Gaelynn Lea: '˜I have an awareness that life is not something you can take for granted'

Gaelynn Lea's first visit to Leeds coincides with the UK release of her third album, Learning How To Stay.

Gaelynn Lea
Gaelynn Lea

For the Minnesota-born folk singer, violinist and disability rights advocate, this record marks the fulfilment of a long-held vision for her music. “I knew that I wanted to try something different with this album because I had experienced solo in Duluth quite a bit and I wanted to see if I was able to take on the challenge of creating a much lighter sonic palette, so it was a dream of mine [to involve a full band that includes Alan Sparhawk of Low].

“Some of the songs are very new but some of the songs are old and hadn’t been recorded because I couldn’t loop them so I needed others to play with me so I could perform them. This is like coming full circle – some of them are older songs and some of them are newer songs, so it feels like a chapter, I have everything recorded and out in the world now.”

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While the album doesn’t shy away from addressing darkness and pain, it does so with an open heart. Deep down, the 34-year-old says she is an optimist. “What’s interesting about growing up with my particular disability – brittle bone disease – is most of the time I just go along as usual but once in a while I break a bone out of nowhere and I think that really shaped my view,” she says. “I am an optimistic person and I do believe in being positive and kind and the fact that most people at the root of it really are kind and helpful but there are these times where all of a sudden your life takes a drastic turn and I think it reminds you how you’re not immortal. All of a sudden you think, ‘Wow, life’s really precious and fleeting’ and there’s a certain maybe not sombreness but certainly awareness that life is not something you can take for granted that I have had for a really long time, earlier than most people probably start thinking about that stuff, so I think that’s where the mixture of darkness and light comes from for me personally.”

Gaelynn Lea

Things changed “a lot” for Lea when she won the NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert award in 2016. “I had never had any national exposure before and that is a very good place to get exposure because they’re really amazing, that channel, it’s kind of like [an American equivalent of] the BBC,” she says. “Especially that platform, they really want to support you, so they helped with this transition into getting some more national requests of play and we started thinking about it, my husband and I, because it’s kind of like now or never, it’s a great opportunity, so we sold our house and got a van and quit our jobs and started touring and we’ve been on the road for pretty much two years now.

“It’s not something that we ever really thought about when we got married. I knew that I wanted to perform more regionally or it would be a dream to tour but I thought it would be much farther down the line. I didn’t think it would happen so fast.”

While some might have found the prospect of selling up for the sake of their career daunting, Lea was convinced it was a risk worth taking. “When people hear that they think it’s unsettling but for me that really helped because I thought, ‘Well, if we are going to be doing as much as we are I don’t want to come home and feel like now we have to catch up on all this stuff that we didn’t take care of in the house.’ I just wanted to make our lives as simple as possible and having an apartment – that’s what we have now – it’s so easy to clean it up and if the pipes freeze somebody will find out.

“We live in a very northern part of the country so it’s a very real concern that your pipes will freeze in the winter and burst and the house is ruined, basically, so I didn’t want to wonder what was going on back home. Someday I’m sure we will find a way to buy another house but this apartment we have is very small and easy to take care of and when we’re home we can just be home. I like that.”

Gaining international attention has also given Lea an important platform to talk about disability awareness. “I had started doing some public speaking about disability awareness about six months before I won the Tiny Desk but it was all obviously just locally. The reason I wanted to continue that on a wider scale was because after my first singing engagement I had a lot of people who were in the human services, so they work with people with disabilities often, they came up and said, ‘Wow, I had no idea, I’d never thought about a lot of these things before and I realised that we just don’t talk about disability enough in our culture’.

“It’s not discussed enough and if it is it’s discussed from a pitying angle, it’s not discussed from the perspective of people’s disabilities, so I figured if I just did shows because the world is completely equal that would be amazing but right now there’s such an inequality I feel the one thing I can do is try to combine activism and music, not in my regular concerts but outside of performing. I kind of blended the two. Maybe 70 per cent of the things I do on the road will be performing and 30 per cent will be speaking about disability issues.”

Lea believes the internet has helped bring access issues to the fore. “Weirdly it helped because it’s more of an equal footing platform, people that don’t get out to protests can still make their opinions known in an meaningful way,” she says. “There’s been a lot of amazing activism in the US, we have a group called National ADAPT and they’re really radical and they’ve been protesting the healthcare cuts that have been brought in, they’ve been very vocal and very active and they’re kind of saying ‘Don’t forget that we’re here’ and I think that’s really good. I thing things are changing but we still have a lot of work to do if you look at the specifics on employment and abuse and income. It’s not equal right now so there’s definitely work to do.”

Lea was inspired to take up the violin after an orchestra visited her school while she was in fourth grade. She developed her playing technique, that involves holding the violin between her legs like a cello through persistence. “I got super lucky because the next year, in fifth grade, I said ‘I’m going to try out for orchestra’ and they never tried to stop me, they just said, ‘If you really want to do it I’m sure you’ll figure it out’, which was good because I’m used to adapting. I think anyone with disability adapts pretty regularly to a lot of situations, so it didn’t faze me, but luckily I had a teacher who said ‘I’ve never done that before but I think we can figure something out’.

“We started experimenting in the classroom after school one day, we would try holding instruments in different ways. The violin didn’t work on the shoulder and the cello was too big but we realised if we played it up and down like a cello then I could play the violin, so she helped me develop a technique early on.

“We had a plan, she would try a tune and say, ‘OK, I think this is what you should’ and then we would develop this technique. Once the technique was really developed I feel like I learned a lot like anyone else learned. It just takes time and practice.”

Being gifted a looping pedal by fellow Duluth musician Alan Sparhawk of Low, with whom she formed the duo The Murder of Crows, transformed her playing. “When we started together he would run the looping pedal and I would play harmonies to what I heard, it was very improvisational. But he gave me a looping pedal and said, ‘You need to figure out how to use this because eventually you will do shows on your own’ and I was thinking ‘Ha ha, yeah right’ while he was saying that, but I played with the looping pedal a couple of weeks later and it allowed me to do so much more as a violinist, so I did end up liking it.

“It took me a couple of years to get proficient at it and then I started performing solo in addition to with me and other people. The looping pedal became a real focus before I ever thought about performing with a band. I did three solo albums.”

Gaelynn Lea plays at Wharf Chambers, Leeds on December 13.