For a long time, playing a live show seemed a distant dream for Holly Humberstone. She started to build buzz with her first EP in summer 2020, landing a New York Times feature and building a fan base, yet the world was in the depths of the pandemic and touring remained out of the question. So to be in New York, playing at Bowery Ballroom with Lorde out in the audience is something of a shocking experience for the rising musician — “sick” is the only way to describe it, really.
It’s her first time in the U.S., and she’s just arrived in New York, after L.A. and Austin for shows.
“I liked L.A. but this is lovely. This is f–king sick. I love this place,” she says on a sofa in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel, the day between her two dates at Bowery Ballroom. “It’s so sick. I’m just excited to spend more time here.”
Getting to play live shows in the U.S. is rather surreal for Humberstone, who released her first song shortly before the U.K. went into lockdown.
“I feel like my whole career has been over lockdown,” the 21 year-old says. “So it’s been really hard for me to gauge and to feel like it was actually real and there were actually legit people that pay for a ticket.”
She dropped her second EP, “The Walls Are Way Too Thin,” on Friday, and taking it on the road has been a surreal test of the way music is discovered these days: she may have had songs on the internet for a bit now, but from her perspective she’s been in lockdown in her parents’ house and now suddenly has fans in the U.S. who know all the words.
“I have no clue how these guys have kind of found my music, but it’s sick. I think that’s the cool thing about music, that we can connect when we’re on the other side of the world and we’re going through the same things,” she says. “A lot of them are kind of around my age, so we’re going through the same kind of changes. Everything that I write about is really universal and everyone’s going through the same thing. I’m not unique in anything that I’m going through. It’s just so nice to be able to fully see these people.”
She’s also found an additional way to connect with fans by using her love of vintage clothing. During lockdown she came up with a concept she calls Fifth Sister Swap, where she would post old items of hers on Instagram and then mail them to fans who were interested, and accept a swap in return. She now runs the Swap Shop in the lobby of her shows as a kind of merch, and fans will bring clothes they want to trade with them to the show in order to participate.
“I love fashion, and it’s just so fun for me to dress up, and I care about sustainable fashion as well,” she says. “I’m obsessed with eBay. I’m on eBay every single day, bidding on stuff. It’s my favorite app on my phone, and I’m obsessed with it.”
While the first EP was written from her childhood home during her last few years of school, the new music comes from the next stage of life, as she left home and moved to London. Humberstone is incredibly nonchalant about her writing, despite it clearly striking a chord with her audience: at her New York shows, the crowd sang along with nearly every word, shouting the lines back at her as they swayed and snapped.
Yet in Humberstone’s words, she “really doesn’t have that much interesting s–t going on.” She approaches writing as more of a diary entry snippet of a moment in time, which seems to be working.
Humberstone grew up in the Leicestershire countryside, one of five sisters with parents who worked for the NHS. Despite her parents’ medical professions they introduced her to the creative arts (her mother is a cellist and her father a poetry aficionado). She attended a conservative all-girls’ school and while it gave her many close friendships, she didn’t see anyone around her pursuing music. Her childhood home, which she describes as a “creative mess,” served as inspiration for tapping into her artistic side.
“We had a crazy basement and there were frogs down there sometimes. My friends would always come over and just be like, ‘What is this place?’” she says. “But for me, it was where I always lived. It’s just a really sacred place. And I think there was something about the house that was really inspiring and it was just a really nice place to create my basket.”
Writing music is therapy for her, and she’s delighted to see the reception other young female artists who seem to approach writing this way are receiving.
“I’ve realized that there’s like a new trend where female artists…it’s a really good trend because people are being so vulnerable and honest about their feelings, but there’s a really oversharing trend and everyone’s just completely oversharing and it’s just so nice,” Humberstone says. “And I feel like maybe it’s something to do with the pandemic. Especially over the past year when we haven’t really been able to connect with people, I’ve needed that kind of vulnerability and that human connection so much more. I’ve really just appreciated that type of music during the past year.”