Gaelynn Lea, a folk singer, violinist and disability advocate from Duluth, MN, performed Sunday, July 30 at Sociable Cider Werks. She won NPR’s Tiny Desk Series Contest in 2016, which perpetuated a rise in popularity for the artist. Since October she has played in 38 states and five countries. She spoke at Yale University back in October for a Tedx Talk on “Sexuality and Disability: Forging Identity in a World that Leaves You Out.”
Lea’s performance at Sociable Cider Werks showcased her haunting violin work and singing. With layered, swelling violin harmonies and melodic singing she captured the attention and hearts of those in attendance. Sitting atop a large motorized wheelchair, Lea, who was born with a genetic disorder called Osteogenesis Imperfectica, holds her amplified violin upright with a foot pedal next to her left foot.
What led to Lea’s way of playing violin? “My family’s pretty musical. In fourth grade the orchestra came to my school. I knew the next year when we had a chance to join I wanted to join. I took the music listening test and was the only student with a perfect score that year,” boasted Lea.
Her teacher, not knowing how to accommodate, was determined to figure out how to help her. Lea wanted to play the cello, but due to the size they decided to go with the violin. Still her own small size didn’t allow her to play it on her shoulder so she decided to play it upright like a cello.
Influences: “I love harmony and lyrics. I think I got that from Simon and Garfunkel. I was kind of obsessed in junior high and high school. I liked the Decemberists in college.”
Lea admits she is very inspired by Allan Sparhawk of Retrobution Gospel Choir. The well-known guitarist from Duluth contacted her asking if she’d like to work together. Since then the two created a project called A Murder of Crows. Sparhawk is also responsible for giving Lea her a loop pedal which she has since incorporated into her performances. With the loop pedal, Lea is able to play a short piece on her violin, loop it and lay over it. This results in a multiple harmonies that are then played making the one violin sound like many.
Lea’s husband Paul Tressler quit his job, the two sold their house and have focused all of their time and efforts on Lea’s music. “Thank God for MNSURE or we’d be screwed!” says Lea about having to buy insurance for her husband when he left his job. “I still get healthcare through the state because I have a pretty severe disability. I’m on a special program. Because we’re married I lost my Social Security Income (SSI) eligibility. You have to have really, really low income to be on SSI while married.”
She did a lot of paperwork to get certified disabled. This now qualifies her for the only program she is able to be on, medical assistance for employed people with disabilities. If her husband’s premiums go through the roof and she no longer qualified for that program, it could ruin everything for the two. “If I was ever unable to work I would lose that and we would probably to need get a divorce. I cannot not have healthcare. Twenty percent of a $10,000 wheelchair is a lot!” Aside from the wheelchair, Lea has several other medical costs.
Gaelynn Lea is currently performing in the United Kingdom. She will be back in Minneapolis on Friday, September 8th to perform as Murder of Crows with Sparhawk at the Warming House. For more info on Gaelynn Lea, her music and public speaking events, visit www.violinscratches.com.
Below: Gaelynn Lea with violin and loop pedal. (Photo by Mike Madison)