“My new album ’M for Empathy’ is mostly things said or shoulda said, heard or shoulda. Much of it, and it’s just a lil, came to me, or outta me, outta a deepening silence. Something you can hear a lot of I hope. It let me voice again. It also let me not, and only sing as much as I wanted, which is important too. Making peace with the word in me, just a lil, all my might.
Above is the sentiment that Hannah Read dispersed when she gently placed her newest record as Lomelda out into the world. Calling this collection of words a “one sheet” seems disingenuous, as M for Empathy functions less as a product for the industry and more as a collection of private musings made public. A quiet intimacy and deep sense of longing permeate all 16 minutes of the record’s runtime and Read takes comfort in knowing there’s not a single line on it that she doesn’t fully believe with all of her heart.
We were lucky enough to chat with Read at Figure 8 Coffee Purveyors in Austin, Texas the morning after her show at the Polyvinyl x Double Double Whammy SXSW showcase. Among the surrounding sounds of gravel crunching underfoot, birds chirping in unanimous gratefulness for the clear sky above, and the unmistakable groan of regret as a spilled iced americano made contact with fabric, we discussed Read’s Texas roots, the creative process behind M for Empathy, and the exact moment she knew her basketball career was over.
How’s SXSW been so far for you?
Great, I got here Monday night and I practiced for 48 hours, then I played a show, and now I’m here – I’m leaving Friday.
Are you going to Silsbee [Texas]? You and your brother built a studio there, is that where you’re going to record this next record, and is that where M for Empathy was recorded?
Yeah, M for Empathy was the first one that I recorded there.
Was it cool being able to record in a studio you helped build?
Yes, for sure. Really magical and surreal.
As somebody who is from Texas, do you have any specific feelings about SXSW, or Austin in general?
I have a lot of nostalgia for it, actually. I came a lot. The first time I ever came to SXSW, I had such a great experience. I went to see Low play some free show in a garden or something, and then while waiting for them to play, the other people playing – it was this woman, and it was so beautiful and sad. Then something malfunctioned, and she did the last song – she just sang it, because their gear wasn’t working or whatever. I was like “who is this?”, and it was Sharon Van Etten. I didn’t know who she was at all, that was before she was doing all that much. Other than that, SXSW has always just – I walked down the street and saw like, seven people from everywhere around the place that are all just on one block right now. It’s just kind of cool. Obviously, SXSW is also terrible.
Right, yeah. I have to deal with a lot of conflicting feelings about that specifically because I came down specifically for the Polyvinyl and Double Double Whammy showcase, and that was the only thing I had planned except for seeing people. That’s exactly what you said, just people that live in New York or Georgia and stuff like that, I finally get to hang out with them, it’s such a great time. It feels weird, because like I said, I’ve lived in Texas my whole life, but this feels like our little corner of culture. It’s super exciting to see all these people.
Yeah, everybody comes to town, which is fun.
When did you move to LA?
Last year, February of last year.
What specifically pulled you to that city? From Silsbee to LA, that seems like quite a… turning it on its head.
A few things. It’s really bright and sunny there, it’s really really gay there, and I went there twice and felt really good before I moved there.
I think for a long time I assumed you lived in Brooklyn, or I assumed you lived around New York because all of the artists that you’re in the scene associated with are around that area.
Nah, I tried to live in – well, I sort of tried to live in New York for about a month, and I got very, very ill. No sun, it was awful.
Before you left for LA, did you have any music scene experience in Texas? Was there a community you were a part of? It seemed like it came about after your signing to Double Double Whammy, and a lot of those artists were not Texas-centric.
Yeah totally, that’s really true. I started to feel more a part of a music community when I started touring than I did when I was here. I think if I had lived in a town like Austin, or Denton, or something that has a scene, but Waco kind of… did not, and Silsbee did not either. I mean, since high school – in high school I was friends with a lot of people in bands, but after that not really as much. Though I mean, I do feel connected to the community here in Austin, there’s great people just grinding all the time here.
It’s sort of strange how you can build that connection after you’ve left Texas. How important do you think that community starting off for a budding musician is?
I think it’s super important to be part of a community no matter what you’re doing. It changes what you want to say and how you’re going to say it, and making art, I think, is about communication mostly. So, if you’re not bouncing it off of anything, then what’s the point?
How do you decide what to release? You’ve got some ambient tracks on Soundcloud, you’ve got a bunch of well-known unreleased tracks like “Hannah” – what dictates whether or not something is going to get an “official” release?
That’s a really good question that I should think about more seriously. Soundcloud has always been just an extremely impulsive, like “Oh I did this cover song at 2am, and I’m going to put it on Soundcloud.” There’s a certain mood, I guess, that is just “Soundcloud mood.” Playing “Hannah,” I just played it for this video session and that was completely on a whim. I had been touring a lot and was just wanting to play something new and, I mean, you put me in a room where there’s no bar, and there’s no audience, it was like “I can play this quiet ass song, so I’m going to do it.”
You’ve got to take advantage of that! I think the last time I saw you before this was whenever you played with Florist and Pinegrove, and I legitimately could not hear you for half the set because people were talking through it – I’m sure you remember that tour.
Right, yeah. Was that the Dallas show? That was a particularly bad show.
I remember, I think it was you and Emily talking about it on stage. It was terrible, I’m very sorry – on behalf of Dallas, I want to offer my apology for that.
You’ve said in the past that album cycles kind of stress you out, is that the purpose behind sort of “surprise releasing” M for Empathy?
Sort of, yeah. I really just wanted to keep it lowkey for myself, for my own mental stability because it does stress me out. I don’t know though, I get it. I understand there’s an artfulness to excitement, and letting it build, and then bloom, and then die. Mostly, that record just felt to me like it didn’t need to, or it would be a detriment to it to make it try to compete with other records for hype because it’s small, it’s quiet and small. I didn’t even intend to “surprise release,” I just wanted it to all come out at the same time with no singles, no big “to-do.”
I still remember seeing tweets that were like, “Friday’s going to be a very good day for specific people who are really into Lomelda and Solange”.
The Solange record is so good, can I go on the record to say that? It’s groundbreaking, it’s so amazing.
So, would you say that some of your music – because Thx, you went through all the bells and whistles of a full press cycle, and M for Empathy is, like you said, different – would you say that some music serves as stress relief rather than a deliverable project? Does that feed into dropping stuff on Soundcloud instead?
Totally yeah, and that’s the same – I mean, I’ve also grown very fond of the practice of just texting people MP3s when I’m done. That’s sort of become the new – instead of putting it on Soundcloud, I’ll make an ambient track or an instrumental or whatever and I have a list of people that I text it to.
That’s the new-wave tape trade.
Oh yeah, I didn’t even think about that. That’s kind of, I don’t know, more and more – I don’t know, I’ve got to think about these things. Is this for everyone? Is this for a person? Is this for my friend? Is this for my dad? Is it just for me? Some of that exists too. Maybe it’s all of that, I don’t know.
I mean as long as whatever you put out makes you happy for whoever you put it out to then that’s all that matters, right?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally.
How do your inspirations change between each record? From Forever, to Thx, to now M for Empathy?
I think the biggest factor is just personal circumstances changing, and that inspires different moods or expressions. Forever was… forever ago, I don’t even remember. I definitely have inspirations for sure, from other artists or conversations or whatever. I think that I also am inspired by my own past work and what to say next, or bouncing it off of myself.
So you take into consideration what’s already been said in your old records?
Definitely. I take it into consideration, but I also am just kind of reacting without thinking about it. So, Forever was this thing, and I reacted to it, and my reaction was “I gotta redo that.”
That’s what you released as 4E, right?
Right, and definitely Thx and M for Empathy are both responses to past records and how they made me feel. There’s a song on the new record that, my thought when writing it was just “What do I want? What’s the thing that I want to say to a person every night,” because that’s where I was at, was touring and playing songs every night. The things that come out of that are just based on those circumstances, I guess.
We talked a little about Silsbee earlier and the studio that you and your brother built, so I want to talk about your brother a little bit. You mention him a lot, but he doesn’t tour with y’all – does he help you write the songs? I know Bam Sha Klam was originally his song, right?
Yeah, he lives in Silsbee, he has built a studio that this next record that I’m about to go record there – it’s sort of the “ribbon-cutting” for the studio, which is about to be open for biz. He’s a huge inspiration. He also writes his own stuff, he records, so he’s a huge part of Lomelda for sure, but in a different capacity than touring.
That’s super sweet being able to work with your siblings that closely.
Totally, I feel lucky.
I’m going to get into M for Empathy now, I’ve got a few questions for that. It’s a lot shorter than the other records that you’ve put out, I don’t know if you’ve… noticed that.
It’s been brought to my attention. [laughs]
Is this indicative of your creative process now, or is this just how you wanted this specific record to be? I know you said this was sort of more of a collection of intimate thoughts that you wanted put out at once, but is that – is its length more of an indicator of where you are at now?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of the reason why it’s as short as it is is because I was at a point in my life where saying anything was really difficult, so if I came to a sentence or a fragment, even, that felt true, I just latched onto it.
Sort of mantra-like?
Definitely. Very much so. Yeah, so it’s a search for truth and being hesitant to say something that I don’t believe. So… yeah. Being very picky is what it is.
Do you think moving from Texas to LA shifted the way that you write songs? You moved from a very small town where you drove a lot to a very big town where I assume you don’t drive a lot.
Well, you drive a lot in LA and just sit there in a grid of cars.
Right, not as freeing as being on the open road at 2 in the morning.
No, no, though you can go for a drive there if you really want to. Just go out on a loop or something. It’s the same as, like, I don’t know – anyways, I’m not going to talk about highways that I feel affection for. I refuse. [laughs] I think the biggest way it’s changed my songwriting is because I have a room of my own. That’s a tale as old as time, when you have your own space physically, you can be expressive in different ways. So that’s the biggest factor. It’s still TBD, I don’t know yet, it’s too fresh.
Was most of M for Empathy written while you were in LA, within the past year after you moved from Texas?
A lot of it was, there’s a couple songs on it that are actually very old. Well, “very old” – like a couple years. “M for Me” is the oldest song on the record. A lot of the other ones were forming for quite a while then came together in LA, like “Mush” and “Bust” and “Bunk”, and – oh man, so I read a review of the record, and it described the song “Talk,” which is the first track on the record, and said that it was about me moving to LA, and I had to take a step back and think about that because that’s not what I thought it was about. Then I realized, oh, that’s exactly what that sounds like it’s about, I completely understand why someone would think that. Anyway, so that’s not at all where I was coming from with that song.
Does that happen a lot? Where you read press stuff and you’re like “Nah, no no no no no!”
Yes, yes it happens a lot and I think it’s really fascinating because obviously I said it the way I said it out of curiosity for what it would mean to somebody else. I just thought it was really fascinating that… it’s the age of the biopic, every “I” that I sing in a song is me, Hannah, as a human being, versus some sort of literary anything. It’s immediately like “What facts of your personal life can I bring out from listening to your songs?” That blew me away.
Does that ever get exhausting? People know, I would say, a significant amount of your inner thoughts now and it’s on a large scale. I’m always curious about that with artists, is it sort of weird? Most of your songs are super personal and some of them are really vulnerable, “Slide” specifically on [M for Empathy]. Is it ever strange for you to have people come up and say how much they resonate with something that you wrote in their own life whenever it’s so deeply personal to your life?
It’s strange, but I mean, it’s the reason why I do it for sure. Especially a song like “Slide,” where I think that it just makes me feel hopeful when that sort of thing happens. Though there are other moments when it just feels strange and sort of inhuman. When someone’s saying “I really relate to that” and “I was encouraged by it” or whatever it is, when they’re expressing some sort of camaraderie I’m all for that, but when it’s like, “I now know this personal fact about you from listening to your song and I know that you had this feeling towards this other person, and I know who this person is” and all those kinds of things, that wigs me out. I was talking to a songwriter friend of mine recently who is writing all this stuff about their family and the nitty gritty dirt of that and is already thinking, “Oh no, I’m going to have to talk to press and strangers about my dad, or my brother, and I don’t think I want to do that,” but that’s where it’s at right now. It can’t just be a study of humanity; it has to be a study of you.
For songs like “Brazos River” or any Texas-centric songs, is it weird playing them now that you don’t live here? You played “Brazos River” last night, and you add a lot to each – I listened initially to the 4E version, then I went back and listened to the Audiotree version, and there are some more interesting samples and loops on the [one you played last night], you build a lot on the songs – all that being said, is it weird playing songs about home now that you don’t live here?
It can be strange. I like it though, I like the strangeness, and every time I play any song it’s different every single time, which is maybe why I have trouble keeping bandmates… [laughs] Yeah, I’ve been lucky. Some great troopers, I’ve got a handful of really talented sweet people who are willing to put up with me wanting to rearrange everything every night. That’s because the song is different when I play “Brazos River” here, or in Germany, or in LA, or – the stage where I first performed that song ever for people was on the Mohawk indoor stage like several years ago, and it completely fell apart. Something busted and water fell from the ceiling onto an electrical outlet, and we were all like, “Don’t touch anything, oh my god…” and then we completely lost the beat also. It just completely fell apart, but nobody was fazed. They were all just like “Yay, you’re on a stage! I must clap!” Yeah, it’s just different every time. I love being from Texas more and more honestly, and I love coming back because I feel more like myself than ever before, or more free to be myself. Being here in this place, I can really love it and appreciate it.
You said last night “M for Me” was the first love song you’ve ever written, have you had an aversion to love songs in the past or is this the first time this has ever come up in terms of what you want to put out?
I definitely had written songs about relationships before that song, that was the first one that felt like it was something really true. I don’t have an aversion to love songs at all, I guess the reason that I like to bring attention to the fact that that is a love song is that maybe it doesn’t really sound like a love song, but I would like people to listen to it under that impression.
How was the production for M for Empathy any different than the past albums?
It was really inspired by [the Silsbee studio], so one of the big specifics of that is that there’s a really beautiful piano there. So, I played a lot of piano, and that’s something I haven’t really gotten to do that much of in the past, so that was a real treat. Pretty much everything was based on that place, I don’t think I would have felt able to be so quiet if it had been in a big city or anything like that. It was because we were out in the country, and that’s just what it seemed to call for.
A while ago, you sort of live-tweeted a session of you going back and listening to Forever – that was super funny.
That record is so… wild.
That’s actually what I wanted to ask; do you remember your old records fondly? How do you think about your old records?
I do think of them fondly. I have a lot of fond memories of recording them and of the friendships that made those sounds.
Would you change anything about them? I mean, you changed an entire album, but going back to Thx, or even 4E now?
I’m happy that they exist the way that they exist. I think that songs have a life beyond one single recording, so I have plans to redo a lot of it – pretty much everything. Just its own thing, and that just comes from, like you said, now I play “Brazos [River]” as an outsider from Texas, and what does it mean now? Searching through that question by saying the same words five years later I think is why I do that. I do remember them fondly, though.
Do you have any other creative outlets outside of music?
I like to cook. I don’t have any training at all, except on YouTube. I love to cook, I love food, and I make really good salsa.
Okay, that’s that Texas coming out of you. What about stress relief stuff, or just hobbies in general? I know you like to play Magic [the Gathering], that’s super fun.
I like to play basketball also. I like to have movement, so I also just walk around a lot as stress relief. Get my bearings.
You’ve been writing for a very long time – you’ve been making music since you were a kid, so it’s intrinsic to who you are at this point. Can you imagine not writing?
No. I can’t, that’s scary.
Do you know what you would do if you weren’t making music? Play basketball?
My middle school basketball coach actually sat us down at the end of the season and asked what our plans were for future basketball, and I was like, “I’m not really sure,” because I was shy, and he was like, “You know, you’d make a good coach.” And then I didn’t play basketball anymore. But I don’t know what I would do, which is a terrifying sentence. I mean, even the project Lomelda started when I was in high school.
So you had projects before that?
Yeah, when I was learning instruments and songwriting, I would wrangle my friends into doing it with me, and we would come up with a band name, I’m sure.
You don’t remember any of them?
Oh, one of them was “Free Soil Party,” which is a political party from like the 1800s that wasn’t actually that great, but it was just something that we saw in a glossary or something and went “That’s a good band name!” without doing any research at all. Yeah, just goofy kids. That’s the only one I can remember.
What are you looking forward to in 2019, whether it’s music, or experiences, or the imminent heat death of the universe?
I’m really excited to make another record, that’s the thing I’m most excited about. And the great big unknown.
The full conversation can be heard at the link above, and you can listen to M for Empathy below.