Sierra Hull has been recognized from age 11 as a virtuoso mandolin-player, astonishing audiences and fellow-musicians alike. Now a seasoned touring musician nearing her mid-20s, Hull has delivered her most inspired, accomplished, and mature recorded work to date; no small feat. Weighted Mind is a landmark achievement, not just in Sierra Hull's career, but in the world of folk-pop, bluegrass, and acoustic music overall. With instrumentation comprised largely of mandolin, bass, and vocals, this is genre-transcending music at its best, with production by Béla Fleck and special harmony vocal guests Alison Krauss, Abigail Washburn, and Rhiannon Giddens adding to the luster. Hull speaks eloquently, in her challenging and sensitive originals, her heartfelt vocals, and once again breaks new ground on the mandolin. Béla Fleck special guests on banjo on two tracks and duo partner, Ethan Jodziewicz, not only anchors the record on bass, but introduces us to a major new instrumental voice.
Release date: January 29, 2016
This is the turning point.
This is where a preternatural talent becomes a natural woman.
This is Sierra Hull’s Weighted Mind. It is nothing like what we thought it would be. It is nothing like what we’ve heard before, from anyone. It is singular and emphatic, harmonious and dissonant. It is the realization of promise, and the affirmation of individuality. It is born of difficulty and indecision, yet it rings with ease, decisiveness, and beauty.
“She plays the mandolin with a degree of refined elegance and freedom that few have achieved,” says Bela Fleck, the genre-leaping banjo master who produced Weighted Mind. “And now her vocals and songwriting have matured to the level of her virtuosity.”
Alison Krauss, who has won more Grammy awards than any female artist in history, says of Hull, “I think she’s endless. I don’t see any boundaries. Talent like hers is so rare, and I don’t think it stops. It’s round.”
Hull came to us as a bluegrass thrush, a teen prodigy. Krauss called her to the Grand Ole Opry stage when Hull was 11-years-old. Two years later, she signed with Rounder Records, and soon became known as a remarkable mandolin player, a tone-true vocalist, and a recording artist of high order. She made two acclaimed albums. She played the White House, and Carnegie Hall, and the Kennedy Center, and she became the first bluegrass musician to receive a Presidential Scholarship at the Berklee College of Music.
She was celebrated, yet adrift. Stranded, even.
What she felt at 22 was not what she felt at 12, and the music Sierra Hull was writing and playing at home was different from the music she was making on stages.
“In some way, I was needing to run from the thing that everybody thought I was being,” she says now, at 24.
But she wasn’t running so much as plodding.
She fielded myriad opinions about hypothetical courses. She grew vulnerable, and weighted, and she wrote songs about all of that. She found solace in an antique Brenda Ueland book that advised, “Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself.”
And she talked with Krauss, the childhood hero who had become an adult confidante.
“Sierra did well in music very fast and very young,” says Krauss. “Sometimes when that happens, people don’t want you to change. It’s, ‘We know you as this, and now you’re scaring us.’ But there wasn’t a question about what she wanted. She just needed somebody to listen to her and say, ‘What you have to say is valuable. If this is what you feel and what you want to say, you wait until you get to say it.’”Krauss also suggested she talk with Fleck.
“Sierra lives in the border area where new ideas mix to create hybrids, and sometimes brand new directions,” he says. “Her own voice was quietly telling her something that was hard to hear over all the advice she was getting.” Fleck asked her to play him her new songs, without accompaniment: Just voice and mandolin.
“Even when I was fronting a band, I’d always been an ensemble player,” Hull says. “To do something by myself made me rethink everything.”
And so she rethought, and she found new ways to play the new songs she’d written. In short time, what had been arduous now seemed genuine and innate. C.S. Lewis’ quote about how “the longest way round is the shortest way home” made sense. And a dazzling and atypical album was made possible.
Hull’s songs did not remain bare of all but mandolin and voice, though those are the essential elements here. Bass marvel Ethan Jodziewicz came on, providing resonance and rhythmic complexity. Fleck’s banjo adorns the courtly “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea.” And Krauss, Abigail Washburn and Rhiannon Giddens add enchanting harmonies.
Bluegrass roots inform and inspire this soundscape, but bluegrass does not define or limit Weighted Mind. This is not bluegrass music, or chamber music, or pop music. This is original music, from a virtuoso who tells the truth and speaks from herself.
“If you won’t go where I’m going, then I’ll have to go alone,” she sings. “Choices and changes/ I’m tired of trying to be someone else.” Then she unleashes an octave mandolin solo—first fluttering, then tense and troubled—that could come from no one else.
Hull wrote eleven of Weighted Mind’s twelve songs (and she arranged the twelfth tune), penning some with co-writers Jon Weisberger, Zac Bevill, and Josh Shilling, and writing “Stranded,” “Wings of the Dawn,” “Birthday,” “Lullaby,” “I’ll Be Fine,” and “Black River” on her own.
“The moment you start to be yourself, there’s an honesty about that, that people connect with,” she says. “This album feels like the story of my early twenties, of that searching. Now, it feels like everything worked out the way it was supposed to.”
“I’d like to say to you, ‘Come follow,’” Hull sings on “Compass.” “But you may find my heart’s been hollowed out.”
Now, she knows. If her heart was hollowed, it was only so it might be filled anew, and then revealed. Welcome to a Weighted Mind, at ease.
I first heard Sierra when she was very young, sitting in with Alison Krauss. I remember thinking that as good as she was back then, she’d be truly amazing if she kept on pushing. But how many people really do? Later on I heard very good things about her time at Berklee, where she was a horse of a different color—a southern girl who could hang in there with the best of the modern players; although I wondered if she was actually more of a trad. bluegrasser at heart.
Fast forward a few years to IBMA, the first time I’d been there in many years. Sierra comes over and introduces herself and says, “Hey—do you ever produce anyone anymore? I’d be interested in seeing whether you might consider working with me.”
I had avoided producing for many years. Back in New Grass Revival days, I was doing a lot of producing for Nashville Bluegrass Band, Maura O’Connell, and others. I thought for a while that producing was going to be a big part of my career. But at some point I realized that if I put all that effort into my own music, instead of everyone else’s, I would make much more progress achieving my own crazy dreams.
Yet, I was intrigued by what I’d seen for myself and heard from others about Sierra.
So my answer was: I really don’t think I can make time for that, with everything I have going on. But if you’d like a mentor session, or two, maybe play me your new material, and I could give you some feedback—that I would have time for. And she said sure!
So Sierra started dropping by to play me the new songs she had been developing. I heard something there that surprised me. She was moving towards something very expressive and honest, an artistic expression that I believed offered something new and precious. Pretty soon, we were talking about the record she would make. My first observation was that because she was such a good collaborator she may have been overwhelmed by her excellent band. I wasn’t hearing her unique offerings coming through in a bluegrass band setting. I suggested that she take her own songs and learn to play them solo, just like a singer-songwriter does, but the unique part would be that they were being played on mandolin—not your typical songwriting instrument. And I was a fan of the idea of a true solo album—just mandolin and vocal. I’ve never heard one like that, and I believed it would keep her wonderful team spirit in check—there would be no one for her to hide behind, and her true self would shine out!
After we had made some demos, Sierra felt that she really wanted at least one other instrument. That’s when she conjured Ethan up out of nowhere. She imagined the kind of player that would work, and then he appeared. I was suspicious at first, I knew how great her solo mandolin and voice versions now were, and I didn’t want to lose that very unique quality. But Ethan proved to be immensely talented and open—willing to try anything, and with the rare set of abilities to make most ideas work. And Sierra had a very strong view of what she wanted from the bass. Between the three of us, we found bass parts that complemented her songs and the mandolin perfectly. Once we had recorded all the songs with the two of them, it was time to decide whether to add anything else. We all were curious how adding some additional vocals would impact the story telling aspect of the music. Alison was the first thought—she and Sierra have a long and close relationship, and Alison was quick to agree to do this. It turned out that she was the one who had suggested to Sierra that I might be a good producer for her. I guess she had really liked those Maura O’Connell CDs from years gone by. Then one night Rhiannon Giddens was visiting, and I asked if she’d go down into my basement studio and sing on a track. Turns out she loves singing harmony, and is truly great at it. And here’s another in-house situation: Abigail Washburn was also close by, living a few dozen feet from the studio! And she dropped down to add her vocal talents to the mix. Somehow it felt like having these three talented and well-established ladies involved was giving a stamp of approval to their younger friend Sierra, and it completed the recording beautifully. Then Sierra kind of insisted that I play on something, and though I acted all shy about it, I was glad to be invited.
Sierra and Ethan proved themselves to be powerful artists, with extremely high standards. They both could hear things that I could not, and I’ve learned a lot from both of them.
I am so glad to have ended up being a part of this project.
It’s finally here.
Making this album has been quite the journey for me. I started a project back in January of 2013. Several months and six tracks later, I decided to scrap the whole thing. It was a frustrating and difficult musical period for me, but out of it has come a new discovery of myself as a musician—and I wouldn’t change a thing.
“The longest way round is the shortest way home” −C.S. Lewis
I’m not sure what it was this time around, but I know I felt different. I knew whatever this album would become would be unlike my previous two recordings. More than anything, I knew this album would be about the songs. I was vulnerable, but something about these songs felt true to me—like a story I had to tell.
I originally went into the studio to begin this project with myself as producer. It had been three years since my last album, Daybreak. I had a handful of new songs including “Weighted Mind,” “Compass,” “Wings of the Dawn,” “I’ll Be Fine,” “Lullaby” and what ended up becoming “Stranded.” Either directly or indirectly, a lot of these songs were inspired by experiences in my own life—my struggles and confusion with life, music, loved ones, God, bandmates, the road and all things early 20s. I had a rough vision for what they could sound like in a band setting. I had drums on most tracks; I even played electric guitar on “Compass”! I wrote many of these songs on acoustic guitar, and the idea of forcing mandolin on them at that time didn’t make sense to me. After all, this album wasn’t meant to be about Sierra, the mandolin player, but about the songs themselves, right?! That’s what I kept telling myself.
Having made a couple albums in my teens along with traveling from such an early age, I sometimes felt that people boxed me into this idea in their mind of who they thought I was—as an artist based on the 16-year-old Sierra. True or not, I think part of me was running from that idea. I wanted to make an album as a mature artist. I wasn’t out to impress with my playing or singing, I just wanted to make people feel what I was feeling. I had shared some of the music and ideas (not all by choice) a little too prematurely to my team at the time, and after receiving less-than-encouraging feedback from a few, I found myself defeated. On one hand I had people excited, saying, “This is amazing!” On another hand, I had others saying I had too many ballads and that I should probably look for some songs by other writers. I’ve never been one to want to record songs simply because I wrote them, but I knew these songs were part of me, and I needed to get them out. I found myself really confused. What did I truly think and feel about it? Love it or hate it? It was hard to know at the time in my vulnerable state. All I knew to do was to put on the brakes until I felt like I had the right answer as to how to proceed. The clock was ticking, but I knew making an album based on other people’s expectations would lead me nowhere.
In the meantime, I kept writing. “There is no in-between I tell you, and if you think there is you’ve been lied to. You’re only high or low. Nowhere between, nowhere else you can go.” I was truly “In-Between,” though it felt like nothing was moving forward. This frustrated, emotional state fueled a few more songs. “Choices and Changes”: “If you can’t see what I’m seeing, if you fear what is to come. If you can’t hear, what I’m hearing, then we may as well call it done.” I found myself writing about a lot of things close to mind and heart during this period. “Birthday,” written through my tears on a very special person’s birthday, was perhaps the hardest song to include on the project because of its personal meaning to me. Béla first singled out this song as compelling, along with “Fallen Man”. “Fallen Man” is one of those songs where although the story is told from another person’s point of view, most of us can relate to that feeling of being faced with an impossible choice.
All the songs on this record hold a dear place in my heart. “Black River” is one of my favorites on the album, and it was the last to be added to the collection. It held the original lyrics to what became “Compass,” as “Black River” proved difficult to write verses for. I really liked the melody, so I shared it with Béla a month or so before recording—assuming I’d need to rewrite that first verse. He loved the idea of starting the album with a set of lyrics and ending the record with those same lyrics, like album bookends.
Working with Béla helped bring these songs to life in a way that I never could have done on my own. It was he who suggested we present them so stripped down, with only mandolin and voice so that the lyrics could really shine through. I wouldn’t have had the courage to do this on my own. His brilliant arranging ideas, along with Ethan’s incredible bass playing were beyond inspiring to work with.
It’s now been five years from my last album to this one, and I feel sure that it was worth the wait. I couldn’t have made this album back then.
Though most of the songs on this album are darker in melodies and lyrics, my deepest wish is that they will shine with a reflection of hope. It’s easy to get discouraged by all that life brings us. “Wings of the Dawn” started as a verse that I wrote on my mirror at home to remind me daily that wherever I land, I will find my way eventually—if I hold on to that hope.
From the moment Béla first contacted me about being part of this project to the last night of recording, it has been an exhilarating rush of inspiration, creativity, friendship, and hard, hard work. The first time the three of us got together was at IBMA in October, 2014, where we spent all of our spare hours holed up in Béla’s hotel room working on arrangements, trying to figure out exactly how to approach the songs with just mandolin, bass, and voice. For the next few months, we all juggled busy schedules, in addition to working on this project, but it was always the same: The times we were working were intense periods of pure focus.
Sierra and Béla had put a lot of work into the songs before they brought me into the project, but it never felt as though we were just trying to stick a bass part underneath; rather, the two voices grew around each other and adapted as we discovered how best to serve the songs. I brought my ideas to the table; some stayed, some were tweaked, and some were replaced. At times what Sierra was already playing was altered to fit better with the new bass part. It was very organic.
A musician of Béla’s caliber (and one that we have both looked up to as a hero for our whole musical lives) could have easily just called all the shots; just told us what to do. Instead, he immediately made it clear that we were all equals, that he wanted our input and ideas as much as we did his—we’d all hear slightly different things, and if we were open about it, making the album would be a learning experience for all of us.
And what a joy to be playing music with Sierra, who has such a precision and drive to her ideas, and very high standards, but also is extremely good natured and supportive, and allowed me the space to let my own musical voice come through as we created the arrangements, wrote new parts, and recorded. I’m happy to have been part of this project, and to be continually involved in this—the newest epoch of Sierra’s musical trajectory.
It was a huge honor to work with both Sierra and Béla throughout this project. To not only be working with two such amazing, hard-working musicians, but to also approach it as such a mutually collaborative endeavor was just the type of creative environment I was looking for.
Sierra Hull’s Weighted Mind – Track-by-Track
STRANDED — “Stranded” is a piece that came together while I was still in high school. I was experimenting with playing over a drum loop on Garageband, and came up with the main mandolin melody. For a while, I played it live with a full band as an improv-based piece where whoever was playing with me could solo freely over the constant mandolin riff in D. One of the guys playing with me at the time used to refer to it as “Stranded On the Ocean,” because it was so free to play over. That’s when I decided to name it “Stranded.” When I was thinking of doing this album, it struck me that this could be a neat opening, even if it was short. With this song being in D major, and “Compass” starting in D minor, the melody could transition over to D minor near the end to dramatically lead into “Compass.” It was Béla who suggested I write a few lines of lyrics within the song - kind of like what you hear in old time instrumental tunes where a lyric appears for a few lines. and then it’s gone. It was such a neat concept to me, and really gave it a way to open the album. “Dear 22, I’m stranded here.” That was much of what I was feeling about the theme of the whole album.
COMPASS — I started the lyrics to “Compass” while at the beach with my mom a couple years ago on a mother-daughter trip. The idea of throwing away the compass and stepping out in faith was something I wanted to write about. “What’s meant to be will be” was an original lyric, but I didn’t know how to finish it. I had the lyrics “I’d like to say to you come follow, but you may find my hearts been hollowed out” as the original lyrics to “Black River.” When I couldn’t seem to finish Black River, I gave those lyrics to “Compass,” because it seems to fit both musically and lyrically. My talented friend Zach Bevill helped me finish the song shortly after, during one of our writing sessions.
CHOICES AND CHANGES — I went in the studio and cut 6 tracks about 2 years before this album came to be. I was producing myself. Many of the songs that ended up on this album were present during those sessions, but it wasn’t coming together the way I had hoped. I received some input from a few people on my team at the time. Some of it was positive, but some of it wasn’t. I was so vulnerable that it was discouraging to hear, but at the same time, it inspired me to write in my frustration. Thus, “Choices and Changes” was born - “If you can’t see what I’m seeing, if you fear what is to come. If you can’t hear what I’m hearing, then we may as well call it done.”
WINGS OF THE DAWN — “Wings of the Dawn” was inspired by a Psalm that I had written on my bathroom mirror at home with a Sharpie to remind myself that wherever I may land, I can trust that I’m being guided from within, as long as I hold on to my faith.
BIRTHDAY — “Birthday” was perhaps the hardest song to include on this project. It was written through my tears for a very special person on their birthday. Sometimes it’s hard for people to see past their pride and know just how much we care about them.
WEIGHTED MIND — I found myself frustrated for a while with the band situation I had around me. Though everyone was extremely talented, and on paper it seemed perfect, something felt disconnected. Finding balance within a band -- how much one should take charge and lead, and how much creative freedom should be encouraged – can be tricky. I remember one of the guys I was playing with at the time saying in regards to communication, “the walls just need to come down.” I started writing immediately. The idea of a “weighted mind” came from my co-writer, Zach Bevill, who helped me to finish the song.
FALLEN MAN — Josh Shilling and I came together a couple years ago for a co-writing session. We sat for a while, tossing ideas around. I told him that I wanted to write a story song, not a love song. I had been singing so many love songs, I was kinda over it! At the time, I’d been listening to the John Mayer song, “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test” quite a bit, and though you’d never relate the two, something about the time and feel of that song came to inspire this song. Josh and I had a couple more verses in the original version that didn’t make it to the final version. Béla and I worked with the song to make it a little more vague and moody.
THE IN-BETWEEN — Sometimes I feel like there really is no in-between with things in life, especially in music. Either I’m really happy and excited about where things are, or there’s this overbearing discontentment that drives me crazy! So goes the nature of doing something you love so much.
LULLABY — “Lullaby” was written on my first summer out on the road by myself without my mom. I was getting ready to move to Boston that fall to start college. It was an exciting, but scary time. When I have had a bad day, I sometimes can’t help but look back at the more simple times in my life, like when I was a kid. It always makes me miss my mom and the comfort that only a mother can bring.
QUEEN OF HEARTS/ROYAL TEA — “Queen of Hearts” is an old traditional song that I heard on a Joan Baez album. She did the song more like a ballad, but I found the harmony structure of the song to be similar to an instrumental tune I wrote about 6 years ago. I had the piece for a long time, yet hadn’t found an outlet to use it. When I heard “Queen,” I knew it could be changed into a medley to fit the feel of my instrumental piece.
I’LL BE FINE — “I’ll Be Fine” was originally two different songs. I had both of them in the works simultaneously. I played them both back-to-back for the guys in my band while showing them new ideas I was working on. Though I didn’t mean for it to come off that way, one of the guys said, “that’s awesome! I love how it changes the feel there.” I told him they were actually two different songs, and everyone agreed that the two pieces really complemented each other. It turned out to be exactly what they needed to complete one another.
BLACK RIVER — “Black River” held the original lyrics to what became “Compass.” It was the last one to make its way into the collection of songs that I presented to Béla. I always liked the melody, but assumed if we used it, I would need to rewrite the first verse. After playing it for Béla, he said “that feels like the right lyrics to me. I’m not sure you should change them.” He suggested ending the album with this song, and since “Compass” was slated to be the first song on the record, it would make for lyrical bookends on the album. It’s now one of my favorite tracks!
Sierra Hull Announces January Release of Long-Anticipated Album, Weighted Mind
Bela Fleck-Produced Outing Features Guest Appearances by
Rhiannon Giddens, Alison Krauss, and Abigail Washburn
Hull To Perform on A Prairie Home Companion Saturday, September 26
September 25, 2015 – Nashville, TN – Sierra Hull, the singer and mandolinist and former child prodigy who signed with Rounder at age 13, and distinguished herself by becoming the first bluegrass musician to receive a Presidential Scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music, has announced the release of her first new album in five years. Weighted Mind will be released on January 29, 2016.
15-time Grammy winner Béla Fleck produced the recording, which features eleven compelling new compositions written or co-written by Hull, and one traditional tune for which she and Fleck provided a new arrangement. While Hull’s ethereal voice and fluid playing take center stage here, she receives ample support from bass marvel Ethan Jodziewicz. Béla Fleck’s banjo adorns the elegant “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea,” and Alison Krauss, Abigail Washburn, and Rhiannon Giddens add enchanting harmonies.
Though she is best known for her work as a mandolin player, on these songs, Hull reveals her abundant gifts as a composer and lyricist. Themes of loss and restoration run through the album, starting with the muscular opening number, “Stranded,” and continue on the stirring “Compass,” on which she declares, “I’ve thrown away my compass, done with the chart...I’ll just step out, throw my doubt into the sea, for what’s meant to be will be.” The gentle, dissonant title track ponders existential questions, while the haunting “Birthday” and “Fallen Man” offer somber reflections on strained relationships and impossible choices. The album closes on an optimistic note, with the sweetly assertive “I’ll Be Fine,” and the uplifting, philosophical closer, “Black River.” Fleck, Giddens, Krauss, and Washburn all guest on this track, on which Hull reflects, “A thousand years is but a day, and maybe in a thousand years, I’ll find my way.”
Veteran music scribe and fellow musician Peter Cooper writes, “Hull’s bluegrass roots inform and inspire this soundscape, but bluegrass does not define or limit Weighted Mind. This is not bluegrass music, or chamber music, or pop music. This is original music, from a virtuoso who tells the truth and speaks from herself.”
Hull has earned the admiration of her peers and the press alike: The Bluegrass Situation dubbed her a “mandolin-playing wonder,” and Music City Roots praised her “uncommon maturity—musical and personal,” and noted “one might say she embodies the perfect balance of humility and capability.” The New York Times lauded her as a “prodigious talent,” and for 8 consecutive years, the International Bluegrass Music Association has nominated her for Best Mandolin Player. Her friend and mentor Alison Krauss proclaimed, “Sierra is a remarkably talented, beautiful human being. Success could not come to a more worthy person.” Béla Fleck concurs: “Sierra and Ethan proved themselves to be powerful artists, with extremely high standards. I am so glad to have ended up being a part of this project.”
This Saturday, September 26, Hull will perform a few songs from Weighted Mind on Garrison Keillor’s wildly popular radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. The show, which airs on nearly 700 public radio stations across the country, is also available as a podcast. For station information, go to www.prairiehome.org.
On the following Saturday, October 3, at 9:30 PM, she will appear at the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival in Raleigh, NC, which is presented by the IBMA.
Sierra Hull will tour extensively in 2016, kicking off with a CD release show at Nashville’s City Winery on January 28th. More tour dates will be announced soon.
The album will be available soon for pre-order at www.sierrahull.com.
For more information, please contact Regina Joskow at Rounder: firstname.lastname@example.org, 917-532-5687.
Online media kit: http://mediakits.concordmusicgroup.com/p/weighted-mind/
Photos by Gina Binkley