Cover photo © 2022 Bob Kieser
Singer/guitarist Stephen Hull, of the aptly-named Stephen Hull Experience, wasn’t always a blues dynamo, capable of nailing just about any blues style, yet somehow projecting a distinct, personal voice. Before that, he was a child in a car, going with his father to get his weekly haircut. And listening to the radio.
“On my way to the barber shop [the blues] would be playing on the radio in the car out of Milwaukee station called 1290 [AM], WMCS I think it was,” Hull, now 23, recalls. “Phil Anderson was the host and I loved that guy.”
Those car rides with his father, who’s from Mississippi but wasn’t a blues fan himself, led to Hull working to earn money to buy a guitar. The guitar was a tough sell to his family, given he had given up on piano lessons. So instead, Hull turned to the only job market available to someone still years away from the SATs: babysitting and cutting grass.
Those gigs turned into a Squier Stratocaster from Guitar Center. “It’s sitting over in the corner right now,” Hull says. “It’s like a green metallic color with black hardware. I almost didn’t get it because they cancelled the order. They ran out at the warehouse, and the local [Guitar Center] just so happened to have one, or a couple of them, in fact, so my mom went and grabbed it after work.”
Hull came from a Motown-loving family, but his burgeoning interest in the blues made everyone into converts. “No one liked blues before I really came along,” he says. “It was me reintroducing the blues to my parents. My mom, I remember I was practicing on my little practice amp and my first guitar, and she was in the other room. She just came in one day and she’s like, ‘That was you? Sounds good. Keep it up.’ And she walks back out. After that I was like, ‘Alright, I think this guitar thing is gonna be pretty easy.'”
No one can say how easy the transition actually was for Hull, but he was gigging by 15. He began playing guitar as a sideman before stepping in front of the microphone for B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel.” Hull recalls his nerves that fateful night, standing on-stage, shaking in his cowboy boots, less a sartorial choice than a side-effect of his time riding horses.
“The drummer did most of the singing and I didn’t want him messing up that song,” Hull says, laughing. “He was like ‘Alright, you sing it,’ and I was like, ‘Well here goes a whole lot of nothing.’ It didn’t sound good but it didn’t sound bad. And so I just kept practicing.”
Hull is a vocal proponent of the power of practice, approaching it with a discipline that’s unusual for many artists. His advice for new musicians looking to form a band is to start by learning their favorite 10 songs. “You find a band that either knows these songs or are willing to learn these songs with you,” Hull says. “Start there, and you keep hammering those songs home, and then maybe you add two songs a week or something like that. And then before long, you have 20 songs. And after that, with 20 songs, that’s an hour set.”
At this point, according to Hull’s band-building theory, you start to pick up paying gigs. “You have to do that for a couple of years,” he says. “Then you’ve got about a hundred songs or so, and you just keep building off of that. And then you can work on transitions between songs. You get to do fun things, you’ll find your favorite musicians to do these songs with, and they’ll start inputting songs. I’ve been pushed to do several songs I never really thought of, but everyone else thought it was such a good idea. And I was like, ‘You guys are nuts. I can’t sing like that!’ [laughs].”
This is actually more than a theory for Hull, though, as he estimates his repertoire is around 250 songs, assuming he could remember them all (“I have forgotten so many songs, that’s ridiculous,” he says). Part of the reason for so many songs is to keep things fresh for himself and the band. But there is also the need to keep fans coming back to live shows with new content. With the rise of livestreaming, and the inevitability of YouTube’d performances, Hull doesn’t want listeners to think they’ve heard everything from him. “Nobody wants to hear me do the same setlist 40 times,” he laughs.
Hull is quick to mention that many of the songs in his set list aren’t all that different from each other, which is the nature of the blues. However, he is just as quick to clarify that he doesn’t find it limiting. He’s often asked if he gets tired of the blues. “I just laugh and I go, ‘No,'” he says. “I never do get tired. Right now, I’d have to say my favorite song to perform is “Caldonia” by Louis Jordan. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a version of the song I don’t like. Its just a good song, from the original to B.B. King’s cover, to Muddy Waters’ cover. I think I do a marvelous job [laughs] but I never get tired because these are my favorite songs.”
He also appreciates other styles, though. For instance, he’s a big jazz fan. “I love jazz so much,” he says. “Duke Ellington and Count Basie are my heroes, simply because Duke Ellington’s just… He’s one of those, I wouldn’t say few band leaders, but I mean, he’s one of the band leaders that he’s just great the entire way through. I wasn’t aware that you could lead a big band, and be so well versed in like, a combo setting. He knew his chords. Down pat.”
Eventually Hull was ready to front his own band, leading to the Stephen Hull Experience, which began in 2018. At first, he needed to keep backing other artists to keep paying the bills. But the musical side hustle also had other benefits: it led him to his current band. Hull’s rhythm section of drummer Victor Reid and bassist Sam Winternheimer came from that other band. Hull worried about the optics of appropriating someone else’s musicians. But not for too long. “I was like, ‘I don’t know. This might give the other dude the wrong idea, I just stole his whole band and walked off,'” Hull says. “Which is exactly what I did [laughs]. It’s nice to see both of them jump in with both feet and stick the landing. We just need to rehearse maybe once or twice on a song and we [have] basically got it down.”
Gigging helped Hull shape his singing voice, but he also spent off-stage time developing it. “I’d spend some days at home where it’s like, ‘Okay, I’m working on singing today, I’m gonna work on like, hitting various notes, hitting various runs that will improve my vocal range, and I’ll be able to work on my pitch and being able to slide into pitches,'” Hull says.
Hull values precision and professionalism because running a band is also running a business. “That’s why people [when] say, ‘Oh, you’re so good under pressure.’ I was like, ‘Look, this is nothing [laughs].’ Start running your own band, where you’re the frontman. Oof. It’ll put hair on your chest.” But Hull isn’t just a CEO looking to manufacture blues licks for profit. He values the musical and personal interactions that occur on- and off-stage. That’s led him to spending time with fellow blues artists, like Jontavious Willis.
“We’re brothers,” Hull says of the young blues star. “I don’t really think we’re working on anything but we talk all the time. If one of us gets bored, we’ll call the other, play some stuff on guitar, and put each other onto different kinds of music.” For example, Willis turned Hull onto acoustic blues. “But I was in Georgia not so long ago, he was recording some music, just for some personal use, I think,” Hull continues. “We recorded a couple of songs, which I think they sounded really nice.”
Hull jokes that the songs won’t see the light of day until both are much, much closer to retirement age, but he’s serious about the blues community he’s active within, which began on Facebook in 2018. “A lot of people complain about how boring Facebook is or how it’s for old people,” Hull says. “I’m like, ‘You are using the wrong Facebook. Alright’ [laughs]. Because I get awesome memes all day long, and music. That’s basically all that comes on my newsfeed and it’s amazing.”
The group of young blues artists hanging out on Facebook includes Hull, Willis, Marquise Knox, Dylan Triplett, Sean McDonald, DK Harrell and Lashawn Hopson, with the group transitioning to a real-life meeting in July 2020. When the pandemic shutting the world down, everyone was stuck at home, but that summer seemed like a good, and safe, moment.
The meetings, virtual and face-to-face, are a comfort to Hull, who is based in Wisconsin, which doesn’t have the same community of young blues artists you might find in other parts of the country. “[We] got to meet each other and sit down and play blues and swap stories and just enjoy each other’s company,” he says. “It was amazing.”
Wisconsin’s blues scene also seems to feature more white artists than Black, which has sometimes been an issue when Hull is drawing attention to contemporary social issues. For instance, after he gave an interview explaining how the blues connects to the Black experience, he was disappointed by the reaction of other musicians. “People tend to move a little bit differently after you take a stance on something and so I watched several people just kind of shut down their louder opinions around me, just so that they wouldn’t piss me off or so,” Hull says. “And you watch people like that, because it’s like, ‘Well, what are you hiding?'”
For Hull, it’s important to understand the history and context of blues songs. They’re not just words and licks, but represent personal experiences. “I can understand wanting to distance yourself, and race relations and all kinds of things like that, because you’re just trying to play music, but at the same time, that’s highly irresponsible,” he says. “Highly irresponsible, because if you’re not willing to acknowledge what is going on in today’s world, then you are just simply ignoring, what the songs that you’re singing are about. And the traditions behind them, because you can’t sit here and sing “Stormy Monday,” and not know what they’re talking about when ‘the eagle flies on Friday?’ Like, how many people don’t know exactly what that means?” For the record, Hull explains the T-Bone Walker lyric refers to payday.
Hull says authenticity is a pre-requisite for quality music. “You can play any kind of music that brings your heart joy and [does] it justice, but if you don’t know why you’re playing that music, what that music stands for, and what it means to the people who are listening to it, then it’ll never come across,” he says. But rather than mentioning artists whose music doesn’t resonate, Hull cites one who personifies everything good about the blues: Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. “We can all sit here and try to get it in our heads that this guy, he’s only human, but I’ve met humans,” Hull says of Ingram. “Most of them, if not all of the other ones, can’t do that [laughs]. He’s a great person on top of just being a phenomenal guitarist. And his singing? Oh, man. I didn’t know that much soul can come out of the person.”
Hull plans to release his debut album this spring and is heading into the studio, rehearsing songs with his band. After resisting the idea of recording, he now thinks it’s time. “Enough life development happened,” he says. “I was like, ‘Alright, well, I’ve been through enough heartbreak now. Let’s go ahead and write some songs, shall we?’ And I think my voice has had a nice chance to mature because when I first started singing, I could not stand the sound of my voice. I still don’t necessarily like it, but I hit a few good notes.”
Hull’s journey from car passenger to the stage has taken time, but is still impressive given how young he is. The idea of an album is intriguing, because so much of his body of work up until now has been about his ability to interpret. But with so many ideas and influences, it seems certain his album and songs will be something special.
Check out a Stephen Hull video: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?ref=watch_permalink&v=330063998050791
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