Duluth violinist strikes a chord with her fans

Published 9:53 am Monday, March 6, 2017

DULUTH — Gaelynn Lea is a violinist whose music and performances can defy description, and after a year of touring practically nonstop, she’s achieving critical and commercial success.

Born and raised in Duluth, Lea has been performing music for more than a decade, but her musical breakthrough came a year ago, when she won National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Contest, competing against submissions from 6,000 other musicians.

“I don’t like to be put in a box,” Lea said. “Sometimes people say, ‘Do you play to inspire other people with disabilities?’ I play because I like to play.”

Email newsletter signup

Lea was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. In a wheelchair, and only a little taller than the violin she plays, she plays it upright, like a cello.

Her music has been described as folk, but also experimental and ambient. Lea utilizes a looping pedal she activates with her feet, repeating a few seconds of music that she has just played. The result is layers of melodies that can make her one-woman performances sound like a full orchestra.

Lea just finished a six-week tour of the East Coast and Southeast, performing 125 shows. She leaves later this week for a seven-week tour that will include four shows at the prestigious SXSW in Austin, where she will also perform an individual showcase.

Back in Minnesota, after a month on the road, she played a concert last Monday to benefit Upstream Arts, a non-profit introducing the arts to the disabled in late February.

“She is one of the hardest working musicians right now,” said Al Church, who performs guitar on her latest album and also attended high school with Lea in Duluth.

“It’s the melodies in the songs that are really amazing,” Church said.

And her music career almost didn’t happen at all, if not for one particular music teacher. In the fourth grade, Lea took an exam to measure musical ability and got a perfect score.

“Hands down the most wonderful and rewarding student I’ve worked with in 30 years of teaching string instruments,” said Susan Sommerfeld, the retired music teacher.

Sommerfeld figured out that Gaelynn could play the violin holding it upright, like one would play the cello, and holding her bow like you would for a bass.

“We just adapted what she is to playing the instruments,” Sommerfeld said.

Lea said Sommerfeld was instrumental to her career.

“It dawned on me, she could’ve just said ‘You have a good ear, but this won’t work. Why don’t you try choir?’ And my whole life would be so different. And that would’ve been just one sentence,” Lea said.

Lea began writing songs in the last few years after encouragement from fellow Duluth musician Alan Sparhawk of the band, Low. Lea is also in another band with Sparhawk called The Murder of Crows.

The lyrics in songs like, “Linger In The Sun,” can be both joyful and haunting.

“My whole life, because of my disability partly, and just my personal disposition, I’ve always been aware that what is here now will not be here, forever. Our bodies, the way they are now, won’t always be here. The people we love won’t always be here. And I don’t know why, I’ve always been pretty aware of that,” Lea said.

Her former music teacher said her perspective is as unique as her music.

“It makes me cry. It’s so beautiful. The music that’s within her is so original,” Sommerfeld said. “It’s just amazing it would’ve been a horrible shame for her not to pursue this.”