Sierra Hull

Weighted Mind

Sierra Hull has been wowing audiences with her mandolin skills since she was a teenager. It was years ago that I had the chance to see her live in concert. Then she already played with amazing skill, but she also shared the space generously with her band, and created a fully entertaining experience. Hull hasn’t released a CD in five years—time for her to embrace the questions and quests that come with traveling through the early 20s of life. Weighted Mind opens a window into what those five years contained.

Hull is now so much more than an amazing mandolin player—she’s a fascinating songwriter.

We no longer have a good music store in town, so I had Amazon ship Hull’s new CD the day it was released. Weighted Mind is sparse, and definitely not the traditional bluegrass you might have expected. All but one cut are originals for Hull and her collaborators. While she wrote many of them on guitar, you will only hear the mandolin and octave mandolin here. I could name numerous singer-songwriters that perform with guitars—and I do enjoy them—but those who play mandolin while performing solo are rare.

Ethan Jodziewicz adds bass, and Bela Fleck, the producer, plays banjo on two tunes.  Three amazing talents, Abigail Washington, Alison Krauss (who encouraged the young teenage Hull), and Rhiannon Giddens, add vocal harmonies. This sparse and open combination of mandolin and bass allow you to hear each rich sound fully. I was hooked on the very first listen.

“Dear 22, I’m stranded here,” the sum of the lyrics on the first cut, opens well the theme of the album: growing up. Hull chose to leave behind the expectations of her audience for bluegrass mandolin. Musicians often face the desire of the audience to play the same thing they already appreciate. She also faced the questions of young adulthood, questions about friends, relationships, God, and life.

“Choices and Changes” describes what happens as you grow and your relationships are strained by that growth. While you could interpret the lyrics to be about a romantic relationship, they seem much stronger when put in the context of any long-term working relationship that begins to fall apart. It might even be appropriate for parents who watch their children become independent, change, grow, and develop beyond what they were imagining. “If you can’t see what I’m seeing, if you fear what is to come. / If you can’t hear what I’m hearing, then we may as well call it done.” It might even be a message to her fans, who expect her to remain the young mandolin prodigy.

“Wings of the Dawn,” inspired by a psalm, assures us on this journey of uncertainty that there is always hope in the new day. Here the high notes of the mandolin and Hull’s voice go into the depths of the deep chasm of the bass, and pull our whole being into the experience of rising up out of the dark.

But if I rise on the wings of the dawn
If I settle on the far side of the sea
Even there, your hand will guide me.

“Lullaby” reminds us that we can’t go back, even if it seems appealing. “I’m too old for a lullaby, but I’ll never be too old to cry.” What do you do when the answers to the difficult questions of life don’t seem to come? Weighted Mind has already raised the stakes if you think this is going to be easy.

Through the haze we see what you will
A broken glass that never spills
I know you think you’ve been set free
But we are all slaves to our beliefs.

“Lullaby” continues with the imagined response from the mother.

And you say surely as the air we breathe
You’ve gotta lay it all at Jesus’ feet
And only long enough to sing
“Nearer My God to Thee.”

“Black River” finishes the CD using the same lyrics as we heard at the beginning, but with a different tune. While there are many dark moments in this journey, I find Weighted Mind to be surprisingly hopeful. I appreciate that it isn’t filled with the normal love songs followed by the breakup song and back to love again, but instead embraces a much wider life experience. Hull is now so much more than an amazing mandolin player—she’s a fascinating songwriter.

All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.