I guess we can if the artist has been recording since she was 12, already has a pair of major label releases under her belt, and has been touring since she was 16. But those are just a few of the rarities that apply to young Ms. Sierra Hull.
Perhaps the first true female mandolin virtuoso to come from the bluegrass world, Sierra approaches her instrument as a blank canvas, not focused on any set manner of playing, but simply applying the prodigious technique she has demonstrated since she was a teen to whatever music crosses her fancy.
And on her new Rounder record, Weighted Mind, her fancy carries her well beyond the strictures of bluegrass as a distinct and recognized style. That doesn’t mean that it won’t have tremendous appeal to fans who had enjoyed her previous projects, just that it represents a new direction and a new sound for this extremely talented and purely fascinating artist.
The first difference long time fans will notice is the absence of a band in support. And where a bluegrass ensemble typically is centered around the guitar, here the mandolin (or octave mandolin) sets the pace and supplies the unifying rhythmic pulse. Another change from the standard band setting is the dramatic and startling role of the upright bass in providing melody, in the person of Ethan Jodziewicz, a brilliant young bassist who had studied with master musician Edgar Meyer.
Sierra credits the new sound to her producer, Béla Fleck, who came into the process after she had already started recording tracks of new songs she had written over the three years since her last record. She says that she was generally dissatisfied with what she had cut, not for any lack of musicianship or recording quality, but because the feel didn’t strike her as right.
It was Bela’s idea to start stripping things away. I went over to his house to talk to him about producing, and he asked me to just play one of the songs on the mandolin. Before he even agreed to produce, he had suggested that we get together and talk because he wanted to see if there was anything he could help me with.
I brought the initial tracks I had recorded, and he thought it all sounded good – well played and recorded. But he said that just me and my mandolin struck him as more interesting than the recorded tracks. His idea was to start there with just me, and start adding only what would help the song shine through in its strongest form.”
That approach works from the very start, as the album opens with the complex mandolin part on Stranded, punctuated by a lovely bowed bass. Sierra says that this theme is one that she had been fooling around with since she was in high school, and added lyrics to turn it into a song aching with the angst of youth, first facing life as an adult.
It is echoed on Compass, again launching with mandolin, bass and voice. Hull displays a true comfort here in a different harmonic setting, one that suits her somewhat smallish voice far better than her prior attempts at singing above a full bluegrass group.
Choices And Changes is one that was written during that time that Sierra was trying to reconcile the new sounds she was hearing with the band setting where she had always worked, and the artistic frustrations that ensued. This song again features just the singer, the bass, and on this one, the octave mandolin. The deep tones of her instrument against her light, high-pitched voice is very effective.
It’s the octave mando and the bass again for Birthday, a more melancholy number addressing the difficulty of merging relationships into adult roles as you grow older. Sierra has written a very poignant song here, a bit reminiscent of the very early days of Joni Mitchell’s folk period, especially with the reharmonized version of Happy Birthday that closes the track. Abigail Washburn supplies the harmony vocal.
The title track starts with a jaunty mandolin phrase and a very un-bluegrass-like flat five, offset by a funky bass line. It’s a very convincing basis for a song whose melody is not discordant at all, with gorgeous harmony vocals from Alison Krauss and Rhiannon Giddens. This one will stick in your ear for some time.
The ending of the song provides a oddly humorous coda to a particularly serious lyric. Sierra’s mandolin sort of drifts off after the last chord, then plays a few unrelated notes, which bring a squawking sound from the bass, followed by laughing all around.
Sierra said it broke the stress in the studio.
“That dog bark sound is Ethan’s bow, and we just got so cracked up when he did that. Bela said, ‘I really like that – let’s leave it in.’ It seemed like a great light hearted way to end the song in the middle of a pretty heavy record.”
Fallen Man may be the closest to the bluegrass format that brought Hull to wide attention about seven years ago, at least on the chorus. Her lyric is another exploration of facing adulthood with uncertainty – but with courage.
As is Lullaby, a beautiful song performed with octave mandolin, bass, and vocal support from Alison Krauss. Sierra says that she wrote this one as she was touring on her own just after high school, without her mom for the first time. She brings out this poignant line, “I’m too old for a lullaby, but I’ll never be to old to cry.”
The album’s tour de force is surely Queen Of Hearts/Royal Tea, a medley of the old folk song (done in a minor, almost gypsy feel), and a new instrumental of Sierra’s that largely uses the same chord structure. Here, Fleck steps out from behind the console to play banjo, and Jodziewicz struts his stuff with the bow.
I’ll Be Fine is a statement of certainty and confidence, at odds with some of the youthful ambivalence contained in the other songs. Sierra says that this one was actually written originally as two separate songs that she combined after being made aware of how well they fit together.
And to close things out, she presents the record’s first single, Black River. The track is once again driven by the octave mandolin and bass, which work quite well together sonically, supplemented by Sierra’s voice joined with Giddens’ and Washburn’s.
Not that her previous albums weren’t, but this is a serious piece of musical art, especially from such a young practitioner. If you approach Weighted Mind expecting more of the same, you will not only be disappointed, you’re likely to miss something really special in the process.
Or as Sierra put it when we talked about the album earlier this month…
“I wanted it to be something that could just feel different to folks, even if they had never seen me before. Maybe you’d get something from it, even it it’s kind of vague.”
Oh my… our little girl is all grown up!