DULUTH – “Sorry, I’m used to doing this by myself.”
Tooling up the hill toward downtown Duluth at a steady 8 miles per hour last week, Gaelynn Lea eased up on the throttle of her wheelchair to let her interviewer catch up. She would prove difficult to keep pace with the rest of the day.
Within the confines of Canal Park — where she keeps an office with a harbor view on the fifth floor of the DeWitt-Seitz Building — the locals treated Lea like a queen bee. They knew her order at Caribou Coffee (“lots of chocolate!”). And a pair of street-busking musicians she passed knew about her gigs that night.
“I actually love busking,” she confided as she rolled on, recounting her trip to New York a few weeks earlier for a National Public Radio concert. She wound up performing waltzes on the subway for passengers late one night.
“It’s one of the purest ways a musician can connect with people.”
A classically trained violinist, music teacher and budding singer/songwriter, Lea made an uncommonly pure musical connection with more people than she ever could’ve imagined in early March, when she won NPR’s nationwide Tiny Desk Contest.
Her mournful but hopeful song “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” was picked out of 6,100 other entrants by judges that included members of the Black Keys and Lucius. “Absolutely obliterating your heart” is how Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach described the song’s effect.
NPR then flew Lea out to Washington, D.C., to tape an episode of the popular online series “Tiny Desk Concert” and has since booked her for gigs on both coasts.
She plays her first post-victory Twin Cities show Saturday night at the 331 Club — not counting her debut appearance at First Avenue last month, where she joined Brooklyn indie-rock darlings Lucius for one song with only about seven hours’ notice.
“I’m glad I dropped everything,” she said. “Everybody cheered when I got up on stage. I’ll always remember that.”
For the NPR contest, the 32-year-old musician sang her tune on a home video that initially only shows her left hand working her violin neck. The camera then slowly pans out to show her petite frame and the wheelchair beneath it.
Lea now laughs at how much people have read into the footage — as if she were cunningly hiding her physical limitations at first so viewers only judged her by her stirring sound and eloquent song.
“My friend Leah shot it on her cellphone,” she confessed. “The reason we did it that way is because we really only had one camera effect to work with: zooming in and out.”
Like a lot of Duluthians, Lea is at once quietly proud but self-deprecating and plainspokenly funny. A native of the city and graduate of Duluth East High School and the University of Minnesota Duluth, she offers a similarly blunt explanation for why she joined the East school orchestra.
“I had a crush on a boy who played,” she said matter-of-factly.
She didn’t win over that orchestra boy but did get married last summer to Paul Tressler, a UMD staffer, whom she dated for seven years. The inspiration for “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” came when their wedding plans were put in limbo.
“Two months before we were getting married, I had to get some pretty major surgery, so it was an intense time,” she recalled. “It’s a song about love — but not flowery love, more marital love and the challenges that come with it.”
The song’s lyrics include: “Don’t tell me we’ve got time / The subtle thief of life / It slips away when we pay no mind / We pulled the weeds out til the dawn / Nearly too tired to carry on / Someday we’ll linger in the sun.”
Lea was born with brittle bone disease, a congenital disability. Her shortened legs and feet are usually hidden beneath one of her hippie-chic dresses, and she often has to be hoisted onto the stages she plays. Her arms and hands are bent in a way that forced her to find a new way of playing violin.
She holds her instrument in front of her like a cello instead of under her neck. She also uses a half-sized bass bow instead of a typical violin bow. For the most part, though, she downplays the physical challenges of playing.
“It’s kind of like everything you do when you have a disability: It doesn’t feel weird to you because it’s all that you know,” she said.
“There are a lot of physics involved with playing violin — the angle of the bow, the speed of the bow, the way your fingers press. I just had to adjust the mechanics.”
One thing she can’t fix is her inability to use all five of her fingers on a violin neck, which limits her ability to play fast musical pieces — although she did pull off Beethoven’s Romance in F Major for a high school recital.
“I like slow and pretty music anyway,” she said, and then deadpanned about her closest musical compatriot of recent years, Alan Sparhawk, frontman of the Duluth-based, internationally renowned band Low: “That’s why he and I are a match made in heaven. He never plays fast.”
Looped in with Sparhawk
Unbeknownst to the NPR contest organizers — who were surprised when the veteran indie-rocker accompanied Lea to her “Tiny Desk” taping — Lea and Sparhawk have been performing together in Duluth as the duo Murder of Crows since November 2011.
Before that, Lea integrated herself with the local folk music scene by joining fiddle jams and open-mic nights at Sir Benedict’s Tavern. She also played in a couple of different acoustic duos, Snöbarn and Gabel and Gaelynn. She was fiddling at the Duluth Farmers Market with another local music hero, Charlie Parr, when she came to Sparhawk’s attention.
“I was walking through the market and heard her before I saw her, like, ‘Oh, wow, who’s that playing with Charlie? That sounds really good,’ ” Sparhawk recalled. “Then I met her and was really inspired.”
“She’s been a great blessing to me,” he continued. “She’s like that 17-year-old kid who blows everyone away, or any musician who seems to love or is moved by music a little more than the rest of us, and who reminds us how special it is.”
Sparhawk pushed Lea into writing and singing her first original song before their first gig as Murder of Crows. Dozens of sets later, they have worked up a cool repertoire that includes instrumental remakes of Nirvana and Neutral Milk Hotel songs and more of Lea’s originals, now including “Linger in the Sun.” The duo also artfully employs a looping pedal, the box-shaped electronic device that allows Lea to record and layer violin parts on top of each other.
“Alan gave me the pedal and said, ‘Someday, you’re going to be playing your own shows because of this,’ ” Lea recalled. “I thought, ‘No way. He’s crazy.’ ”
She has been playing solo gigs for a couple of years now and released her first CD last year. Titled “All the Roads That Lead Us Home,” the album is mostly made up of traditional fiddle tunes of Irish, Scottish and Swedish origin, plus one elegantly wounded original called “Let It Go.”
Introducing “Let It Go” in front of a small crowd at Duluth’s Electric Fetus record store last week, she playfully huffed, “I named it that before the ‘Frozen’ movie came out, so I’m not changing it.”
The Fetus in-store was just one of three gigs she played the day of our interview, all part of the popular Duluth Homegrown Festival. That one fun but chaotic day was indicative of what’s turning into the busiest year of Lea’s life.
In addition to her NPR commitments, she is now getting offers for many other gigs around the country. She’s also getting more invites for speaking engagements. Since her UMD days, she has advocated for disability rights through organizations such as Access for All and the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group.
“I try to be optimistic when I’m speaking, but I don’t sugarcoat it, either,” she said. “There are challenges we face every day, and there are still so many ways we could all do to make things better for people with disabilities.”
The only thing that seems to be slowing her down in her suddenly budding music career, however, is her commitment to her music students. She is trying to juggle her performance plans with her previously scheduled private lessons.
“It’s been like a real Buddhist time for me, trying to maintain a normal perspective, and trying to be OK with not knowing the outcome of all this,” she admitted.
Sounds like a song; or a great excuse to go out and do a little street-busking.