Accessibility is important for Gaelynn Lea, the American violinist and singer-songwriter who plays her first ever dates in Scotland next week. This isn’t so much the case with her work, which has moved from the looped back-woods folk airs of her 2015 album, All the Roads That Lead Us Home, to the just as beautiful but more fleshed out songs on Learning How to Stay, released in 2018. The accessibility Lea talks about is more to do with the venues she plays. Having been born with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, which causes complications in the development of bones and limbs, anywhere with stairs is understandably off limits.
“It makes it really difficult to find places to play,” Lea says down the line from her home in Duluth, Minnesota, “but by talking about the lack of accessible spaces, hopefully people will think about it more and do something about it.”
Lea cites Attitude is Everything, a non-profit organisation founded to improve deaf and disabled people’s access to live music.
“Up until now, they’ve focussed on audiences getting to shows,” says Lea, “but now its addressing the needs of artists as well. For people putting on shows as well, they have a really cool DIY accessibility guide, which is really practical, and which everyone putting on shows should read.”
Lea first came to prominence when she won the 2016 Tiny Desk Contest, a National Public Radio initiative, in which musicians were invited to submit a video of them performing one of their songs. Lea’s rendering of her song, Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun, was selected from six thousand entries by a panel that included Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and Jess Wolfe of New York band, Lucius.
“That changed things a lot,” laughs Lea. “I’d been playing for about ten years, but very locally, then winning Tiny Desk, first of all it wasn’t instrumental fiddle music, which is what I’d been doing most of the time. Working on my own songs was such a shift for me, then the real big change came with touring the country. My husband and I, we wanted to try it, so we quit our jobs, sold our home and went out there.”
Lea came to music from an early age, and developed a technique that enabled her to play violin with the body of the instrument in front of her attached to her foot so it wouldn’t slip, while she wielded the bow like a baseball bat above it.
“My family’s musical,” says Lea. “My mom sang in the choir at church, and both my mom and dad did dinner theatre. They actually met when they were doing Brigadoon shortly before I was born. I’m actually named after a Scottish lady dancer in Brigadoon, so music was always a big part of our lives.
“What really set me off was when I was in the fourth grade, and an orchestra came to our school, but they didn’t have a lot of string players. I was lucky to get a teacher who helped me adapt the violin so I could play it. If it had been someone else it might not have happened that way, but I got lucky, and I ended up playing all the way through high school.”
Key to Lea’s musical development was fellow Duluth resident and vocalist with Low, Alan Sparhawk, with whom she formed a duo called The Murder of Crows.
“He heard me play at a farmers’ market,” says Lea, “and asked me to do a project with him. He gave me a loop pedal, which was something I’d never heard of before. That released something in my brain, and I remember being on a bus and suddenly thinking, oh, I’m writing a song. I played it to Alan, and he said I should do it at a show. He gave really good constructive criticism as well.”
Prior to her music career, Lea had studied political science, and had plans to be a lawyer and advocate of disability rights. Today, she is a frequent speaker on the subject.
“I love playing,” she says, “but I think it’s important to talk as well right now. I spoke in public for the first time about six months before Tiny Desk, and touring has allowed me to talk at a lot of places I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
“I have a profound belief that attitudes to disability are changing. It’s a different form of diversity, and we should celebrate that. People can fight for disability rights, not out of pity, but out of a desire for equality. There’s a lot of negativity around just now, but I think touring can get these ideas about disability out even farther.
Over the next year Lea plans to write a book based around her experience.
“It’s about music, touring and disability,” she says. “The book is the next major thing I’m going to focus on. I have a bunch of new songs as well, but they’re not ready yet. My goal right now is to keep talking and do what we’re doing, then be at home long enough to write.
“One thing about being DIY, and which I really believe in, is that you don’t have to succumb to the process of putting out an album a year. I really want to put out a record I’m happy with, and I don’t want it to be forced. Because I started so late – I started writing songs when I was twenty-seven – I can’t write five songs a day. I don’t want the stress of forcing things that way, which I don’t think would help my creativity.
“I love being independent, and even though it’s complicated having to do all the other stuff, and of course I have to get assistance and support with some of that, I do feel it’s possible to be an independent artist and have a successful career.
“Life can be both painful and joyous,” Lea says, “and I don’t want my work to fall one way or another. Where we’re at right now in the world, it’s good to try and combine activism with what I do. I just want everything I do to be honest.”
Gaelynn Lea plays the Glad Café, Glasgow on September 24 and the Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh College of Art on September 25. Both shows will also feature Kapil Seshasayee.
The Herald, September 19th 2019