Hundreds, probably thousands, of musicians have crisscrossed the county in Ford Econoline vans. It’s their vehicle of choice. Roomy enough for guitars, drum kits. Wheelchairs, even.
Gaelynn Lea’s husband is driving, she’s talking on the phone, doing the interview. Some miles ahead is Portland, Maine. By Saturday their 2002 Econoline will be in Rochester, for Lea’s 9 p.m. show that night at Iron Smoke Distillery in Fairport. One of more than 250 concerts she’s played in the past two years, shows in bars, and The Kennedy Center. Speaking engagements on behalf of disability rights. A challenging schedule for anyone, but Lea has to be especially cautious. “This bone disease,” she says, “you can be going along fine, and then you just break a bunch of bones.”
Lea’s music career exploded with NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert. It’s a series of video performances that since 2008 have been recorded at the desk of Bob Boilen, the host of NPR’s All Songs Considered. The Tiny Desk Concerts are one of those hip gigs. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Dave Matthews and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma have all done it. And in late 2014, Boilen opened it up to amateur musicians as well, inviting them to submit videos to be judged by a knowledgeable jury that has included Phish’s Trey Anastasio and The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
The second contest was in 2016. More than 6,000 bands and musicians sent their videos to Boilen’s desk. Lea’s was in that pile. What chance did she think she had?
“Zero,” she says.
So now it’s a Tiny Desk weekend in Rochester. Friday at Three Heads Brewing, the Rochester performers Susanna Rose, Seth Faergolzia & Friends and The Mighty High & Dry help WXXI-AM (11370) and WRUR-FM (88.5) celebrate the series, starting at 7 p.m. Then it’s Lea Saturday at Iron Smoke.
Lea won over the judges with “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” a song she wrote and sang in a plaintive, almost unearthly yet beautiful voice capable of, as Auerbach put it, “absolutely obliterating your heart.” And it’s the violin as well. Lea is classically trained, but put it to work in The Murder of Crows, an ethereally folky side project of Alan Sparhawk of the indie-rock band Low. Like Lea, Sparhawk is from Duluth, Minnesota. As is the acclaimed roots folkie Charlie Parr, who has also called on Lea’s violin.
The violin. Lea had to work that out on her own. She was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic condition affecting the development of her bones and limbs. Lea has been in a wheelchair since she was 2 years old. She was enchanted by the violin at an early age, but to play it had to learn how to hold the instrument differently, like you would hold a cello.
It was Sparhawk, Lea says, who introduced her to the technology that moved her music to the front of the stage. The looping pedal. With it, Lea could digitally record a violin line, maybe a few notes, and replay it. Backing herself, freeing herself to do other things. Add more violin on top of the loop, pluck the strings, sing. “It’s having the ability to think of the violin as a centerpiece rather than an accent piece,” she says.
And by 2011, Lea was writing her own songs. Music, she says, “Exploring the concept of how life is short and terrible and beautiful all at the same time.”
Yes, life is short. But what if you get another shot at it, a do-over? Lea has a song about reincarnation, “Bound by a Thread.” And yes she says, she believes there may be something to reincarnation, she believes in it. “I personally do,” she says, yet speaks of it as almost more of a life philosophy than a physical reality. “I think it’s a really good way to look at the world. It creates this compulsion to grow into a better version of yourself.”
And is there something else to her hopes for reincarnation? That the next time around, she might come back with a body that doesn’t break so easily? No, not really. That doesn’t fall in line with her belief that what we have in life isn’t what defines us, because we’re working toward a place where everyone, even those with brittle bones, is equal.
It’s a difficult battle. “There was a little period, I think, when I was working in a disability rights program, where everywhere I looked it, it seemed like I saw parts where we were behind,” she says.
“I have a lot of thoughts about disability, and what’s not happening in the general population yet. It’s not positive, it’s not a really negative thing. Think about 100 years ago, when disability and sexuality and all of these things that were kept hidden.
“I think it’s a cool era to be in now. We’re shifting into a cool place.”
We’re shifting, yes. But it’s always gonna be something.
“You have the balance of the positive and the negative,” Lea says, and she brings up meditation. “You’re not going to be on point all the time. You have to focus on what’s going right and not on the down things.”
People help. “There were so many people I met on the internet,” she says. “And now on tour, I’m meeting them in real life.”
Of course, not all people help, whether we’re talking internet or real life. “Sometimes I go disengaged for a couple of days on the internet,” Lea admits. “I block Trump for a couple of days. It’s a good feeling. You should think about it.”
And not unexpectedly, there’s more than reincarnation, working on behalf of disability rights, meditation or blocking Trump tweets that makes the road a little smoother for Lea and her aging Econoline. “I’m not thinking about what’s wrong in the world,” she says, “when I’m playing music.”
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