Musician and activist Gaelynn Lea brought her emotively haunting violin work to the Sierra Arts Foundation in Reno on Saturday, April 8. The show was a benefit for Note-Able Music Therapy Services, hosted by Parlor Shows.
Last year, Lea won NPR’s 2016 Tiny Desk Concert Contest, which received over 6,000 video submissions. This experience has allowed Lea to steadily tour the country ever since. Her music is often heartbreaking.
“It’s just the songs that have come out,” Lea said. “If you have a disability…over the years, part of you realizes that life is beautiful and challenging and fleeting at the same time. I think my songs just reflect those realities that I have felt in the past. I’m a really happy person…I think it’s just the way that music helps us process a lot of bigger emotions that we don’t face head on.”
Lea was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or, as it’s more commonly known, Brittle Bones Disease. Because of her condition, she holds the violin in front of her like a cello. She uses a looping pedal to create a full, layered sound on her own.
Aside from playing music, she also speaks publicly about disability awareness.
“My main goal with speaking is to get disability to become part of the main cultural dialogue,” Lea said. “I think a lot of times when we talk about social justice, we think about minorities or economic differences or gender…but we aren’t really talking about disability very regularly yet, especially as an empowering group. We see it as a charity thing. I want that to change and become a diverse segment of society that is a valuable part.”
More than disability awareness, she also talks about disability pride.
“Disability pride…is not viewing disability as a negative thing, so much as a diverse part of the human experience,” Lea said. “Then we can start to look at the positive contributions people with disabilities make to our culture and what kind of creative ideas can come out of a disability, seeing it as an aspect rather than a liability.”
Lea began playing the violin at the age of ten when she was encouraged by a teacher to join the orchestra. In high school, she studied classical music. In college, she got into Irish fiddle music. She still likes to incorporate certain Celtic melodies into her music to this day.
“I want to keep those songs alive in a new way and introduce [them] to different audiences,” Lea said. “People always ask me why I don’t do more singing, but you can see at the live shows that the people connect with the instrumentals in really powerful ways…They’re such good melodies, they’ve been around for 200 years and been passed down by ear.”
After college, she started playing in a variety of folk bands. One of those groups was A Murder of Crows , a duo with Alan Sparhawk. Sparhawk was the first person to encourage her to write her own songs. After years of working as a music instructor, a student told her about the Tiny Desk contest.
In her free time, she enjoys listening to Simon & Garfunkel, the Decemberists, Neutral Milk Hotel, Wilco and the White Stripes, as well as artists from her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, like Charlie Parr.
While she loves music, she finds a unique fulfillment from public speaking. Lea believes that fighting for disability rights is important now more than ever.
“When Trump’s administration was trying to reform health care, that would have damaged people with disabilities probably more than anyone,” Lea said. “It was going to kick a lot of people who really have no other options. A lot of the services and the technology I have is never covered by private health care. You need public health care, and if you cut people off of that, some people would end up in nursing homes, some people may have died because they wouldn’t have gotten the care they would have really needed.”
When asked how it felt to have a president who has openly mocked people with disabilities, she answered, simply, “Not awesome.” Still, she says she tries to see the positives.
“Maybe people will at least be motivated because it was so obvious and egregious to do that. He did get a lot of backlash,” Lea said. “But I want to progress the dialogue beyond where he’s at, which is making fun of people. It’s more than just not making fun of people, it’s realizing that they’re valuable. He’s so far from that, obviously. It’s hard to swallow that that’s the president right now. But I know a lot of people aren’t like that.”
In her recent Ted Talk and throughout her speeches she incorporates the idea of sexuality, criticizing society’s ideal of standardized beauty.
“It was just the revelation that I don’t fit the norms,” Lea said. “You can feel alienated or sad about that, or you can realize that the norms are just fabricated by capitalism to make you buy stuff. When you realize that the norms are meant to oppress you rather than help you fit in, then you can really be yourself. I think that applies to a lot of people, but I think it came faster to me because of my disability.”
Despite the tyrannical powers that be, she is still able to find solace in performing.
“It’s probably the one time I feel the most centered, it’s more of a spiritual connection,” Lea said. “There’s some calming energy that comes from playing. I feel like whatever you go into a show feeling like, you always feel better in some way by the time it’s over…You have to be focused, you can’t think too much about what’s going on in your head.”
In the future, she looks forward to recording her new album. She is still DIY, unsigned to a label. Although she says it is not entirely out of the question, for the time being, she enjoys the freedom. On her first two albums, “All the Roads that Lead Us Home” and “Deepest Darkness, Brightest Dawn,” she made use of crowdsourcing websites like GoFundMe or Kickstarter. People who donate are gifted a free album. She says the album will feature more singing and more experimentation.
In addition, she hopes to publish a book about disability issues. After Reno, her tour will take her up the pacific northwest to Oregon and Washington.