Sierra Hull has been recording albums for almost half of her lifetime, which is a pretty remarkable achievement for someone who's only 19.
With a new album, Daybreak, and music video, "Easy Come, Easy Go," the Byrdstown, Tenn., native is poised to grab a wider audience with her progression as a singer and mandolinist.
Hull is clearly an overachiever, although you don't detect any sort of ego or cutthroat ambition while talking to her. After releasing Angel Mountain, an instrumental album, at age 10, she caught the attention of Alison Krauss, who invited her to perform on the Grand Ole Opry two years later. Hull also signed with Krauss' longtime label, Rounder Records, and co-produced her 2008 album, Secrets, with Ron Block, who plays banjo and guitar with Krauss as a member of Union Station. Hull co-produced Daybreak with Union Station bassist Barry Bales.
She's the first to admit she's still learning how to make records.
"With Ron, he had such a newbie on his hands because I had never done anything like that before," she said during a recent interview at CMT's offices. "We started working on the record when I was 15. I'd never really sung in the studio before. I did a little instrumental album when I was 10 years old, but I'd never had the chance to do anything significant -- let alone with the players I was able to get to play on the record. Ron strives for such excellence, so it was so great to work with somebody like that, especially on the first record. I knew that whatever we put out, he would make sure we did it right and that we'd do the very best job we could.
"Doing the new record with Barry, I think he wanted to try to even do it a little more organically and do stuff a little more risky and a little more raw, which was great. I don't even listen to the record and think about that, but we did a lot of original material, for instance, and did a few things that people wouldn't exactly expect to hear from me. It was a great experience in working with somebody like Barry, who's really straightforward. I knew he would push me to the degree that I really needed to be pushed."
Hull wrote seven of the 12 songs on Daybreak, including a western swing tune, "Best Buy."
"I was sitting in a parking lot waiting to meet a friend," she recalled. "I had some downtime to kill, so thought maybe I'd try to write a new song. I got my laptop out to just type some lyrics. I started looking around. I was sitting in an outlet mall. I guess inspiration can come from anywhere. I saw the words 'Best Buy' and started singing the first lyric: 'You can buy me the best.'"
Asked whether she's listened to a lot of western swing music, she said, "I have, but I haven't. It actually wasn't a song I thought I'd ever record. It was just something I humored myself with. I guess once I started humming a melody and the lyrics, that's just naturally what came out and felt right. It kind of came out of nowhere."
Hull's musical journey began when her father bought her first mandolin when she was 7. Her early introduction to acoustic music came partly from listening to the bluegrass gospel recordings of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.
"Not too long after that, I started getting some Alison Krauss albums," she said. "Forget About It was actually the first Alison album I ever got. That one's not even a bluegrass record, but I immediately fell in love with it and then got introduced to some of her bluegrass stuff. That got me fired up, and I remember getting my first Blue Highway album and hearing them. I didn't spend a lot of time listening to traditional bluegrass at first. Slowly, after kind of getting into some of the modern stuff, I got to hear some of the traditional stuff and fell in love with that, too."
Hull credits Krauss and her bandmates for expanding the boundaries of acoustic music.
"I think the whole band has been extremely important in that," she said. "When people think of them, they still know that they have bluegrass elements in what they do. It's bluegrass instrumentation. Even on the new album they're putting out, there's still bits and pieces of all that in their music, but yet they can turn around and do something that's so modern sounding and so unique to who they are, it can capture such a large audience. I really think they've been very key in introducing bluegrass music to a larger audience. Nickel Creek is another band that really did that, too."
Hull's Secrets album played a major role in her education when she became the first bluegrass musician awarded the Presidential Scholarship, the top scholarship from Boston's Berklee College of Music. She's finishing up her last semester of a two-year program that allows her to study on campus and still tour with her band, Highway 111.
"I've been able to take mandolin lessons and voice lessons," she said. "I've done songwriting stuff. I took a business course this semester. I got a chance to play with the orchestra. I'd never really read music, so I've had a chance to work on things like that. I've been in different ensembles. Just being able to play in different situations that get you out of your comfort zone, it forces you to have to try new things."
Most singers and musicians in their late teens are still finding their own musical voice, but they do so without a significant record deal or touring schedule. In many ways, it's a luxury to make those musical transitions outside the spotlight, but Hull says she's been able to balance things.
"I feel like I've just kind of evolved as things have gone along and as a result of being able to play with the band members I now play with," she said. "But, definitely, I know you find a lot of your own voice just sitting in the bedroom practicing and learning stuff from other people's albums. I used to do that all the time. I still do, finding things that I love. There might be an amazing solo, and I want to try to learn to play it note for note. Once you learn enough stuff from other people you admire, you kind of end up finding a way to apply things into your own voice after a while."
She laughed and added, "If you steal from enough people, you finally get your own thing. That's what everybody does."