The term ‘genre-defying’ can instill fear in the heart of any music executive and test even the most seasoned journalist. Once in a while, however, an artist comes along that fits everywhere, and nowhere; sampling various styles and spinning them into a sound so unique that any attempt at comparison falls short. Vocalist and songwriter, Sierra Hurtt, challenges you to expand your concept of what a song can express. She writes from her soul, but she can also tap into the essence of a song you already know and give it new meaning.
The path to her musical career took a circuitous route. The daughter of award-winning rhythm and blues songwriter, Phil Hurtt, Sierra was immersed in the business of music from an early age. At her father’s knee, she learned the art and craft of composing the well-rounded pop song. As young as 4 years old, she became a regular fixture in the famed recording studios of Philadelphia, rubbing shoulders with Philly’s Soul elite. But it was her teenage love affair with rock and roll that sparked her imagination and pushed her to develop her own unique sound.
Even with her early start, Sierra approached her debut EP, “8 or 80” , with infinite patience and unfaltering vision. Four years in the making, she was joined by Chuck Treece, Devin Greenwood, and no less than thirteen other A-list musicians. Her father, Phil, and sister, Gabrielle, along with family friend, Vivian Green, completed this circle of heavy-hitters. Together, they serve as further confirmation of the kind of creative energy and artistry that she vibrates.
“I try to surround myself with genius”, she confesses with a smile. “I’m always hoping that some will rub off on me.”
If an artist in this digital age is a self-made entity, Sierra is the blueprint. Her reputation as a vocal stylist and live performer, driven by an almost obsessive self-promotion, has carried her to distant shores. She frequently arranges her own tours in the UK and in Portugal, winning over audiences with her warmth, charm, and vulnerability. Her velvety voice can be heard on an eclectic mix of contemporary music, including releases by Paul Edwards and Merv Carswell. Songs from “8 or 80” have been remixed by DJs and producers around the world, such as June Lopez, Greencross, and Gianluca Pighi, among others. A few mixes were even placed on compilations released by Spain’s Essential Records [Space Ibiza] and Aquatique Records in Miami.
“The past three years have been a whirlwind“, she says. “A DJ in Manchester [England] started playing ‘Letting Go’, when it had just been sitting on a shelf at home. He got a rough MP3 from an engineer at the studio, and I had to scramble to release it as a single.” That engineer was none other than Philadelphia legend, Gene Leone. “From there, came the EP, the invitations to perform in England, and eventually some recognition at home.” (Hurtt was recognized as one of Philadelphia’s best, young songwriters.) “By the time I got to Portugal, I had to pinch myself.”
Live performance has been the crux of Sierra’s burgeoning career. But to date, her solo discography has only consisted of one EP and a handful of digitally-released singles.
“On paper, it looks like a hobby” she says of her career. “Almost as if I haven’t taken it seriously, but it’s always been who I am. It just took some time for me to find my voice and to get comfortable with my process. I can write fast, and I do…when I am writing for others, for other voices. But I find that the songs that take the longest, those feel more like extensions of me.”
The latest result of this slow process, “Stranger”, is her first full-length outing. It was recorded in three countries, over a comparatively short eight month period, in 2011. Sierra takes the intriguing contradictions of her past and strides confidently into her future, wrapping them in live instruments and whimsical production. She calls upon several of the talented friends she’s made over the last few years, including Portuguese musicians Pedro Tatanka (The Black Mamba), Frankie Chavez, Rui Costa and Pedro Santos (Caruma, Brass Guitar Club Band, Silence 4). Frequent collaborators Merv Carswell (England), and Skeet Williams (Wales) also make cameos. Back home, she also formed new partnerships with Daniel Bacon (Wellstar), Russell Gellman and Sam McIlvain. Toss in brief but memorable contributions from Murat Keyder (Turkey) and Geir Øverland (Norway), and you have an international cast of characters.
“Stranger” is a unique musical experiment which pairs Sierra’s originals with a handful of songs that, for various reasons, she cherishes. Her passion for Portugal, its music, and the experience she’s had there, colors much of the album. The teaser, “We Can Do Anything” – released a full eight months before the album – was written, and originally recorded, by Portuguese singer-songwriter Mikkel Solnado. Sierra transformed the tune from a warm, tropical ditty into a landscape of lush harmonies and cautious optimism.
The title track fuses alternative soul with reggae riffs, while the complexities of relationships take center stage on the surprisingly ‘indie’ second single, “Hurt”. Fado meets Pink Floyd on the stunning and atmospheric “Won’t”, but Hurtt's unmistakably rock n’ roll soul shines through on a daring, 7/8 interpretation of the under-appreciated Police gem, “Driven to Tears”. Admittedly, the collection is an unusual mix of styles, but with one unifying thread: the energy of live performance filtered through Sierra’s meticulous attention to detail as a producer.
It is in this environment that Sierra thrives, exploring the mystifying coexistence of both frailty and strength in the human spirit. What she dares you to do is to take the journey with her, across borders and boundaries, beyond genre, and into the realm of possibility. She promises to show you where the locals hang out, avoiding the tourist traps and the postcard moments, to find what’s real and what’s true. In that, she is the perfect guide.