Music
    Next Score View the next score

    She’s grounded in bluegrass, but Berklee grad Sierra Hull is a species all her own

    Sierra Hull
    Gina Binkley
    Sierra Hull

    When Sierra Hull arrived at Berklee College of Music on a full ride at age 17, she didn’t fit the profile of a typical incoming freshman. First of all, instead of spending her weekends exploring Boston and hanging out in the dormitories, the school’s first Presidential Scholarship bluegrass musician was heading to the airport to take off for performances at clubs and festivals all around the country with her touring band.

    There was also the fact that she couldn’t read a note of printed music. “Not at all!” Hull laughs, speaking by phone from her Nashville home.

    Hull’s reputation as a virtuoso mandolinist began from a very young age. She released her first all-instrumental album, “Angel Mountain,” at age 10 in 2002. The same year, she took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry with her idol, fiddler and singer Alison Krauss. It was onward and upward from there.

    Advertisement

    But bluegrass music is an aural tradition, learned at the knee of more experienced players or by osmosis at campfire jam sessions. Most bluegrass teachers don’t include reading music or theory, says Hull, 26. Describing her experience in a Berklee sight-reading class, she recalls: “I don’t know what note that is on the staff without taking a minute to go ‘Wait! Every Good Boy Does . . .’ ”

    Get The Weekender in your inbox:
    The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    Now, almost seven years since completing her artist’s diploma, the native of Byrdstown, Tenn. (population 800), is stopping in Boston on Feb. 1 for a show at City Winery with double bassist Ethan Jodziewicz and roots music-specializing saxophonist Eddie Barbash. She plans to play plenty of songs from her latest album, the Grammy-nominated “Weighted Mind,” as well as some new material.

    At Krauss’s suggestion, Hull worked with eclectic banjo pioneer Béla Fleck on “Weighted Mind,” and the album turned musing early-20s uncertainty into spacious, unorthodox explorations of postmodern picking. (“I’ve thrown away my compass/Done with the chart/I’m tired of spinning around,” she sings on “Compass.”)

    In contrast to Hull’s earlier ventures, which featured a full band, her limber mandolin and clover-honey voice along with Jodziewicz’s bass are the only instruments on most songs. Her roots are planted firmly in bluegrass, but her music has blossomed into a hybrid species all its own.

    “Sierra brought me her demos, and I helped suggest that she pare things back, to showcase her unique strengths. I felt that having a big bluegrass band around her was hiding vast parts of her,” Fleck wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. Originally, Hull says, Fleck had wanted her to make an album with only mandolin and voice, but she wanted to incorporate harmonies and share the stage with someone else, and so she brought in Jodziewicz.

    Advertisement

    “I am used to being the picky dude, and musicians can become exhausted by my quest for perfection. But with Sierra and Ethan, they pushed me hard, and they both heard things that I did not at first. I learned a lot,” wrote Fleck.

    “I think it was being in a period of not knowing what’s next, and trying to figure it all out musically more than anything,” Hull says about the impetus for the album. “It’s interesting because I kind of find myself in a similar place right now, where I’m in between records, and trying to write, and figure out what I want to do. That’s why I’m excited to have this tour.”

    As Hull moves past the “Weighted Mind” album cycle, she’s trying to log some writing every day, though she’s been struggling with writer’s block recently.

    “The biggest thing is to not get too self-critical of what you’re producing. It’s easy to judge everything on this really hypersensitive level, and before you know it I’m going, ‘That’s no good! That stinks! I’m throwing it away!’” she says.

    “I think it’s important to, even when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, be OK with documenting it,” she continues. “Be OK with ‘That’s OK — even though that feels like a dumb idea, that’s my idea, that I have in this moment.’ What I find since I started doing that, and allowing myself to not feel like everything has to be an earth-shatteringly good thing, is sometimes I’ll go back and think ‘Hey, that’s better than I thought it was three days ago.’”

    Advertisement

    Hull’s way isn’t to aggressively smash the conventions; she finds the cracks and shoots up between them naturally. In an exhilarating video posted on Facebook of Barbash, Hull, and Jodziewicz rehearsing last fall, the three trade off the lead on the driving tune they’re jamming on. Hull’s nimble picking locks into Barbash’s clean, airy riffs, with Jodziewicz chopping and sliding with his bow. All the while, she can’t seem to control the smile on her face.

    SIERRA HULL

    At City Winery, Boston, Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. Tickets $18-$25, www.citywinery.com/boston

    Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.