Musicheads Essential Artist: Gaelynn Lea

Gaelynn Lea opens for the Decemberists at the Palace Theatre
Gaelynn Lea plays the violin while opening for the Decemberists at the Palace Theatre on April 6, 2018. (Maddy Fox for MPR)
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Musicheads Essential Artist: Gaelynn Lea
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Click above to hear an audio version of this biography, with musical selections. Audio hosted by Jill Riley and produced by Derrick Stevens.

Gaelynn Lea, a violinist and disability rights advocate from Duluth, Minnesota, is a Musicheads Essential Artist.

Gaelynn Lea was born in Duluth in 1984. She began playing violin in orchestra in fifth grade. In high school, she learned how to fiddle, performing Celtic and traditional folk songs.

While busking at the farmer's market one weekend, Lea happened to perform for Alan Sparhawk of the Duluth band Low. He was impressed, and the duo ended up forming The Murder of Crows, an atmospheric band. "We have a funny friendship, because he's not a huge talker, and I'm a ginormous talker," Lea told The Current in 2012. She says Sparhawk encouraged her to learn how to loop and write her own songs.

In 2016, Lea gained an enormous platform by entering and winning the 2016 NPR Tiny Desk Contest. She had submitted a video of herself performing "Someday We'll Linger In The Sun," a love song written for her husband Paul. The Tiny Desk judges (and YouTube commenters) agreed that Lea's music is haunting and profound. After her video blew up, Lea and her husband quit their jobs, sold their house, and left for tour.

Lea was born with brittle bone disease, and when she plays the violin, she holds it like a cello. She moves around using an electric wheelchair, and she describes herself as living "in the gap" — that is, being left out of mainstream conversations and considerations. She has written and delivered speeches on this subject, including a TedX Talk, and she is currently writing a memoir about touring, disability advocacy, and her extraordinary life.

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