Gaelynn Lea Tressler, best known just as Gaelynn Lea, is a talented musician who happens to have a disability. She has a form of dwarfism called osteogenesis imperfecta, otherwise known as brittle bone disease. She is also an amazing violinist. Both are part of her identity.
Lea is Minnesota grown, born and raised in Duluth. She had many interests growing up, including adaptive ballet and gymnastics, yet music was always her passion. She fell in love with string instruments in fourth grade, and that was the beginning of a long and wonderful journey. “I decided I wanted to play in orchestra the next year, which was fifth grade, and I was lucky that the orchestra teacher was creative and kind,” she says. “Instead of turning me away or redirecting me to choir, she decided to help me adapt the way I play.”
She has now been playing the violin for 24 years. After starting with classical music, she switched to fiddle music in college. For three years, she went to Macalester, in the Twin Cities—where her in-laws and her band members are from—and then finished her degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth. In 2011, she met Alan Sparhawk from the band Low. They did a project together in Duluth, called the Murder of Crows, and Sparhawk introduced her to a looping pedal, “a recording device that sits in my wheelchair and records snippets of what I play on violin and loops it back,” she explains. “You can build layers of sound up with a looping pedal, and it really expanded what I could do.” This led Lea to start writing her own songs.
In 2015, she recorded her first solo album. In 2016, she entered NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, an annual competition in which performers submit videos of their songs in the hopes of being chosen to perform as part of the concert series. She won, beating out over 6,000 other contestants. The performance (click here to watch it) brought her national recognition and was the spark needed to propel her career; she and her husband quit their jobs, sold their house, and went on the road, and since then she has played in over 43 states and seven different countries. Her third album came out in the fall of 2018.
Now, I am not a music critic, so I won’t pretend to be one. I can’t name the methods used to create a song. I do enjoy music, though, and Lea’s music is very enjoyable.
When I asked about her musical process, she had this to say: “I often start a new song with a spark of inspiration that looks like one string of words with a melody attached. I toss it around in my head for a while until it slowly builds, piece by piece. I add in the chords last—to me, writing is about the melody and the words.” She also describes the process of looping as extremely geeky. Besides music, Lea geeks out about spirituality, politics, and natural health.
As stated previously, besides being a musician, Lea is a person with a disability. Brittle bone disease is basically what it sounds like: she has fragile bones that break more often than other people’s. Her arms and legs had broken and healed even before she was even born. Because of this disability, she has used a wheelchair since she was two and a half.
Much like anyone’s identities, Lea’s disability sometimes influences or informs her music, and other times they are separate. They have moments of singularity and of overlapping. Her osteogenesis imperfecta dictates the physicality of her music; she plays the violin upright like a cello instead of laying it across her shoulder. It also comes across in some of her songs. Lea says, “Having brittle bones means that one minute life can be going along swimmingly, and the next minute you break a bone and are pretty much laid up for six weeks. This teaches you about impermanence and even your own mortality at a pretty young age, and I know it’s colored my songwriting.”
Two songs that she notes have themes of disability are “Birdsong,” which is part of the Murder of Crows project, and “I Wait,” which is on her third solo album, Learning to Stay. “Birdsong” is about a bird that sings despite having its wings clipped; “I Wait,” my favorite song of hers, is about how frustrating it is in this day and age to have the world still be so inaccessible to those with disabilities. Another song that I personally also think has disability ties but can also be for anyone is “Dark to Light and Dark Again.” These lyrics resonate with me as a person who has dwarfism and rheumatoid arthritis myself: “Muscles, nerves, and skin and bones. They carry us on our journey home. Day by day they sustain us. In the end they betray us. But our bodies, they never fully contain us.” To me, it sends the message that I am more than my broken, aching body. I am my soul and my personality and so much more. Lea’s music isn’t all about disability, though. She writes of many things, including love, grace, and identity. She says, “Music for me is not directly linked to my disability—it’s a passion for me that helps me feel connected to my higher self. Performing gives me a kind of energy and grounds me in a way nothing else does. Writing music, too, comes from a place that almost seems superconscious. Connecting to your creative spirit transcends the physical body, so in that way music lives apart from my disability.”
Because she uses a wheelchair, Lea has found some venues inaccessible to her. She used to have people lift her chair onstage, but now she requires any venue to be accessible to herself and her fans if she is going to perform there. She notes how disabled people are rarely seen in the media, so venues don’t seek out disabled artists, which is an insidious cycle if I say so myself.
Despite the existence of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Lea says the world is still pretty inaccessible. The ADA only requires the bare minimum and is often not enforced; therefore, you can have buildings with no ramps or elevators, or medical staff who are dismissive because you are too rare for them to bother researching your condition. “These barriers are real and can be super draining when facing them on a daily basis,” Lea says. “But nonetheless, you don’t have to stay silent. You deserve the same rights as everyone else, and it’s important to fight for them. It’s okay to speak up—in fact, it’s so important to do so! If each of us speaks up when our rights are being violated, we can make our voices heard, and then we stop it from happening again to others. Disabled people are not being mean or whiny or an inconvenience just because we want to have the same access to the same experiences others enjoy, even if that is often the message we are sent when standing up for our rights.”
She not only is an activist for the disability community but also speaks about being proud of her identity as a disabled person. Disability pride focuses on the belief that it is not our disabilities that restrict us, but the inaccessibility of society. We see our being disabled as more of an identity than just a diagnosis. In Lea’s words, “You see, I don’t think of my disability as bad . . . brittle bones is just part of who I am, and if I hadn’t been born this way, then I wouldn’t have become the person I am today. And I like how I turned out. I am not perfect, but I think I am kind and funny and creative, and I want to make the world a better place. My disability is part of my story, and I am not ashamed of it—I am proud of it.”
A couple of years ago, one of my friends invited me to a Gaelynn Lea concert. I went, and that was the first time I got to speak with Lea—both before and after the show. She is so friendly and kind to her fanbase. She is a multifaceted and extremely talented woman, and I am honored to know her.
You can see Gaelynn Lea performing with Dan Dresser as the Getarounds on May 5, 2019, as part of the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival. For more information and other upcoming tour dates, visit violinscratches.com or follow Lea on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.