Hannah Read would prefer that you listen to the first two Lomelda records while driving. Many of the songs the Texas musician has released so far call out to the open road by name, enumerating the types of thoughts that only come during a late night journey across state lines. She sees angels in headlights on “Interstate Vision,” watches telephone lines whiz through the passenger side window on “Out There.” Read’s third release as Lomelda, M For Empathy, takes a different tack. “It’s more an ‘on your feet or on your back’ kind of record,” she tells me. Her newest songs invite a certain stillness, asking you to consider them from inside the closed environment of a bedroom rather than the endless yawn of a highway.
Since releasing Thx on the New York independent label Double Double Whammy in 2017, Read has spent a lot of her time on the road, touring Europe and the US with bands like Snail Mail and Frankie Cosmos. She spent most of 2018 in motion, darting from city to city. Read wrote most of the songs on M For Empathy, due out March 1, during periods of reprieve from the constant travel. “The bulk of it came when working in my room, when I had strings of days to close the door and sing over the same six words til it felt right,” she says. “Some of the songs are definitely the result of having five minutes in a four-day span of thinking to myself introspectively.”
Of the eleven tracks on M For Empathy, only one, “M For Me,” breaches the two-minute mark. Despite their truncated lengths, these songs tackle weighty ideas: the difficulty of human communication, the distance between people that looms inside even the closest relationships, and the isolation and despondency that can arise when the distance seems to outweigh the connection. “Girl, where have you been? / Oh no, I can’t tell her everywhere I’ve been,” Read sings on “So Bad 1, Girl,” as if simultaneously reaching for and shutting off the possibility of emotional reciprocity with another person. With a quiet instrumental palette and a handful of incisively written lines, Lomelda makes a minute-long guitar song sound like it houses a vertiginously open space.
During our recent phone conversation, Read discussed life on tour, the tricky art of communicating about the difficulties of communication, and whether people can ever really feel empathy in its truest sense. Check out an edited version of the conversation below as well as an advance stream of the new album, M For Empathy.
You spent most of 2018 on the road. Has touring impacted your songwriting practice at all?
In the past year, I did a lot of traveling by myself, a lot of road time in the car, solo. That affects my brain in a certain way. And my songwriting for sure comes out in these somewhat broken lines that are just something to sing, something to say that feels good. A lot of these songs, in particular, were written when I was trying to fight the malaise of playing the same songs again and again, wanting to say something else. I could insert a 45-second anecdote in the set without hurting my bandmates’ feelings. That’s part of the motion and how it affects me. I think it makes me want to be as direct as possible. Because things are moving around, I’m trying to see if there is a way to get to the point.
The word “empathy” has been thrown around a lot lately as a kind of political cure-all. What does empathy mean to you, and what went into the decision to put it in the title of the record?
I think the version of empathy that gets thrown around is more knowledge-based. Like, “I know what you feel” rather than “I feel what you feel.” It’s obviously a bit of an act, also, always. Empathy in some sense is not real because the definition of it is “I feel what you feel.” That’s by nature not really possible, I don’t think. That was the point of making that the title. It’s an extremely personal record. It’s autobiographical. It’s all “Is” and “yous” and “shes” that are real people in my life. But I put it together in this way that I want to share it with strangers. I think it has something to say in that regard, just about bringing attention to the distance. That was basically the idea behind calling it “empathy.”
Music seems to be one of the better tools we have for closing that distance.
Totally. As soon as you put melody to a sentence, somebody else can sing it. Then it’s theirs. That flip is forever fascinating to me. I was listening to some Tropicália music the other day. I didn’t know what it was talking about, but I was like, wow, I feel these very particular feelings. It was empathic. That’s what music is — empathic notes in the air.
On the song “Tell,” you sound like you’re arguing about yourself over the possibility of communication. You sing, “Tell me what you’ve been through” and then respond, “I can’t.”
That song is about text messaging. It’s interesting you say it says “I can’t.” It says “I can. I can, you can.” But it does sound like “I can’t, you can’t,” which is nice. That’s an appropriate confusion, because that was the meaning of the song. That song really is about the feeling of wanting to share. I think that’s really common at the moment, to make everything shareable. The point of anything that happens is to be able to tell somebody that it happened. And how off balance that makes me feel. I think it probably makes other people feel that way, too.
How do you reconcile the human need to communicate with the fact that it’s seemingly impossible to completely express your interiority?
I write songs.
Is M For Empathy a turning point for the Lomelda project? Will future releases use some of the same strategies you use here?
This record is different than anything I’ve ever made. While it’s something that I will keep doing, the future of Lomelda in 2019 will include a very different timbre and mode of communication. But really, I don’t feel like I’m done studying these themes. It’s been the same themes on every record, just a different angle each time. It’s always going to be about communication and connection.
M for Empathy is out on Friday via Double Double Whammy. Get it here.