Gaelynn Lea on how music has grounded her identity, and the ways she sheds light on the experiences of someone living with a disability

While Gaelynn Lea has been playing music for a few decades, it wasn’t until 2016 that her music career got a large boost. That year, she won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. Gaelynn quickly became known for two things – her versatile and at times haunting voice, and discussing what’s it’s like to be disabled. She’s traveled all over, playing venues from the Kennedy Center to local spots in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. Thankfully, she took some time during her current tour to sit down and chat with She Shreds.

When did you start playing the violin?

I started playing when I was 10 years old after I saw an orchestra perform at my elementary school. I decided I really wanted to try it the next year. Luckily, the teacher was willing to help me learn how to play differently by adapting the way I hold my instrument. Because of my smaller body size, I hold my violin up and down like a cello & hold my bow like an upright bass player does.

You’ve always played a wide variety of music. Do you have a favorite genre you love to play or is the variety where you love to hang?

Variety is the spice of life! I am definitely most rooted in folk music, but I like exploring other genres and I always want to keep learning. My new album was very fun for me because we got to explore many different genres in the context of one album. Having a full band provided so many more options, and I could create a much wider range of sound than I could have done with just my violin and my looping pedal.

Dark to Light And Dark Again on your latest album Learning To Stay has great lyrics around how our bodies never fully contain us. How important is that message to you, as someone with a disability?

That song was fun to write because it captured my feelings on aging and disability without getting too serious. I want to see disability celebrated as a form of diversity rather than being depicted as a negative affliction or a condition to avoid at all costs. So that’s why I decided to write it in such an upbeat fashion.  Obviously, people with disabilities do suffer at times & I am not trying to say every part of the disability experience is fun or desirable, but many of the barriers we face are simply results of a society that hasn’t prioritized accessibility or inclusion. Many of the negative parts of the disability experience would be fixed or at least made much better if we lived in an accessible society that valued our existence.

Additionally, the dialogue in America isn’t usually based in any real input from the disability community, and too often it’s laced with pity and disdain. So, this song is the antithesis to that dialogue. I think it’s important to remember we are all capable of living enriching lives regardless of how our physical bodies exist in that moment. A big part of leading an enriching life is about the uplifting relationships you have with other people. Recognizing my soul’s limitless & eternal nature has always been a grounding perspective for me, no matter what is going on physically.

How much does your activism background influence your song lyrics?

I think the first and only song so far where I directly was influenced by my activism background is the song “I Wait” on the new album. That was written because I was frustrated at how little disabled activists were being recognized in the struggle for healthcare last summer when the Medicaid cuts were being proposed. I realized that there is a big gap in social justice work, where people are not taking into consideration the disability community. We must include disability in social justice work if want our work to be intersectional and inclusive.

The other, possibly less obvious, way that disability influences my songwriting is that many of my songs touch on the idea of impermanence. When you have a disability like mine, Osteogenesis Imperfecta (Brittle Bones Disease), you realize very early on that life can change in the blink of an eye. You break a bone unexpectedly and suddenly the next 6 weeks look very different than you had planned them to be. By the time I was 21 years old, I was keenly aware of my mortality. And so this concept of embracing the present moment has definitely made its way into my songs.