Gaelynn Lea is a musician in Duluth, Minnesota. According to the biography on her web site:
“She has been playing violin for over twenty years. First classically trained, she began learning traditional Celtic and American fiddle tunes at the age of 18. During her college years Gaelynn started sitting in with various folk/rock musicians and developed an improvisational style all her own. Eventually she also began singing and dabbling in songwriting.”
“Dabbling” is a humble word for it. Gaelynn was one of more than six thousand un-signed musicians or bands who submitted music videos in NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. Under the rules of that contest, the song had to be an original work created solely for the purpose of entering the contest, and it had to be performed “at a desk (any desk!)”. All those thousands of submissions were reviewed by a panel of six judges, and they picked Gaelynn Lea’s submission as the winner.
I read the judge’s comments about the song and the video before I heard it. The judges were Robin Hilton, Bob Boilen, Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys and The Arcs), Son Little, and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of the band Lucius. You can read their comments about the song here. In a nutshell, they were all profoundly moved. They explained that they heard other songs that displayed better musical craft and skill, but what Gaelynn did was to create something unusual and memorable.
I can’t separate the song from what I watched in the video and what I knew immediately about Gaelynn Lea from seeing it. It makes the song more poignant and powerful — but I believe (though I’ll never know for sure) that I would have found it tremendously poignant and powerful anyway.
What I realized when I saw the video is that Gaelynn Lea has a rare congenital condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta (“OI”), which is sometimes referred to as “brittle bone disease”. As a result of a gene mutation, OI interferes with the body’s ability to make strong bones as a result of either less collagen than normal or a poorer quality of collagen (collagen is the major protein of the body’s connective tissue and is the framework upon which bone and tissue are built). It’s incurable because the source of the problem is at a genetic level, and although efforts have been made to increase bone density through the use of drugs originally designed for osteoporosis, the treatments don’t always lead to improvements and over the long term can make the problem worse.
The severity of the disease varies, but in the more severe cases it results in hundreds of bone fractures, shortness of stature (which can lead to further complications), scoliosis (curvature of the spine), respiratory problems, dental deficiencies, and moderate to severe deafness (because it can affect the tiny bones in the ear along with all the other bones in the body). In most cases, it causes physical deformities in the limbs, chest, and skull, and a distinctive appearance in the shape of the face. It can also change the pitch and timbre of the voice.
A member of my family has OI, which is why I recognized Gaelynn Lea’s disability as soon as I saw her in the video and heard her voice. What I also recognized in her music is what I’ve found in most of the people with OI that I’ve encountered, including the member of my family who has the condition — a remarkable intelligence and strength of spirit, a refusal to allow themselves to be defined by their physical limitations.
Because I have some first-hand experience with OI, I also know how much pain people with the condition experience from childhood onward, suffering fractures from traumas that might do no more than cause a bruise on the rest of us, if that, and the mental and emotional challenges that come from having to cope not only with the physical limitations of the disease but also with the daily experience of having other people stare at you like some mysterious oddity. Honestly, the challenges seem incredibly daunting to me, which makes it all the more remarkable to come across a person like Gaelynn Lea.
It takes a lot of courage for someone with OI to even leave their home, much less to put themselves out on the internet as Gaelynn has done. But courage is what these people have, and must have if they are to survive and to find joy in a difficult existence. In a fascinating interview accompanying NPR’s announcement of Gaelynn’s victory in the Tiny Desk competition (here), she said this about the reason why she is outside the frame of the camera when her winning video begins:
“There’s two reasons. The first is that I didn’t necessarily want my disability to be the very first impression people had from the video. And it’s not because I’m ashamed of it in anyway; I really wanted my music to be judged and it’s very hard to separate the two. I know I play differently, I look different, and that’s just part of my life experience. So my friend Leah, who recorded the video with me … she thought of that and I loved the idea because I just really wanted to have a shot at just having the music speak for itself. And then, the other reason is when you shoot a video like this on your camera phone, or your phone camera, I mean, there’s not a lot you can do in terms of special effects or anything cool. So that was our one artistic thing that we could add.”
When the camera does move to show Gaelynn, you’ll notice that she plays her violin holding it upright, like a small version of a cello or a stand-up bass. She explains that in the interview as well, describing the experimentation that she and her high school orchestra teacher embarked upon:
“[W]e tried out the cello, and it was too big, we tried the playing the violin — a smaller version on my shoulder, like a tiny one — but even that was too long. And so, together, we just kind of had this idea that maybe I could play a violin like a cello. I hold my bow like a bass bow: It took a lot of experimenting. But I am eternally grateful that she took that on, because afterwards I’ve never stopped playing. And it’s my career now, it’s crazy. I am so lucky that I had that kind of support. And my parents, of course, didn’t stand in the way either obviously. I just owe a lot to people in my life.”
Although Gaelynn’s success in the Tiny Desk competition will no doubt vault her talents into the consciousness of hundreds of thousands and probably millions of people, she was not a complete unknown before this. For example, after watching her perform at a farmer’s market in Duluth, Alan Sparhawk, the guitarist and singer of the band Low (also from Duluth) contacted Gaelynn, and the two of them have collaborated in recording an EP called Imperfecta. Gaelynn has also performed alongside other Minnesota-based musicians, and last November she released her debut solo album, All the Roads That Lead Us Home.
And on top of that, she teaches private lessons to both children and adults, specializing in Celtic/American fiddle and improvisational violin, and is a public speaker.
So, that was a long-winded introduction to the main subject of this post, which is the Gaelynn Lea song and video that won the Tiny Desk competition. It’s called “Someday We’ll Linger In the Sun“. To borrow Bob Boilen’s words: “Gaelynn creates a beautiful droning loop with her JamMan Express loop pedal and after a moody minute begins to sing a yearning tale of life’s preciousness and time’s constant ticking and why we should always care.”
The song isn’t metal — except it kind of is, in the way we use the word to refer to something that’s hard-hitting and awesome. It’s a haunting, heart-aching piece that, at least in spirit, displays kinship to doom. I’ve watched the video a lot, and the music has moved me every time I’ve heard the song. Hope you dig it too.
To learn more about Gaelynn Lea, check out her web site here and her Facebook page here. You can find her new solo album (which I’ve embedded below) on Bandcamp as well as most other digital music platforms. To learn more about OI, visit the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation (here), which does a lot of good work on a shoe-string budget and needs all the support it can get.