Posts Tagged ‘Sierra Hull’

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Sierra Hull: Some Finer Points

27 July 2012

Yer Second Cousin Curly is based in that seat of bluegrass scholarship, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tonight, in the town across the river, the multitalented singer, songwriter and mandolinist Sierra Hull will be kicking off the inaugural Boston Summer Arts Weekend with a free concert in the heart of the city. In honor of her visit, here’s a final installment of our interview with her, which includes some fiery picking from this winter’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

The comparisons Hull makes about various players’ techniques (including her own) might be too arcane for those who don’t play the mandolin, but to those of us enslaved to the eight-stringed midget, her observations are manna from heaven. The issue of whether or not to plant your pinky when you’re picking may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a subject of endless debate among mando players, and Hull’s down-the-middle approach is interesting in this regard.

Another insight Hull shares is the fact that she doesn’t use the classic closed chord pattern that Bill Monroe used as the foundation for his sound, favoring more open chords or simply using partial chords. At the outset of the video, you can see Hull tearing into Monroe’s “Old Dangerfield” on the octave mandolin. As that clip illustrates, Hull can more than hold her own on traditional bluegrass numbers, but her choice of chords gives her take on these tunes a distinctive flavor.

A native Tennessean through and through, we can’t exactly claim Hull as a hometown hero, but Boston was a home away from home while she recently studied at Berklee College of Music. Hull’s phenomenal technique and impeccable tone were already firmly in place before she came to Beantown. More than anything, studying with the late, great John McGann and others at Berklee seems to have given Hull the validation she needed to keep on doing what she’s doing.

The video clip also features some of Hull’s original instrumentals. She has penned some contemporary fiddle tunes that haven’t gotten half the attention they deserve. I hope that, as she keeps doing what she’s doing, Hull keeps doing plenty of those numbers.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Tip of the hat to Paul Villanova for his outstanding editing on the whole Sierra Hull series.

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Sierra Hull: Just Feeling It

24 May 2012

We recently got to sit down with mandolinist and songwriter Sierra Hull. In this second installment of our conversation, Hull talks about her relationship with music and a fundamental issue: how much should you think about what you’re playing? Here’s what she told us:

Hull draws an insightful analogy between learning music and language acquisition. As we noted in a previous post, Hull went from novice to playing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in a matter of a few years. No question, she’s a natural. Hull picked up music the same way that most of us learn to speak. In this regard, I think she’s part of a lucky cohort who are touched in a special way. This intuitive relationship to music eludes a lot of people— including a fair number of professional musicians.

Of course, if you get formal training in music, to some extent, you learn not to approach music intuitively. The very act of reading music requires a certain degree of analysis. Not surprisingly, many formally trained musicians pick up traditional musical forms as a means of developing a more direct connection with the essence of music. A musician like Hull, on the other hand, learned mandolin without the encumbrance of notation or even a fixed curriculum.

A potential down side to this approach is that it might make it harder for her to grasp some of the more arcane musical principles, such as tricks for spicing up a melody or adding color to harmonies. Hull’s already lengthy performance record rebuts such concerns. For example, the video clip above includes excerpts of the new instrumental “Bombshell.” You only have to listen to a few notes of that tune for any notions that Hull has been confined to a homespun and simple musical approach to melt away.

“Bombshell” is from “Daybreak,” Hull’s recent album. On the studio version of this composition, she is accompanied by fiddler extraordinaire Stuart Duncan. Duncan is another supremely sophisticated musician who does not read music— and another player whose natural gifts launched him very early onto a storied career path.

The Berklee Connection

Despite their obvious gifts and demonstrated abilities, one drawback peculiar to many “naturals” who forgo organized music education is that they get caught up in the tautology of not knowing what they don’t know, and thus they worry that they missed out on some secret afforded only to those who get formal training. Perhaps it was such a nagging sense of mystery that propelled Hull to enroll in Berklee College of Music in Boston a couple of years ago, even though she already had an album and numerous tours to her credit at that point. It’s poignant to hear her recall memories of wandering around Berklee, worried that people wouldn’t realize how lost she was. It was left to John McGann, the great teacher who taught Hull while she was in Boston and who died this spring, to make her see that much of what she was studying were concepts that, in her own intuitive way, she had already assimilated.

Berklee seems to have been a good fit for Hull. It let her try out different styles of music and gain confidence without warping her natural gifts. This is a hallmark of the college’s mission. Carl Beatty, Berklee’s Chief of Staff, once remarked that, because so many students come to their programs already some distance down an artistic path, the College takes pains to practice its own version of the Hippocratic oath: “Do no harm.” It seems clear that McGann and his colleagues did no harm to Hull’s burgeoning talent. On the contrary, her evolving musical identity stands as another testament of both the College’s nurturing philosophy and McGann’s rich legacy.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Sierra Hull: From Prodigy to Pro

2 May 2012

We got a chance to sit down with Sierra Hull at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. Hull has been performing in public for a little over a decade. Almost from the start, she shared the stage with the stars of bluegrass, young and old. Stepping into the spotlight so early doesn’t seem to have loosened Hull’s attachment to her rural Southern roots. As we can see in this video portrait, even as she leaves her “child prodigy” identity behind, Hull remains very much a product of the small town in Tennessee where she first picked up the mandolin:

What struck me as I spoke with Hull was how timeless her background was. She may be part of the millennial demographic, but the childhood she describes— attending small churches, learning to play an instrument by ear—  differs very little from the one in which bluegrass pioneers like Ralph Stanley grew up decades before her. In an era where great pickers can come from Brooklyn, Switzerland and Japan, it’s worth remembering that the “true vine” of  the Cumberlands, the Bluegrass and the Smokies still produces a lot of natural talent.

Hull began playing mandolin when she was eight. She was fortunate to live near Carl Berggren, a fine mandolinist who has played with established bluegrass figures like Larry Sparks. (For proof that Berggren is no slouch, check out this video of him playing “Roanoke” with Hull, and while you’re at it, check out this clip of teacher and student horsing around on a Django Reinhardt swing tune.) Berggren gave Hull lessons, and she proved to be a very apt pupil. Within a couple of years, she was performing at bluegrass shows, and by the time she was eleven, she was sharing the stage at the Grand Ole Opry with one of her idols, Alison Krauss (check out this video of that encounter).

It’s not hard to map Hull’s biography through her music. There are the traditional bluegrass tunes of her childhood that still season her set lists, the echo of Krauss in her songwriting and vocals, and the jazz and swing influences from her recent studies at Berklee College of Music that can be heard in her sophisticated solos. In forthcoming profiles, we’ll dig deeper into both Hull’s approach to music and her exceptional technique, so don’t wander too far off.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Paul Villanova for the fine video editing on this series.

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Joe Val Flashback

10 June 2010

Do you know “Framingham Breakdown?” No? Perhaps if I hum a few bars…

As summer returns, your Cousin Curly offers up the web video equivalent of Dr. Zhivago or Ice Station Zebra— one of those icy epics that takes your mind off the heat and humidity.

This video also works as the bluegrass equivalent of Where’s Waldo— Waldo in this case being your favorite pickin’ partners. I’ve tagged the clip with some of the players I spotted, but there are many others I missed.  Let me know who catches your eye.

Next week, Cousin Curly heads to Jenny Brook— the sweetest little bluegrass festival this side of the Pearly Gates.  Hope to see y’all there.

Yer Pal— Curly

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