Weighted Mind is more than just a bold step forward. It is an artist's statement, made by a woman on a precipice.
Sierra Hull self-released her first album, Angel Mountain, at age 11, a bright brace of fiddle tunes that earned the epithet prodigy. Two years later, with Union Station's Ron Block at the helm, she signed to Rounder Records, issuing Secrets in 2008, at 16. That disc made her more than just a whiz kid, but something of a star. Daybreak, in 2011, solidified her reputation, with Barry Bales, also from Union Station, producing a disc that featured seven Hull originals.
But by her early 20s, Hull felt lost, creating new music at home that didn’t match other's expectations. "I needed to run from the thing everybody thought I was," she says now. "It was a dark period."
Hull plays plenty of mandolin on Weighted Mind, yes, she does. But it's a far cry from a bluegrass disc, much less a typical picker’s showcase.
Mind, produced, at Alison Krauss’s suggestion, by Bela Fleck, is, almost purely, a songwriter’s record, reflecting the hard journey of a young woman not just finding, but making her place in the world (with a little assistance from co-writers Zach Bevill, Josh Shilling and Jon Weisberger). Sonically, it is spare to the point of bravery, with Hull (aside from a quick guest spot with Fleck and brief vocal assistance from Krauss, Abigail Washburn and Rhiannon Giddens) accompanied solely by bassist Ethan Jodziewicz. It is a remarkable statement; one that is likely to change Hull’s life in all good ways.
The roots of Weighted Mind go back a few years, yes?
I started a record on my own about three years ago, here in Nashville. I had written a bunch of these songs and I knew it had to be something different. I went into RCA Studio A, a big, open, live room, with a great engineer, Vance Powell, and recorded six tracks. I played a lot of guitar, because I had written most of the songs that way. I had drums and percussion, a little bit of electric guitar and I made this big sounding thing, sort of raw and live. But I ended up scrapping it all. I was producing myself and feeling very vulnerable, and I was getting more advice than I needed. I was getting input from the label and management at the time and all these other people around me, comments from all directions. I felt some people were getting involved too early and didn't share the vision I had. I just wanted these songs to be themselves and I didn't want to feel that I had to force mandolin or force bluegrass on them if it didn't belong. I was rebelling against what others wanted me to be. It was a rough time.
The title track "Black River," from Weighted Mind.
It sounds rough, at the very least from an artistic point of view.
From a songwriting standpoint, I was in the truest place I'd ever felt myself in, the most honest place; and that's a scary thing, when you're sharing something very real with people for the first time. I was thinking about getting older, growing up, questions of love and faith. I just turned 24 in September, and that's odd in a way. Everybody's looked at me like little Sierra for so long. If you just met me you might think I was even younger than 24. I'm a small girl. I don't look super womanly, but there's a part of me that, even when I was a teenager, always felt a lot older than my age. Part of me feels like I have an old soul, but I'm aware that I'm still really young. I'm always trying to balance those two sides.
With the album slated for release later this month, does the struggle seem to be easing?
I'm looking forward to playing music for the first time in a long time. I'm really excited about this upcoming tour. The record's been done for about a year and a half, but we've already been doing some touring in this more stripped-down configuration, which is much different than what I've done all these years. I can already say, from my heart's point of view, that my heart is full right now because I'm happy about what I'm doing. That's huge when you're dealing with something you love as much as playing music.
Let's talk about making Weighted Mind and let's begin with the writing. You've written more on this album than ever before — probing, honest songs. Tell me about Brenda Ueland's influence.
I didn't know anything about her until Ron Block gave me that book (Ueland's 1938 classic If You Want to Write). I found it to be really inspiring. It's not necessarily about writing music but you can apply her ideas to anything. The concept of just being an original rather than trying to be one was a revelation. You already are an original, you don't have to try. I found that idea very encouraging when I was sitting down to write for this project. From a career standpoint, I wish the record could have happened faster, but I feel good about where I'm at now. I finally feel like I can breathe again. This record feels more me than I've ever felt before.
Bela Fleck asked you to play solo for him before agreeing to produce?
Yeah. I'd been around Bela some beforehand, but I didn't know him real well. I ran into him at IBMA and told him a little about what I'd done towards making a record and that I'd been wanting to get in touch with him. He said, 'come over to the house, bring some stuff you've been working on and, oh yeah, bring your mandolin.' I don't know why, but that made me nervous. I thought we were just going to get together and talk and see if we could work something out. I hadn't spent a lot of time on mandolin with some of these songs, because I'd written them on guitar. I'd recorded "Compass" at the earlier sessions and had sent that to him and he asked if I could just play it for him on mandolin, so he could hear it without everything else on it.
He said, "that's compelling, way more than what I'm hearing with all this other production on it. I think it would be interesting to make a record with just mandolin and voice.' I was skeptical. I thought that could be really boring. But working through it was almost like having super cool lessons with Bela. What if right here you dropped a beat? How about changing that chord there? He would just throw out different arrangement ideas. It was really fun to work with somebody at that level. I'd already produced the bulk of these songs but getting his input turned them into something much greater than I would have ever done by myself. I'd go home and mess with something for a week or so and we'd get back together and I'd talk with him about the changes we'd made and play him new songs. At that point, I lived about ten minutes from him, so it was an easy trip. Eventually, once we liked where we'd started to arrive, we began recording mandolin and voice demos at his home studio.
Can you give an example of his input?
Take a song like "Stranded." I'd had that basic mandolin riff for quite some time. But in my mind, I knew I wanted "Compass" to be the first vocal song, because it said so much about the way I was feeling. So, I told Bela that I had this little instrumental thing and I was wondering if it would be cool to use it as an opening for the record. "Stranded" ended with a D major and "Compass" opened in D minor, and I thought that could be a cool way to connect them. Bela liked that idea, but after working with it he said maybe you should just write a little set of lyrics to go with that, kind of like in an old time song where the banjo will be playing and you'll humming the tune forever, and then these lyrics come out of nowhere and they're here and gone. He's such a musician's musician. He just thinks so brilliantly.
The arrangements on the record are bone spare. Will you be echoing that live?
Ethan plays bass on the record and he's touring with me now and we're basically playing the songs as recorded. Justin Moses is also joining us on the road. I've played a lot of music with him, but he's not on the record basically because Bela was skeptical of even adding bass at first. Ethan was recommended by Edgar Meyer and I met him when he came through Nashville and we started playing some of my songs the first time we met. I really liked his sensibilities. I was bowled over and said to Bela I think we have our man. He agreed. Justin is an amazing multi-instrumentalist so he can play banjo parts, we can do mandolin duets or stuff with Dobro, too. It's much easier to take something from Daybreak or Secrets and make it work in the trio setting. So part of the show is duo, part of the show is trio and there's room for me to do something solo if I want. It's kind of interchangeable.
How do you describe the sound, it's not a bluegrass record.
I'm not afraid to say that it still has that bluegrass influence because to me it does. But at the same time, it's different. When Ethan gets asked, he just says we play original music.
And this record has no straight up instrumentals (even "Royal Tea" is part of a medley with "Queen of Hearts").
We have a couple of extra tunes that we didn't get around to recording. There's one called "E Tune," for example, that might have made it on there, but we just decided that other songs had priority.
How did you track?
We recorded the whole project at Bela's house, so there wasn't that kind of pressure you have in the studio, where you're punching the clock. If we wanted to work until 3 a.m., we could do that. His setup is pretty casual. Ethan was isolated in the guest bedroom in the basement; I was in more of an open corner, in a room with a grand piano, a pretty good way from the control area. We recorded everything live for basics; and we did several passes to choose from. I wouldn't sing, and it was fun because Ethan was so capable of working like that. Not all musicians that I've worked with would necessarily be able to remember an arrangement all the way through, let alone remembering dynamically, with no guide vocal, where the swells would be and so on. He was really great with all of that. So, for me, I could sing the songs in my head while we played through them.
A lot of Weighted Mind was written on guitar, but none of it was recorded that way.
"Weighted Mind," "I'll Be Fine," "Wings of the Dawn," "Choices and Changes," yeah, they were all written on guitar. But when Bela started me thinking about playing these songs solo, I just thought, man, I love mandolin. It's really what I love the most and what I feel most comfortable with. It seems ridiculous that it took me going through all that crap to just decide, duh, I love the mandolin. Bela pointed that out to me. He said there are a lot of singer/songwriters who play guitar but what can make you unique is that there aren't a lot of female songwriters who play mandolin and sing. I have more identity with mandolin.
Did octave mandolin accept some of the guitar role?
You have to approach mandolin differently for it to have the same effect that a guitar and voice can have, and in so many ways I feel like the octave mandolin gives me just that, a warmer kind of support. I played the octave on "Choices and Changes," "Birthday," "Lullaby," "Black River" and "Fallen Man." That last one was really tough to play the stretches on the octave. I thought I was going to die. I played "Wings of the Dawn" on the mandolin, but capoed at the second fret. It was really the only way to make it sustain the way I wanted. The particular thing I loved about it when it was written on guitar was the way certain notes would ring out. To do it on the mandolin, I liked having that ring of an open chord, so the capo allowed me to get that.
Hull recorded all of her mandolin tracks on Weighted Mind with her trusty 2009 Dave Harvey-signed Gibson Master Model (which she also employed on Daybreak). An A-style oval hole Weber Bridger was used on all octave tracks, save for "Fallen Man," which employed a custom short-scale distressed Weber Fern, which matches a Weber mandolin in her collection. For the writing of the album, she utilized a 1964 Gibson LG-0. Hull's pick is a Blue Chip CT55, and she runs D'Addario EXP74s on mandolins and EJ80s on the octave mandolins.
Weighted Mind track listing
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!
Upcoming Tour Dates
NOTE: Sierra's tour dates changed with more appearances added several times during the preparation of our interview. Check her web site for the most current list.
- Jan 28 - City Winery Nashville, Nashville, TN
- Jan 29 - Eddie's Attic, Decatur, GA
- Jan 30 - The Clayton Center with The Del McCoury Band, Maryville, TN
- Feb 2 - The Southern Cafe & Music Hall, Charlottesville, VA
- Feb 3 - Rams Head On Stage, Annapolis, MD
- Feb 4 - Sellersville Theater 1894, Sellersville, PA
- Feb 5 - The Beacon Theatre with Sam Lewis Hopewell, VA
- Feb 6 - Altamont Theatre, Asheville, NC
- Feb 9 - Lake Wales Arts Center, Lake Wales, FL
- Feb 10 - Lake Wales Arts Center, Lake Wales, FL
- Feb 11 - The Lyric Theatre, Stuart, FL
- Feb 12 - Ruby Diamond Concert Hall with David Grisman, Tallahassee, FL
- Feb 18 - Redstone Room, Davenport, IA
- Feb 19 - Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis, MN
- Feb 20 - Stoughton Opera House, Stoughton, WI
- Feb 21 - City Winery Chicago, Chicago, IL
- Feb 25 - Southland Ballroom, Raleigh, NC
- Feb 26 - Neighborhood Theatre, Charlotte, NC
- Feb 27 - Historic Earle Theatre, Mount Airy, NC
- Mar 10 - Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts, Hammond, LA
- Mar 11 - Forum Theater At The BJCC, Birmingham, AL
- Mar 12 - Sheldon Concert Hall with The Del McCoury Band, St Louis, MO
- Apr 16 - Old Settler's Music Festival with Earls of Leicester, Driftwood, TX
- Apr 30 - Charm City Folk & Bluegrass Festival with Ricky Skaggs, Keller, Baltimore, MD
- May 1 - MerleFest with Dave Rawlings Machine, Wilkesboro, NC