By Laurel Thomsen
Winning NPR’s prestigious Tiny Desk Contest in 2016 gave Gaelynn Lea wings, as she and her husband uprooted their lives in northern Minnesota for the adventure of the road. Coming full circle, her third album, Learning How to Stay, looks for home, through atmospheric, layered tones and grooves, and themes that weigh life’s polarities, imploring listeners to join together and recognize the similarity in their differences.
Featuring primarily original material, the 11-song album opens like the first rays of dawn, with string sound effects and the pulsing heartbeat of piano and pizzicato. As “Bound by a Thread” builds, layers of strings and percussion create a poignant backdrop for Lea’s voice, yearning for love to be our guide, whether now or in future lifetimes. The second track shifts to the jaunty, folk-country inspired tune “Dark to Light and Dark Again,” perhaps the most lighthearted song of the album, though delivering deep life truths.
The diversity of Lea’s violin style is featured throughout the album, from the polyphonic ensemble work of Celtic-inspired “Jim and Judy’s Wedding” (by Larry Unger) to the Eastern European flair she gives her solo in “Lost in the Woods,” and the expressive capacity she evokes in “Grace and a Tender Hand.” By the time we reach the 70s-style grooves of “The Last Three Feet,” listeners have a sense they’ve left Earth and are floating somewhere in space.
As Lea fuses organic and electronic, a number of songs feature a theatrical component, particularly “I Wait,” echoing elements of the early Supremes, early Genesis, and Kate Bush, and which could easily find a home as a 70s rock anthem or on a Broadway stage. The album ends with lovely string ensemble work and a tasteful backing band on “Moment of Bliss,” asking us to slow down and enjoy the moment. Living with osteogenesis imperfecta (also known as brittle bone disease), Lea clearly lives the messages of her music with honesty and integrity. It’s refreshing to hear songs that are personal, yet equally universal, and delivered with a voice, both literally and figuratively, that is so unique and genuine.
Gaelynn Lea’s Learning How to Stay is scheduled for release on September 7.