Seattle is a city with a diverse music scene, and one of a large enough size to draw a multitude of acts, guaranteeing that there is good music happening any day of the week. Even still, I don’ get out to shows much, and I am often caught out at the last minute when an someone I want to see does come to town. Such was the case on Wednesday when I saw found out that Sierra Hull was playing the Tractor Tavern in Ballard.
Hull grew up with the mandolin, played the Grand Ole Opry at eleven, and signed a record deal at thirteen. By twenty-two, she felt restless, and was writing music that was outside the musical home she’d built for herself and defied the directions others expected of her. Despite that, she committed to this new course and enlisted confidant Allison Krauss and banjo player, composer, producer Bela Fleck, musicians with a background similar to Hulls, but with a penchant for defying strictures of genre.
Weighted Mind, the album that came out of that period of conflict changed the way Hull played. The album features Hulls solid vocals, mostly accompanied by her agile playing and a steady underpinning bass played by Ethan Jodziewicz. The album came out over a year ago at this point, and so a review would be redundant. I also don’t intend for this to be a review of the show. As I said–lamely–on Instagram, I love watching two top flight musicians interact, and play off each other. I’ve always loved it. It is exciting to watch/ listen to, and if you think that this type of interplay only exists in Jazz, then you need to actually listen to more music (as a side note, Hull and Jodziewicz, opened their show on Sunday with the Wayne Shorter tune One by One).
That said, what I have been thinking about in the days and hours since is my own feelings creative constraints. I would never claim that, as a writer, that I am on a similar level as Hull is a musician. I am hack by most standards. Still, the past year for me has been a difficult one creatively.
My life changed–for the better–a year ago when my daughter was born. The space I had used to write was moved to the living room, where it is even harder to fight distraction, and I just haven’t done much writing since then, a fact supported by this site’s archives. But this feeling has been lingering for some time.
For the entire time I’ve been writing I have mostly relied on emotion to carry my written thoughts. It worked, and I got pretty good a leveraging big emotions. I never thought to try another way until I ran into some serious road blocks while trying to write a piece for Bicycling. At the time, I was making Bill Strickland’s life difficult with my overwrought thoughts about bicycles. What I learned during that process is that emotion is a hammer, and it’s so damn satisfying to use because it smashes everything to shit. Swinging that hammer is so damn satisfying, but sometimes a heavy blunt object is the last thing one needs. Bicycling and I eventually arrived at a short solid piece that was immeasurably better than the original 2k plus first draft I’d sent to Bill. Yet, I still feel confined by that emotion laden style, and I don’t know how to break out of it, and be comfortable with what comes out.
Since then, I have struggled to do this on my own. I am tired of writing just about myself (my life also, just isn’t that interesting). Which brings me back to Sierra Hull. We didn’t talk about this when we met after the show (what we talked about had more to do with swinging the hammer), but I get the impression that she had to overhaul the way she played and approached the mandolin, but bluegrass tool set she’d developed just wasn’t going to cut for this new music she was writing. What she came away with is a way of playing that escapes the long shadows of the instrument’s giants. You can hear it, the tradition that is, lingering in the background, but she’s developed this way of weaving lines, with chops of chords, that serve not just as accompaniment, but also as counterpoint. It is beautiful and joy to listen to.
I did tell her that I respected the creative, and personal leap it took to write that album, to defy what others thought she should do, and to fully commit to a change that, while difficult, she knew was right. I need to develop a similar level of confidence and commitment.