Ever since winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2016, Gaelynn Lea has made her presence felt. As a folk artist and songwriter, she released her full-length debut album, Learning to Stay in 2018. It seems impossible, given the complexity and strength of her songwriting, that Lea only began writing music four years before her Tiny Desk show. She was inspired to write after a chance encounter with Alan Sparhawk of the band Low, with whom she formed The Murder of Crows. Now, Lea is touring on her own and serving as one of the music industry’s most visible advocates for disability rights. She has given a Ted Talk at Yale on matters related to disability and only books her shows at disability-accessible venues. Furthermore, she plans to release a book on her experience as a touring musician living with a disability. We spoke with her in anticipation for her upcoming performance at the Lilypad.

DP: If your music was a room, what would it look like?

GL: It would maybe have a stained glass window in it, and some plants, and some really comfortable furniture. And, some really interesting artwork on the walls.

DP: There’s always an undercurrent of hope in your songs. What gives you hope in front of darkness, in front of difficulties, in front of suffering?

GL: For me, life has always been about growing into the most compassionate person you can be. It doesn’t mean I’m super good at that, I just think that’s the point of life.

DP: How has your experience living with osteogenesis imperfecta informed your music?

GL: My disability in particular, I have brittle bones. So they can break at random times without warning. The idea of impermanence and the fact that you’re not immortal became pretty obvious at a younger age for me. So I was always growing up with this awareness that life is precious, and precarious, and fragile, and that is a pretty big theme in my music.

DP: Can you speak on how we as a society can be more supportive of individuals with disabilities who are interested in becoming musicians or artists?

GL: The important thing about teaching is not putting up barriers. How many kids start an instrument when they’re 9 and quit in high school? It’s not uncommon to have someone only play for a few years. But for some reason, if you have a disability, people are afraid that if you start, you might quit because you’ll get frustrated. But most people quit when they get frustrated. A teacher’s role isn’t to put up to barriers, it’s to walk alongside a kid and help them go as far as they want to take it.

DP: Can you talk more about how your relationship with Alan [Sparhawk] inspired you to write?

GL: The only way I can explain it is being exposed to this whole other world. I didn’t even know what a looping pedal was when I met Alan. His style and mine are pretty different, so [it was helpful] just to try to collaborate with someone who doesn’t play or think the same way that you do, but you meet in this middle ground. We had a conversation about how the music industry is insecure—you don’t know what the future’s going to look like, you don’t know if people are going to like your next album, you don’t know many shows you’re going to get—so how do you make peace with that? That’s what the song “Grace and a Tender Hand” is about; it’s the first song I ever wrote […]. Then he gave me a looping pedal and said, “You should learn how to use this, and someday you’ll do shows by yourself,” and I was like, “Haha, no way!” But it’s true—that’s what happened.

DP: What’s your songwriting process like?

GL: It’s pretty spontaneous. I’ll start singing something in my head, or a line, or cool phrase. It has to start organically, so far[…]. All the songs I’ve released, I’ve felt happy with because they did come out of a lightning bolt of inspiration. I’m a little scared to base my music career on lightning bolts of inspiration, but I think most of my songs have started as an idea that felt as though I almost didn’t come up with it.


DP: The video for “The Long Way Around” involves sketches that, at the end, turn into a drawing of yourself, your husband, and some flowers. Can you talk about how you came up with the song and its music video?

GL: That song is about relationships that take work but are worth it in the end, and the idea that you can’t hide your imperfections forever, so you’re going to have to go through the difficulty of navigating personalities. If it’s not going to be superficial, it has to endure whatever conflict arises. The visual for that—I love the artist who sketched the drawing. I liked the idea of watching a painting unfold, not necessarily knowing how it’s going to end up. And then, seeing its cohesive end, it kind of reminds me of a relationship. I chose to make it specifically about romance in the video because I feel like people with disabilities aren’t very often depicted in romantic scenarios.

DP: Can you tell me more about why folk music is especially striking or important to you?

GL: In general, traditional fiddle music is striking to me because the melodies are so good that they’ve been passed down by ear for hundreds of years. It’s not a crappy song that we’re going to forget about in three years; they’re really, really good melodies, and that’s the only way they’ve survived—cause most people were playing them by ear for each other, and I think that’s a really cool thing to ponder […]. I still like to go back and think about who else maybe played that song. Was it a soldier in the civil war? Was it some guy in Ireland? Or a lady teaching it to her daughter?

DP: Do you have a favorite folk song?

GL: “Metsäkukkia” is a traditional Finnish song that I put on the newest album. That one, I love to play with the looping pedal because it’s this beautiful, haunting melody played traditionally. Then I make it sound like the apocalypse, and I think it’s so fun to turn it around into this epic, end-of-the-world song, even though it’s a real old traditional tune. For “Amazing Grace/Down to the River to Pray“, that medley, I recorded that back in 2015 because I like how they went together. Years later, I played it for my grandfather who was in hospice. Every day, after I taught fiddle lessons, I would go play it for him. I would play him all these hymns that he used to listen to. He actually started singing along with me—it was after he had stopped talking and everything—but he was in hospice, and he started singing that tune and it got louder and louder throughout the song and by the end he was full-blown singing and that was the last noise he ever made, so it’s really cool to witness that music stays with you for your whole life, up until the very end.

Gaelynn Lea is performing at The Lilypad in Inman Square on October 25th.

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