Sierra Hull in 2011

Sierra Hull has a number of major milestones coming up this year. On March 8, Daybreak, her sophomore CD from Rounder Records is set to hit, and she is currently at work in Tennessee on her first music video in support of the new record.

She is also set to graduate from the Berklee College of Music in Boston this Spring, completing their 2-year diploma program while also touring and recording with her band, Highway 111.

We had the chance to speak with Sierra at some length last week, about the new CD, managing college and an active performing career, and about seeing the end of her time at Berklee just ahead. We’ll talk more about Daybreak in a week or two, closer to its release, and dedicate this post to our discussion of her time at Berklee.

Sierra said that it was a big change for her, moving up to Boston from Byrdstown, TN in the Fall of 2010.

“College has had a big impact on my life – really taken me out of my comfort zone. Musically and personally, I’ve had to learn to adjust and be on my own. And being up here at Berklee with all these other great artists has helped me have the confidence to try and share the music they’ve taught me with the bluegrass/acoustic world.”

Berklee has recently created a curriculum they call the Artist Diploma, designed specifically for young students in Hull’s situation.

“I think there are just a handful of people who qualify, and since I’m traveling so much it involves a lot of private and one-on-one instruction. I’m not as tied to the normal requirements as the typical student.

This opens it up for me to study vocals, songwriting, and mandolin. I still have to pass mandolin proficiencies every semester, but got to do some basic music courses privately. I studied harmony and theory with John McGann, and am way beyond where I was when I got here, because I didn’t know a thing about theory. I’ve also been able to do some direct study with Dave Hollender and Matt Glaser.

I never even knew an E from a G when I started, but I can actually read a little bit now. I’ve played with Berklee World Strings, a contemporary improv group, and that has forced me to read a little bit more. I’m not good at it, but I can figure it out slowly.

The guys up here keep saying that they won’t let me leave Berklee until I can read a little bit!”

Given her remarkable skill as a mandolinist, it struck me that perhaps Sierra would benefit mostly from what Berklee had to offer her as a singer and songwriter – and she readily agreed.

“Last semester I worked with a vocal coach for the first time. I am probably much less confident in my singing than my playing, and studying with a pro, getting feedback on what I’m doing, and learning proper technique has been a big help.

My coach is Anne Peckham. She has been teaching up here for 20-30 years and is really great. She has written a couple of different vocal workbooks and is well-known in the singing world.

She’s somebody who can help me get what I want to achieve, without trying to alter my approach stylistically. Her singing style is completely different from mine, but she really understands what I’m doing. I had never learned anything about my voice, or how to take care of it, so this has been a huge help.

My first time to study songwriting was last semester, one-0n-0ne with department chair Jack Perricone.

I’m doing lyric writing with Mark Simos this semester. I bring in things I’ve written, or songs I really love, and we tear them apart and analyze what drew me to them. It’s really the simple things that separate good from great.”

But she hasn’t avoided bluegrass entirely up in Boston.

“I did my first bluegrass ensemble at Berklee this semester too. Up until now I’ve tried to focus on different things. I’m getting to play bluegrass every weekend, so I wanted to do different things in school. But the bluegrass ensemble has been a blast.”

Sierra expressed several times her gratitude to Berklee, not only for offering her a full scholarship, but for their above-and-beyond support to accomodate her touring requirements. She added that despite her warm feelings towards the school, she will not be able to walk with her class at graduation.

“Yeah… I have to miss graduation! We’ll be at the Doyle Lawson and and Houston Caldwell memorial festivals that weekend.

Part of me wants to just stay here, but I feel like I want to get back to Tennessee, and I’m moving to Nashville in May. This will be an easier travel schedule for the guys – plus we can rehearse! Our fiddler, Christian Ward, has moved to Nashville from California already.”

She also mentioned that she has had to go back to the drawing board where he banjo player is concerned. Her original banjo man, Cory Walker, left the group last summer, and Ron Block has been filling in since then. She had only had Jessie Baker signed on for a few days when an offer came through from Doyle Lawson, and he was off before ever doing a show with Highway 111.

“Ron will be going out with us in March and some in April. Hopefully by then we’ll be ready to move forward with our new banjo player.”

Never a dull moment for this phenomenal young lady. We’ll revisit our conversation next week and cover the new CD.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.