When I spoke with Hannah Read, in early November, everything about her life was in flux. A week earlier, Read, the indie folk singer who performs under the moniker Lomelda, packed up her apartment in Los Angeles for the southeastern Texas town of Silsbee: her dwelling for the immediate and uncertain future. Moving back to her ten-acre childhood home, in a town with a population of just six thousand, appears like an unusual trajectory for a musician who has developed a cult following for her razor-sharp lyrics and warbler of a voice. But for Read, 28, the move checked out.
“I was an outsider,” she says more than once about her time in California. Read missed Texas, she explained, which gave her a quaint sentimentality that stuck out in Los Angeles. Maybe homesickness runs in her blood: brothers, aunts, and second cousins all live nearby. Every afternoon, Read makes her grandmother lunch.
Home, and the vast physicality of Texas, pulses through Read’s music, which she builds out through lyrics about porches, suspension bridges, and the region’s humidity. But the idea of home—being away from it, searching for it, finding it—often veers into the metaphysical: Read’s lyrics feel aware of distance, both physical and emotional, and her songs fight for those connections in their melodies. What’s more, her best tunes are parables of a formless, shapeless home.
The search for belonging anchors Read’s most recent album, Hannah, which was released in September and recorded in Silsbee with her brother and frequent musical collaborator Tommy Read. Listening to Hannah is not unlike drinking a glass of warm milk—it’s mellow and soothing. The record is sparsely arranged, with songs often featuring just Read’s vocals and a pensive guitar. She reaches to the tiptoes of her vocal register only to crash down—that wail!—snapping you back to reality. “I feel pretty good about what I made,” Read says. “I definitely accomplished different things than I even set out to, and I don’t even remember what I was trying to do.”
The album has been lauded everywhere from Pitchfork to NPR, both of which have named Hannah one of the best albums of 2020. In a year when a global pandemic has shut us all inside, Read is using home as both her creative and her professional launching pad to make possible a new reality: becoming a successful indie musician from one’s living room.
Lomelda is a name without a concrete meaning. It emerged when Read took a job while in high school at a local funeral home, where she created slideshows for memorials. One day, she found a photograph of a woman with the name “Lomelda” tagged on the back. This wasn’t the name of the woman who had recently died, which only made it more confounding. There is no known notation of the word anywhere online, so Read made up a definition for herself: to her, it meant “echo of the stars.” She adopted Lomelda as her stage name and has run with it ever since. Still, Read is careful to not claim Lomelda as an alter ego. “In my mind, Lomelda is something that’s bigger than just me,” she says. “And always the goal with Lomelda has been playing with other people and interacting with an audience. It’s not solitary.”
Church informed Read’s early artistic memories, with its melodies and hymns. She described her experience at Silsbee High School as something out of Friday Night Lights: a duty to a higher being (God, football). At about this time, Read began performing contemplative acoustic originals in and around the nearby city of Beaumont, initially in a trio with friends from school.
Read released her first album, Forever, in 2015, while she was studying in the Great Texts program at Baylor University. Forever is texturally rich. Recorded with a full band, the album has a distinct percussive thump and a quicker tempo than most of Lomelda’s current work. Sometimes, Read’s voice struggles to compete with her instruments. She made a second go of it the following year with 4E, which was recorded in an empty auditorium on campus at Baylor. They’re the same songs as Forever, but it may as well be a different album.
That collection reverberates with a sullen sobriety, featuring just Read and a lonesome guitar. Its atmosphere produces a new effect. On “Columbia River,” one of Lomelda’s most popular tracks to this day, she croons: “I find that I wish I was home/ I find that I wish I was home.” It’s a prayer as much as it is a plea (Radio Milwaukee aptly described the heartbreaking song as a “pastoral-loner-banger”). Read explains that she wrote the song after visiting Seattle. That trip marked the first time she’d traveled to a big city, and she felt the same pangs of loneliness there as she did in Waco, where she lived at the time. However personal that scenario may be, the loneliness she speaks of is universal. “Maybe because of church and hymns, when I write a song, it wasn’t that I alone would sing it, but that it is singable,” she says.
After releasing Forever and 4E on the music streaming service Bandcamp, Mike Caridi, a cofounder of the indie record label Double Double Whammy, reached out and offered her a deal. A tastemaker’s stamp of approval got Read touring alongside fellow indie rock acts like Frankie Cosmos and Snail Mail, and many of her tour mates became champions of her work. “The songs run deep and embed themselves in my body like a puzzle, and the only solution is to play them on repeat and wear Lomelda shirts every single day,” says Greta Kline, of Frankie Cosmos, who has toured with Read several times.
There are those who romanticize life on the road. Read is not among them. Touring steamrolled over Read’s idea of Lomelda. It became less about the music and more about the industry, she tells me. Financially, Read wasn’t able to bring a band with her on tour: she barely broke even when it was just her. At its worst, Lomelda became a vehicle for T-shirt sales. Read’s itinerant existence during this time left its mark on her next effort, the album Thx (2017). There’s an eerie perspective to this life in a car. She sings on “Interstate Vision”: “Interstates are not what I want/ Headlights scare me into visions/ I saw an angel fly on bright white wings/ Guiding me home.”
During her first year in Los Angeles, where she had moved in 2018, she was barely home. When she was, it felt impermanent. “I’m just popping in places where I have nothing to do with at all, except for one night and sort of selling myself,” she says of playing shows on the road. Those yearnings on 4E and Thx started to take on an entirely new meaning: her musical career, so entrenched in the idea of home, had, paradoxically, separated her from her physical roots.
For her next recordings, Read took a different approach. She made both M for Empathy (2019) and Hannah on her parents’ property in Silsbee with her brother Tommy. A musician turned carpenter turned tech worker, Tommy had built a full-fledged music studio on the land, which now attracts acts from around the country.
These two records from Silsbee feel filled out—a family project in every sense. Tommy, who joined us on a Zoom call, has always had a fingerprint on Lomelda’s music, recording instrumentals and engineering tracks on all her records alongside Hannah’s musician buddies from Silsbee and Waco. The feeling of togetherness on these albums listens like an antidote to life on the road. You can feel the spatial and emotional proximity between Read, Tommy, and her bandmates, who happen to be the closest people in her life. “We kind of speak the same language musically. None of my shit gets past you and none of your shit gets past me,” Tommy, nursing a Stella Artois, says of his sister.
The pandemic seems to have given Read an opportunity to regain what it means to be a musician, rather than a recording artist. She did an Instagram Live show to promote Hannah back in May, and a Q&A series on Reddit, but has otherwise taken the opportunity to just be. “The main thing in my life that seems encouraging to me is the imaginary future where I get together with a few of my friends and my sister and we just have a weekly night that we play music,” she says.
Hannah’s morbidity is different from that of “Columbia River.” Sadness is but one of many emotional registers on the album. Above the top notes lies an optimism; as though she is a step closer in recovering the missing pieces of both her physical and emotional isolation. Perhaps she has figured out how to operate her career in a way that benefits her. “There’s no point for me to sing something that makes me feel bad or makes other people feel bad,” she says. “I don’t go there anymore.”