Holly Humberstone wants her songs to last a lifetime
By Jon Caramanica
When singer and songwriter Holly Humberstone began working with writer and producer Rob Milton on her debut EP, they quickly arrived at a shorthand for the kinds of lyrics they were aiming for.
“When we write together, we’re like, ‘We need to make these lyrics really very personal and heartbreaking,’” she said in an interview last month. “Like they have to be lyrics that someone would get tattooed on their skin for life. If they’re not tattoo lyrics, then they don’t make the record.”
What they land on, in song after song, is a striking blend of offhand conversation and acutely detailed storytelling, verses that feel like whispers into the ear of an intimate.
“You never smoked this much before we met/ Light up, light up another cigarette,” she laments at the beginning of the ethereal “Falling Asleep at the Wheel,” a song that begins as an indictment of a partner before the scrutiny turns inward: “I can tell you’re drinking only to forget/ Don’t know how I got you in such a mess.”
Humberstone, 20, will release her debut EP, also called “Falling Asleep at the Wheel,” on Friday — it is an absorbing affair. Her lovely voice is fluttery and precise, and also oozy, hanging over her songs like low, enveloping fog. And while she sings with pop-soul swing, her music, full of haunted piano and parched indie rock guitar, has gravity and stickiness.
“I’m still trying to figure out what kind of genre I am, to be honest,” she said, speaking over Zoom from her family’s home in the countryside outside Grantham, England, in the East Midlands. She had been holed up there since the beginning of the pandemic, right after she finished a tour opening for Scottish pop crooner Lewis Capaldi.
Spiritually, she is in the tradition of recent stars like Lorde and Billie Eilish, who have extremely sturdy pop savvy but whose emotional interests are complicated and sometimes gloomy, and whose music blurs aesthetics borrowed from rock, dance music and beyond. What unites Humberstone’s songs, though, is a heavy emotional ballast, making for an almost physical warmth. That is true when she is writing about relationships, like on the title track, which even though it shifts from piano march to dance thump, is actually a “dance song for people who don’t bother going out,” Milton joked.
On “Livewire,” about how nothing gold can stay, Humberstone sings with an almost hymnal reverence: “Maybe we took things just one little step too far/ Coming home late and waking your neighbors/ At least there’ll be no more destruction now we’re apart.”
The cocoonlike “Deep End” is about a challenging stretch Humberstone’s younger sister was enduring. “I find it really hard to get words out, and some things get jumbled between my brain and coming out of my mouth,” Humberstone said. “For some reason, if I put something in a song, it’s such a simple format and I can just say what I really struggled to say.”
Humberstone is the third youngest of four sisters. Her parents are doctors with Britain’s National Health Service, and both passed down creative passions: Her mother played cello in a youth orchestra, and her father kept a cabinet full of poetry books that Humberstone would peruse, and sometimes she would play music to accompany the verses.
As a teenager, Humberstone played violin, unhappily, in the Lincolnshire Youth Symphony Orchestra. When she was about 16, she uploaded demos she made with GarageBand on her father’s Mac to the BBC Music Introducing website, a talent discovery vehicle. That led to one of them — “Hit and Run,” inspired by the movie “Baby Driver” — being played on local radio, which led to meeting her manager.
After high school, she spent a year at a performing arts college in Liverpool before dropping out to move back home. By that time, though, she was already beginning to work on her own music, commuting to London for her burgeoning career.
Eventually, she crossed paths with Milton; she and her friends had been fans of his earlier indie-pop band, Dog Is Dead, which put out music around a decade ago. Rather than working in sleek London studios, they collaborated in the basement of his home in Nottingham, building her sound from the ground up.
“She has this ability to write pop songs, but that’s not necessarily what she wants to make,” Milton said in a phone interview. “She just was desperate not to write obvious lyrics.”
For songwriting, she is partial to the detailed approach of indie singer and songwriter Phoebe Bridgers; in quarantine, Humberstone said, the release of Bridgers’ latest album “Punisher” “literally saved me.” And Humberstone gravitates toward musicians like Bon Iver, Frank Ocean and James Blake, who slather their intuitive melodies under layers of abstraction.
Milton said that they listened to a lot of Elliott Smith and Simon & Garfunkel, drawn to the thickness of the vocal layering — “a magical freaky element.”
“We detuned the guitars to fit with the melodies,” he added. “All the tunings of the guitars are just complete nonsense. It’s some kind of Slipknot heavy metal tuning.”
Rather than signing to a label, Humberstone made a deal with Platoon, an artist services company that also placed early bets on Jorja Smith and Eilish. “I do think Holly is a lot like Billie,” said Denzyl Feigelson, Platoon’s founder, in a phone interview. “They have a sense about them as to their mood and their emotions and how they write their songs.”
During the months that Humberstone has been back at home, she has been chipping away at promotional work — music videos, social media clips — sometimes with her family helping out behind the scenes.
The result has been a do-it-yourself-feeling rollout, an unintended, fitting consequence of being stuck in your childhood home just as you are on the verge of outgrowing it for good.
“From the start, I was just feeling sorry for myself for missing out on stuff,” Humberstone said, “but then I was like, ‘Let’s actually be creative and use it, use the time, usefully, because when am I going to get this time again with my whole family at home, back how it used to be?’”
But still, bigger things call. Although she will film several virtual performances for her EP release, in an optimistic gesture, tickets were recently put on sale for a handful of headlining shows in November, and they sold out quickly. And she is hoping to inch back toward normalcy in the rest of her life, too.
“I’m not having any experiences; I’m not getting to see my friends,” she said. “I’m so happy that I’m getting back to doing stuff again. I’ve been so restless.”