The songs of Gaelynn Lea often explore the ways life can be both beautiful and painful at the same time — and how that’s OK.
“To me, that’s been the biggest thing,” she told the Press & Dakotan during a recent phone interview. “The world has both sides, and you can’t just focus on one and get a realistic picture. You have to acknowledge both the darkness and the light.”
Born with a congenital disability called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or Brittle Bones Disease, the Duluth, Minnesota, violinist and singer has felt that truth more intimately than most. She was born with dozens of broken bones and has overcome many challenges.
Lea’s experiences have led her to approach life with a sense of gratitude.
“I was raised in a spiritual family, and it’s something that sticks with me. I look at the bigger picture,” she said. “If you maintain a perspective of gratitude, you keep in mind that none of this is guaranteed and that you are lucky to get to do the things you want to do when you get to do them. Life is short, so you have to live it the best way you can.”
Music has been a big part of Lea’s life, and the possibilities of where it could take her exploded after she won NPR Music’s 2016 Tiny Desk Contest, a competition drawing submissions of original songs from more than 6,000 musicians across the country.
She has toured frequently ever since, and will bring original songs, as well as new interpretations of traditional fiddle tunes, to Yankton’s AME Church, located at 508 Cedar St., at 7 p.m. tonight (Friday). A free-will offering is suggested.
Lea was ready for the opportunity to pursue a life in music when opportunity came knocking in part due to a long-time friendship with Alan Sparhawk of the indie rock band Low (which also calls Duluth home). The two of them began playing together in 2011 and formed the band The Murder of Crows.
“Alan introduced me to the looping pedal,” Lea said. “He gave one to me and told me I should learn how to use it so I can play shows on my own. It took a while to get the hang of it, but eventually I did. It opened a ton of creative doors for me. He was a huge influence on me.”
With the release of the 2018 album, “Learning How to Stay,” Lea took another creative step by incorporating a full band into her solo material.
“That stretched me in a lot of ways that I think were good,” she said. “Some of the songs I wrote, I couldn’t loop. That was part of it.”
The bigger sound results in some more pop-inspired moments like “Lost in the Woods,” but it also serves quieter, reflective moments, such as “Moments of Bliss,” well as Lea observes, “Ever simple/But we so often miss/All our chaos/Can be pared down to this … Moment of bliss.”
Watching Lea performing music or speaking in front of a crowd, she is always open, honest and charming. She has delivered presentations and TED Talks about disability awareness; her personal journey with music; how she gained a greater sense of well-being when she shifted her focus from progress in the traditional sense to creating a more enriching life; and how the intersection of sexuality and disability led to an epiphany that helped her to claim inner freedom.
Although she considers herself an artist first, Lea also identifies as an activist. She was a political science major in college and has been engaged in promoting disability awareness. She uses a wheelchair for mobility, and accessibility can be a big issue when touring throughout the country.
“I’ve been pretty engaged in my communities as time allows,” Lea said. “I think you can shape your society. I see such a big gap of where people with disabilities are compared to the rest of the population because of the barriers that still exist. Out of necessity, I feel like I have a voice and perspective that may be helpful.
“One of the reasons disabilities are so stigmatized in our society is because we started valuing ourselves based on what we could contribute to the capitalist system,” she added. “Just today at the bank, I heard an older guy saying, ‘I used to be useful.’ It goes back to the idea of, when you’re employable, you’re important. When you’re no longer working, you’re no longer important. I think it’s important to acknowledge that’s how a lot of people develop their sense of worth. If you become disabled, you’ve got to redefine why you are worthy.”
Next year, Lea hopes to take some time off the road to write music — and a book about her experiences, disability culture and disability art.
“It’s all in my brain,” she said. “It’s just a matter of finding the time.”
Lea said she looks forward to playing music for a Yankton audience.
“I feel music is the most Zen experience you can have aside from meditating,” she stated. “You really have to be in the moment, and it’s like you channel energy through the top of your head out to the audience. The best moments are when you feel that energy going through you and into the audience. It’s a powerful experience because you can get an energy that isn’t there the rest of the day. It connects you with something bigger than yourself.”
Those looking to connect with Lea’s energy after the Yankton show can also catch her May 18 at the Red Rooster Coffee House in Aberdeen and June 30 at Levitt at the Falls in Sioux Falls.