Gaelynn Lea is an American folk singer, violinist, public speaker and disability advocate from Duluth, Minnesota.
Lea was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, which means her bones break very easily. While in her mother’s womb, Lea said she fractured more than 30 bones.
A rare bone disorder didn’t stop Gaelynn Lea from pursuing her dreams of playing violin in elementary school.
Lea became impassioned by classical music from an early age, and in fifth grade a teacher took notice and encouraged Lea to pursue music after she had the class’s only perfect score on a music listening test.Instead, a good-natured music teacher helped her learn how to play the violin by holding it vertically, like a cello.
Lea developed a technique for violin which involved holding the bow “like a baseball bat” with the body of the instrument placed in front of her, like a cello, and attached to her foot so it wouldn’t slip when she played.
Lea began delving into songwriting in recent years and in 2011, started an alternative duo project called The Murder of Crows with Alan Sparhawk, the frontman of the Duluth-based indie rock band Low.
In early 2016, Lea’s students convinced her to submit a video performance of her original song “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” to NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. She beat more than 6,000 entrants to be the ultimate winner of the 2016 Tiny Desk Contest.
Lea attended Macalester College, where she majored in political science; She was a guest speaker at Yale University for a TedxTalk to discuss sexuality, the obstacles for people with disabilities and the use of art as a vessel to overcome physical limitations.
She also speaks on accessibility in the music industry.
In one interview for http://chicagotonight.wttw.com about how disability has shaped her music, Lea answered:
You know, I don’t know. Obviously, it’s shaped the mechanical nature of my music because I have to play the violin up-and-down, like a cello. I wouldn’t have been able to play an instrument if I hadn’t adapted it that way.
Aside from that, I don’t know if I think my disability directly impacts my music. The mechanics are different, but I’ve always played that way, so it’s the same as learning any instrument from scratch. You just learn the way that you’re taught.
So, when I play, other things influence it a lot more – like working with Alan Spurlock of the band Low, he’s the one who gave me my first looping pedal, which was transformative. I’m so glad he introduced me to it.
That changed a lot of what I can do and I realized over the years that I could probably even play solo if I wanted to because there were so many options for layering sound. That looping pedal was probably the biggest influence on my music, if I had to pick one thing.