Duluth's Gaelynn Lea builds on Tiny Desk buzz

The world is finally experiencing the power and heart of Gaelynn Lea (Photo by Michael K. Anderson)

The world is finally experiencing the power and heart of Gaelynn Lea (Photo by Michael K. Anderson)

The raw emotions within Gaelynn Lea’s music reveal themselves slowly. But once those fragile sentiments take hold of you, it’s difficult to shake their haunting charms.

Back in March, the Duluth singer-songwriter/violinist expanded her appeal well beyond her North Country roots by winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, a music video competition that earned Lea new fans throughout the world.

“I wasn’t really expecting to win, obviously,” Lea says of the contest, which saw her best more than 6,000 entrants. “Just being able to do stuff on a bigger scale than before — like traveling farther away, and playing more shows. People have been really positive and supportive. It’s been a fun year. I’m just trying not to have a lot of expectations of what is going to happen next.”

She immediately followed her victory with a 10-date Tiny Desk tour of the U.S. In July, she performed with her Murder of Crows bandmate Alan Sparhawk (Low, Retribution Gospel Choir) at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to mark the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They’ll join forces Saturday at Hall’s Island in Minneapolis for another high-profile event: Festival Palomino.

Lea’s capitalizing on that added attention by releasing a brand-new EP, The Songs We Sing Along the Way, an enthralling follow-up to her 2015 debut solo album, All the Roads That Lead Us Home. Her new EP — which includes a stunning studio version of the Tiny Desk Contest-winning track “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” — is imbued with the wistful melancholy of classic Irish folk songs, given a modern twist via her looping violin strains.

That layered effect creates a hypnotic, elegiac tone that blends perfectly with her plaintive vocals and introspective lyrics. But shrouded within the darker edges of her somber material is a boundless sense of hope. You walk away uplifted and encouraged, especially when you witness Lea perform her songs live.

Lea, 32, has a congenital disability called Osteogenesis Imperfecta (or “brittle bones disease”), and she plays her violin like a cello from her wheelchair. The strength and spirit that emanates each time she plays live is an inspiration, a feeling not lost on Tiny Desk Concert judges like Dan Auerbach and Lucius. Lea is using her newfound musical notoriety to advocate for people with disabilities.

“I don’t think people talk about disability issues very often,” she explains. “And when they do, a lot of times the language is negative. It’s important to me, because going out on tour, and living in a van and driving everywhere — that is not a very common thing for people with disabilities because the accessibility is so poor. I want it to be more normal, so people can go out and pursue these dreams that they have. And part of that is just society including these things more, and not having it be an anomaly. Things that are a struggle for me, more than anything, is access and people’s attitudes or misconceptions, and I’m trying to do my part to change that.”

Lea’s also pouring herself into new music. The recent EP came together rather spontaneously, the result of a generous offer of free studio time from Zach Hollander at the Pearl Recording Studio in Minneapolis. The day before Lea was set to record, she had a show at the 331 Club, and invited her old Duluth East High School friend, Al Church, to play a few songs with her. The performance went so well that she asked Church to record with her, turning a planned single-song recording session (for “Watch the World Unfold”) into a six-song EP.

“We ended up connecting a lot on a musical level,” Lea explains. “It’s been a nice discovery, and he’s been a really cool, new part of this chapter, too.”

Says Church, “I have always admired her musical abilities and spirit. It was really great to bounce ideas back and forth, and she has a very collaborative spirit. She is so quick to get things right.”

In addition to her solo work, Lea has kept working with Sparhawk on Murder of Crows, their atmospheric, improvisational project that formed in 2011. The group’s initial performance was to provide a live soundtrack to Lon Chaney’s 1920 gangster classic, The Penalty. Lea and Sparhawk have since formed a musical bond as well as a genuine friendship. In 2012, the duo released an EP called Imperfecta, and Sparhawk was right there when Lea recorded her Tiny Desk Concert at NPR HQ in Washington, D.C., following her win. The gorgeous, 23-minute performance (post above) has almost 700,000 views. 

Sparhawk helped Lea master the looping pedal with her violin, which has become an essential part of her playing and songwriting. Lea, in turn, reminded Sparhawk of how awesome it is to be able to simply play music, a perspective that can sometimes get clouded, the indie-rock veteran admits.

“A lot of our music, especially the instrumental stuff, is based on a very loose structure,” Sparhawk says. “We have this melody, and some chords, but from there it can go anywhere. Playing with her — and facing that process — is the most intensive time that I’ve ever had. A lot of times, what we’re doing is taking two things that are seemingly random and smashing them together, and seeing if something beautiful happens. If anything, I’ve gained more faith in that — and music in general — because of her.”

Murder of Crows will showcase their intimate, experimental work on the big stage at Festival Palomino. They hope to transfix the large outdoor audience, just as they have so many club crowds around Minneapolis and Duluth (“You bring what you got!” Sparhawk says of how they will approach the festival set). Lea, who also works as a violin teacher and public speaker, will then continue on a full-scale solo tour through the end of October. She says she relishes how busy she’s become, though she’s keeping grounded.

“For me, music is a pretty spiritual thing, so I try not to take too much credit for it,” Lea says. “It’s all part of something that is bigger than me — how a song touches somebody, or how a performance moves someone, it’s not really in my control. It’s a different experience to be reaching people that you didn’t actually know before.”

Festival Palomino
With: Trampled by Turtles, The Arcs, Andrew Bird, Jake Bugg, Houndmouth, Frightened Rabbit, Elephant Revival, the Cactus Blossoms, Murder of Crows, others. 
When: 1-10 p.m. Sat., Sept. 17. 
Where: Hall's Island, 1004 Sibley St. NE., Minneapolis. 
Tickets: $48-$147; more info here