, dude central, do you know what I mean?”
Like many young songwriters, Humberstone acknowledges there can be a tradeoff between keeping a personal life personal and speaking her truth in her music. She sees it as an occupational hazard, but the only song she truly regrets is her emotionally intense 2020 single “Drop Dead.”
“I wrote it when I was really young, and I just don’t really relate to it at all anymore,” Humberstone says. “If you really listen to the words, it’s just like, what the fuck. What is she saying?”
Humberstone’s link with Olivia Rodrigo last year almost didn’t happen. Rodrigo had direct-messaged Humberstone on Instagram before the release of “Drivers License” in January 2021, but Humberstone says she didn’t open it until after the song had exploded in popularity.
“I was like, “I have a message from this girl who’s just released the biggest song in the world,” Humberstone says.
Looking to jog her memory, Humberstone reaches for her phone and brings up the DM. Rodrigo, still months away from her life changing with the release of Sour, is in full fangirl mode: “Hi. I just wanted to say that you are the best thing that ever happened and I am your biggest fan,” the DM to Humberstone reads.
The feeling is mutual these days. “I think she’s one of the best writers of our generation. She just writes perfect pop songs, basically, in my opinion,” Humberstone says. “Obviously, her stuff changed pop music.”
Humberstone is still building on the foundation she got from growing up in a musical family. “I had this loop pedal that my dad had found on eBay or something,” Humberstone says, recalling that he gave it to her as a gift before her first tour. “I didn’t know how to use it…I’d just stomp and guess the loop timing. It must’ve sounded shit. I did Wembley Arena with that loop pedal, which is horrendous to think about, but it’s fucking hilarious as well.”
After her album is released this fall, Humberstone says she’s most excited to come back to America — some parts of it. “I love New York,” she says. “I don’t know, some of the rest of America is a bit depressing. It will be my first proper tour out here in the States with a band and a bus. I’m just so fucking gassed.”
A day before our conversation in New York, Humberstone stepped out in front of a well-attended crowd at a midday Lollapalooza set in Chicago. As she traded an electric guitar for a classical acoustic one and back again throughout the set, a blonde girl in the very first row wept hard, sobbing as Humberstone sang “And oh my god/I’ve done it again/I’ve almost killed a friendship” during her performance of “Sleep Tight.” Humberstone noticed.
“She was on a different planet,” Humberstone says now. “It’s really flattering that she was obviously very moved by it.”
As the set continued, Humberstone crooned her debut single, “Deep End,” which came out months before the pandemic forced the world inside. Three years later, the song sounds like a promise she’s ready to follow through on. “Throw me in the deep end,” Humberstone sings. “I’m ready now to swim.”
Produced by Joe Rodriguez. Makeup by Elena Sabean. Photography Assistance by Vincent Tullo.