At twenty-five, Sierra Hull is one of the brightest young stars in bluegrass—and one of its best instrumentalists to boot. Having studied the mandolin since childhood, the Tennessee native took home the trophy for mandolin player of the year at October's International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, and Hull's latest record, last year's excellent Weighted Mind, just earned a Grammy nomination for best folk album. It's an effortlessly graceful album that finds Hull flexing her songwriting chops alongside her mandolin muscle, but it didn't come easy: Hull scrapped her earliest sessions for the project and started over from scratch. She discussed her lifelong love of her instrument, as well as the valuable life lesson she found in her record's reboot.
MANDOLIN I happen to love that instrument! I really didn't start on mandolin. I thought originally that I wanted to be a fiddle player and got one for Christmas. It was a little too big for my hands at the time—it was a full-size. My dad was learning to play mandolin a little bit at the time, and because the tuning is alike, he said, "Well, let me show you a couple things on the mandolin." For whatever reason, I just fell in love with it immediately and have always loved the sound of the instrument. It's still my favorite instrument. I went on to play guitar and things like octave mandolin more, more pick-based instruments, but never really became a fiddle player. Maybe one day.
IBMA IBMA is a pretty special organization to me. I first started going to the event when they hosted it in Louisville, Kentucky, when I was about nine years old. I'd only been playing mandolin a year. For me, that was the biggest thing I'd ever been to like that. I got to meet Sam Bush and play a few tunes with him, and I got to meet Earl Scruggs that year. To see some of my heroes perform and to meet them for the first time—I'd never been to an event like that that had so many people that I adored running around. That was exciting, and I got to play in front of probably the biggest crowd I'd ever played to at that point.
COMPASS I wrote that song ["Compass," Weighted Mind's second track] and immediately felt like what it had to say would be a good way to kick off an album, lyrically. The song is kind of all about stepping out without fear and trying to lay your doubt aside, and just trust that whatever's meant to happen will be OK. I kind of felt like that was the theme of the way I was feeling around releasing this album and trying to find my way through whatever my next musical direction was going to be. I wrote that song, and it felt like an automatic theme for the entire project, in a way. It wasn't the first one out of the batch of all the songs, but it was definitely one of the earlier ones.
RESTART The whole process was a little bit difficult, because I wasn't feeling satisfied emotionally. Five of the six tracks that we did were versions of the songs that also made it on to what became Weighted Mind. I learned a lot through making this record, because there's a certain amount of holding things for yourself that's important when you're in the middle of a creative process. If you're too open in sharing every step of the process, it's easy to get too much feedback—feedback that's not necessarily helping you get anywhere. I started doubting my own convictions for the album and started thinking about, "Well, this person's worried about this, and this person would like to see this happen." That whole process, emotionally, just put me in a place where I really had to push it aside, which eventually led to starting over, essentially. There was still already a foundation, so to speak. I don't think Weighted Mind would've been what it is if I hadn't have gone through all of that, either. I look at it as a valuable experience, even though it was somewhat of an annoying one to have to go through as an artist.
GRAMMYS I think just getting nominated for a Grammy is, at least I would imagine, a dream for any kind of performer in any genre. It's something you hope someday will happen, and it's really exciting because it's the first time for me. It was really, really exciting to get that news. I'm excited for the show. I like all kinds of different styles of music, and honestly, I'm a big Beyoncé fan. I'm a fan of Adele. I'm excited that they're going to be two of the biggest performers there. I'm looking forward to the production of it. It's so different from what I do on a regular basis. The music I play and the show I have isn't really that kind of thing, so I think I'm just fascinated by all that. It'll be really fun to have a ticket to the show and see what everybody does. At IBMA, it would be weird if everybody was dancing around on the stage doing all this stuff—that's not really the nature of the energy and the vibe of what acoustic and bluegrass music really lends itself to.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Eight Strings is Enough."