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Mandolin prodigy Sierra Hull grows up, returns to roots

Singer-songwriter will perform at Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival on Saturday

By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun

7:22 AM EDT, April 25, 2014

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The term “prodigy” has followed bluegrass singer-songwriter Sierra Hull for more than half her life. How could it not, when Alison Krauss invited her onto the Grand Ole Opry stage at age 11, and the respected Rounder Records released her debut album at 16?

If she was under pressure then, Hull was enjoying too many new experiences to notice, she said on the phone last week from her home in Nashville, Tenn.

“At that point, you don't really think too much about everything everyone is saying. You're younger and you're just playing music,” said Hull, who performs Saturday at the Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival. “There's more pressure at my age now than I ever felt at that age.”

Hull now finds herself in an interesting position, no longer a prodigy but a bluegrass veteran at age 22. In the process, Hull has done a lot of growing up, releasing her second album, “Daybreak,” in March 2011 and graduating from a two-year program at Boston's Berklee College of Music that year.

After years spent within the tight-knit bluegrass community, Hull developed a better understanding of other genres through her studies at Berklee. Hearing and seeing different types of music up close left a major impression on Hull as a songwriter, she said.

“You can hear music on the radio or hear it on TV, but to actually be around it firsthand, to be around some great jazz musicians, to be around some great pop singers ... just being around all that really got me excited about music and everything there is to learn,” Hull said. “A little bit of all that influence started coming out in my songwriting.”

Oftentimes growth is good, but it can also impede new material. It has been more than three years since “Daybreak,” a fact that clearly bothers Hull.

“I'm so ready to have new music out,” Hull said. “I'm probably more ready than any of my fans could be ready.”

There was not a lack of trying. In January 2013, Hull recorded six songs that expanded her musical palette but ultimately left her unsatisfied. The songs were not the problem, she said, but rather it was the approach. For the first time, Hull had percussion and electric guitar on her songs. She was also primarily writing on guitar rather than mandolin, and the results left Hull uneasy.

“I took a step back from it and said, ‘Is this really the direction I want to go? Is this really the right thing?'” Hull said. “I've since started over, so to speak.”

While her experiences at Berklee remain invaluable, Hull realized she needed to find a balance between what she learned there and the type of songwriting that made her a major name in bluegrass as a teenager. Hull is currently working on new demos with a producer she declined to name but was excited to have involved. A deliberate return to the fundamentals of mandolin has re-energized her approach to writing, she said.

“I don't want to feel like I have to go out there and necessarily prove myself as a mandolin player per se, but at the same time, you know, that's what I do,” Hull said. “Mandolin is my home instrument, and it always will be. I don't want to be a guitar player.”

Hull said the new album will likely be released in 2015, a wait that is frustrating but also necessary in her mind. She has grown in many ways since “Daybreak,” but Hull refuses to rush her process in order to show it.

“It's a tough career move to wait as long as I've waited,” she said. “It took a little searching, and therefore a bit of a delay, but I'm excited about what I'm working on now. I think it's going to be the truest representation of anything I've done so far.”

If you go

Sierra Hull performs Saturday at Druid Hill Park, 2600 Madison Ave., as a part of the Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival. Jerry Douglas, Noam Pikelny & Friends, Cris Jacobs and others will perform. Doors open at 10 a.m. Tickets are $67. Go to charmcitybluegrass.com.