Sierra Hull has been shaking up the bluegrass establishment for years, having released her first album, Secrets, with Rounder Records in 2008, when she was just 15. She is also the first bluegrass musician ever to land the prestigious Presidential Scholarship at Berklee College of Music, from which she graduated this May. Returning to Boston, the now 20-year-old singer-songwriter and mandolin player will kick off the Summer Arts Weekend on Friday, July 27 with her band Highway 111; she will also take the stage with bluegrass great Del McCoury, for what promises to be a fantastic meeting of the traditional genre’s legacy and future.
You just graduated from Berklee, right? Are you still in town?
I’ve been in Nashville for over a year now. I basically finished Berklee last May but I still had a couple credits left to complete, and I worked on those here in Nashville. I went back to graduation this year because they were honoring Alison Kraus with an honorary doctorate degree and they invited me to come back up there, and that’s when I officially walked.
Why did you return to Nashville?
I love Boston and I really enjoyed my time there, but I’m from Tennessee, and a big part of me feels like this is just my home. I had always planned to someday live in Nashville. And now I’m a two-hour drive from my parents instead of two flights away.
Did Berklee change your musical tastes or your performing style?
I still love all the things I loved before; it just added a lot to what I was already listening to and doing. It exposed me to some different types of music that I hadn’t spent as much time on, and just being around a community of young people who are really hungry for music was really inspiring and helped me realize all that there is to learn.
Did you experiment with any other types of music?
A little bit. A cool thing about Berklee is that some of your classes are ensembles. One I took was a Django Reinhardt ensemble that was gypsy jazz. And the first semester they decide what kind of ensemble would be most fitting or maybe most challenging for you, and I was in sort of a hip-hop ensemble, which was really strange for me. I’d never done anything like that.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on writing a bunch of songs since I moved to town, with hopes of making a new album, maybe by the end of the year. I’ve been thinking, if I can be anything, what is that? and trying to write honest material. Other than that we’ve been on the road, traveling.
What will you be playing at the festival?
We’ll be doing a couple of configurations. We’ll be doing more of a traditional set, and I think Del McCoury is going to sit in with us along with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That should be really fun. We’re all big fans of Del, and he’s been a hero of ours for a really long time. And we’ll also be doing stuff off of my albums and some other things people may recognize as well.
Going forward, do you think you’ll ever branch out from the traditional bluegrass format?
I’ll always love bluegrass and traditional music, and I can’t imagine going very far away from that, but I definitely see myself branching out. I’m still growing and developing and by no means do I want to feel like everything I’ve done is all I’m going to be.