Of all the settings in which you might encounter the music of Hannah Read, who performs as Lomelda, the Austin Boulder Gym is an unlikely one. The sweltering summer sun sets outside, and the climbing walls are speckled with the toned, sweating bodies of ambitious weekend climbers. I am directed away from the walls, toward the gym’s yoga studio. A very nice man in a muscle shirt pours me a beer and I enter the space, which is lined with rainbow colored plastic chairs. Afghan rugs are laid out on the floor, claimed by a mix of twenty-somethings and families.
When Hannah begins to perform, by herself on electric guitar, the awkwardness of this odd scene drifts out of focus. Her music casts a spell that lifts you into a gauzy headspace. In “Brazos River,” she stacks memories within memories like nesting dolls. “Those sleepless nights, sitting on your porch/ staring at the stars, never sure what we were looking for,” and then burrows within that memory another: “I told you then how it was so dark, when I rode my bike down University Parks.” This is the world of Lomelda, where memories are as alive as the moments we are living now and things that have happened in the past are tied to the present and the future with strings of regret, desire, and hope.
Her voice hangs onto the last syllable of the line, “I sure do wish I was home,” sustaining out well beyond the progression’s end. The song closes on that tentative, wistful half-thought, and the weight of the past hangs heavy in the room. A baby in the audience cries; it’s Hannah’s nephew. She gives him a playful glance over the top of her glasses and smiles: “I know, it’s so sad.”
Later that summer, Hannah Read invites us out to her family home in Silsbee, Texas. I’m joined on the drive by photographer Bronwyn Walls and Portals creative director Tyler Andere. After breaking out of the congestion of Houston, the road to Silsbee is flanked by majestic columns of towering pine trees as far as you can see, broken by an occasional stream which comes into view suddenly and disappears behind you just as fast. The grandiosity of the setting is disrupted only by the sighting of a Confederate flag or a rusted out truck in a poorly kempt yard, signs that this is still Texas, after all.
We pull up to a large ranch style house and Hannah meets us at the car with a Lone Star beer in one hand and a basketball tucked under the other arm. As we walk toward the house, she attempts a casual hook shot in the driveway hoop. She makes it, nothing but net. We enter the house through the laundry room, where someone has written, “Welcome Portals to Silsbee!” on the chalkboard. Many walls in the home are lined with framed show posters and local press clippings celebrating the past musical accomplishments of Hannah and her brother Tommy, who produces most of the Lomelda releases. Their high school band was called Judas Feet.
This is where Hannah lives now. Under the same roof are four generations of Read’s: Hannah’s mother and father, her brother Tommy, his wife Kaitlyn and their two young boys, and “Mama Jackie,” Hannah’s grandmother, who built the home many years ago.
At one point Hannah wryly describes Silsbee as the kind of town with two Sonic Drive-Ins, “one on either side of the train tracks.” Hannah grew up in Silsbee, as did her parents, and on and on. The lineage can be traced back several generations further than the four currently living in the home. Not surprisingly, the allure of such an environment has much more to do with family than a social scene. She notes, “I can live here for weeks and only see members of my family.”
After high school, Hannah left Silsbee for Waco, TX to attend Baylor University. The Lomelda project started earlier, but it came into its own there. In Waco, Hannah found a strong, supportive community of friends and collaborators that grounded her even as she struggled with general dissatisfaction with college.
This period of creativity culminated in the record Forever, released in fall 2015. On the album, Hannah wavers between desire for the past and the comfort of home on one side, and the pull forward toward the possibilities of the future and the unknown on the other. She variously expresses a wish to “drive way up north […] to see the things we’ve never seen before” on “Brazos River” and “I dream of moving to the city” on “Spiritual Health,” but also, “I find that I wish I was home” on “Columbia River.” The contradictory, tentative mix of emotions in Hannah’s words and voice anchor these recordings, as her band at the time, guitarist Andrew Hulett and drummer Zach Daniel, lurch and skitter around her like a living thing.
One finds in these songs an unnerving fluctuation between the mundane and the ecstatic, even the apocalyptic, a reverberation of her upbringing in the church perhaps. The title track, “Forever,” begins with a tender desire, “At the end of the day I just want to feel a warm hand on my back.” Within moments, however, the song transforms into a vision out of the Book of Revelations: “I just want to watch the sky fire burn to ashes like a prophecy,” she sings powerfully, yet the specific meaning is obscure. “I definitely was a little angstier when I wrote those songs than I feel now,” she offers.
Directly on the heels of Forever, she recorded all of the songs again, this time by herself in an intimate acoustic setting, a process she jokingly refers to as “reverse demo-ing.” The result, 4E, is, if possible, even more beautiful and emotionally resonant than the original. These recordings are quiet and close, and allow Hannah to express layers of non-verbal meaning that were harder to hear before. “Part of the reason I wanted to make 4E was that I was just unhappy with my performance on Forever,” she says. “I thought the band did great but I didn’t do so hot.”
In this new format, the song “Columbia River” emerges as the most devastating work in the Lomelda catalogue. Here again, Hannah opens with a humble observation that abruptly shifts into a troubling spiritual fever, singing, “Everybody tries to fall in love but I just keep making friends/ When I sort through those stars at night I’m looking for some kind of sign of the end.” The source of this album’s notable ennui is possibly revealed as the song continues. “I just want to sit still and stare right at you with my strongest gaze. It’s an innocent youthful thrill,” a thought we suspect she exposes to the listener but not to the “you” in question. The song ends with weary desire, “I wish I was yours […] All of yours until I am nothing more.”
The tension between staying and going looms large in Lomelda’s music from this period. Near the completion of Forever, she and her bandmates went on a band vacation in the Pacific Northwest. “It’s so beautiful up there,” she admits, “but everything that I loved about it reminded me of Silsbee.”
In the summer of 2016, Hannah boldly attempted a move to Brooklyn. It didn’t work out, but not for the cliché “New York chews you up and spits you out” reasons. When we talk about her decision to return to her hometown, over and over she uses a variation on a curious phrase, about having wanted to be “from New York,” but instead discovering what it means to be “a Texan from Texas.”
She explains, “I felt like I was trying to change my identity and fulfill this story of so many inspiring people who were like, ‘New York is my hometown.’ I realized that I identify with being a Texan. I’m still trying to figure out what that means. What it looks like to be who I am – an artist – and being here in Texas, and not only Texas but, like, deep Texas. I keep rediscovering that escape is not necessarily what I want, even though I convince myself fairly often that it is. My identity is really tied to this place, Silsbee, for better or worse. I’m really trying to dive into what that means.”
Life in Silsbee is slow and serene. We drink Lone Stars and play basketball with her and her brother and watch as her nephews show off their bow and arrow skills in the backyard. Later, her dad cooks a feast on the smoker. At night on the patio, we’re joined by two old high school friends of Hannah’s, Eric and Callie, both photographers. As they share laughs and spin yarns about past misadventures, the appeal of this sort of life is obvious.
Hannah is asked how she came up with the name Lomelda, and she tells a story about how in high school she had a job making slideshow memorial videos. Once she came across an enigmatic photo of a woman, who “was not expecting the photo, seemed even resistant to having the photo taken. For some reason the expression seemed in control and I admired it.” Lomelda was the name written on the back of the photo. She continues, “I pitched it to my mom and she said ‘That sounds like an old lady name’ and I was like ‘Perfect! I’m keeping it!’”
After a moment’s silence, Hannah’s sister-in-law Kaitlyn, contradicts, “I always thought it was, like, some Lord of the Rings language.”
Her brother Tommy gleefully blurts out, “It is! It mean’s ‘echo of the stars!’”
After a big laugh, Hannah possibly concedes, “Y’all are calling me out.”
Hannah’s brother Tommy is an important figure in her life and for Lomelda. Their musical pursuits have been intertwined from the start. “He was the person who pushed me to do everything that he was doing,” Hannah says. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing [without Tommy]. I can’t imagine it without his influence.”
Tommy became interested in audio producing and engineering “the normal way,” as he puts it, looking for a way to quickly and cheaply record himself in high school. He admits that now, with a family to look after and a hefty commute into the Houston suburbs for work at his tech job, he doesn’t have much time for his own music anymore. His main outlet is as Lomelda’s resident producer. The pair are able to work together through odd ideas that Hannah says would be “really hard to communicate with a stranger.”
The siblings’ collaboration reaches a new peak on Lomelda’s forthcoming record, Thx, which features a song written by Tommy called “Bam Sha Klam.” When Hannah first heard Tommy’s demo recording, “I was like this song is so good! How do you play it?” The song title refers to a game they invented as kids, “similar to a home run derby,” according to Tommy. Hannah adds, “If you hit the ball over the house that was a home run. We called it Bam Sha Klam.”
Tommy’s songwriting is like a mirror image of Hannah’s. They share similar concerns, but the details are all different. Angsty clusters of dissonant, crunchy guitars crowd early passages before untangling into an expansive expression of nostalgia. “We will disappear into nothing/ but do you see me in this moment/ As a young girl out in center field?” In the end, they attempt to reconcile memories of childhood with the realities of the present: “It’s gonna be slow going from here on out.”
In September, Hannah released a one-off Lomelda single called “Ya With Me?” The song’s bright, sunny textures immediately set it apart from her other work. She may still be mining the past and contemplating loss, with lyrics like, “So you don’t want to be a family/ you told me/ sitting at the table that my grandparents left me,” but there’s a modesty and patience to the song that is not present in her earlier releases. Her perspective has changed. She takes loss in stride.
Hannah doesn’t have a release plan for her new album Thx, but it is finished, and features her most mature writing yet. On these songs, a skill emerges that was partially obscured before: Hannah has a talent for writing lyrics like bird’s nests. Her lines are like twigs of seemingly unrelated observation and emotion that nevertheless come together to create a ragged form, full of loose threads and contradictions. It’s her.
On songs such as album opener “Interstate Vision,” she still whips between the personal (“Wrap your arms around me”) and the expansive (“I saw an angel fly on bright white wings”). The relationship between these threads is intuitive, but real, scattered thoughts that come together in the form a person who is reconciling all of the big and small things that add up to… something? Or nothing? Hannah presents a modest world, occasionally interrupted by grand visions of unclear meaning. “I saw a meteor burn through the sky.” The line is dangled at the end of the song, with no closure.
“I’m trying to be more calm about the fact that [my new music] is more personal and unimportant and… just small,” Hannah says. “It’s not going to be everything to everybody, but it might be enough for me.”
At dusk, as the sound of the cicadas washes through the air, Hannah and Tommy lead us back behind the house to Tommy’s property, through a path carved out of the scruffy undergrowth. Tommy and his family are only living at the Read home while he saves up to build his own house on the adjacent land. Part of that plan – and part of why Hannah moved back to Silsbee – is to build a stand-alone music studio. Tommy says, “It’s definitely a ‘field of dreams’ type thing.” He wants to plan smart, but is also dedicated to building something that is “significant to us.” Hannah expresses excitement about “trying to be a family in that sense of helping each other have a high quality of life. We’ll see what happens…”
We walk further on, past where Tommy’s house will be, past where the studio will be, past the natural gas pipeline. We pass through more overgrown thicket, avoiding the freshly spun spider webs as best we can, and emerge finally onto the backside of the local golf course. Hannah goes searching for golf balls to throw. “Growing up I would go with the family and collect golf balls along the country club,” she recalls. “Now being back here it’s a totally new thing. We’ll take my brother’s kids out here and throw golf balls aimlessly to pass time. It’s kinda cathartic.”
We talk about people they knew growing up and how someone heard there was a bear loose in the area and the first time we saw Jurassic Park and skipping class in high school. We drink Lone Stars and throw golf balls. Then the sun sets and we go back home.
Listen to Lomelda’s 4E here.