Gaelynn Lea: Defying Labels and Crossing Borders

Unanimous winner of NPR Music’s “Tiny Desk Contest,” Gaelynn Lea brings her unique style all the way from her home town of Duluth, Minnesota, to Providence, Rhode Island, on Friday, October 21 at AS220.

Gaelynn’s music can be described as “experimental traditional folk” with instrumental and vocal influences in Celtic and Irish music combined with a love of Scandinavian fiddle tunes. Her mesmerizing original instrumental harmonies and vocals are anything but traditional in their personal improvisational-inspired interpretations. Gaelynn’s stirring melodic original “Someday We’ll Linger In the Sun” was selected from the 6,000-plus entries and chosen by all six judges in NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert.” With more than 20 years of experience, she also teaches the instrument and performs with Alan Sparhawk in the band Murder Of Crows. Their different styles weave together an atmospheric tapestry of sound.

Gaelynn’s life is as extraordinary as her music. Born with the congenital disease Osteogenesis Imperfecta (also referred to as Brittle Bones Disease) her delicate bones were broken multiple times at birth. This resulted in a twisting and shortened formation of limbs. At the young age of only 2 she was already learning to get around with an electric wheelchair.

Her musical journey started when Gaelynn fell in love with the sounds of the cello and strings together after hearing the orchestra play in the 4th grade. When her music instructor Mrs. Sommerfeld administered a school music listening test, she received a perfect score. Knowing that she wanted to be involved in the orchestra, her instructor encouraged her to play the violin as the cello was just too large for her small frame. With some adaptations in positioning and technique, she now plays violin up and down like a cello while bowed like an upright stringed bass. Hand positions were re-adjusted to reach the necessary notes on the fingerboard. Despite the extra hours of practice time this required, for Gaelynn, music itself always came naturally and freely, seemingly as a natural extension of her own body and expression of her spirit.

Gaelynn’s early musical influences were quite diverse — from big band and swing music to the lilting harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel. In her college years, bands such as The Decemberists and Neutral Milk Hotel were some of her influences.

Her first written songs “Let It Go” and “Bird Song” were recorded in 2012 and its easy to get lost in the multi-textured maze of sound created in part by a looping pedal gifted to her by Alan Sparhawk in 2011. The pedal allowed her to build on and weave the violin parts around one another, creating multi-tiered layers of harmony to give a fuller sound to solo performances. Her honest vocals are starkly soulful, for Gaelynn is a woman whose rare authenticity shines through in her performance and poetic songwriting. Following her own creative path with the love and support of her husband, there is the gift of artistic freedom as she finds the delicate balance between being a musician/songwriter and public speaker for those with disabilities whose voices are all too often unsung and unheard. She finds ways to empower those who are handicapped to find their own artistic voices.

As far back as college, Gaelynn was outspoken and involved with organizations supporting the rights of those with disabilities. She speaks about the need for venues to be accessible to everyone, starting with the basics such as building larger restrooms, adding ramps to stages, paying special needs support staff and encouraging venues to hire and represent more artists with disabilities. Knowing that making these changes is not always easy and often hindered by lack of financial priority or limitations, by getting word out there, change can be set into motion. She notes it’s not always comfortable or easy to rely on the kindness of strangers when performing, such as just getting herself and her wheelchair up onto the stage. The upside is that those moments can be a valuable experience for those who partake. She encourages others needing assistance to not be afraid to seek out those willing to help and support them.

Gaelynn is also an advocate for music being more than just about performing well. It’s about doing it because you simply love it, even if just for yourself. She sees that music connects people and should be accessible to all, regardless of ability or physical limitations. When asked about meaning in her music, she states it’s about processing the human experience — how we cannot control things in the end and that we should make something beautiful now.

A woman of small stature but big goals, Gaelynn plans on more travel and touring as well as the release of her new Christmas album by November 1. She aims to learn more about digital looping pedal technologies, looks forward to more public speaking engagements and plans to run a future music festival.

Catch her live solo performance on Friday, October 21, at AS220, appearing with Alec K Redfearn and the Eye Sores, Jess Klein and Haunt the House. The show starts at 9pm, all ages. To learn about Gaelynn Lea and listen to her music, visit violinscratches.com For more information on AS220 visit: as220.org

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