Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ten Minutes With The Remarkable Gaelynn Lea

I recently received a press release from Gaelynn Lea announcing an October 6 Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting to launch her solo career. Her business, Gaelynn Lea Music, will focus on teaching fiddle, performing and public speaking. Having followed Gaelynn's career since I first heard her perform, I reached out in the hopes of sharing her life and spirit with readers of this blog.

EN: When did you first take an interest in music?

Gaelynn Lea: My parents, Tim and Peggy White, are both very musical. They ran Change of Pace Dinner Theater for 20 years, so when my siblings and I were kids, we were always exposed to singing and musical theater... It was just a big part of life! When I was just a little toddler, like 2 years old, my dad would sing me strings of notes at different pitches (la-la-la-la) and I would sing them back to him. It was a game he created - he was basically doing a simplified version of ear training, without maybe even realizing it.

EN: How did you come to take up the violin?

GL: In 4th grade, the junior high orchestra came to our elementary school and I remember loving the strings - especially the cellos. Then in the first week of 5th grade, students were asked if they wanted to participate in a music listening test for orchestra. I took the test with a few of my friends, and it turns out I was the only person in the whole school who got a perfect score... As I said, my dad helped to develop my sense of pitch when I was younger, so it really came in handy that day! The orchestra teacher at Ordean Junior High, Susan Sommerfeld, talked to my parents and said, "She's got such a good ear, we have to figure out a way for her to play." You see, I have a disability called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or Brittle Bones Disease. I use an electric wheelchair to get around and due to multiple fractures in utero my limbs are shortened and bent at 90 degree angles. But luckily both my teacher and my parents were open-minded about modifying the way I play. So then we started experimenting! Because my arms are so short, the cello was too big for me to bow, and my arm couldn't reach the fingerboard on my violin. But then it dawned on us that I could play the violin like a tiny cello -- in an upright position. Once we figured that out, everything else fell into place! I have been playing continuously for 21 years, since I was 10. I love the violin.

EN: What's the difference between fiddle and violin? 

GL: Fiddles and violins are technically the same instrument - the difference is really in the musical styles. Violin is associated with classical music and fiddle is associated with traditional or bluegrass music. The two different types of music involve different postures, techniques, and sounds but you can use the same instrument for the different styles.

EN: How did you come to take up performing?

GL: After high school I decided I didn't want to pursue classical music, so I joined a Celtic group at Macalester College called "Flying Fingers". I learned a lot of tunes that way and so when I transferred to UMD in 2005 I started regularly attending the Celtic jam at Sir Benedict's. It was there I met a guitar/banjo player named Andy Gabel. He asked if I could learn a tune he liked by ear - called Blackberry Blossom - and so I did. Very shortly after that we started jamming together and eventually formed an acoustic folk duo called Gabel and Gaelynn. We played at venues around town for about 3 years until he moved out West. We had a lot of fun together!

EN: Tell us about your first solo album. What kind of music can we expect to hear?

GL: My solo album is going to be all instrumental - mostly traditional fiddle tunes (Celtic, American, and Swedish), with a few recognizable standards to keep the non-fiddler engaged. The album is just me and my violin, but the sound is filled out with live loops from my Memory Man pedal layered underneath. I tried to pick a wide variety of tempos, keys, and moods for this album. As a whole, it is a tapestry of sound with the various layers weaving in and out. It is a relaxing and meditative album. If I can raise enough money I am also planning to release a 7" vinyl, with two vocal/violin tracks (one on each side). I also love to sing so I recorded an original song of mine and an old standard song... But I decided I didn't want to break up the flow of instrumentals so I am doing something a little different with these two tracks!

EN: What kind of music do you listen to yourself?

GL: I am a huge fan of Big Band music and bluegrass... I always have been, so that will probably never change. In college I was a big fan of The Decemberists, Wilco, The Eels, and Neutral Milk Hotel. I love creative lyrics. But in recent years I have kind of become local-centric about the music I listen to on a regular basis. Right now the musicians I play at home are Charlie Parr, Low, The Lowest Pair, Four Mile Portage, Woodblind, and the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank. I am also a big fan of Jim Hall, the Boomchucks, the Fontanelles, and the Black-Eyed Snakes. Jerree Small is amazing. I am a big fan of Duluth in general.

EN: For what it's worth, Duluth is a big fan of you, too. Why do you think music affects us so deeply?

GL: It has to be hardwired. I have been busking on the Lakewalk since college and one thing that always amazes me is how the tiniest of children respond to music, even if their parents aren't looking... Totally un-coaxed, a little toddler will crane her neck from her stroller to watch the violin as she rolls by. Or a little baby will bop his head to the beat, or a three year old will burst into spontaneous applause at the end of the song. Music is in our DNA, I really believe that.

EN: I heard you in a a recital at the Tweed many years ago. Was that when you were graduating from UMD?

GL: I actually never took music in college for any kind of credit. I majored in Political Science and minored in Psychology. I think the recital you might be referring to is when I sat in with Billy MacLachlan. Disability services asked the two of us to talk about disability and music, but we ended up playing together instead. You could tell at the time that he was more comfortable playing music than talking, although now he is a public speaker too! Anyway, that night I sat in with him for a song during his concert, and we have kept in touch over the years. He is a really nice person.

* * * *
This past spring Gaelynn performed in the Sacred Heart concert A Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan. Her rendition of Dylan's "All the Tired Horses" totally blew us away, a song that Greil Marcus famously dissed when it opened Dylan's Self Portrait album in 1970. If Marcus had known how this song would get translated nearly a half century later, he never would have said what he did.

It's been a privilege to watch Gaelynn's career evolve. The Chamber of Commerce Ribbon Cutting is open to the public; it will be held at 3pm on Tuesday, October 6th at 394 S Lake Ave, Suite 510G, Duluth, MN 55802.

To learn more about Gaelynn Lea and Gaelynn Lea Music, or to sign up for lessons, visit

I'll close this blog post with a line from the close of Gaelynn's email signature line:
"Gratitude leads to joy, which fills the heart with love and peace."

Photo Credits Michael K. Anderson (top) and Jessi Anderson


Arlene Anderson said...

Thank you for this insightful interview. Gaelynn Lea is such a gem!

Dan Moschet said...

Remarkable young lady. Love her "tiny cello" music, and kind heart.

Ed Newman said...

Thanks, Dan and Arlene. Your comments reflect a lot of similar sentiments. Thanks for leaving your mark.