Holly Humberstone opens for Girl in Red in Toronto on March 20, 2022. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

“I’m scared of everything,” 22-year-old Holly Humberstone admits to a packed concert hall. It’s just after sunset on a Sunday evening in March, and in under an hour, Girl in Red is set to take the stage at Toronto’s sold-out Queen Elizabeth Theatre. But in that moment, all eyes are on Humberstone. 

The UK-based singer-songwriter brought no band with her to North America. Centre stage, it’s just Humberstone and several of her instruments. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

Her stage presence feels so intimate that you could almost forget that this coming summer, the BRITs Rising Star has big plans — she’s set to make her Coachella debut and open for a leg of Olivia Rodrigo’s sold-out SOUR tour. 

“I’m terrified of big cities… I feel like I look like an easy victim,” she continues, eliciting a sympathetic laugh from the crowd. She’s recounting how it felt to move to London from her countryside home, and alludes to a sense of overwhelming isolation that might feel familiar to anyone who’s left home for the first time. In the next few moments, she envelops the whole room in that exact feeling with her song “London is Lonely.” 

Phone flashlights bob back and forth as listeners sway along to Humberstone’s music. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

Last fall, The Guardian called Humberstone “pop’s pandemic breakout star” — she rose to popularity alongside a cohort of young women artists, like Gracie Abrams and Maisie Peters, whose propensity for oversharing resonated at a time of isolation and disconnect. That means this is only Humberstone’s second North American tour, and it hasn’t lost its magic for her. 

“Something that I didn’t get, obviously, during the pandemic was being able to play live and sing songs in person and see somebody in the crowd really connect,” she tells The Varsity via Zoom a week later, in between back-to-back shows in Chicago. 

That connection matters because her songs are deeply personal — they come across as lovingly framed time capsules from her own life, as well as those of the people she loves. It’s been a “few weird confusing years,” she says, and the studio has served as “[a] little therapy space where I could work through stuff and pick things apart and figure out how I feel.” She emerges from songwriting sessions with tight lines of verse that, while conversational, contain bursts of intense emotion.

“They have to be lyrics that someone would get tattooed on their skin for life,” Humberstone once said about her songwriting in an interview. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

It makes sense, then, that she also wants her music to preserve the sound of how she was feeling in a certain moment: “I like to write [songs] and then record them on the day that I write them, and then not change a whole lot.” 

“London is Lonely” is one such time capsule. “When I moved to London, I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t have many friends and — I don’t know — everything just felt really alien,” she says. “I found I didn’t want to leave my room because everything outside was confusing and weird and chaotic.”

“I was going through a lot of changes and trying to navigate being an adult and living on my own in a big city,” she recalls.

In “London is Lonely,” like many of her other songs, Humberstone taps into nuances of emotions that feel familiar to many people. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

Today, her life isn’t done changing. In the last few years, she’s been adjusting to the warp-speed life of constant touring, and her songs have transformed emotions like isolation and longing into a means of connecting with strangers. She tells The Varsity she feels grateful that she gets to play these live shows — and that her stories resonate the way they do. “This is all I’ve really wanted to do since I was like, seven,” she says with a smile. Plus, she says that sense of connection “works both ways” — it’s a reminder that she’s not alone, either.