Part of growing up is realizing that, just like old clothes, old pieces of your identity don’t fit. You may not totally clean house on your wardrobe, but you make enough room for it to take on a new feel. That’s the situation Sierra Hull found herself in, when she felt the borders of her bluegrass roots were a bit too constricting and decided to expand her musical horizons. She’ll be sharing her evolution on stage at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C. this Saturday.
Hull is only 27, but she’s lived a full life as a musician thanks to a serendipitous screw-up. She had grown up a fan of bluegrass music, but the full-sized fiddle her father purchased for an eight-year-old Hull was too big for her. She learned some basics on the mandolin instead and immediately fell in love with the eight-stringed instrument. Little did Hull’s family know, she would become a wunderkind with the mandolin, making her debut at the Grand Ole Opry at age 10, performing at Carnegie Hall by the time she was 12, signing to Rounder Records when she was 13 and releasing three albums before she turned 20.
All along Hull had supportive parents who were more concerned about her trying to nurture her love for the music than to catch some sliver of the spotlight. They took her to jam sessions and lessons and, most of all, made her rapid rise feel more organic than surreal.
“It’s not something I thought too much about,” Hull said. “I felt like I had been [playing music professionally] for so long, because I started so young, it felt like a real natural progression.”
But things changed as Hull entered her late teens and early 20s. The joy she once derived from being purely a bluegrass musician didn’t feel as prodigious as much as it did a pigeonhole. She wanted greater freedom musically, but first she wanted the freedom to write different music and experiment with new sounds.
Similar to how her rise naturally progressed, so did her feelings toward branching out into new music. It started with her asking, “What kind of musician am I at heart, beyond just traditional bluegrass?” From there Hull began writing and playing more music unencumbered by people’s idea of how she should be writing and performing. She wanted to write without the constraint of a genre or without expectations.
And while there was some external pressure to stay confined in bluegrass, Hull admits she was imagining that pressure as much as anything. Rounder Records, still her label today, was supportive of her getting more creative. Hull just had to get comfortable with the idea herself.
“I always do what I need to do to get myself where I want to go, but I also hate disappointing people,” Hull added. “Fighting against people’s preconceived notions of who I am, and trying to show a different side of me where I haven’t had a chance to do it yet but I knew had been there, it was tough. But I realized I was looking for something more and I had to find a lane that I needed to be in.”
Ever the virtuoso on the mandolin, Hull’s revised sound still pays homage to bluegrass with the twanging strings of the banjo and upright bass flanking her. The tunes she creates, however, range from brooding melodies to soothing harmonies, a noticeable change from the often upbeat music bluegrass is associated with. All Hull has to do is keep trusting in herself, and she’ll continue to nestle into the lane in which she belongs.
Sierra Hull with be performing at The Hamilton (600 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C.) on Saturday, Feb. 16. Tickets can be purchased at bandsintown.com/e/100506626.