“I like to think about what people were doing when they played this around a fire.”
Gaelynn Lea chats between tunes—and rumblings of the passing subway—in New York City. The Minnesota-based fiddler is perched onstage at Joe’s Pub in Greenwich Village, and her knack for storytelling conjures a friendly atmosphere. Lea is about to launch into a fruity rendition of “Swallowtail Jig,” one of many Irish tunes she teaches fiddle students. She shares an anecdote about introducing another one, which happened to grace that boisterous third-class dance scene in Titanic. She adds, with a slight eye roll, her young student’s response: “Titanic? I’ve heard of that! It’s a classic!” It’s one of many times this evening Lea draws laughs from the audience. Her dry yet mirthful humor peppers a set that also dips into indelible poignancy. In introducing one of her original tunes, she explains its inspiration: Six weeks before she married her husband, Paul, she had emergency surgery. Paul’s support struck a deep chord; the ensuing song is “about how love is beautiful even when it’s really difficult.”
Opening measures of meditative whole notes compel a hush over an already rapt audience. With a quick tap, Lea kindles a looping pedal at her side and layers the lines into a saturnine blend. She sprinkles in woody pizzicato and then sings utterly haunting poetry: “Our love’s a complex, vintage wine, all rotted leaves and lemon rind. I spit you out, but now you’re mine.” Her delicate voice floats atop the dusky layers. A melancholy solo touched with quavering vibrato sends the emotions home. Later, Lea tells me it was a private teacher in high school—who’d make her start over if she cringed at her mistakes—who reinforced the importance of sustaining an atmosphere for the audience. “It’s really about keeping the magic alive,” she says.
The bittersweet magic of the song itself is central to why Lea was at Joe’s Pub in the first place. In 2016, Lea won NPR’s second annual Tiny Desk Contest. Two students alerted her to the contest and, with a friend’s help, Lea recorded herself via iPhone performing the tune “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” in her Duluth, Minnesota, teaching studio. In the video, just out of frame, is the majority of her wheelchair. Lea wanted the focus to be on the music. Her unique sound captured the judges’ attention—and held it. “Hers was
the one melody that stayed with me throughout the process. It’s captivating and powerful,” wrote contest judge Holly Laessig of the indie-pop band Lucius.
The win was a surprise. “I was not miserable or looking for an out when the Tiny Desk happened. I really liked my life,” Lea says. It’s the day after the Joe’s Pub concert and we’re at a café in Queens. She has an afternoon of travel ahead to make a Philadelphia gig, but she looks ready for a picnic, sporting a straw hat and a summery patterned dress. Before Tiny Desk, Lea would play around six shows a month and busk, both solo and with guitarist Alan Sparhawk, bandmate in their duo the Murder of Crows. She was just getting more serious about performing. “I had a really beautiful studio on the lake, 15 students. I got to play a lot . . . I was happy,” she says.
Lea’s musical life could easily have languished. Enchanted by the sound of a visiting student orchestra, she took a music test in fifth grade; students could join orchestra if they did well. “I was the only one who got a perfect score,” Lea says. But there was a challenge. Born with a congenital disability called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or brittle bone syndrome, she couldn’t prop a violin on her shoulder or wield a cello. A teacher named Susan Sommerfeld helped her adapt. They found a half-size violin and oriented it upright, like a cello. Thus began a journey of problem solving and modifications. Decades later, Lea still rests her violin in front of her on her wheelchair. She holds her specially made bow differently—more like the French grip for double bass, she’s been told—to achieve the correct angle. Her violin itself embodies a musical link to her hometown: It was owned by the very doctor who delivered her mother.
Lea says Sommerfeld’s support was pivotal. “You look back and you realize how big a deal that was. She really easily could’ve been like, ‘You should do choir, because I don’t think this is going to work for you.’” Since the contest, Lea has heard plenty of anecdotes about children being discouraged from playing for myriad reasons. She stresses that players with disabilities can play at a concert level—but it helps at first to not compare them to other students. “Even if the student is really struggling, I never, ever, ever, ever suggest that they quit, because that’s wrong,” Lea says….
Photo by Shelly Swanger