Musician turns NPR ‘Tiny Desk’ victory into national tour
When opportunity knocked, Gaelynn Lea zipped through the door.
Her haunting song, “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” last year beat out more than 6,000 other submissions to win NPR’s annual " Tiny Desk Contest.”
That victory led to so many concert offers for this Minnesota music maverick that she quit her day job as a violin teacher in her hometown of Duluth. She and her husband, Paul Tressler, sold their home, bought a van and hit the road with a vengeance.
“Between last Oct. 1 and this coming May 1, we will have done 150 shows,” said Lynn, who has three albums to her credit and makes her San Diego debut Friday at Del Mar’s Brick15. “When the ‘Tiny Desk’ thing happened, I knew I only had a year until the next ‘Tiny Desk’ winner was chosen.”
Doing 150 road dates in six months would be grueling for any musician. But Lynn, 33, isn’t just any musician.
She was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or Brittle Bones Disease. It’s a condition that was shared by the equally diminutive French jazz piano legend Michel Petrucciani. Like him, Lynn hasn’t let it impede her in the least, despite breaking her bones at least 16 times since she was born. (That is, she has noted, a low number for people with OI.)
Before devoting herself to music, Lea earned a degree in political science from the University of Minnesota at Duluth. When not doing concerts, she gives speeches to raise awareness about issues faced by people with disabilities.
“Most of the issues with disabilities are not about your body, but about how society makes it hard for you to participate like everyone else,” said Lea, who is about the same size as her violin.
“But I don’t make disabilities the focus of my concerts. My concerts are about the music.”
Her love affair with music began when Lynn was in fifth grade and joined the school orchestra.
Because of her diminutive size, her teacher suggested she hold the violin vertically and play it like a cello. The classically trained Lynn has used that technique ever since with her 100-year-old violin, a 7/8 size student model.
Yet, while she was immersed in orchestral music from grade school on, Lynn cites Simon & Garfunkel’s songs as the first to make her cry. She is also a fan of Bob Dylan and has performed at the annual Dylan tribute shows in Duluth, where he was born.
“Dylan is a point of pride for most Minnesotans, but especially in the Duluth and Hibbing area,” Lynn said. “I got to see him live there a couple of years ago. I like his music a lot.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Brick15, 915 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar
But her greatest passion is for old-time fiddle tunes, which she re-imagines and updates at her concerts through electronic looping, a process that enables performers to recording multiple layers of music in real time and then play live on top of them.
“When I went to college I was in the orchestra, but I realized it was not what I wanted to do,” she recalled. “Luckily, someone told me about a Celtic music band in town. And then my roommate and I had a band together.
“When I do shows now, it’s a mix of my own songs, a few by other people and a lot of traditional fiddle tunes. But I loop them, so they don’t sound the way you know them. You’ll recognize the melodies, but it’s very layered... This way people can be introduced to traditional music and I want to do it in a unique way. I’m really passionate about fiddle tunes that are still here after all these years.”
When not working on her own, Lea performs in the duo The Murder of Crows with Alan Sparhawk, the singer and guitarist in the band Low. Their partnership began in 2011 and she credits him with encouraging to get into looping.
When not on tour, Lynn enjoys camping with her husband. She hopes to write a book and is also looking forward to her 2018 performances of her music with two different orchestras in Duluth. She will also continue to give talks at schools and to civic groups.
“I don’t know if I can captivate a class of 6th graders with music and talking about disabilities,” she said. “But that’s the one setting I really talk about it a lot, because it’s important to educate kids.
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