By Cristina Schreil
“I like to think about what people were doing when they played this around a fire.”
Gaelynn Lea chats between tunes—and rumblings of the passing subway—in New York City. The Minnesota-based fiddler is perched onstage at Joe’s Pub in Greenwich Village, and her knack for storytelling conjures a friendly atmosphere. Lea is about to launch into a fruity rendition of “Swallowtail Jig,” one of many Irish tunes she teaches fiddle students. She shares an anecdote about introducing another one, which happened to grace that boisterous third-class dance scene in Titanic. She adds, with a slight eye roll, her young student’s response: “Titanic? I’ve heard of that! It’s a classic!” It’s one of many times this evening Lea draws laughs from the audience. Her dry yet mirthful humor peppers a set that also dips into indelible poignancy. In introducing one of her original tunes, she explains its inspiration: Six weeks before she married her husband, Paul, she had emergency surgery. Paul’s support struck a deep chord; the ensuing song is “about how love is beautiful even when it’s really difficult.”
Opening measures of meditative whole notes compel a hush over an already rapt audience. With a quick tap, Lea kindles a looping pedal at her side and layers the lines into a saturnine blend. She sprinkles in woody pizzicato and then sings utterly haunting poetry: “Our love’s a complex, vintage wine, all rotted leaves and lemon rind. I spit you out, but now you’re mine.” Her delicate voice floats atop the dusky layers. A melancholy solo touched with quavering vibrato sends the emotions home. Later, Lea tells me it was a private teacher in high school—who’d make her start over if she cringed at her mistakes—who reinforced the importance of sustaining an atmosphere for the audience. “It’s really about keeping the magic alive,” she says.
The bittersweet magic of the song itself is central to why Lea was at Joe’s Pub in the first place. In 2016, Lea won NPR’s second annual Tiny Desk Contest. Two students alerted her to the contest and, with a friend’s help, Lea recorded herself via iPhone performing the tune “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” in her Duluth, Minnesota, teaching studio. In the video, just out of frame, is the majority of her wheelchair. Lea wanted the focus to be on the music. Her unique sound captured the judges’ attention—and held it. “Hers was
the one melody that stayed with me throughout the process. It’s captivating and powerful,” wrote contest judge Holly Laessig of the indie-pop band Lucius.
The win was a surprise. “I was not miserable or looking for an out when the Tiny Desk happened. I really liked my life,” Lea says. It’s the day after the Joe’s Pub concert and we’re at a café in Queens. She has an afternoon of travel ahead to make a Philadelphia gig, but she looks ready for a picnic, sporting a straw hat and a summery patterned dress. Before Tiny Desk, Lea would play around six shows a month and busk, both solo and with guitarist Alan Sparhawk, bandmate in their duo the Murder of Crows. She was just getting more serious about performing. “I had a really beautiful studio on the lake, 15 students. I got to play a lot . . . I was happy,” she says.
Lea’s musical life could easily have languished. Enchanted by the sound of a visiting student orchestra, she took a music test in fifth grade; students could join orchestra if they did well. “I was the only one who got a perfect score,” Lea says. But there was a challenge. Born with a congenital disability called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or brittle bone syndrome, she couldn’t prop a violin on her shoulder or wield a cello. A teacher named Susan Sommerfeld helped her adapt. They found a half-size violin and oriented it upright, like a cello. Thus began a journey of problem solving and modifications. Decades later, Lea still rests her violin in front of her on her wheelchair. She holds her specially made bow differently—more like the French grip for double bass, she’s been told—to achieve the correct angle. Her violin itself embodies a musical link to her hometown: It was owned by the very doctor who delivered her mother.
Lea says Sommerfeld’s support was pivotal. “You look back and you realize how big a deal that was. She really easily could’ve been like, ‘You should do choir, because I don’t think this is going to work for you.’” Since the contest, Lea has heard plenty of anecdotes about children being discouraged from playing for myriad reasons. She stresses that players with disabilities can play at a concert level—but it helps at first to not compare them to other students. “Even if the student is really struggling, I never, ever, ever, ever suggest that they quit, because that’s wrong,” Lea says. “I have limitations with how much I can do with my bow because it’s smaller but I don’t think it’s for teachers to decide how good the students have to be. My job is to facilitate them playing.”
This viewpoint echoes the encouragement she’s received. Lea’s teachers through middle school and high school, where she played in a tight-knit orchestra, were game to help find solutions. As she advanced, Lea adapted her fingerings and embraced shifting, unable to use her left pinky. She rotates the instrument to accommodate her shorter arms. Her feet help her pivot. From the audience, the movements look seamless, as if she’s simply rocking with the music. Over the years she’s tried different hacks to keep her violin stable, first experimenting with foam. Eventually, Lea improvised an endpin with a pen cap and string, which she holds between her toes to keep the violin from slipping.
In college, her musical life flipped. She heard about a Celtic jam and went, she explains, because “I had a crush on a boy.” She ended up liking the music more than the boy. She joined a campus group called Flying Fingers, wherein musicians split into small ensembles and jammed regularly. She dipped into old-time fiddling, then immersed herself in Celtic.
After years of studying classical music, Lea says the passed-down aspect of fiddling transfixed her. “I’ll be playing by the Lakewalk [in Duluth] and every once in a while, you ponder, who else was playing this song and in what context and where? I just think it’s kind of neat to think you’re playing the same melody,” she says. “In general it’s another way to keep those melodies alive. I don’t want them to go away.” Recently, she’s explored Scandinavian fiddling, with one elegiac tune gracing her next album.
This isn’t to say she adheres to convention. She employs a lot of vibrato, something strict traditionalists advise against. Her looping pedal is another clear departure. “I turn them on their heads,” she says of the traditional tunes. Her pedal, an Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai that was a gift from Sparhawk, is now a staple part of her expression. It took a lot of practice and still requires rapt attention. She landed a regular gig at a pizza shop, a low-pressure performing atmosphere that allowed her to experiment and perfect her timing with the pedal. Her first two albums were recorded live with the device.
“I’ll be playing by the Lakewalk [in Duluth] and every once in a while, you ponder, who else was playing this song and in what context and where? I just think it’s kind of neat to think you’re playing the same melody.”
Now, a year and a half after winning the Tiny Desk Contest, Lea is far from the pizzeria. She and Paul speak fondly of their life before her win and their nomadic life since. After a four-city tour organized by NPR, she embarked on a tour spanning last September to the time of our interview in July, sometimes flying but mainly traveling by van. She’s played more than 150 shows—both abroad and in 37 states. The longest they had been home in Duluth was three weeks. They sold their house. Paul quit his job. Lea muses they’ve plunged headfirst into the life she envisioned they might have in ten years.
Lea’s wheelchair access—or lack thereof—has become a central headache of touring life. “It’s kind of disappointing to go on the road and realize at about 75 percent of the places you play, you have to be lifted onstage,” she says. The top of Lea’s tech rider, in red letters, communicates that she has a wheelchair, and tells the venue to build or rent a ramp. Yet she says her message—a reminder of ADA compliance—often doesn’t land. “You don’t find out until you show
up that there’s nothing. And it’s very frustrating.”
She attests many venues have expressed they can’t afford it, asking her if stagehands can just lift her chair. Many don’t realize it weighs 265 pounds. Sometimes, she’s told to enter through the kitchen. “Well, that’s still not access.” She throws her hands up. “Do they not realize that they’re actually barring access to a huge part of the population? Nobody sees it yet.” Many venues assume Paul will help; since he injured his back on New Year’s Eve doing just that, Lea’s learned to express herself—literally.
Lea began speaking about disability issues in 2015. Lately, she focuses on being a musician with special needs and recently gave a Tedx Talk and a Google Talk. She strives to not perform at venues that aren’t wheelchair accessible for audience members.
A bit of humor helps. In a conversation with a disability-rights activist, the topic pivoted to violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman (who since recovering from polio at age four uses crutches or an electric scooter) and the topic of playing only at accessible venues. “I was like, ‘Yeah I kind of want to do that,’” Lea recalls herself saying. The activist’s response was eye-opening. “She was like, ‘No, you’re too early in your career.’” Lea realized it was true; she would eliminate about 80 percent of her gigs. Her next statement drips with droll humility and cutting sarcasm. “Right, once I’m finally Itzhak I can have accessible spaces!”
Creative thinking also helps. Upon recently finding that an already booked venue wasn’t accessible, Lea suggested moving it to a nearby church. “Most churches are accessible,” Lea says. Her tip for players with disabilities: Opt for churches, community centers, schools, colleges, and other government-owned public spaces.
While hoping for change for disability access, Lea also looks ahead to new projects. She has two singles coming out in November, and there’s a Go Fund Me campaign tosupport a full album, featuring a band, in 2018. It seems Lea shows no signs of stopping. “You never know what to expect so I try not to guess so much about what the next adventure will be!”