Gaelynn Lea possesses an indefinable spark that is impossible to capture in a short vignette. It’s like attempting to capture lightning in a bottle. A multifaceted diamond that I’ve only begun to fully appreciate, it’s difficult to settle on a place to begin. Perhaps I’ll start by sharing her entry, recorded live in her office just last week, for the NPR Music Tiny Desk Contest:
FYI, she won this national contest about a month after this post was published. NPR flew her in to Washington, D.C., where she gave a stunning performance you can see here.
An accomplished solo artist, she has also collaborated with other musicians in various bands and side projects. Here she is with Alan Sparhawk (frontman of Low) in their duo, The Murder of Crows, performing the very first song she ever wrote…
I knew I had to seek out an interview with this compelling subject after attending the “Thank You Duluth” concert hosted by Duluth’s outgoing Mayor at the end of 2015. Gaelynn and Sparhawk opened the show, which was a rather magical evening featuring many of our region’s most accomplished musicians, many of which you can see here (the Boomchucks are missing, as is another last-minute addition that was solid) …
I brought along a friend who possessed zero knowledge of the local music scene, and though a number of these performers have achieved national and even a degree of international prominence, he was most taken by Gaelynn. Transfixed, in fact.
In a day and age where image appears to be everything in the music business, Lea is a breath of fresh air. Gaelynn possesses a slight frame approximately three feet tall, and I’d have to guess she might tip the scales at around 50 pounds. Good things often come in small packages. Her packaging, similar to that of caviar, doesn’t even come close to defining her, however.
I met with her at a local coffee house called the Amazing Grace Cafe, which is located five levels below Lea’s office high in the sky within the Dewitt-Seitz Building in Canal Park. Since she gets around in a motorized wheelchair, having a workspace within a handicapped-accessible building that houses numerous businesses and creative-types is a real boon to her independence. She is grateful for it in the winter especially, a particularly challenging time of year for folks with disabilities.
I found her to be unusually confident and warm. A fount of stimulating conversation. She’s the sort of person with whom you feel you may confide, and get to the heart of any matter with quickly. Here she is at the moment we sat together, a few days before her 32nd birthday:
As always, I arrived with no prepared questions or agenda, viewing the occasion as more of an opportunity to make a friend than to mine a story. I happened to bring some baggage to the meeting, in the form of a persistent depression over personal obstacles needing to be scaled as I continue to pursue self-employment. I can think of no better person to bare one’s soul to over such matters. For obvious reasons, she has come up against significant challenges in her quest to make an independent living. And no, she cannot fall back onto a safety net of disability payments. She’s married now, and since the couple’s combined income sits above the ridiculous income limits imposed by the Social Security Administration’s limits (which are limited to somewhere in the neighborhood of $1400/month), her disability benefits were completely cut off. Such dilemmas routinely force people with disabilities into sham divorces and other unpleasantries, which are downright shocking. Unfortunately, the issue runs way beyond the scope of this humble blog post, but the system really does need to change. Even when it “works” for people, it has a way of isolating individuals in a life of poverty. Frankly, it’s a disgrace.
Interestingly, people with disabilities are about twice as likely to start their own businesses than their able-bodied counterparts (according to Department of Labor statistics). Here’s what she has to say about the matter on her blog, located on her website, violinscratches.com:
The reasons to go into business for one’s self are no doubt varied. In my case, it was partly because the 9-5 working world was not conducive to someone who doesn’t drive, has lots of doctor appointments, and takes forever to use the washroom. But I also made the switch because it’s exciting to be the author of my own professional future, even if success isn’t guaranteed. I love to create, and starting your own business makes this possible on almost every level.
On a more subtle level, perhaps having a disability forces you to get more comfortable with living life outside the box. You’re used to standing out in most situations, so why should one more societal difference be a big deal? Maybe in a society that doesn’t really value accessibility (paying lip-service to “inclusion” or “acceptance” is different than actually building a ramp), you feel like to some extent you’re always fending for yourself anyway. It might be less stressful and more fulfilling to fight your own battle on the periphery instead of working so hard to make it in the mainstream.
Half of Gaelynn’s income comes from teaching fiddle lessons (which at $80 for five 30-minute sessions is a real bargain), 20% from her music in the form of gigs and album sales, and 30% comes from public speaking. She aggressively pushes herself to succeed on all three levels, and is also planning on writing a book. Lea sets a fine example in not only pushing through obstacles while leveraging your talents, but also in diversifying one’s income stream so as not to become too reliant on any one thing. Not that she has arrived or anything. Lea works really hard each and every day, and the obstacles are numerous. Her husband has a steady job, but both incomes are necessary. As an example of how they make do with the resources at hand, consider that tonight after her husband finishes his second-shift job, he’ll pick Gaelynn up in their old minivan with the aid of two wood planks set down as a “ramp.”
The other day I reached outside the door to retrieve the mail at the very moment my elderly neighbor did the same thing. At 9:30 am I was still in my pajamas, and the retired neighbor was in her nightgown. Lea inspires me to try harder and not give in to despair and difficulties so much, though I must confess to typing this in bed while lounging in my pajamas right now just after lunch! Something that seems to help her is having an office outside her home. She recently calculated her 2015 income from music and came to a whopping figure of $3.75/hr, so I asked her about this significant and arguably unnecessary expense.
Gaelynn feels the rent is worth every penny, although any increase in the future might be more than she can bear. She is profoundly grateful for being able to occupy the space for the time being. Having this office outside the home forces her to adhere to a schedule, it’s easily accessed through public transportation, she doesn’t work in her pajamas, there’s a stimulating community of stimulating people and businesses throughout the building, it provides a professional space for providing fiddle lessons to her students who range in age from six years of age to 65+, and more.
From the basement of the building, where Amazing Grace is located, I rode the elevator with her up to her office where one of her students was waiting inside. It’s a pleasant space with an inspiring view that encourages creative expression…
Gaelynn recently released her first solo album, All the Roads that Lead Us Home. Most of the songs feature just one instrument, her violin, and she adds layers through a live-looping enabling Memory Man pedal (demonstrated in the live piece at the top submitted to NPR). She sings lovely vocals on two of the pieces, including one she wrote herself. I find it interesting how she often starts with an unremarkable string of notes, and builds beautifully from the underlying structure. While packed with many traditional tunes, she improvises freely while wandering in and out of the original tune.
I’ve listened to the album quite a bit while doing the dishes, a contemplative act that I recommend heartily to you. The sixth track of the album features a medley of Amazing Grace and Down to the River to Pray. I started hearing the familiar lyrics in my head from Allison Krauss from the Down to the River portion, having heard it so many times in the past. And then, somehow, Gaelynn led me way down deep into the old African-American spiritual, which dates back to slavery and had layer upon layer of meaning for slave singers and hearers. While on the run, for example, slaves ran through the river to cover their scent from the bounty hunters’ dogs that pursued them. “Oh Lord, show me the way,” is both a desperate prayer to be shown the way through the Underground Railroad and also a timeless, fervent plea for supplicants of all eras and circumstances, one to which I greatly relate. Lea plays the piece instrumentally, leading me through the feeling of the piece, beyond the beautiful words. As I stood at the sink, arms submerged to the elbows in cleansing water, I stifled the urge to cry. I do not cry often, perhaps once a decade at most, so I stifled the urge this time. Ah, but it would have felt so so good. Cleansing. Renewing. The last time I cried was at another kitchen sink, about a year ago and with arms similarly submerged, on the morning of my grandmother’s funeral. I’m slowly coming to the realization that a good cry can be healing to the soul.
Lea says, “I added Down to the River to Pray as a Medley with Amazing Grace because to me the songs are like two sides of the same coin, chained to earth and set free, hopeful and sad at the same time. So they just seemed to fit together.”
Audiences have been known to break into tears at Gaelynn’s performances. Shows with Alan Sparhawk, playing together as The Murder of Crows, have been described as being so overwhelmingly soul-stirring at times as to prompt grown men and women to weep openly. Ben Barneveld, who posted one of their early performances above, describes the effect of seeing them live really well:
The murder, which consists of Alan Sparhawk and Gaelynn Lea, usually plays long, wilting, (mostly) instrumentals that somehow engage the mind and soul in ways that cannot be explained. The result of this musical alchemy is a life-altering experience that binds the audience and performers to an unforgettable moment in time.
Gaelynn and Alan have one album on the books thus far, called Imperfecta, which is a reference to her genetic disability, Osteogenesis Imperfecta. As you finish reading this, give a listen to Bird Song right here, which is not only uplifting, but just may cause your spirit to soar. “Bird, why do you sing? Fate has clipped your wings…”
The Murder of Crows produces a sound that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Their song, When We Were Young, was featured on the soundtrack for “Rectify,” a Sundance TV original series, alongside such luminaries as Drive-By Truckers, Mazzy Star, and others. And yet, it’s just a small side project for both Lea and Sparhawk.
By necessity, Gaelynn plays the violin up and down like a cello. Using her foot to help hold the base of the instrument steady, she seems to use not only her entire body to make music, but her soul as well. Osteogenesis Imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, has caused nearly 50 broken bones in her body. 30 of these known breaks occurred in utero, which is why her arms are shaped the way they are (since they healed without the aid of a cast or splint while still in the womb). Knowing that, it’s incredibly ironic that she only sustained minor injuries when she was hit by an SUV a few years back, though her wheelchair was totaled. It took significant time and therapy to recover emotionally, however.
Talking to Lea caused me to face the reality that people with disabilities are a significantly disadvantaged minority group in our society for perhaps the first time in my life. I suppose most of us realize this intuitively, but it’s easy to overlook just how inaccessible much of our society really is.
John Nousaine, the director of a local independent living agency, was quoted in a newspaper piece last summer about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act “A step is the same as a sign saying, ‘You’re not allowed here. No people with disabilities allowed.” I honestly never thought of that, but it’s true. It took an encounter with this fascinating individual for me to really internalize that. The same article features many of Gaelynn’s thoughts and experiences of accessibility issues as well.
While we spoke, I made note of the stage with a very small step of perhaps two inches. Amazing Grace built a ramp, inspired by her, called the “Gaelynn ramp.” While playing around town she frequently must submit to being carried onto the stage, which places the issue front and center in the minds of the audience. She doesn’t enjoy the process, but does appreciate the opportunity to inspire people to promote real change. There is a tendency for able-bodied people to think along the lines of, “It’s great that a disabled person can be out here doing that, out here in society, etc…” One of her goals is to encourage folks to ponder instead, “What can I do to make things more accessible for them? Can I build a ramp to make work more accessible?” She says, “Little things really do make a difference. If it doesn’t involve you now, it will later as we all age.” Most of us will indeed encounter accessibility issues at some point in life. For now, at the very least we can all shovel our sidewalks adequately. Unshoveled sidewalks are an insurmountable barrier at this time of year, one which keeps the disabled indoors more than they’d like.
I think this was probably the most significant conversation I’ve ever had with someone contending with a significant physical disability. On the cusp of 40, this hardly seems possible, but I can’t recall any others beyond the occasional exchange of pleasantries. For many years people with disabilities were mostly isolated from society, and though strides are being made, Gaelynn rightly notes that the disabled community is significantly behind the rest of society in every conceivable social and economic measure. While some of this may be unavoidable, clearly we can do better.
Rather than wait for government to legislate solutions, we can all begin by appreciating just how much we all may enrich one another. Gaelynn is just one shining example, but she’s not alone. By the way, she was picked by the Duluth News Tribune to be among the 2014 class of 20 under 40 (20 of the most influential community leaders under the age of 40). Her voice isn’t valuable solely for disabled individuals or accessibility issues. She has a tremendously unique perspective based upon her life experience, which can’t help but enrich those around her. I know I definitely feel enriched, and I suspect she might even feel the same about me. Each of us is imbued with remarkable value, possessed with a one-of-a-kind ability to enrich those around us.
A local artist, Lee Zimmerman, painted this image on silk live on stage while The Murder of Crows performed together a couple years back. The style captures a bit of the essence of what I’ve attempted to accomplish here, which feels so incomplete and imperfect (not that the artwork is!). I have spent a couple weeks attempting to wrap my head around the many facets of Gaelynn, what our visit meant to me, how I was challenged, etc, but there isn’t enough time or space for me to portray her adequately (yes, I liken my work on these profiles to that of a portrait artist). There’s so much more to be told, and there’s so much mystery beneath the surface. I look forward to seeing her around town and getting to know her just a little bit more each time.
In Duluth, you can see her perform on the first and third Tuesday each month at Bulldog Pizza from 8 – 10 pm. She also has an upcoming show at The Red Herring Lounge on March 18th, and I believe there are plans for The Murder of Crows to make appearances together in the near future. The duo has also completed recording their contribution to the next Duluth Does Dylan album, which is the fourth in the series and will be released in May. If you’re lucky, you might come upon her busking alongside the Lakewalk this summer, when she also has plans to organize a short tour in the Midwest. That’ll pose several logistical challenges, to be sure, but she is working hard to organize support. Additionally, she has hopes of doing some house shows, which would be organized by a host with somewhere between 20 and 40 people attending on a donation-basis. Go ahead and contact her if the notion of such an evening sparks interest in you. She has her contact information located right on her website, violinscratches.com.
I suppose her music won’t appeal to the masses. In fact, it’s ironic that every song I’ve selected to share here contains vocals, when perhaps 90% of what she does is instrumental. Gaelynn Lea is every bit as soulful when she leaves the singing to the violin, if not more. It’s difficult to convey by sharing a single track, however. For that, I commend the aforementioned tuning fork of washing dishes by hand and devoting heart and mind to the task of listening.
Here’s an excellent blog post from the Current about her work with Alan Sparhawk and The Murder of Crows. It goes into how he discovered her one day at a farmers market where she was improvising alongside Charlie Parr, and more. At the bottom of the piece you can hear Imperfecta in its entirety.
I also encourage you to like her Facebook page here. She posts there rather frequently, and a little dose of Gaelynn into your life will do you good. I recently enjoyed snuggling up with my daughter at bedtime while watching one of Gaelynn’s “Fiddling Fridays,” which are posted weekly. Not only did it get my spirited girl to bed on time, but it proved to be tremendously inspiring for her, provoked outstanding conversation, etc.
I asked Parr about Gaelynn, and he got a faraway, contemplative look in his eyes before saying, “Oh, I love Gaelynn,” and followed this with a long pause. It takes time to really experience why that is. She really is that compelling, and no amount of words brings that across adequately. Since I’m having such a difficult time bringing this to a close, I’ll consider this as the beginning, rather than the end of the story…