|Mandolin player Sierra Hull finished a two-year program at Berklee earlier this year and released her album “Daybreak.’’ (Greg Delman)|
Graduating to next phase of her career
Bluegrass star Hull grows up with style
Sierra Hull was anointed a bluegrass prodigy at age 10. By 11, she had performed at the Grand Ole Opry. By the time she hit her teens, she was signed to the venerable New England roots label Rounder Records.
But unlike the bumpy trajectory of, say, cuddly child actors who often spend their adult lives trying to get back on track after puberty provides a public and unwelcome career detour, Hull is navigating the tricky transition from girl to grown-up with grace, aplomb, and a measure of modesty that has helped carry her a very long way in a very short time.
2011 has been a big year - maybe the biggest so far - for the 19-year-old mandolin whiz from the tiny Tennessee town of Byrdstown. In February, Hull performed with her label mate, idol, and mentor, the singer and fiddler Alison Krauss, at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C, with President Obama seated a few feet away. One month later, Hull’s third album, “Daybreak,’’ was released on Rounder. And just this past spring, she completed a two-year Artist Diploma program at Berklee College of Music, after being the first bluegrass musician to receive Berklee’s prestigious Presidential Scholarship.
“I was blown away that I got that scholarship because I feel there are so many people who are good, and so much better at a lot of things than I would be - I remember just cryin’!’’ Hull says from her new home in Brentwood, Tenn., an affluent suburb of Nashville, where she moved after graduation in May.
Hull will soon return to Boston, however, where she’ll perform with her band, Highway 111, next Thursday as part of the Institute of Contemporary Art’s free outdoor “HarborWalk Sounds’’ series.
Hull admits she was a little nervous - even intimidated - when she first arrived at Berklee.
“Coming from bluegrass music or old-time music or Americana, a lot of us just learned to play as a kid, and it’s not a very structured learning environment,’’ she says. “A lot of us don’t read music, so going into a world where people know so much theory and are educated musicians, it was really nice to feel welcomed. And being merged in that world was exciting, because I got to hear a lot of different things that I probably wouldn’t have been able to experience had I not been pulled out of my comfort zone a little bit.’’
Berklee professor of strings John McGann, a multi-instrumentalist specializing in mandolin and guitar, taught Hull as part of a curriculum of intensive, often one-on-one instruction customized to accommodate her hectic touring schedule.
“It’s a dream to work with somebody who’s already so deeply into music and obviously talented,’’ McGann says during a separate phone interview. “I contacted her when she was in high school, after seeing a YouTube clip of her [performing]. She just sounded like someone who was so naturally comfortable in this idiom of music, which is a fairly virtuosic style of music.’’
McGann recalls exposing the eager young student to the music of jazz titan Charlie Parker, among other artists seemingly worlds removed from the bluegrass universe.
“She’s a smart and totally open-minded person, and it’s a joy to work with people like that, because you turn them on to stuff and you just see them light up,’’ McGann continues. “It doesn’t mean that she’s going to go off into the sunset and be a bebop musician. But we’re all looking to expand on the things we already know. She was very receptive, like a sponge.’’
Just a few months removed from both graduation and the release of “Daybreak,’’ an album on which the fast-rising songwriter penned a career-high seven of the record’s 12 songs (including the gorgeously bittersweet title track), Hull sounds excited about the future, but creatively restless, too.
“My world is a much different place than it was at 12, definitely. . . . It’s been sort of a whirlwind,’’ she says about growing up, musically and otherwise, in the public eye. “I always dreamed of being able to live in Nashville, so I’m coming into that stage of my life. This will be the first fall that I’m not a student, and the first time I’m feeling like [music] is something I can really focus on. It’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life, basically.’’
But change and possibility, Hull admits - as well as having her world widened at Berklee - have also brought a bit of confusion.
“Right now I’m at that stage of not having a clue about where I’d like to go next [musically],’’ she says. “It’s weird. For the first time in my life, I feel like I don’t really know what I want to do.’’ She says she knows, deep down, that this is probably a good thing for growth.
McGann’s not worried. Wherever Hull’s mandolin ultimately takes her, the results are sure to be worth watching - and hearing, he says.
“She strikes me as the kind of person who is a lifelong learner,’’ says McGann. “And she’s got a fantastically long future ahead of her.’’
Jonathan Perry can be reached at email@example.com.