“This house is such a huge part of who I am,” Holly Humberstone softly whispers to the camera, as if she is letting her virtual audience in on a not-so-little secret. A deep breath of thick, icy air fogs up the screen for a split-second – or, perhaps, the shadow of a passing ghost – before the 21-year-old continues to bare her soul from the derelict and dimly-lit basement of her childhood home.
Behind her the walls are tired and crumbling; strange gaps offer enough space for a poltergeist to come out and play. A single light beam refracts off the scratched window pane and a moody red glow floods the room. The overall effect is compelling enough; it wouldn’t exactly be a stretch to claim that some sort of paranormal apparition may have just taken place inside these four walls.
And it’s not as though she didn’t warn us. A few hours prior to this live-streamed session – knowingly titled They say this house is haunted – Humberstone explained to NME that a similar sighting had previously manifested at her family’s Lincolnshire residence: “I grew up in this really old house that has slowly been falling down around us, and a lot of my friends wouldn’t want to come round because it was really creepy,” she says. “My friend Scarlett brought her mum over once; she has supernatural powers and said that she could feel all the ghosts…”
This unnerving backdrop befits an artist whose music is understated, intimate and eminently chilling; it chimes with Humberstone’s goth-lite aesthetic. Directed by Raja Virdi, an immediate and striking highlight of this broadcast is the careful, 360° camera work, which allows a closer glimpse of Humberstone’s fingers gliding across an old keyboard, and later shows off her delicate and precise guitar-playing.
Humberstone flits between the emotionally rich songs from her 2020 debut EP ‘Falling Asleep At The Wheel’ and new material with sublime control, while her ethereal voice gains a deeper warmth and strength as this perfectly crafted five-song set progresses. It sustains beautifully throughout the show, and the vocalist unearths nuggets of newfound confidence as she moves from a hushed, breathy timbre on the breezily anthemic ‘Vanilla’ to a soaring high on the rousing chorus of ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’. It’s a performance that covers all of her deepest feelings, from loss to sorrow to anxiety. A note-perfect rendition of ‘Haunted House’ is particularly heart-wrenching, as she intensely delivers her fear of change over twinkling keys.
As things move along at an eerie pace, an engaging Humberstone confidently inhabits the aura of this big, empty basement; she smiles and laughs as easily as she loses herself in stillness when the setting demands it. But for all the jokes about growing up in this house, where so-called “nurturing” ghosts roam free, the atmosphere feels, well, far from scary – the simple lighting appears to be the only true design element on display.
Perhaps that’s the whole point; everything here is presented in a straightforward fashion. Humberstone doesn’t need to rely on spooky theatrics when her collection of dark and sincere ballads about dying relationships, growing up and mental illness are goosebump-inducing enough. When the raw candour of ‘Deep End’ hits at the end of the set, as quietly devastating as it should be, any frustrations over the session’s minimalism fade into the night. It’s breathtaking.
Holly Humberstone played: