“Harry’s a little bit annoying, isn’t he?” Holly Humberstone said, commenting on J.K. Rowling’s renowned protagonist.
Though the British singer-songwriter’s connection on Zoom was sometimes fuzzy, her candor was as sharp as ever in her interview with The Daily Californian — especially when discussing her hot takes on “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings,” two of her favorite childhood literary series.
Humberstone doesn’t like Potter’s sense of superiority, and instead feels closer to Gryffindor sweetheart Neville Longbottom: “He’s the underdog, but he’s really sweet,” she said. “And he’s just a cutie.”
Humberstone — a Hufflepuff, naturally — seems to always be rooting for the underdog. (“I feel really sorry for that little guy,” she said about J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smeagol.) Her empathy is sweet, but never sugarcoated — it’s colloquially candid, and this same conversational honesty translates beautifully into her music. Her talents have been compared to the likes of Phoebe Bridgers and Lorde, and though her music draws similarities to Punisher’s pensive ghostliness and Melodrama’s uneasy gravity, Humberstone’s style is distinctly her own.
Released Nov. 12, her EP The Walls Are Way Too Thin drifts along as a wistful, unearthly stream of consciousness. Humberstone’s striking voice floats over warbling beats and solemn piano and tender guitar licks; amid overwhelming change, she’s searching for peace and stability.
“Everything I knew as home and familiar was changing at a pace that I just couldn’t cope with,” said Humberstone, who moved to London after deciding to pursue music full-time. “Going into the studio and writing about it and working through it really, really helped me to make sense of it all.”
But before untangling emotions in her studio safe space, Humberstone first had to come face-to-face with how she was feeling. After her move to London, she found herself taking trains to visit friends and family on weekends. Late nights out ended on hungover train rides home alone, forcing Humberstone to wallow in the weight of her unfiltered thoughts. Lyrics and song titles involuntarily blossomed in her mind, the space behind her eyes a lush garden of tangled emotion.
“I find that I come up with really good ideas when I’m hungover for some reason,” she said. “I would make little notes on my phone, or make little voice memos. And then I’d go into the studio when I’d get back to London, and we’d write about it.”
Some ideas she weeded out, others she helped grow. One sprouted into the poignant Matty Healy collaboration “Please Don’t Leave Just Yet,” a difficult conversation splintering into aching echoes. Humberstone’s voice cuts through yearning, her lips close to the mic as she sings, “I know I’m only young, but I’m not a f—ing idiot.”
The standout lyric just so happens to be one of Humberstone’s favorites. “The EP is about not really knowing who I am and (being) dependent upon other people and other things for my own happiness and my own mental health, but I think that line breaks free of that a little bit,” the 21 year old stated.
Although Humberstone grapples for control on The Walls Are Way Too Thin, her EP cover art holds an eerie stillness: The singer sits in a sunless confined space, amber fluorescence behind her. It contrasts the stark close-up of her bare freckled face gracing her debut EP’s cover, but in both photographs, Humberstone’s gaze is the same: solemn, contemplative, even haunting.
Often pondering what once was, Humberstone lets such stirring wistfulness trickle into her songwriting. “Dirty knees and honey bees/ Nowhere else would sting as sweet/ Can’t believe we’re turning off the light,” she lulls on her EP’s soul-stirring opener “Haunted House.”
The song serves as a poetic farewell to her now dilapidated childhood home, a spooky place — filled with old violins, sprouting mushrooms, meat hooks, cellar frogs — but nonetheless filled with love and creativity. She fondly recalled how music was always playing, and after she came home from school, she would head straight to the piano.
“I’d never want to do my homework,” Humberstone shared. “I’d always want to just play and just sing and write songs, and they were definitely really s—, for sure … There’s lots of old notebooks that you can find here and there with really cringy lyrics about stuff going down at primary school.”
While Humberstone’s songwriting has exponentially improved since her grade school days, her modesty has remained unaltered. Perhaps it’s a Hufflepuff tendency, but Humberstone is almost too self-effacing for her own good. She described herself as a shy, “middle of the pile” student who made “really rubbish, rough” song demos on GarageBand on her father’s MacBook. She was “just really lucky” when she uploaded her song to BBC Music Introducing and earned her radio debut.
Yet Humberstone’s career is built on far more than luck. Her discography may not be lengthy yet, but it’s flush with electric thrill and crushing vulnerability. Humberstone writes to better understand her own feelings, yet her art transcends personal boundaries, stinging with relatability.
It’s in the stars for Humberstone to weave together universal themes, though even she isn’t immune to the occasional night-before jitters prior to a song’s release. It can be nerve wracking to share such personal stories, and Humberstone is learning to embrace the magic that her music’s universality holds.
“I’ve been like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so personal. Everyone’s gonna know so much about me.’ But also, I think it’s kind of cool,” Humberstone shared. “There’s something really empowering about sharing so much of myself with strangers … It’s really cool we can connect through experiences that we’re (all) going through.”