Not Your Ordinary Teenager: A Chat with Sierra Hull
The word prodigy isn’t handed out with regularity. That’s especially the case when you are a teenage musician, but Sierra Hull isn’t your ordinary teenager. As a mandolin player — following in the steps of her idols and legends like Adam Steffey, Chris Thile and Ricky Skaggs — Hull is blazing a trail of her own and leaving wonderment in her path. At the ripe age of 19, she’s already received five IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) nominations in the past three years and is the first bluegrass musician to receive the Berklee School of Music’s prestigious Presidential Scholarship.
She also just released her second solo album on Rounder Records called Daybreak. Produced by Union Station bassist Barry Bales, Daybreak follows her critically acclaimed 2008 record, Secrets. She penned 7 of the 12 songs on the new record, and even one of the genre’s best, Dolly Parton, gushes about the album: “I can’t say enough about Sierra Hull…Sierra is truly a beautiful and talented gift to this world, so special and unique. Daybreak is an awakening.”
Attending the prestigious Berklee School of Music wasn’t the path that Hull initially envisioned for herself — she wanted to go on tour after graduating high school. However, it is a path she doesn’t regret.
“It was a big decision to make,” she observes. “But it has turned out really great. I’ve been exposed to a lot of music and I’ve met a lot of wonderful people.”
When Hull began working on her first album, Secrets, she was fifteen years old. Three years later, Daybreak started taking shape. For many people, three years may not seem like an eternity. For a teenager, these are formative years of self-discovery.
“I really grew up,” she says. “There were three years of more growing and learning and coming into adulthood.” On the effect the exposure to the plethora of different music styles at Berklee has had on her album, Hull notes, “It has given me the confidence to become more open-minded about being around and including all kinds of great music. It’s now okay for me to do songs that I really love. I don’t feel like I have to do stuff in this little bitty box.”
The themes on Daybreak are largely relationship oriented and surround universal subjects like love won and lost — topics that are age-appropriate for an artist in her late teens. That isn’t to say there is a level of immaturity to the songs. To the contrary, Hull’s take and approach on the tracks bring a maturity that belies her age. While her bluegrass productions do not resemble Taylor Swift’s, comparisons can be drawn in their abilities to tell a story and effectively convey emotion.
The album highlights are many. On the bluesy, soulful “All Because of You,” Hull’s floating soprano, backed by some sweet resonator guitar, creates a beautiful and startling and contrasting marriage made in heaven. “Best Buy” isn’t a testament to the electronics store giant, but a fun and spirited western swing-style kiss-off. And the title track, a story of heartbreak, is equal parts sorrow and mournfulness. “Lord, help me find a way to face the day,” she pleads with heartfelt earnestness, while a trailing violin “sings” haunting harmony behind her.
“Tell Me Tomorrow” is another. Bathed in blissful denial and “borrowed” classic country storytelling, the song tells the tale of a young girl pleading for another day. She digs up feelings of sadness, shame, regret and tenderness with the simple question, “Am I a fool for believing that tomorrow everything will be okay?”
Offering an artist’s perspective, Hull describes Daybreak as an album “centered around contemporary bluegrass,” although it isn’t as simple as that.
“There is everything from a swing tune to a four-part harmony gospel song. I feel like there’s a pretty broad range of styles and influences. Those were tunes I had written but didn’t necessarily think I would do anything with. I finally had the confidence to say, ‘Yeah, it’s okay for me do something with that if I like it. Why not?’”
The album also features collaborations with Bryan Sutton on guitar, Randy Kohrs on dobro, and her band instead of traditional studio musicians. “We had some guest singers: Dan Tyminski, Shawn Lane and Ronnie Bowman — three of my favorite singers on the planet,” says Hull.
Those are just a few of the artists that have been inspirations to Hull as she cut her teeth in the music business. She still looks up to other bluegrass icons and fellow mandolin players as a student, learning and soaking in as much as she can. Adam Steffey and Chris Thile are two artists she specifically called out for their skills, both being mandolin players.
“I grew up listening to both a lot. They both have really great tone and play really clean. They are people I heavily admire but definitely in the bluegrass scene. And Chris does so much outside of the bluegrass scene as well. Actually, mostly outside the bluegrass scene these days. It’s always inspiring to hear him. I feel like he’s so unlimited of what he’s capable of doing. He can play any style that he wants to play and bring something really creative in. And for Adam, he can play two notes and you can recognize who it is. He’s such an amazing mandolin player. I love that he started a certain style and a certain approach to playing mandolin. I’m still constantly inspired when I hear him play. I grew up listening to a lot of Sam Bush and Ricky Skaggs and the list goes on and on. These days I find myself trying to learn things not just from mandolin players but people in different styles of music and with different instrumentation as well.”
At the end of the day — beyond the strings, the instruments, the notes and the songs — bluegrass for Hull is about the culture and the relationships that she’s developed.
“When I think of bluegrass, even before the music itself, it’s about the wonderful community and the friends that I’ve made. I’ve made so many friends, so many people I love, through making music. Some of my closest friends might be people I don’t even see all that often, but you’ll always have that special bond because of the music. I love bluegrass festivals and I love the people just so much.”
One of those people is Alison Krauss, who — because of her similar ethereal soprano voice — is a source of constant comparison. It’s nearly impossible to not draw a correlation. Both were teenagers thrust into the spotlight — by the same record label no less. Hull looks at the comparisons as a major compliment and often looks to her friend Krauss for inspiration and advice.
“For me, Alison has been a huge influence. If I can think of one person that has been the biggest hero for me — someone you love and admire and that have stamped you musically — she was that person. I’ll always admire her and love her singing so much. At the same time, you can’t help but naturally be influenced by what you’re listening to. I grew up on that. It really shaped my ear for singing. Coming naturally, you end up spitting back out what you’re listening to. You end up reflecting that a little bit. Of course I’m trying to do my own thing, but that influence will always be there.”
The high regard that the bluegrass and country world holds for Alison Krauss may cast a large shadow, but perhaps it will provide a directional compass for Hull to chart her own course. When all is said and done, however, Hull has no shoes to fill but her own. She’ll be fine though. Afterall, she isn’t your ordinary teenager.
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