Interview: Gaelynn Lea on her music, becoming a public figure, and disability justice

gaelynn lea hi res 2018
Gaelynn Lea in 2018 (EvrGlo Media)

When Gaelynn Lea won and then performed as the winner of NPR's Tiny Desk music contest in 2016, her profile jumped several orders of magnitude as she went from a fixture in the Duluth music scene to a nationally-known folk artist. She wanted to be known for her flawlessly clear and distinctive vocals, poetic lyrics, and the intricately twined looping fiddle music that's become a kind of trademark. What she didn't want was to be pigeonholed as an inspirational disabled musician. Her songs were not generally about disability, but engaged shared human experiences of love, loss, wonder, beauty, and more. Her artistry and musical profile would rise or fall based on their own merits, she hoped, not fueled by some superficial story of "overcoming" disability.

Lea was well aware of the tendency for disabled artists to be dehumanized in what she calls "inspiration porn," a term characterized by Australian activist Stella Young in a hugely influential TEDx talk as stories that "objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people...objectifying disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people." Lea, like many other writers about disability, knew that it would be far too easy to be lifted up as inspiration to others merely for existing and making music, not because her music is good.

But her music is good, mythic and abstract, lyrical and complex, and soon she found herself touring full-time and meeting audiences around the world. She's begun not only to speak out about disability justice but to incorporate key themes explicitly (rather than implicitly) into her music. One of the standout songs on her fourth album, Learning How to Stay, which she released just last fall, is "I Wait." The song drives through Lea's anger not just at an ableist society that discriminates against disabled people, but even or especially other social justice activists who somehow leave disability out. She tells them, "You may not realize / All of the small ways / I am not welcome / But just take a look around." She's speaking up rather than waiting to be noticed.

I met Lea in a River Falls coffee shop to talk about her album and her development as a public figure.

(This interview has been condensed for clarity)

Do you now have a disability justice component to what you're trying to do as an artist?

I mean, I wouldn't have said that a couple years ago probably.

Why not?

Probably a few different reasons. I think my awareness has grown a lot. Touring has introduced me to a lot of different activists. And I'm learning all the time. I mean, I'm like, switching my language, as I feel comfortable. I always said "person with a disability" instead of "disabled," right? And I understand the argument, I don't think you can force anyone to change. I see both sides.

I don't want to be the inspirational musician. That's not my point. Like, I actually really like that album, as a piece of art. And so it's like, I don't want the message to only be about that.

But the more I speak, because I do public speaking, the more I realize that if people don't hear this stuff from somewhere, they're never going to hear it. Like the fact that I lost SSI when we got married. And the only reason I get health care is because nI do work. If I couldn't work I would not be able to be married and that's really terrible. But very few people know about that, and it's that kind of stuff that needs to be a lot more widely spoken because it'll never change because all that stuff is just a law. It can be changed anytime?

Yes!

It's not immutable like the truth of the world, it's just the way that it's set up right now. And we've got to talk about it. Even in activist circles, and that's where "I Wait" came from.

Like what activists?

Just yesterday I found out a prominent civil rights group in my area is hosting an event for a peace worker and musician in an inaccessible venue and it like blows my freakin' mind. Luckily they were willing to move the event, but it shows that, even in activist circles, we're not there yet. I feel like they should be there. So it became a more central part of me because I think public figures with disabilities is a really big way to move that dialogue forward faster.

I feel like I want that to be part of my message. But I don't want the message to only be about [even though she's disabled] "and she learned to play violin," though I do want that to be part of the message. Because music teachers tell kids "no" all the time if they have a disability. So I can't erase that part of like the story.

I'm figuring it out obviously. I'm basically having a counseling session with you.

Well that happens sometimes because I listen and ask questions! So you're trying to not be not be used as inspiration porn, but still promote Disability Justice.

I like disability justice even more than disability awareness. In practical terms, yes awareness is great, but it's like but there has to be some action going on. I don't want to just raise awareness [if] what you're doing is sh*tty. Like, actually do something about it. You know what I mean?

So "I Wait" is aimed at other activists?

Yes! And obviously about society too. I want people to interpret it through their own lens, for sure, but I wrote it reading all these articles about the stupid healthcare debates that just left out disability all the time. And it just happened again, somebody was saying [on Twitter], we got to remember in this presidency, to be mindful of all the populations that are going to be hurt and we have to include them in our activism. And listened to every single group but disability. You cannot erase us. It's just so exhausting.

And that activist should just know.

But on the other hand, again, I think I'm living in a world [in my head] that maybe doesn't quite exist yet, [when it comes to] the way I feel about my disability.

You called yourself a public figure. Are you comfortable with that now? It sounds like it's new.

Yeah, I don't, you know. I mean, I am doing a lot of things publicly so I guess that's the right term, but yeah, it does feel kind of weird.

I really want to be an advocate and "I Wait" was a kind of a scary song to write, because if you're frustrated to the point where you're disrespectful to a point where people don't want to listen to you anymore, you're not helping yourself. But for me, writing that song was like, you can't pretend you're not angry.

You've just started promoting an awesome showcase for the fall that is NOT a disability event, but does feature a lot of disabled artists. How does this fit into your evolution as an artist and activist?

So often people like us are labeled as "disabled artists" as their main form of identity, especially during showcases, but once and awhile it's just fun to see people kicking butt on stage and not having to talk about disability all the time, unless the artist brings it up intentionally at the event... I call it a Disability Sneak Attack. I want people to attend this showcase just because they want to see a fun line-up (we're all pretty different, genre-wise) and not make our identity as disabled the main selling point.

I don't think the so-called Sneak Attack model is necessary all of the time (there is likely still a place for showcases that highlight different forms of diversity), but since this is such a big venue I thought it would be a fun experiment. I want to see how people respond and how it feels to me as well.

David Perry is a freelance journalist covering politics, history, disability, and education. He is also the Senior Academic Advisor to the History Department of the University of Minnesota. You can find him @LollardFish and thismess.net

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Event info: Gaelynn Lea with Wheelchair Sports Camp, Billy McLaughlin, and DJ FunSize at Ordway Concert Hall, October 5

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