Kathryn Hallberg is one of Houston’s best singer-songwriters. It’s been six years since she released her EP Nocturnal, and I figured that she’d hung up her guitar for good. Then out of the blue, I got a note from her that she’d released a new song, “Lightning.” It’s the harbinger of a third EP, Some Dreams, due out probably in the coming months.
I found Hallberg back when I was a baby journo and she was only 14 years old. She came to my attention through Jeffery Armstreet at Red Tree in The Woodlands, where I used to discover all kinds of amazing acoustic acts. Folk Family Revival, Shellee Coley and Armstreet’s own Evangeline are just some of the folkish-rock bands that became some of my favorite Houston musicians.
Even among them, Hallberg stood out despite her age. No Surprise was a mature collection of songs about life and love that simply shined with heart and beauty. Her soft voice and penchant for clever turns of phrase became my go-to album when I needed to soothe a cruel world away. She topped herself by miles when Nocturnal came out. It marked her transition away from strict acoustic into a more alt-rock direction, something she’s continuing with in the new recordings.
“I've felt a lot more free since I've stopped trying to shoe-horn myself into the folk music scene,” says Hallberg. “I love folk, but I'm not a folk artist and I think I always thought I was just because I had an acoustic guitar. I've been embracing the alt-rock I grew up listening to and loving. I'm also listening to more music that is unlike what I make. I love Frank Ocean, SZA, and Kendrick Lamar, they're incredible writers. I've also been really into BROCKHAMPTON. I went to high school with some of those guys, and I love their work ethic and attitude toward being creative. They've done everything themselves and have utilized each person's individual and unique talents to move the whole band forward.”
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“Lightning” is the logical progression from her previous work. Hallberg has tended to get darker as she’s aged. She’s always been interested in songs of night, and for all that “Lighting” is a ballad it’s also somewhat desolate. It opens with the lines “the streets are empty and it smells like gasoline / the wind is cutting through my clothes.” There’s a desperate, internal violence to her lyrics that is matched by the post-apocalyptic nature of the recording. She’s a voice in the wilderness, and this song really celebrates her tumultuous life since she moved from Houston.
“I didn't go away, I was just living my life,” says Hallberg. “I went to college, I wrote a ton of songs, I fell in love. There was a lot of pressure, so I struggled with intense anxiety which sort of morphed into depression. I graduated and moved from Boston to Nashville, spent a couple years getting settled, and started recording. My depression got worse and became unmanageable, so I started going to therapy. And now I'm here. Feeling a hell of a lot better, in a city I love, with an amazing group of friends around me, six more years of life under my belt, and an EP that I'm really proud of.”
Hallberg is hoping to return to her hometown in January for a show or two. In the meantime, we can enjoy new work from a woman who has never turned in anything but her absolute best. Kathryn Hallberg remains a Houston treasure, and it’s good to hear her voice again here in dark times where her flashes of lightning can illuminate the way.
“Lightning” is available on Spotify, Google Play and Apple Music.