Violinist Gaelynn Lea Champions Disability Rights, but Music Comes First

Gaelynn Lea has been playing the violin for more than twenty years.
Gaelynn Lea has been playing the violin for more than twenty years. Mark Brown
Since winning NPR's Tiny Desk Contest in 2016, Gaelynn Lea has been touring nonstop, sharing her violin music and disability advocacy nationwide. Lea, a classically trained violinist, was born with brittle-bones disease. At age ten, an orchestra performed at her school, and she immediately fell in love with the music. The following year, she joined the school's orchestra, where a teacher taught her how to adapt her instrument, playing it in an upright position instead of under the chin; she's been performing with the violin ever since. While she didn't start out playing music to champion a cause, she hopes her performances will raise awareness about both disability pride and some challenges people with disabilities regularly face that are too rarely discussed.    

Westword caught up with Lea to talk about her music, looping pedals and disability activism.

Westword: How do you feel your sound has evolved over time? With looping, there seems to be a lot of room for experimentation.

Gaelynn Lea: The biggest change in terms of my music was meeting Alan Sparhawk of the band Low. He introduced me to the looping pedal, and he actually gave me my first pedal. In a band that we were in together, he would control the pedal, and I would just play the harmonies to what I was hearing. But then one day at band practice, he came over and brought me my own pedal and said, “This is for you. I want you to have it. I think eventually you can learn how to use it and play shows by yourself.” I didn’t really believe him, but I was like, okay, whatever. I brought it home and loved it.

It really changes what you can do. Shortly after getting the pedal is when I started writing songs. I can only imagine it was because I had a creative boost of energy. So my music has evolved a lot since then. With the loop, I started practicing on fiddle tunes, rearranging them and making them a more atmospheric thing than a traditional-music thing, which is what my first album was. But then as I learned to write songs more, the pedal became like a backdrop. Now it has evolved to where I can’t loop every song that I’ve written. So I decided to start working with a band for my next album. I am looping a little bit on the next album, but mostly it’s a band, and the pedal is more of an accent piece.

What changes between playing with a pedal and playing with a band?

I love both. Looping is a very intense experience, and you have to be focused the whole time. You really can’t zone out at all or you’ll do it wrong, basically. There’s something really neat — it’s almost like you’re playing two instruments at once. Then seeing it done live, there’s something magical about a solo looping performance. But it limits you structurally. So when I play with a band instead of sharing energy with just the audience, which is a really neat thing about solo shows, you’re sharing energy with the audience and your band. I’m also not confined to certain chord structures, so I can do more songs and get a little more experimental in terms of just the energy of each song. My solo sets are all violin-heavy, and there is just more variety with the band. There are pros and cons to both.

Tell us a little bit about the intention behind your third album?

Yes, nine of the tunes are original songs and only two fiddle tunes. I wanted to do a couple, because I didn’t want to abandon it entirely. But the album is thematically about learning how to be in the present moment. That is sort of the general theme of the songs. There are a lot of different energies on the album. There are country vibes on one song; there are some ’80s vibes on another. It really changes sound-wise, and that’s what I was excited about with the band — being able to explore different genres. The thing that holds it together more than anything is the fact that I’m singing on every track [and] the theme.

You didn’t start music with the intention of it being an activism platform, but now it has become that. Did that start with winning the NPR contest or have you been building to that?

It was kind of a building thing. I still personally see music and activism as separate. What I see is being a performer in public spaces, someone who is a musician who also has a platform. In 2015, about one year before I won the Tiny Desk contest, I had been really frustrated by the social services I had been getting; health care basically was the main one. Working with people in the agency, there wasn’t a lot of empathy, and it was a really frustrating thing. I had a chance to speak at a conference of service workers, so everybody there worked with people who were on benefits or low income or had disabilities. I spoke about the concept of disability pride and about the experiences and barriers that people have with disabilities that we don’t talk about enough, with employment barriers, health-care barriers and all these things. What I was surprised by was even though these people worked with people with disabilities regularly, they were really taken aback. They were like, “Wow, I didn’t know a lot of this stuff.” I asked who among them had heard of disability pride and only two people raised their hands. I realized that it wasn’t talked about enough. Part of my mission, in terms of my life goal, was to make that something that people talked about more. It happens to be the music that allowed me a platform to talk about it. But I still consider myself a musician who really cares about disability rights.

Going along with that, why do you believe representation in music is important?

People with disabilities have a lot more barriers than we talk about, I think. Or if we do, we’re seen as whiners or complainers. It’s funny. I just spoke at a conference the other day. I had literally only gotten three hours of sleep because we flew in for this conference, and we had reserved an accessible super shuttle, but the shuttle never came. There were no other accessible transportation options. The only way we finally got to our hotel is because they woke up a cab driver and had him come get us. There isn’t access everywhere, and people don’t realize it. You can go to a conference to speak, and they don’t necessarily know that’s what you dealt with to get there. The reason I’m speaking about it, and [why] I think art is a really important part of it, is because it makes it visible, where people with disabilities come to mind and you can’t pretend that they don’t exist. You see them on stage, and you are witnessing whether or not the venue is accessible, for example. You’re witnessing a different part of the population and having to acknowledge that they’re there.

I think what was really hard for me during the health-care debates and reading all of these social-justice articles, I understand we want to be inclusive, but so many of them talk about gender identity, low income and people of different ethnic backgrounds, but they would never mention people with disabilities. They got left out a lot. So I think one way to fix that is to just be visible and out there in the art world. Because then when you think of people in general, your vision can start including people with disabilities. I think the media is a great way to change that. I always wondered with gay rights and a reason we finally legalized gay marriage is because people had been in the mainstream culture more regularly at that point. There were characters in movies or in shows that were gay, and it wasn’t something that nobody ever saw. I think that needs to happen with disabilities, too.

Gaelynn Lea, 8 p.m. Friday, April 13, BarFly, Alamo Drafthouse, 4255 West Colfax Avenue, 720-577-4720, free.
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Riley Cowing has been writing with Westword since July 2016. She is originally from Kansas City and graduated from the journalism school at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She enjoys connecting with local artists, drinking all types of espresso and loves any excuse to watch The Devil Wears Prada.
Contact: Riley Cowing