When NPR opened up their annual Tiny Desk Contest, I spent quite a lot of time scrolling through YouTube video playlists and suggestions, trying out new artists for our KITHFOLK favorites. There was a huge variety of videos submitted of course, and many made use of fancy editing, or bucolic landscapes, or clever ideas. This video from Gaelynn Lea jumped out purely for the song, which shows what a powerful composition it is. Looping her violin as a rolling drone, her voice sang so lightly over the top of the droning undercurrent. The words to the song are gorgeous too, seemingly tapping into the rich natural imagery and vocal techniques of old-school British folk. Her opening verse stopped me cold with its beauty: "Our love's a complex vintage wine/ All rotted leaves and lemon rind /I spit you out, but now you're mine." When I went to find more music, I found that Gaelynn Lea has a powerful perspective as well. Trained as a classical musician, she's adapted the violin to her own body, brilliantly working within the confines of Osteogenisis Imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. I wanted to learn more about her music and her story, so I reached out to her for a short interview.
-Is the song off your recent album?
Gaelynn Lea: The song I performed for NPR's Tiny Desk Contest is not on an album yet... It's the newest song I have completed to date, and it should be on the next EP by my atmospheric alternative duo The Murder of Crows with Alan Sparhawk (LOW) which should be out sometime in the next year.
-How do you go about writing a love song? You strike such a nice balance between personal intimacy and smaller details that tell a story. Are love songs especially hard to write?
GL: The first kernel of this song came to me in a sudden moment of insight while I was doing something else (this time I happened to be taking a shower). As soon as I could, I jotted down the first line and sang the melody over and over so it wouldn't escape me. For at least a month, all I had figured out was the words and melody of that first line: "Our love's a complex vintage wine / All rotted leaves and lemon rind" and then gradually the rest of the song came together. I'd say that's what happens about 90% of the time when I write a song.
I generally dislike love songs because I feel the pictures they paint are unrealistic or the words used are too cliche (although I have a few that get to me). Nonetheless, I do believe in love... just not in a everything-is-rosy-all-the-time kind of love. Love can be hard and yet beautiful, and that's the message I tried to convey in this song. I find songs take me awhile to write partly because I am really dedicated to lyrics - to me they make or break a song. So I try to create phrases that haven't been used before or at least imagery that isn't typical. To me gardening was a meaningful analogy at the end of the song "we pulled the weeds out til the dawn / nearly too tired to carry on" because love needs constant tending to survive.
I love that you’ve collaborated with Charlie Parr! I’m a big fan of his. How did that come about? Was it for a show or tour?
GL: I've loved Charlie and his music for a long long time. Even before I became involved in the music scene of Duluth through performing, I used to go watch Charlie play at the Brewhouse and dance and sing along. Then one day in 2011 I opened for him at a fundraiser. After my set I had a glass of wine with friends and was telling them "Man, I can HEAR a fiddle part in his music - I wish I could play with him someday" and my friends said, "ASK HIM TONIGHT! DO IT!" and probably because of the wine I got up enough courage to ask him during a break if he wanted any fiddle to back him up for the end of his set. Turns out sitting in with people really isn't that strange but at the time I was seriously nervous to even bring it up. But Charlie was so sweet and welcoming, and the set we played together went really well.
That year I sat in with his band "The Devil's Flying Machine" once a week for the better part of a summer, and we've played together at various other events around town. It doesn't hurt that he is one of the nicest people out there; he cares a lot about humanity, especially those living in poverty. Anyway, Charlie Parr is actually the reason I met Alan Sparhawk of Low (Alan and I eventually formed a band together called The Murder of Crows), because Alan and Charlie are good friends and he saw me during an impromptu jam with Charlie at a Farmers Market one day by chance and asked if we could do a show together. There are so many connections made like that in Duluth, the collaboration is one of the reasons I love living here.
How is music a part of your work with disability awareness? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
GL: For me, my music career didn't start out specifically with activism in mind. Of course disability activism is really important to me and has become a central part of my life, especially since college. But I simply loved music and performing and these were my motivating factors. Gradually I began to realize that playing shows and being active in the community allowed me opportunities to speak up in a more public way about accessibility issues and other barriers facing people with disabilities in our communities. I play at a lot of fundraisers for disability organizations and I try my best to educate venue owners and festival planners about accessibility, but of course the main focus during performances is on the music.
However this past year I decided to get more intentional about disability activism and I started advertising that I do public speaking on disability awareness, overcoming obstacles and authentic living. Then at the end of every speech I perform anywhere from 5-45 minutes (depending on what the event planner wants) to close out the event on a more meditative note. This has been so rewarding and I believe also helpful to the community. Because disability is such a central part of my life I tend to forget that many others have little experience with it and don't understand the magnitude of inaccessibility in our society (this interview I did recently highlights this fact)... Being able to address a whole audience in a significant way helps to more effectively spread this message, and closing with music seems to resonate with people in a meaningful way. The combination works surprisingly well. So far I have spoken at the St. Louis County Health & Human Services Conference, a high school, a college, the Chamber of Commerce, and three disability organizations. I have five speaking engagements lined up already this year (including two conferences out of town), and hopefully more to come!
-Do you have any new music coming out?
I just released my debut solo album, All the Roads that Lead Us Home, in November 2015. It pays homage to the traditional fiddle tunes and standards that I have been playing for over a decade, I made the tunes my own by using a Memory Man Looping Pedal to create winding layers of sound underneath these familiar melodies. The album is mostly instrumental in nature, although I included two vocal tracks (#4 and #10). It's available at my website (but you can listen to a sample of it for free here if you'd like)... Since that album is so recent I probably won't make another solo album until later this year at the earliest. I'd like to do a Christmas album just for fun with live-looped Christmas carols, and of course as I write more songs and experiment with more fiddle tunes I hope to develop another full-length solo album.
The Murder of Crows has also started recording again, because we'd like to release another EP in the next year or so. However Alan is touring and performing quite often so it may take awhile to finish... there is no release date set in stone yet. Someday! The Tiny Desk Contest song I entered, Someday We'll Linger in the Sun, will definitely be on that recording.