Gaelynn Lea: "Art Can Serve as a Vessel to Remind People We're Here"

The Minnesota musician speaks about accessibility in the arts, her history with the violin, and the ways that folk music can change everything.

Early on a Friday morning in late October, songwriter and violinist Gaelynn Lea sits by the window of her hotel room. She got into Halifax late last night after driving from her Duluth, Minnesota home to northwestern Ontario to catch a flight. By her own admission, she went out on the town later than she maybe should have, but she’s upbeat and bright-eyed, with hints of Minnesota nice peppering her speech.


She’s also probably the busiest artist at this year’s Halifax Pop Explosion, a music and comedy festival that’s been running strong since the early 90s, when the city started turning heads as a breeding ground for alternative rock. She’s speaking at the Halifax Central Library later about accessibility for people with disabilities in the arts, and a few hours after that, she’ll be getting ready for her own headlining show up the street. There isn’t a moment during any of those commitments that she doesn’t seem to be radiating good vibes. She’s been on the road a lot in the past couple of years, but there isn’t a hint of the jadedness that sometimes afflicts touring artists.

She says one of the of the criticisms levied at her latest record, Learning How to Stay, is that it’s so positive. Lea has a high, nimble voice that floats above her violin playing, which draws largely from traditional folk and fiddle tunes. Her original compositions are full of bright pop melodies and playful instrumentation, such as the bouncy piano of “Lost in the Woods” or the sunshiney sway of “I See It Too.”

But If you’re paying attention, the album veers into stranger territory, too. The band eases into “The Last Three Feet” by building a spacey atmosphere, and the flurry of strings and ominous drums on “Metsäkkukia” make for a shadowy take on the Finnish traditional. Early on the album, she melds sweet country funk with a recognition of the yin and yang of life: “Dark to light and dark again / All changing tides until it ends / Take it in, don’t close your eyes / And piece by piece shed your disguise.”


Lyrics like these speak to the ways pain and happiness coexist in every life. “If you look at a Facebook feed, you'll know that,” Lea says. “Some people are having a terrible day, and some people just had a baby, and someone's mom died. It's all happening around us all the time, so holding both joy and sorrow simultaneously is actually what the message is. I guess the end result, hopefully, is to feel some hope or at least balance or peace about it. Nothing's gonna be great all the time and nothing's gonna be terrible all the time. Being present is the only solution to that experience.”

If you know the name Gaelynn Lea, there’s a good chance it’s from her Tiny Desk Concert. She opens her set with “Someday We’ll Linger in The Sun,” a song as stunning as it is unsettling, focused on the tyranny of time, and the pain and glory of loving and being loved by someone. As she sings over a melancholy foundation of spectral, looped violin, she gazes off into the distance, like she’s watching the lives involved in the story connect and blossom and disintegrate all at once. It’s a powerful performance, but when the song ends, she alleviates the heaviness in the room by laughing and admitting she’s so glad she didn’t screw the whole thing up, as looping pedals can be tricky.

Lea plays her instrument—a 7/8 size violin that she reckons is about a century old—with a natural’s fluidity, in a style she worked out with an early teacher that combines violin, cello, and upright bass techniques. Lea was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (AKA, brittle bones disease), which causes complications in the development of bones and limbs. “I broke 40 or 50 before I was born,” Lea says. “I don't remember it, obviously. Then, by the time I was born, they had healed, so my arms and legs are bent, and they're more fragile.”


She’s been in a wheelchair since she was two and a half, and grew up surrounded by “a really awesome family” that included her mom and dad, who are still together, and siblings older and younger. Her siblings once brought her along for a bike ride by tying her to the back of a newspaper rack with twine. “It was not safe, but we did it anyway,” she says, stressing that adventures were a regular part of childhood.

When she was in fourth grade, an orchestra visited her school, and she fell in love with the strings and the way the players bowed in time. The following year, she did the required listening test to join her school’s orchestra and was the only student to get a perfect score. She wanted to play the cello, but even the smallest models were too big, and she couldn’t play the violin in a traditional way, as her arms are too short. So she and her teacher figured out how she could play the violin like a cello while holding her bow like an upright bass player. It worked, but mastering the technique took some time. It wasn’t until a few years later that her mother exclaimed it didn’t hurt to hear her practice anymore, she says with a laugh.

She played in orchestra all through high school, then joined a fiddle group named Flying Fingers, which explored a much wider range of music, during her time at Macalaster College. But after she almost died from a respiratory issue—her disability can be restrictive to her lungs—she moved back to Duluth. “I just wasn’t myself, basically,” she says. “It was really scary.”


She’d planned to go back to Macalester, but was stressed out about leaving Duluth. A phone call with friend and bandmate Andy Gable, with whom she’d played with as acoustic duo Gabel and Gaelynn, convinced her to stay. As time went on, she kept herself busy with more and more playing opportunities, eventually getting together with Charlie Parr and then Low’s Alan Sparhawk, with whom she created the haunting folk duo The Murder of Crows. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if he hadn’t been there, actually,” she says. It was Sparhawk, too, who pushed her to write songs, and who would eventually gift her the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, a looping pedal she says opened up a whole new avenue.

“I got really into reworking these traditional tunes with the pedal,” Lea says, referring to old folk and fiddle songs from all manner of traditions, including American, Irish, and Scandinavian “Sometimes they were more straightforward, and sometimes I would actually alter the rhythm or change the vibe of the piece or whatever. [Irish fiddle tune] ‘Swallowtail Jig’ I slowed right down and made it eerier. It's not the same.”


Once a week, almost every week for a year, she played a two-hour set at a pizza place in town to practice performing live with the pedal. At the end of the year, she recorded and self-released All the Roads that Leads Us Home, which consists largely of traditional folk instrumentals, with a couple originals that Lea sings on as well. Shortly after that, she submitted a video to NPR’s 2016 Tiny Desk Contest and won, which brought the opportunity to perform at the broadcaster’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Along with her myriad musical relationships, about all of which she is grateful and effusive, it was a perfect storm of hard work and good timing that led her to the path she’s currently on: speaking about disability awareness around the world and touring her most accomplished work to date. Co-produced by Lea, touring guitarist Dave Mehling, and Minnesota alt-pop songwriter Al Church, Learning How to Stay is a giant leap from her previous records. It consists almost entirely of original songs, and expands her sound with addition of instruments like theremin, vibraphone, and castanets from a lengthy list of collaborators, including Sparhawk on baritone guitar.


Lea was working to raise awareness about people living with disabilities before Learning How to Stay, but her busy tour schedule around the new record has pushed her to increase her advocacy efforts, especially around issues of accessibility and sexuality.

“As a little kid, you're kinda sad you can't walk, but as you age, that kinda went away for me,” Lea says. “Wheelchairs work really well now, and I was playing violin. I was doing all the things I wanted to do. But when you become an adult, you realize there are some serious issues, still, with accessibility and work discrimination and views on sexuality. You get out in the world and you're like, 'Holy crap!' I've had amazing relationships. I'm not gonna pretend that I did all that stuff by myself. But you do have to work harder.”

A little while ago, Lea decided to start telling venues she was playing that they’d have to get a ramp to the stage if they didn’t already have one, or she’d play on the floor. (Ramps are often transportable, so having one around can help people with disabilities get into the venue as well). But she would not allow herself to be lifted on stage anymore, which had happened to her on previous occasions. “If they see lifting the chair up as an option,” she says, “they're never gonna get a ramp. They just aren't.” Aside from being potentially dangerous, having people lift her on stage was something she didn’t want other people with disabilities to have to see.


Title III of The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations,” including,“places of exhibition or entertainment.” Legally, it would be a human rights violation for a venue to throw up a sign that says, “People with disabilities can’t come here.” Something many people fail to understand, though, is that having a huge set of stairs and no plans to get a ramp feels just the same for someone with a disability, Lea says

“The message is, 'We don't care if you can come here,'” she says. “And it's almost like, 'We don't want you here.' I know that's not what they think they're saying, but the reality is that's how it feels if you can't use the bathroom or you can't get in or you can't get on the stage.”

She gets that sometimes there are financial barriers—she’s self-employed, after all—but here’s a statistic that might appeal to some bottom lines: Nearly one in five people in the United States has a disability. That’s 19% of the population. And if, as a venue owner, you decide to keep operating inaccessibly, that’s a huge chunk of customers you’re missing out on. Imagine if all artists—not just those with a disability—demanded equal accessibility from the venues they played, Lea says. Owners would catch up overnight.

“I think it uncovers, to me, that there is some latent, 'How many resources does a human really deserve, and are you really worth it?'” Lea says of the obstacles many people with disabilities face when seeking access to public spaces, medical care, employment, etc. “That is a really bad message to have to internalize. This is the only body you have. So if people are telling you your body's not worth the cost of Medicaid or whatever, that's really terrible.”


In her public speaking engagements, Lea talks about the importance of focusing one’s life on enrichment, as opposed to accomplishment or quantifiable progress. And the first way to make life richer for those with disabilities is to not make their lives more difficult than anyone else’s.

“It's really hard, for example, to keep my healthcare,” she says. “Every six months, I have to renew, and renewal is not just me sending them a Polaroid,” Lea says. “It's a huge stack of paperwork, and you're already dealing with access barriers and people's attitudes.” She continues: “The real compassionate response to disability wouldn't be pity or admiration. It would be, 'What can we do to make your life more like everybody else's life?' That would involve actual action, and I think that's why it doesn't happen.”

As she sets up to play for a photograph by the hotel room window near the end of our chat, Lea stresses art is a force that can encourage that action—if not directly, then by shedding light on issues faced by marginalized groups and weakening barriers to empathy. She says that seeing someone like her onstage doing extraordinary things—like blasting Neutral Milk Hotel’s “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1,” as she will later that night at the Carleton—might encourage music fans to also imagine people with disabilities doing ordinary, everyday activities, like designing bathrooms and playing with their kids.

“For me, art can serve as a vessel to remind people we're here, so that they think of us in other areas,” she says.

One of the central themes in Lea’s music is hope, but it’s a hope that persists in spite of knowing that suffering is a part of life—that the people we love won’t be here forever, that there’s no guarantee we can accomplish the changes we fight for, that our bodies will eventually betray us. Later that night, as she played through her take on “Swallowtail Jig”—occasionally hinting, through playful flourishes, at its history as a composition meant to be danced to—the song grew increasingly haunted, the notes swelling and twisting around each other until it blossomed into something much stranger than what it had started out as. Sunshine poured in the window as she ended the performance—eyes gently closed, immersed in the darkness of the music but bathed in light.

Matt Williams is a writer and photographer based on Canada’s east coast.