Gaelynn Lea is a Duluth music scene vet, teacher and activist. / Photo by Michael K. Anderson
A sweet victory that has the Duluth arts community feeling unusually warm in the first week of March, Twin Ports music scene fixture Gaelynn Lea beat out 6,100 other entries to win National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Contest.
The 32-year-old violinist, singer and songwriter’s haunting tune “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” was given the top prize from a panel of judges that included musicians Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Jess Wolfe of Lucius and Son House as well as some key NPR staffers.
Lea is already being splashed across the internet this morning following the announcement and will soon head to NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., to film a proper segment of the popular “Tiny Desk Concert” series. The segment has featured such musicians as Hozier, John Legend, Wilco and Lea’s fellow Duluthians Low and Trampled by Turtles performing live acoustic sets between office desks.
“I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it,” Lea said amid a rush of phone calls and interview requests Thursday morning. “I’ve known about it since Friday but couldn’t say anything, so it's been really hard not talking about it.”
A classically trained violinist and Celtic music specialist, Lea has performed with the Getarounds, Charlie Parr, Billy McLaughlin and Murder of Crows, the latter a duo she started with Low frontman Alan Sparhawk. She issued her debut solo album last year, a collection of traditional fiddle tunes titled “All the Roads That Lead Us Home.”
Lea is also a well-known music teacher in Duluth and -- because she was born with brittle bone disease, a congenital disability -- she has also become a noted public speaker and advocate for disability rights.
She wrote "Someday We'll Linger in the Sun" last spring as she was preparing to marry her husband, Paul Tressler. "Two months before we were getting married, I had to get some pretty major surgery, so it was an intense time," she said. "It's a song about love, but not flowery love, more marital love and the challenges that come with it."
Like all the contestants, she submitted a video (posted below) that shows her performing the song live at a desk. “Tiny Desk” host Bob Boilen said about the contest, “We didn't care much about the quality of the video or even the sound. We wanted something singular, a song and a sound that felt original and a performance that felt inspired.”
They certainly got that from this year’s winner. In his judge’s note posted with the tune, Auerbach wrote, “This song starts off with the sound of 20 old floorboards groaning and creaking in unison and then Karen Dalton and Joanna Newsom melt together in the form of Gaelynn Lea and set about absolutely obliterating your heart.”
Wolfe said of the song, “The way her voice resonates is so unusual and beautiful and like nothing I've ever heard before. It was a voice and an arrangement that captured me immediately. I can't wait to see what she does with Tiny Desk."
Lea said she heads to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to film her office-space gig, and there are other events related to the contest lined up in New York and Chicago in the coming months. “I’m just floored, and so excited,” she said.
Prepare to be floored by her video.