Gaelynn Lea is one of the most original musicians and songwriters working today. She also happens, by chance, to be a wheelchair user. Incredibly prolific, she has released three solo albums, as well as six collaborations with various groups in the past decade. Hailing from northern Minnesota, she has developed a unique fiddle style by playing the violin like a cello. Her latest project is providing the score for the Broadway production of Macbeth, starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga.
What was your first recording experience?
In 2011, I recorded an EP [Imperfecta] with Alan Sparhawk [Tape Op #31] from the band Low. He lives in my town of Duluth, and we had started playing some music together for a live film score. We liked playing together, so we decided to form a band called The Murder of Crows – it was mostly instrumental. He would loop my music with a [Electro-Harmonix] Memory Man looping pedal, and I would play harmonies to what I was hearing. That is how I got started looping in the first place. We recorded that EP in my living room; and was the first recording I ever made. That was fun and low key, because we were just jamming and he edited out parts that didn’t work. It was all very experimental and atmospheric. Alan has tons of experience and knows what he is doing, so I felt at ease. Then, in 2013, I recorded another album [Hand by Hand] in an actual studio with a group I was in called Snöbarn. That was a full band project and a little more intense, but I was mostly just doing backup parts. The recording that sticks out to me was in 2015 when I recorded my first solo album [2015’s All the Roads that Lead Us Home]. For that one I rented out the Sacred Heart Music Center; a church turned recording studio that has beautiful acoustics. I was super nervous, so I hired this one engineer, Jake Larson, who I still work with. We got all of the album done in one afternoon, because it was live looping. But I was nervous when we were starting. I called my counselor and said, “I think I might be having a heart attack.” She said, “You might just be really nervous. Why don’t you go finish the session, and if you still feel this way afterwards then you should go to the hospital.” [laughs]
Wow, a “showbiz first” psychologist!
Yeah! But I didn’t die. When I first started doing recordings, I felt this pressure to get everything right. “Everything has to be perfect.” Because the recordings were live looping, I felt a lot of pressure. But, over time, I have begun to see recording as a sound sculpture that can be built throughout the process. That is a much more relaxing and fun way to think of it. But at the beginning, I didn’t have that perspective. Since it was a solo album, it was the first time I felt like, “Oh, no. I’m making an ‘album,’” and I got myself all worked up. Ever since that album, recording has been a lot more fun.
You tracked the entire album in one afternoon?
Yep. I played each song three times; I sang two of them and live-looped at the same time. It’s pretty raw, but it’s a cool album. It does have that special vibe because it was all done live and has a different feel than a multitracked record with tons of different musicians playing. It’s not broken up into pieces at all. After we recorded, I’d listen to the tracks and tell him when to fade in and fade out – “Start at second :24 and end at 3:21” or whatever – because that’s all we could do with the mixing since it’s all live and not multitracked. It only took three or four hours, but I had practiced a lot beforehand to get better with the looping pedal. I had a weekly, two-hour live gig at a pizza shop – Bulldog Pizza & Grill – for 12 months. No one was really listening at the pizza parlor; it was kind of background music. It was good practice. I even ended up doing my record release there.
How did you start looping yourself and playing solo?
Alan was the one who previously had always done all of the looping for me. He is so generous. About a year after we started working together, he came in with a looping pedal and an amp and said, “These are for you. You should figure out how to do this yourself so that you can play by yourself someday.” I didn’t think I ever would play by myself, but then I got hooked on looping. It was an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man with Hazarai pedal. That’s about the only gear information I can give you during this interview! [laughs] I can’t record anything on it, so at the end of every song everything is gone. I have to hold the button down the entire time I’m using it in order for it to work. But I can do reverse play on it, and octaves. The amp I use is the Fishman Loudbox Mini. I love that little guy. It works really well with violins, and it has two inputs so it can be used as a PA when I do small gigs at schools. I’ve got a good pickup on my violin, an LR Baggs. I started out with a stick-on pickup, and then I also tried taping a lapel mic to the violin. Then I tried a drum mic that attaches with a built-in suction pad. But violins have a lot of high frequencies, so they feedback very easily. The LR Baggs is built into the bridge of the violin and is really sensitive, so I don’t have to crank it up too much. I’ve tried distortion pedals, but violins are pretty finicky.
Every time you play a song, it’s 100 percent from scratch?
Yes. I love that it is so organic. I have to be in the moment. It’s like a Zen practice, where nothing is saved and it all disappears at the end.
What role does fear play in performance? Nelson Muligo, from the Malawi Mouse Boys, once told me, “Playing in front of a bunch of white people onstage is not something to be afraid of. Going days without being able to feed my family, that is what’s scary.” For that band, the concept of “stage fright” was a non-factor.
That is so helpful to hear that perspective. I did an album in Minneapolis, and the engineer there [Zachary Hollander at The Pearl Recording Studio] had been recording forever and said, “You’re building something. That’s all. It’s a snapshot of the moment and where you are. It doesn’t have to be anything more than that.” He also told me, “Comping vocals isn’t a sin.” [laughs] I didn’t even know that I could comp vocals, at all. I said, “Wait, you can do that?” And he said, “Yes. Everyone does it.” That took a lot of pressure off to get the perfect take. Live performance is a little different. There’s a quote I read a long time ago that said, “Pursuing your passion is always going to mean living on the edge of fear.” Success leads you to another opportunity that’s just as daunting as the previous one. You have to become okay with being afraid. I can have a show that doesn’t go well, and someone can still come up afterwards and say, “I really needed to hear that today.” It isn’t really about you. It’s about the music connecting with the audience. So, taking yourself out of the equation to some extent is a good way to get over the fear. At the end of the day, people can hate your album and you can be booed offstage, and it really doesn’t change the value of who you are as a person. It’s hard to remember that in the age of social media. The main thing is to always make it about the audience. I try to channel the energy out towards the crowd. Just shove it out through my chest and towards them. Experimenting with energy onstage – especially sending it out to people – is a fun way to get out of my own head and be in the present moment.
You taught music for many years. How has that informed your recordings and performances?
I had this one lady who was in her sixties, and she was learning fiddle for the first time. She told me once how she’d had a really bad day, so she sat on her back porch for three hours and played fiddle. Then she felt better. Music is equally as valuable, even if it’s not for performance purposes. Almost all of my students are still playing. That makes me so happy that they are still going without me, and that playing music remains a part of their life.
Minnesota seems often unheralded, musically. In the 1980s, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü were seen as guiding lights. Prince was so gifted; it’s often overlooked that he was a Minnesotan. It’s almost like he was from outer space.
[laughs] Yeah, it seems that way sometimes! The Duluth scene is very separate from Minneapolis. They are only about two hours apart from each other. But it’s really cold up here and there’s this huge lake. It’s very beautiful, but there’s this very intense weather. I do think it changes the music and makes it a bit sadder and more rugged. But there’s always an underpinning of hope. It’s a cool music scene, and there’s a lot of music here. The Homegrown Music Festival is in its 24th year. It started out as birthday party for a friend, Scott Lunt, who I only met long afterwards. It’s now turned into a thing where there are 200 bands, and they have to be connected to the Duluth music scene to play. There are no outside bands. People are supportive of each other here. The festival takes place all over the city at local venues over an eight-day period, and there are no corporate sponsors: no Doritos stage. Since then, Minneapolis has discovered us, and bridges are being built. Musically, we are so proud of Bob Dylan. I don’t know if Bob Dylan cares much about Duluth [laughter], but Duluth is very enthusiastic about his being from here. I’m glad I found the scene after moving back home after I got sick at college. I’m sure I wouldn’t still be playing music now if there hadn’t have been such a welcoming music scene.
I’ve heard you wished you’d had a chance to meet the late Vic Chesnutt. I played Vic’s first West Coast show in 1990. Within 30-seconds I realized I would never be as good as him.
[laughs] That’s awesome.
I invited Vic to play a show in Fresno, and I ended up having to lift him from the audience and onto a stage that was more than 6 feet high. Almost every small recording studio and nightclub is inaccessible – in basements, upstairs without elevators, and in narrow spaces. I know you’ve said, “If a venue doesn’t have a ramp, I’m playing on the floor.”
Artists are still expected to be lifted onstage. It’s so backward, because we’ve had the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] since 1990. Vic lived through a much more difficult era than us, because when he started the ADA had just passed. Even in New York City, a major club wasn’t accessible for me. I had called and checked everything with them in advance before I agreed to perform. Then I got there, and the toilet was too low and wasn’t accessible, and they had a portable ramp that was too steep to be safe to use. That was a sad moment for me, because I thought maybe it was just the Midwest. I expected much more from a big city like New York.
I submitted Vic Chesnutt for a Lifetime Achievement award for next year’s Grammy Awards. No physically-disabled pop artist has ever been given the award.
We need allies like you to keep writing and talking about this. Beyond venue accessibility, a huge issue is software visibility. If you are low-vision or blind, most recording and music software programs are terrible for screen readers. A software engineer could be coding in accessibility for software, but that need is being ignored. Different disabled people have different problems with the industry, because we have different needs depending on our disability. But we share this vision of “disability culture,” which is framing disability as a form of diversity that can be celebrated. But to celebrate disability, you have to first include it! And that means buildings and organizations have to be accessible. Companies need an on-staff disability coordinator, not just a diversity officer. We can advise them. But it’s not a good model, because it means disabled people are expected to work for free! [laughs] Assuming that we don’t need to be paid and that this should all be a charity model is not what we want to convey. The bar is so low to create inclusion for the disabled. Our organization, RAMPD [Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities], wants people to realize that disability is actually a form of identity that influences our art and makes it valuable because of the unique perspective we have. Just as it’s important to hear from artists of color or a trans artist, our music is formed by our identity, and we are a valuable part of the population. For instance, the reason I play violin like a cello is because of my body type. I wouldn’t do that randomly. I sing a little higher pitched because I’m small. A person’s unique perspective can resonate with anyone – not just people who are disabled – especially anyone who has ever experienced marginalization. People will come up to me at shows and say that a certain song spoke to them. They might have very different identities, but still, they could identify to the sense of impermanence. Music by disabled people is valuable and should be included not because people are afraid that they’re being jerks if they don’t, but because they want to include it because the music is exciting!
As the legendary activist and author, Judith Heumann [featured in the documentary, Crip Camp] says, “Disability is a normal part of life.” The current estimate is one in four people live with a disability. With my own sister, Jane – who has Down syndrome, and is now completely non-ambulatory – I always felt that she did not lack ability, she just had different abilities than other people, ones that are unique.
Disability is a diversity in the way you reside in your body and mind. There is nothing inherently negative about it. I get a lot of the, “How do you have such a positive attitude?” questions. Those always bother me. It’s not a positive attitude that allows me to succeed. A lot of it is that I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of support. That support should be there for everyone. It’s frustrating that people still don’t see disability as a natural part of the human experience. If we could take away the stigma and celebrate disability culture rather than see it as a liability, burden, or downfall of some sort, we could all be happier. People, as they age, could then see that using a wheelchair or walker allows them to continue to do the things that they love rather than resisting it. It’s okay to admit you’re disabled. Disability impacts a lot more people than people like me who were born with it. One reason I do so much performing is that I want younger people to see somebody like me. I know from personal experience how weird and alienating it is to grow up without any representation. I guess I knew about Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, but that is not my disability experience. As a little kid, seeing someone in a wheelchair would have been extremely impactful.