Interview

What's Been on Sierra Hull's Weighted Mind?

It must have been 10 years ago when I first laid eyes and ears on a barely teenaged Sierra Hull, playing with a band full of old-hat bluegrassers in a showcase performance at IBMA in Nashville. Everything about her seemed small back then -- her, her instrument (mandolin), her voice. Standing in front of that band, she was like a little flower bud just waiting to push up out of the ground. Granted, her skills on the mandolin and her obvious command of the genre into which she was being raised were obvious. But there was something about her that hinted this might not be where she was actually going to wind up. 

Sure enough, now 24 years old, as she releases another album this week -- Weighted Mind (out Jan. 29 on Rounder Records) -- and hits the road in support of it, Hull is not so much distancing herself from her bluegrass beginnings as she is edging closer to who she truly is as an artist and a songwriter. 

As she told me in a recent interview, she started making the album and it just wasn't working for her. She couldn't put her finger on it, but the songs weren't sounding how she wanted them to sound. So she confided in her friend and mentor Alison Krauss, who suggested she spend some time in a studio with genre-defiant banjo master Bela Fleck. The result is a dozen songs that are raw and up front. Contrasting the image of Hull I've carried with me all these years, this recording sees her talent looming large, holding the reins of the music. The arrangements are near-naked and often precarious, but that's generally how it feels when one takes a step in a new direction. The balance of scary-honesty and confident hope is palpable. Though there are other artists appearing on this album (including Fleck, Krauss, Rhiannon Giddens, and Abigail Washburn -- the latter three all lending vocal support), there are times when it sounds like the other instruments and voices are off in the distance, or maybe only in Hull's mind, so far in the foreground are her mandolin and voice. 

And when her mandolin takes over, it's with a delicate assertion, the way a ballerina employs her muscular might to appear light as a feather.

All of these things together make Sierra Hull a force in a new crowd of roots musicians who have begun their lives in bluegrass, attended some kind of collegiate music program (in her case, Berklee College of Music in Boston), and emerged the other side with a solid sense of individual musical prowess. There's something unmatchable about what she does. While Sierra Hull could probably still blend beautifully at any bluegrass picking party, Weighted Mind displays a talent that deserves a spotlight. 

It's worthwhile, too, to pause and consider the exceptional cover art that comes with this album. We see Hull dragging a bust of herself in a wagon. The version of her that pulls the wagon is dressed like a roots music hipster, in high heeled boots. On the wagon, though, she's draped in black lace, flawlessly made up, with large ornate earrings. The look on her face is receptive but suspicious, as if she's listening to something she's not sure she believes. Out of the back of her head spin gears and instruments, wings, butterflies, a heart, a crown, the world. In the background, a comet shoots through the sky, below a thick cloud cover that could either be a storm gathering or dissipating, or both. One road leads to a small, neat white house that stands against the shade of a large tree. Another road leads into the darkness. No matter, though -- Hull is dragging herself past all of it, to somewhere unseen in the image. 

Its with this metaphor-packed image that we began our conversation. 

Kim Ruehl: I usually just like to dig right into the music, but the cover art on your album is incredible. Who did that?

Sierra Hull: This lady here in Nashville named Gina Binkley. I actually worked with her husband David McClister, who’s a really well-known photographer and videographer… She was recommended to me with a list of different photographers I might want to work with. … I thought she could really get the vibe for what I wanted on this record because she had a background in graphic design and I knew I didn’t want it to be like, Here’s another picture of Sierra sitting on a staircase with some distressed wallpaper. So we decided we’d have her work on the project.

We started talking and she was throwing around different ideas. All the pictures – most of the pictures – are photographs that she put together. I actually took that picture pulling the rope – that’s a real picture. The side profile is an actual picture.

The first time I saw you at IBMA you were 12 or 13, and it seems natural that you’d grow up and want to go your own way. Can you talk a little bit about how it was to get into the studio with Bela Fleck and make this incredibly honest record without knowing how it was going to be received by people that expected bluegrass form you?

Getting down to making the record resulted from me going into the studio and cutting six tracks – almost like a half-project … before I even thought about trying to work with Bela. I went through this incredibly frustrating period of trying to make an album and being unsure of what it should be, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. That took some time, so by the time I got around to making it with Bela, some of that fear was out the window. Like, I can’t help what other people think at this point.

I had been getting too much feedback from my team at the time, around me. And then I had somebody say … “I really loved this.” And then I had some people saying, “Well, we don’t know what to do with this.” It had me thinking, from a songwriter point of view, that I needed to find other songs. That was hard to hear because I felt like these songs were so close to home and I was very vulnerable … but they weren’t being received at first the way [I’d] hoped.

Nobody was saying they didn’t like it; it was more like, Well, we’re not really sure about this. So that kind of put me in this difficult place where I kind of had to go – I didn’t know how I felt about it anymore. You know how that is. You get so many different opinions from people. It can be hard to know how you really feel, or it’s kind of diluted with other people’s thoughts. So I just had to get away from that.

By the time I actually went in to work with Bela, it felt like, Okay, I’m ready to do this. And of course he was so great to work with. It’s really easy to trust somebody like that – how much I love his music and respect him as a musician. So working with him was really exciting in that way, which is different from when you have people around you saying things, who aren’t musicians.

Yeah, and his whole career has been about defying expectations about what a banjo is supposed to do. He seems like such a perfect fit for this new direction for you.

Yeah. He’s so open and so encouraging … literally one of the kindest people I’ve had the chance to work with, which is really important to me. Even if I really respect someone’s talent but they’re sort of not very uplifting to be around or a little edgy, my personality sometimes struggles with that a little bit, if I’m already vulnerable. I mean, I can take criticism all day long, but some people have a gift of getting it and knowing what to do with areas that we want to improve. And I think he’s really got a gift for that.

And it’s not just you. You’ve got other players on there. You’ve got Abby and Rhiannon and Alison Krauss singing with you. It feels like this group is supporting you, but you’re doing your thing out front. It still feels very “solo.” Was that intentional or is that just kind of how the music turned out?

That was really intentional and I think exactly what Bela was hoping it would be. And eventually I realized he’s right about what that needs to be.

The problem with the tracks I recorded before, I worked with a really great engineer here in Nashville named Vance Powell. We recorded about six tracks. They sounded great, everyone played great on them. The quality of it was really good. We recorded “Weighted Mind” a completely different way. We recorded “Wings of the Dawn,” “I’ll be Fine,” a few of those songs – “Compass” – but I was playing more guitar. They had a little bit of drums on them here and there, a little electric. It was still very acoustic, but there was just a lot of stuff on it. While they sounded really good, at the same time they were kind of covering me up more.

So Bela said, “Okay, can you just play that song for me with just your mandolin, so I can hear what that sounds like?” And then he went, “That’s more compelling to me – just mandolin and voice like that.”

Of course that’s scary for me because here I am playing solo for Bela, who does that all the time and that’s not what I had done. I’d always played in a band setting. I’d always had my own band, but there’s something about it being just you – just you, all the focus on you. It was also incredibly uplifting in a way and eye-opening in a sense to have someone like that say [that]. Like, See that’s interesting. I had never thought about myself in that way.

To be encouraged by someone like him that this could be cool made me go, “Okay, let me really work on that and see what I can do with that.” And then from there, I would take some of these songs and go home and work on them solo.

So it all started with the concept of: What happens if we just take the mandolin and the voice, and try to make that as strong as we can? Then anything we add to that will just be hopefully icing on the cake, but won’t cover that up.

He originally wanted me to make a solo record in the truest sense. He said, “I think it would be really cool with just complete mandolin and voice.” [laughs] But then we said, “Well you know it would kind of be nice to have a little bass on this…” So we talked about the possibility and then just happened to find [bassist] Ethan [Jodziewicz], who was a perfect fit. Then near the end decided to add a little harmony and stuff, but it definitely was built more on the concept of solo mandolin and voice.

Yeah, I think it comes across most stunningly in “Black River,” where, until the backing vocals come in, it feels like it’s just one instrument playing at a time. It’s very cool. But I’d love to hear what you have to say about “Compass.”

 “Compass” was one that I originally had on that first project, so that one had been around for a little while. That’s the one I looked to and thought, if there’s a theme for the record, this is it. Even back then I wanted it to be the first full lyric you hear on the record.

["Black River" is] about the way I was feeling around that time – feeling like I was in a place of knowing that I would eventually get wherever I was trying to go, but feeling like I was walking through sand trying to get there, through mud musically. “I’d like to say to you come follow,” felt like I’m speaking to my audience or something. “I’d like to say to you come follow / but you may find my heart’s been hollowed out.”

“See the water here is shallow…” Feeling like I wasn’t pulling my weight musically enough or something. Feeling like I had all this stuff to offer that I just couldn’t get out at that time.

“It’s over my head and still I swallow.” But yet I was just continuing to do what I was doing because, I didn’t know anything else to do.

That’s the first verse and then the chorus is pretty self-explanatory. That’s how I feel at the end of it all. I’m just going to try to trust my heart and step out and do something I know I want to do, even though it’s a little scary. I’m not sure what people will think, but what’s meant to be will be.

How is it for you to play that song now that you got through that?

It’s good. I think your emotions toward things change a little bit as time goes on, but I can still easily tap into that. You can feel like you get through something but it’s always seasonal. Yeah, this record’s done and I can kind of breathe right now and it’s really nice to be on the other end of all that, but at the same time, everybody always has things in their lives that they’re just trying to get through. 

I heard a pastor say one time that you’re either in the storm, coming out of the storm, or about to go into the storm, and that’s life. Maybe I’m just coming out of the storm right now, and it feels pretty good, and it won’t be long before there’s something else. But that’s good. That’s the beauty of life.

Right. That’s something that makes us glad there’s music.

Absolutely. 

'And when her mandolin takes over, it's with a delicate assertion, the way a ballerina employs her muscular might to appear light as a feather.'

Beautifully written metaphor. Great interview; made me want to listen to her music straight away. Job done.

I saw Sierra as part of an Alison Krauss show at the Grand Old Oprey in 2005 and thought she amazing. I have both of her albums and looking forward to her new album.

Good Review. That youtube is awesome , her mandolin is more subtle and her vocals are better than ever. Her vocals sound alot like Alison Krauss on that song.

Lovely piece, Kim.  I've come to know that when you write about something you like, it's almost always to my taste as well.

Now if only I could get the album RIGHT NOW!

Must learn patience.

Only three more days!

Two actually, in Canada.