Mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull talks about her life and music ahead of Central Coast appearance
Sierra Hull is an American bluegrass singer-songwriter and has been described as a mandolin virtuoso. She's coming to the Central Coast this week, playing at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande this Thursday.
KCBX News Director Benjamin Purper spoke with Hull about her life and music.
Purper: Sierra Hull, thanks for joining us. You are a singer songwriter and described as a mandolin virtuoso. How did you choose mandolin at an early age?
Hull: Well, first of all, thanks for having me, it's great to be here. I’ve come to know the mandolin at an early age. Before I even really started playing, it was an instrument that I had heard of because my dad started getting into bluegrass when I was around six or seven. He'd always just loved music but wasn't a musician himself. My parents ended up building a house and living next door to my great aunt and uncle. And so my great uncle, Junior, on my mom's side, played mandolin, fiddle and guitar a little bit. He certainly wasn't like some virtuosic musician. He never had any lessons. He learned from the hills of Tennessee and learned to play a couple of tunes like Wildwood Flower here and there and just loved it. So, he'd always be trying to pick out little tunes when I would walk in their house and I was in their home every day as a kid. So, I always remember hearing that instrument. And then when my dad started getting into bluegrass, that's when I really got to hear some of those instruments in a different context, I guess. And so my dad was learning to play a little bit. He was trying to get my older brother interested in learning to play, and I wanted to do everything he did. So I was like, I want to play something too. I got a fiddle for Christmas, but it was a full size. So it was it was just too big for me to handle. My great aunt and uncle, and my granny went in together and bought it for me, and at that time, my hand just couldn't reach the end of the neck to play out of first position. So my dad, who had just recently bought a mandolin himself and was taking a few lessons, said, well, the mandolin and the fiddle are tuned alike, so we'll try to get you a smaller fiddle, but in the meantime, how about I just show you a tune on the mandolin? And when we get you a fiddle, you'll at least know where some of the notes are with your left hand. And so I was like, okay. And so he taught me a tune on the mandolin, and I just fell in love with it immediately and never looked back. So I never became a great fiddler.
Purper: Well, that's okay. So you then made your debut at age ten, right?
Hull: At the Grand Ole Opry, yeah.
Purper: Right, yeah, so that was that was pretty young then.
Hull: Definitely, I mean, yeah, it’s unbelievable thinking back. I certainly can't believe that in two years, that something like that would have happened. I think I was just really fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. And my brother and I opened the show near our hometown, which was about an hour from where we grew up, for a guy named Mike Snyder, who's been a member of the Grand Ole Opry for years. He had heard our set opening for him and then during his show, he said, “How do you like those little kids playing?” And the audience clapped, and he said, “Well, guess what? The next time you see them, they'll be with me at the Grand Ole Opry.” He was so kind to invite me and my brother to get to come on there and make our debut, which was just pretty unbelievable, especially at that age.
Purper: Absolutely. And then you played at Carnegie Hall two years later. Is that right?
Hull: I did, yeah. Again, this was an amazing opportunity at such a young age.
Purper: Absolutely. Going a little bit forward in future — 25 Trips, this album. Can you tell me about the process for making this album? I know it was a year ago that it came out.
Hull: Yeah, it came out at the end of February of 2020. This was my first project in a few years and I spent some time writing on and off and trying to figure out exactly what album I wanted to make and I decided to take on a co-producer as a gal named Shani Gandhi, who's an amazing engineer in Nashville. And not much older than me, but Grammy-nominated, or Grammy winning, I guess I should say, engineer in Nashville. And it was awesome to get to work with another female and someone that was a peer in that way, age-wise, and I knew that while working with her, we'd make an incredible-sounding album sonically. And so I just really focused on trying to write some music and explore some new territory that I hadn’t before. This was my first album with drums and there's a little piano on there, and an electric guitar. Prior to that, I had mostly focused in the sort of bluegrass instrumentation, all acoustic sound. So this album definitely gets a little bit more exploratory as far as the sonic elements go.
Purper: Right, definitely, and I want to talk about Father Time. That song. I know there's a story behind it, right?
Hull: There is, yeah. So Father Time is a song that was born out of an experience I had a few years ago. My husband, Justin's grandparents, were visiting his family in East Tennessee for Christmas, and his grandpa unfortunately had a stroke and had to be put in a hospital for a few days. And I mean, I've known them for years and they lived next door to his mom and dad, so I've always visited with them every time we go in. But his grandma has been suffering from Alzheimer's for practically the whole time I've known her and it's sort of been something that's been a gradual decline of her memory. And so pretty much it's safe to say for the time that I've known her, she's never really remembered me. But she remembered her grandson, but, couldn't always remember his name and we knew that was the case, but it was really something in this particular moment in time to actually go in and not just be there for an hour or two, but to actually stay with her for almost a week. While his grandpa was in the hospital, we moved in and helped take care of her during that time and to really get that inside glimpse of what it's like to be that close to their world. It was really eye opening and beautiful in its own way to be an observer of my husband who loves his grandma so much. And then knowing that she really loves him too, but couldn't always remember him. So it's both sad and beautiful. And that song stands out of that. And there's a line that says, “the way that you love her makes me love you even more.” So that's the punch line of the song. It’s just being able to see how well someone else can love another person and that heightens your love and appreciation of that person.
Purper: That is beautiful, and sad. So what about the song “Less” and specifically the remix of it, which came out this year, I believe in March. So this song presents the lyrics with some unease. Is there any story behind that, or what is that about?
Hull: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting this whole record, 25 Trips, is thematically all about the passing of time and the push and pull where there's moments in time where we get so busy in our lives. Things move 100 miles an hour constantly that it's easy to not stop and smell the roses or be able to be in the moment sometimes. Then there's also times where you're just so happy and everything's going so well that you do want time to just pause and be able to savor the beautiful moment. And then on the contrast, there's times where you're in the middle of the storm and you're just feeling frustrated by whatever and you're ready to get to the other side of it. You just wish that time would hurry up a little bit. So those scenes run throughout the record and “Less” is sort of the latter of those two where it feels like someday there will be less left to keep me up at night. And it was very interesting to make this record and at the time it was released when the world kind of shut down. And I mean, gosh, the title track of the record, 25 Trips, has a lyric that says, “Hello, time, will you slow down? Hello, are you listening?” So, I felt like, wow, this is an interesting time to release a record that wasn't written during the pandemic but felt like a lot of what I was writing about felt relevant to me after going through everything the past year has presented. So anyway, long story short, “Less” is basically about that angst of being in the middle and just feeling like you're just ready to get to the other side of whatever kind of frustrations and conflicts. Sonically and musically, that was built out of exploring the octave mandolin a little bit further and some interesting tunings. So, we decided that track mostly features voice and octave mandolin and has interesting tuning and then there's a string section that comes in at the end, which represents the main tracks as a little bit angsty. And then the string section is sort of supposed to be the someday, I guess you'd say, of sort of the beauty of what will be on the other side of the angst. So, we just decided to do a remix and I worked with this guy, Andrew Petroff, who's an incredible producer, engineer, and musician in Nashville. And we had never even met and we did this collaboration virtually, basically where I recorded some stuff and he recorded some stuff and we sort of put together a more electronic remix of this song. It was really fun and they’re very different, but I really enjoyed both versions.
Purper: Yeah. Me, too. So, you mentioned the octave mandolin. I'm curious what you think the place of the mandolin is in modern music right now. I know that's a big question, but do you think it's growing in popularity? Do you think it's transcending genres a little bit now? What's your take on that?
Hull: Yeah, definitely. I mean it's interesting. There's always been moments of the mandolin popping up in some sort of pop culture, whether it was, something like LED Zeppelin or, some of that stuff like sort of the background instrument or occasionally something that got featured a little bit more and in some well-known piece of music, but it's not necessarily something that when you turn on the radio that you hear. It's definitely more at home, I guess in the bluegrass context where you're basically never going to hear a bluegrass sound that does not have a mandolin present. You think about Bill Monroe, being the father of bluegrass and him being a mandolin player. So it's very prominent in that sound music. But, in these days, there's been so many amazing players that have pushed the boundaries. Chris Thile is a great example of somebody that has definitely been sort of a genre bender with the instrument, which has been a great inspiration to me to continue to explore and take the instrument to places that it's not been before, whether it's classical or pop or jazz or any of those things. It’s such a versatile instrument because it's such a rhythmic instrument. Much like I said, the mandolin is the drum. We're the drummer of the acoustic band, I guess. So it's not only a great rhythm instrument, but it also can just be breathtakingly beautiful playing like a Bach partita, a solo partita or something like that as well. So I really love it because it is such a versatile instrument and it's cool to sort of see it appear more and more in unexpected places within, I guess, the general music scope.
Purper: Yeah, absolutely. Great. Okay. So lastly, what is next for you musically? Is there anything you want to explore? Is there another album coming? What's the trajectory for you right now?
Hull: Yeah, I've started recording a little bit and definitely want to get back in the studio right now. I feel like I've been on tour nonstop since September, and we're on the sort of final leg of my fall tour with my band, which is just been a blast. And then I go to Europe for most of December. I’m doing a solo tour there. And then I think I will hopefully come up for air a little bit and be able to get back in the studio and work on some new music.I did a ton of songwriting in 2020. If there was one silver lining to such a crazy year- being off the road afforded me the opportunity to be able to be creative in a different way and in writing that I wouldn't normally have. So I've got a lot of music that I want to get down on record. And I just love being in the studio as much as anything. So, I'm definitely excited about being able to get back to work in that area.
Purper: Absolutely, that's great. Well, we're excited to have you here in the Central Coast this month. Sierra Hull, thanks so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
Hull: Thank you. I can't wait to come out there. It's one of my favorite places to come play. It's just beautiful out there and I know we're going to have a good time, so I sure appreciate it.