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A Tiny Concert That Led to Big Things

Interview With Gaelynn Lea, Classical Violinist From Duluth

GaelynnLea 20180222 06 web
GaelynnLea 20180222 06 web

Last updated on January 22nd, 2019 at 07:13 am

“We pulled the weeds out til the dawn
Nearly too tired to carry on
Someday we’ll linger in the sun”

Gaelynn Lea is a classically trained violinist and singer-songwriter from Duluth. She is known for her experimental, ambient take on fiddle music steeped in Celtic tradition, which incorporates a looping pedal. She was born with brittle bone disease, a congenital disability that has led her to play the violin upright, like a cellist. Gaelynn won NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2016, a competition including more than 6,000 musicians across the country. She submitted an original song, “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” a unanimous favorite among the contest’s six judges–Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and The Arcs, Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of Lucius, Son Little, NPR’s Robin Hilton and Bob Boilen.

She has collaborated with many notable Minnesota musicians over the years, including Alan Sparhawk (from the band Low), Charlie Parr, and Billy McLaughlin. Her friendship and partnership with Sparhawk led to the creation of the band The Murder of Crows in 2012 and the record Imperfecta. Working with Gaelynn, Alan helped shape her sound by using the JamMan Express loop pedal and encouraging her to envision a solo career for herself.

Since winning Tiny Desk, she has toured nationally and abroad. But, recently, she made her way back to Minnesota for the last leg of her 2018 “Winter Escape” tour. I had the pleasure of chatting with her a before I stopped by Bryant Lake Bowl to see her put on a small, intimate show. This evening, Gaelynn finds herself back in her hometown of Duluth as a special guest at newly-renovated NorShor Theatre. This showcase-style concert is the first of its kind to be held in the historic space. She is joined by Low, Dave Simonett, Superior Siren, Coyote, Rick McLean, Benson Ramsey, Anna Tennis, Paul Lundgren and Take It With You.

Below is my interview with Gaelynn prior to her pit stop at Bryant Lake Bowl. We chatted about her unique backstory, disability advocacy work, her favorite moments on tour and her aspirations for the future.

Interview with Gaelynn Lea

MIM: “Hey Gaelynn! How are you?”

Gaelynn: “I’m good! Pretty good, we’re on our way to Sheboygan, Wisconsin”

MIM: “Alright, you are in route to Minnesota. Your ironically named ‘Winter Escape Tour.”

Gaelynn: Haha, I know. Well, we were in the south for quite a bit of it. Actually, when we first left, it was colder in Nashville than it was in Duluth when we got there. And we were like, ‘whaaaaat.'”

MIM: “Really? That’s crazy”

Gaelynn: “But it ended up being pretty nice, in California it was warm, and Texas.”

MIM: “It was just last month that you were in California?”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, we’ve been gone 41 days.”

MIM: “Wow! You have not skipped a beat since you were last here in Minnesota at Sociable and at Icehouse…”Gaelynn: “I know!”

MIM: “You have been on the road!”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, we really have. But, it’s been good. I mean, once the album comes out, we’re gonna to figure out how much we want to be gone and all that stuff. I mean we want to be done ultimately, but you gotta try stuff out and figure out what works. You know what I mean?”

MIM: “Yeah, exactly. And when is your new album due to be released? Have you set a date for that?”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, I mean unless anything drastic changes, it’s going to be September 7th.”

MIM: “Alright! Noted!”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, I’m excited for it!”

MIM“That’s great! Do you still play with The Murder of Crows when you’re not flying solo or on the road?”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, The Murder of Crows, Alan [Sparhawk] and I play a couple songs a year usually, just for fun. He made three pieces on the new album, most of his singing songs in The Murder of Crows I wrote, pretty much all of them actually. But then, I kind of wanted to record them. So, I was like, ‘should we do another Murder of Crows album?’ And he was like, ‘why don’t you just put them on your new album?’ All three [are] on there, because they’re songs that I wrote anyway. I’m sure we’ll do some stuff down the line. But, the band that’s on the new album is not The Murder of Crows, it’s a group of guys, aside from the one that Alan is on.”

MIM: “And, what is the group that will be accompanying you on the new album?”

Gaelynn: “It’s Marty Dosh, he plays drums. Alan Church…”

MIM: “Another Alan!”

Gaelynn: “Yes, I know, we call him ‘Alan two.’ And then, Dave Mehling and Andrew Foreman. They’re all Minneapolis-based artists.”

MIM: “Oh great! Did you meet them in Duluth, your hometown?”

Gaelynn:Dave Mehling and Alan Church both grew up in Duluth, so I’ve known them for a really long time. But, not musically. We didn’t play together until the last couple years. Alan Church was actually on my last two solo records. So, I’ve played with him for a couple years. And, Dave Mehling, there was a gig that Al couldn’t do and I was like, ‘Oh! Dave is really good at guitar! I wonder if he’ll play with me.’ We did a gig together, and we had a lot of fun. So, I knew I wanted to work with the two of them for sure. And they both knew Marty and Andrew, to kind of fill out the band. It’s a different sound, but I’m really, really excited for the new album.”MIM: “I’m excited for that to come out!”

Gaelynn: “Can’t wait! Yeah, I wish it was sooner. But, it’s not done yet. We start mixing it starting in March.”

MIM: “Is that when things are going to slow down for you? In March?”

Gaelynn: “Hahaha.”

MIM: “Haha, it never really slows down does it?”

Gaelynn: “I mean I’m home for part of March. So, I’m going to be mixing the beginning of March and then I’m home at our house in Duluth for like eleven days, but then we leave again. And then I’m gone for quite a bit of April. And then, quite a bit of May…Then, I’m going to be doing my own booking I think. Switching gears, a little bit more condensed tours is kind of my goal. Because I want to be able to write more and work on other projects that I can’t really do when I’m on the road.”

MIM“Yeah, actually the last artist I chatted with. I don’t know if you’ve heard of her. Rachael Yamagata?”

Gaelynn: “No! I haven’t.”

MIM: “She came to Icehouse a couple weeks back. You’re reminding me of her. Talking about being on the road. The challenge of just taking pause to write and to reflect and to take a break from being on the road. Would you say that you need that time to decompress after the tour to really dig into your writing?”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, I can start music on the road. But, it’s really hard for me to play a song… I mean right now, I’m in a van, driving. So, technically, I’m not playing music, so it’s not the same as being in a private, dim-lit room where you can concentrate. You know what I mean? So, I guess, I need to be home for that. And I get a lot done when we are home.”

MIM: “Well, are you excited to be coming back to Minneapolis this Thursday?”

Gaelynn: “Yeah! Super excited! Dave Mehling and Marty Dosh, they’re going to be playing with me.”

MIM: “Sweet!”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, I’m really pumped! It’s been a while since I’ve seen them. And yeah, I’m excited to get back to Minnesota. For sure. It was a really good tour. We met a ton of awesome people in the South… It was an awesome tour, but I’m excited to be in Minnesota. I like Bryant Lake Bowl, I think I was there last year.”

MIM: “Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a show at Bryant Lake Bowl. I’ve gone bowling there, I’ve had pizza and beer, haha. But, I haven’t actually gone to a show. So, I’m excited to check out that venue. How was it last year when you were there?”

Photo courtesy of Gaelynn Lea’s GoFundMe page.

Gaelynn: “It was fun! Alan Church opened for me. It’s a cute, little venue. It has a little theatre, kind of like a black box space, a cozy environment. I had a good show, I’m sure it will be fun again. It’s cool to see and play with Marty and Dave too.”

MIM: “Yeah! Looking forward to it.”

Gaelynn: “And I’ll be playing new music, also.”

MIM: “Great!”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, so it will be a little preview.”

MIM: “Yeah, we’ll get a preview of your stuff that’s in the works right now. So… I was very struck by you when I was covering Jeremy Messersmith at Icehouse. I saw your name on the list, but when you got up there and started performing, I was like, ‘who is this girl? Who is this woman?’ Haha. I was blown away by you, so I just wanted to let you know that. And I wanted to congratulate you, although it’s been a couple years, on winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest back in 2016.”

Gaelynn: “Oh yeah! Thank you! Yeah, that was a big game changer, for sure.”

MIM: “I bet. So, how has life changed since you won?”

Gaelynn: “So, when I won, I had just released my first album, completely solo. And I was teaching violin five days a week. I played music, but it was mostly just in Duluth and once in a while in Minneapolis. And then, all of a sudden, I have these chances to play all over. Internationally too. So, all these opportunities. My husband and I talked about it and we were like, ‘well, if we want to experience it, now would be the time to try.’ So, he took a leave of absence, I re-housed all my students, we sold the house, and we got a van and hit the road full time. So, life has changed a lot. We’ve been to 42 states and 6 countries, I think. So, we’ve been going since the Tiny Desk. We’ve been able to expand our worldview, I guess. I’ve seen a lot more stuff than I ever thought I would”

Photo courtesy of Gaelynn Lea’s GoFundMe page.

MIM“Yeah, the world has opened up to you in so many ways. That’s incredible.”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, meeting people all over that have become acquaintances, and then friends. It’s been really fun… we didn’t leave for touring right away, we kinda had to get ourselves  in order first.”

MIM: “Sure. So, how did you first become impassioned by classical music? You kind of have a Celtic, traditional folk style. I want to ask you about your technique. I was very transfixed by the looping pedal that you used, but how did you first get inspired to pursue classical music?”

Gaelynn: “Well, I got inspired because an orchestra came to my school and I was in fourth grade. And I just remember being like, ‘oh my gosh, I love that.’ And then, the next year, we had a chance to join orchestra. So, I took the music listening test that they have you do and I was the only student to get a perfect score on it. So, the teacher took it upon herself to kind of help me figure out how to play. Even though there were some obstacles at first, it was just a matter of brainstorming and being like, ‘well, what could work?’ Because of how small I am. So, because she taught all the instruments in orchestra in fifth grade, she knew that I could adapt the way I play. So, I play like a cello and I hold my bow like a bass player does, like an upright bass player. So, we kind of came to that. And I just like the harmonies and the sound of the strings. I don’t know why they appealed to me, but they definitely did. So now, when I get a chance, I like playing at schools because I think…”

MIM: “Oh! very cool!”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, it’s just one of those things if you just expose kids to things, they realize their options that they didn’t know were out there. You know what I mean? That’s exactly what happened to me when I heard orchestra. I never thought about it before. But, then I heard it.”

MIM: “Yeah, and now you get to be that person for kids!”

Gaelynn: “Yeah! It’s cool! I think it’s important anytime a musician can play at an unlikely spot, like a school, or nursing home, or a group home, a day program after school… I think it’s important for musicians to be in those places because those kids wouldn’t necessarily get music otherwise, or those adults. And I mean quality music, it’s not just on a tape deck. You know what I mean. CD players, iPods.”

MIM: “Yeah, that’s great that you do that.”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, I think Haley Bonar just did a show at a school too. I’m glad that people are doing that. Yeah, I think she played at Hastings middle school or something. They do that once a year. So, it’s cool to see other people doing it too. It’s one of those things that’s an important part of teaching kids.”

MIM: “Yes! And the technique that you use to play, so you kind of play the violin upright like a cello. And then, you also utilize this looping pedal that layers multiple orchestrated parts with the electric violin. For those that have never seen you perform, how would you illustrate what this looks like in a live performance?”

Gaelynn: Well, so I have the looping pedal that sits in my wheel chair. There are two buttons on it. The one button is the record button. So, when I’m playing, I hold it down with my leg. And while I’m holding the button down, it’s recording what I’m playing. I might record a couple measures or something. And then, I let go of the button and it starts playing it back again and again. So, it’s all done live. It’s not pre-recorded. Some people think I’m pressing play or whatever, but it’s all done live. And then, you can build up these parts as you go. I think it’s really fun. You know, for the violin, a lot of times either you have to be in an ensemble or you can only play solo music. It’s really hard. I mean, I’ve seen people do it. But, it’s really hard to sing your own songs with just one violin. But, with the looping pedal, all of a sudden you can create chords kind of like a guitar player can. And you can do the whole show that way. You saw me then, with the full band. But, I do solo shows all the time. I play with the band whenever I can, because I love to. But, when I’m on the road, it’s solo. And you can do a whole show that way.”

MIM: “Yeah! You’re kind of like a one-woman show!”

Gaelynn: “Yeah!”

MIM: “Just you, your pedal and the violin, and your voice.”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, it’s cool. I didn’t know about the looping pedal until I started spending time with Alan Sparhawk in The Murder of Crows.”

MIM: “That’s right.”

Gaelynn: “So, I owe it to him. He was like, ‘here’s a pedal, I think you should learn how to use it. I think you can play shows by yourself someday.’ And I didn’t really believe him, but he was right.”

MIM: “So, he was the one to introduce you to that.”

Gaelynn: “Yup! He did it in The Murder of Crows, but he always did all the looping. And I would just play harmonies from what I heard, but I was never intentional with the pedal in that band. But, he brought me one after band practice one time. And he was like, ‘this is for you, you can keep it. Figure out how to use it, I think you’d be good at it.’ It took a lot of time, it took like a year and a half to really feel comfortable enough with performing.”

MIM: “Yeah, just with the timing. If you’re off just a little bit, everything’s thrown.”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, it’s pretty tricky, but it’s not impossible. So, I booked a gig at a pizza shop where I played every week for two hours and it was pretty much background music, so I could experiment. And that’s sort of how I got comfortable on it. But, even to get to that point, pizza shop point, I still practiced for like a year and a half on the pedal before I ever did that live. It took a long time, but it was worth it. For sure.”

MIM: “It’s very unique. I had never seen that before with the electronic violin.”

Gaelynn: “Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Andrew Bird does something similar I guess. But, luckily, I hadn’t really listened to Andrew Bird. So, I’m glad that I hadn’t before I got the pedal because I didn’t want to copy what he was doing with it. But, everybody’s got their own style. So, you can kind of see different people do what I do and none of them will sound the same.”

MIM: “So, you mentioned that your world has kind of opened up over the past couple years. Traveling to 42 states, and a handful of countries… So, how has touring and performing around the world, far from your hometown of Duluth, encouraged you to talk about disability in a more public way and connect with people through music?”

Gaelynn: “Well, a big part of that is through conversations like this. Like, interviews. People are obviously curious, learning to play an instrument in a different way, being an artist with a disability. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to talk about it. And, I do think that there is a lot of work that we need to do to make equality a reality for people with disabilities. I just think it’s an important thing to talk about. At my shows, you know, I’m not usually like sitting around talking about that. At shows, those are for music. I want people to enjoy the music and get in their own space. But, when I’m doing an interview and speaking… it’s kind of made me realize that a lot of the issues that I face in Duluth are the same everywhere, which means we really have a lot of work to do. So, if I didn’t talk about it, I think it would kind of be irresponsible, haha. I think it’s important to do that.”

MIM: “It’s very important. And, why do you think this medium of music is a particularly effective way to kind of subtly advocate for people with disabilities? Or, maybe it’s a student at a school where you’re performing that, just like you were back in fifth grade… I mean change out the fourth-grade recorder for a fiddle haha, but how do you think that impacts kids you’ve encountered in schools or just other members of the audience? What are the more memorable moments?”

Gaelynn: “You know, I really want my shows to be about the music. But I think, especially at schools, kids don’t see a lot of empowering images of disability in our society.”

MIM: “Yeah.”

Gaelynn: “And so, to perform and explain how I learned to play, which I don’t do at my shows, but I do when I play for kids at schools, I think that’s important for them to see. Sometimes, teachers will pass on the reflections kids have written. And some of them say ‘It makes me feel like I can do what I want to do.’ But, that’s not the reason I do it. If you do it for that reason… I don’t want to play just so other people feel like, ‘well, if she can do it I can do it.’ That’s just not my job or role. I just want them to see more positive representations of disabilities in their world, and I think this is a good way to do that. With public speaking, I usually play a couple songs at the end. And I think that serves a purpose to just allow people to reflect and be quiet. I don’t think we have a lot of opportunities for that. Especially at a conference, taking in information the whole time. So, to just have the time to sit and reflect helps the words sink in better. And, I know people at the end of conferences told me that. And at live shows, I leave that up to people to figure out for themselves what they think. And, if they want to read my words, or listen to a speech with me talking about disability, they are definitely encouraged to do that. But, I decided to keep that separate because I don’t want to become the one always talking about disabilities as an artist. I try to keep music and disability activism separate in some ways and the way that I do that is making the performance more about the music than anything else. You know what I mean?”

MIM: “Yeah! Your music, it speaks for itself.”

Gaelynn Lea performs during the Homegrown Music Festival in Duluth in May 2008. (News Tribune file photo)

Gaelynn: “And you know, everybody comes to every show with their own lens. Yeah, and that’s kind of that way that it is, I guess. I would be happy if there were so many artists with disabilities out there that it wouldn’t even be like worth mentioning. You know, some artists, female artists, are like, ‘man, I wish I wasn’t just considered a female artist.’ A lot of times, I feel like that with disability. But, at this point, there’s so much work to do. I’m happy to talk about it because I want there to be change.

MIMYes, agreed. Well, is there anything else that you’d like to share? With what’s to come, or reflecting back on your tour this past year? Yeah, I’ll just leave you the floor if you want to add anything.”

Gaelynn: “Yeah! Well, about the past year, I guess my favorite parts aside from playing… It’s kind of fun to connect with people after the show, my favorite part is that when you are on the road you don’t really think about when you go back to that town four months later that you might see the same people again. One of my favorite parts about touring has been making friends, essentially with people all over. It kind of makes the world seem much smaller, in a really positive way.”

MIM: “Yeah, that’s really nice.”

Gaelynn: “And encouraging other artists to find a way to do what they want, performing and stuff. It’s been fun talking to bands from all over and learning how they do it. It’s a very unique path, in terms of always being on the road and being self-employed. It’s a big learning curve, but a lot of the people we’ve met have been really willing to share how it’s gone for them and what works for them. I’ve met a lot of really supportive people. And I’m excited to get to Minnesota and, the last thing, the album is… See, I don’t have a record label, so we’re doing it on GoFundMe. That’s how we’re paying for it. So, people can actually pre-order the album already on GoFundMe. And then, they’ll get a copy of it when it’s done. So, it’s kind of nice to let people know that’s happening now, so they can already pre-order it.”

Access her GoFundMe page here:

MIM: “Yeah! I will definitely look into that!

Gaelynn: “Yeah! Anyway, it’s been a fun year. I’m curious to see what happens when the album is out. And, I want to try and bring at least a guitar player with me more often. So, we’ll see how the next year looks.”

MIM“Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day.”

Gaelynn: “Yeah! Thanks for talking to me!”

Written by Kathleen Ambre

Photographer | Designer | Writer | Chronic Creator


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