Thumbs up or thumbs down? Mandolin ace Sierra Hull pondered her fans’ and peers’ reaction to her new music while she was preparing to perform at last year’s Wide Open Bluegrass Festival in Raleigh, N.C. Picking up the mandolin at age eight, Hull had traveled the bluegrass festival circuit many a weekend growing up, while her friends enjoyed sleepovers and playing sports.
“I loved it,” she recalls. “I loved playing. I loved the traveling. I consider myself to be a people person, and I’ve always loved getting to meet new people, and the community itself of bluegrass music and the music world in general was exciting to me.” But some of the same people who had heard her sing and pick for the last 16 years were about to hear a new Sierra sound.
“It’s so scary when you share something new with people who have been so supportive of you doing this other thing for a while,” she admits. “I was not sure how they would perceive me, even just a change of instrumentation.” Fortunately, the former child prodigy found out she had no reason to worry about her performance. “I feel like everybody has been even more accepting of this than what I was doing before. I’ve been really blown away. I put myself in a bit of a box thinking that’s what people thought I was supposed to be, and I’m not sure that people ever thought that. At the end of the day, you have to be what you are. I truly think it boils down to people know when something feels honest or when something feels like it’s not.”
That’s a truth Hull discovered for herself when she was in the studio a few years ago. “Most of the songs that I recorded carried over to what became Weighted Mind, but they were all played differently with a bigger band setting,” she says. “It was a much different thing than what I wound up with.” Self-producing the CD, Hull was getting a variety of reviews from management, the record label, and others in her circle. “I got a little bit frustrated about it all and decided to take a step back,” she says. “I couldn’t decide how I felt about it. I was trying to please everyone but myself.”
Taking the advice of her musical confidante and childhood idol Alison Krauss, Hull brought in banjo wizard Bela Fleck to produce. His suggestion was to strip down the production to only mandolin and voice. “I had never thought that myself alone could be enough to be interesting, but it really made me rethink the way that I approached a song,” she said. “It brought me back home to mandolin. I found it to be extremely rewarding.”
Always in the past, Hull had jammed with full bluegrass bands even though her angelic voice struggled to rise above everything else. “I have this soft voice,” she says. “Sometimes I would be trying to sing something, and I would feel a little bit overwhelmed by how much hardcore mashing bluegrass was around,” she adds with a laugh. “The thing I love about bluegrass, sometimes I wasn’t able to do myself in the way I wanted to do it. I sometimes get the most fun out of it when I can play mandolin and be a tenor singer. I love that! But for me to try to deliver a really killer lonesome bluegrass vocal, I never really felt like that was my strong suit.”
Still, Sierra felt compelled to pursue music with a lot of instrumentation because that’s what she had always done and it was out of respect for the pickers with whom she performed. “I found myself in this place of having this band that was under the name Sierra Hull, but Sierra was getting kind of lost in it because of my admiration for what other people did. I was trying to make room for everybody else.”
By switching to an organic approach, Hull found her voice. “Stripping everything away leaves you no choice but to say, ‘What are you if everything else is gone?’ It’s amazing how my perspective changed on everything. It’s scary a little bit because you certainly feel this pressure. There’s nothing to hide behind whatsoever. Then, it’s also exciting, for me at least. It was really a new way of looking at what I can potentially do—and really freeing. I rethought the way I could play in a solo setting and, therefore, I think that also translates over to playing in a band setting, too, now that I’ve gotten a little bit more used to playing by myself or with one or two other instruments. It’s easier for me to figure out how I want to construct the greater thing because I can really look at what’s my role in this.”
While Hull kept most of the 12-track album sparse, she decided to add a few elements back in. Krauss, Abigail Washburn, and Rhiannon Giddens add harmonies, Fleck crowns “Queen Of Hearts”/“Royal Tea” with his banjo, while one of her two new bandmates, bassist Ethan Jodziewicz, provides tasteful bass. “He’s really a great player,” she says. “One thing I’ve loved about working with him is that he has one of the strongest work ethics of any musician I’ve had the chance to play with. He’s very serious about what he’s doing. I’ve never played a show with Ethan and wondered if he knew the material well enough or if he wasn’t going to do what we worked on. Musicians are different in the way they approach getting on stage and playing. Some people are more loose and that can be an awesome thing. Then, sometimes when you’re trying to play a certain type of thing, you need to know you can count on that person to really execute and bring the arrangement to life also. He’s very good at being loose with improvisation or knowing that he can execute an arrangement. That’s really uplifting when you’re the person out there singing and playing. You want that support to feel strong. He always brings that, which is really fun.”
Besides Jodziewicz, Hull is joined on tour by banjoist Justin Moses, who has performed with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Blue Moon Rising, and the Dan Tyminski Band. “He’s still one of the few people I know that can play like five or six instruments really well,” Hull says. “To have somebody that I can play music with that is as diverse as he is pretty special. Probably the biggest thing I love about being able to have him play with me is that he’s a really great harmony singer. He’s a great musician.”
Hull’s first CD in five years also demonstrates her songwriting chops. She wrote or co-wrote all but one of the cuts. “I’ve always enjoyed writing songs,” she said. “People say to write about what you know. When you’re really young, you don’t know a whole lot yet,” the 24-year-old adds with a chuckle. “Monkey see, monkey do. You see things you love, and you try to recreate those in a way that seems like your own. I think it’s a little bit easier to ask yourself, ‘What am I feeling right now; what do I want to write about?’ From a songwriting point of view, I would like to think that I’ve matured a little bit there, based on life experiences and things like that.”
While Hull concedes that she isn’t a highly disciplined writer, she doesn’t simply believe in waiting until the muse speaks. “Sitting around waiting for inspiration sometimes is a difficult thing because it may or may not come,” she says. “I do believe if you sit down and you make an effort sometimes, you might not get something right away, but inspiration will show up sooner or later.”
Sierra enjoys co-writing at times, but on other occasions, she prefers to be on her own. “It depends,” she says. “Sometimes you get stuck. I’m not sure how to finish it. I was really fortunate to have some great people to take things that meant something to me or I was trying to finish and get some good help. There are some songs that are so close to you that it’s hard to share them with somebody else. The moment you invite co-writing, you’re also inviting this other point of view that maybe can’t really understand where you’re coming from.”
One personal song from the CD is “Lullaby” that she wrote during her first summer out on the road without her mom. “She used to travel with me all the time,” the Byrdstown, Tenn., native recalls. “My dad did too at one point, but mom always had an easier time getting off of work. I think even at that point, as long ago as that was, that song was kind of built upon the heartache of feeling like I’m out here doing my music, and I know that there’s more to this that I’m just not tapping into yet. It’s not that I didn’t love the people I was playing with or that I didn’t love their musicianship also, but I just knew that something wasn’t 100% what I was dreaming of. I’m out here doing this thing and kind of wishing my mom was here.”
Since then, Sierra has graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston on the first Presidential scholarship awarded to a bluegrass musician. She also moved into her own home. In that time, the young performer has developed more professionally, but also in personal maturity. “There’s that period of adjustment to find your own self, and then you start to question,” she says. “These are all the things I know based on what I’ve been taught my whole life and what somebody else hopes me to be. You feel like, ‘Who am I really?’ which is an interesting question. As they say, the more you know, the less you know. I feel like I’m in a better place. I’m still super young and I’m sure in another four or five years, I’ll have another similar experience. ‘Where am I? Where do I go from here?’ I suddenly kind of went, ‘Wow, I feel like probably a woman for the first time in my life.’ You start to go into a place of feeling like I’m alright; I’m standing on my own two feet finally.”
For now, Hull is content with her musical direction, but she knows the winds of time can change her outlook. “I can say for the first time in a really long time, and maybe ever, that I feel very at ease with where I’m at. I’m feeling like I’m truly in the right place. That doesn’t mean that’s where I want to be forever. I think I’m at a place right now that I can really look forward to playing every song on the set list. I can look forward to going out on stage and feeling confident about what we’re going to do. I’m aware that comes in spurts. I’m sure I’ll look back at this album someday and think, ‘Yeah, I’m way over that,” she laughs. “That was that time. I don’t even like that anymore.”