The career of violinist and singer Gaelynn Lea got a big boost when she won last year’s Tiny Desk Contest. That allowed her to perform on the popular NPR podcast hosted by Bob Boilen. More than 6,000 artists submitted homemade videos, and the Minnesota musician’s entry stood out among those of her competitors. On the heels of that breakthrough performance, Lea’s national tour brings her one-woman show to Asheville. She’ll perform at The Grey Eagle on Tuesday, Jan. 31.
Lea makes music in two very different styles. As The Murder of Crows with guitarist Alan Sparhaw, she incorporates elements of indie-rock and folk. And on her own, Lea uses violin and looping pedals to create a hypnotic, ambient drone over which she applies her high, clear vocals.
Lea has a medical condition called osteogenesis impefecta (brittle bone disease) and is of small stature. Because of her size, she had to develop a different approach to playing the violin. Working with her music teacher in elementary school, she devised an upright playing style similar to that used by cellists.
Even as a kid, Lea wasn’t intimidated by the violin, a notoriously difficult instrument to master. She laughs and says, “I probably didn’t know any better!” She believes that learning a musical instrument when one is young means not being burdened by the idea of limitations. “Since you have no prior experience, it’s almost better in a way,” she says.
Lea’s first several years with the violin were spent in the classical idiom, working with sheet music. But when she moved toward traditional fiddle music, she began to develop her skills of playing by ear. “That’s what allowed me to get into folk and rock music,” she says. “I don’t ever use sheet music when I’m playing with another person.”
Lea’s trademark sound involves laying down a musical foundation with her violin, looping it with an electronic pedal, and then adding more violin lines and vocals in real time on top of that. The result is a sometimes otherworldly mix of acoustic and electronic textures. “Alan introduced me to the idea of a looping pedal; after playing together for about a year, he gave me one of my own,” Lea says.
The violinist doesn’t shy away from discussion of her disability; in fact, she’s an activist and a public speaker on the subjects of accessibility, life balance and music. But she doesn’t define herself through her disability, either. “For me personally, disability is not a primary identifier,” she says. Lea concedes that she identifies with disabled people as a group, but “on a daily basis, I think more about being a musician than I do about being in a wheelchair.”
In addition to The Murder of Crows’ 2012 Imperfecta EP and some online tracks by her old band Snöbarn, Lea has released four albums under her own name. Her solo debut was All the Roads That Lead Us Home, released in 2015. That disc showcases the atmospheric vibe of Lea’s music. The folk textures are filtered through heavy reverb, an effect more commonly associated with rock music. That was a conscious choice for the violinist. “It’s all natural reverb, though,” Lea says. “I recorded it in a cathedral called Sacred Heart.”
Everything on that album was recorded live in the church. “Because there’s no way to ‘track’ [overdub] a looped album,” she says.
Lea is careful not to let technology overwhelm the organic feel of her instrument. “Even if people don’t really know what looping is,” she says, “I want to make music that’s sonically interesting and to reach a wider audience.”
Simultaneously operating the pedal and playing the violin requires a good bit of focus and concentration. Lea admits that she has to remind herself, “‘Well, I’ve got to press the button right now; otherwise, this is not going to work!’” But after incorporating the pedal now for more than three years, she says she’s growing more comfortable with it every day.
“It took me 2 1/2 years to feel like I could bring it out in public by myself,” she says. But once she did, it opened up a lot of musical possibilities. “It gave me an an opportunity to perform solo.”
Touring in various venues across the country, Lea does encounter accessibility challenges. And she believes that those obstacles can sometimes discourage disabled people from pursuing a life in music. “There’s not as much access to music if you have a disability,” she says. “I know there are a lot of very creative people with disabilities, and I’d like to see them become more represented.”
WHO: Gaelynn Lea with Oh Jeremiah
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Jan. 31, 8 p.m. $12 advance/$15 day of show