All Songs +1: A Chat With Tiny Desk Contest Winner Gaelynn Lea
As one of the judges for this year's Tiny Desk Contest, I was so inspired by all the incredible entries we received — the level of thought, creativity and care that went into producing them and, of course, the music people made. But I'd be lying if I said that the judging process wasn't, at least sometimes, mind-numbing. After the first 100 or so videos (out of more than six thousand submitted), your eyes and ears start to glaze over.
That's just one of the many reasons violinist Gaelynn Lea's submission was so remarkable. Long after RFS (Rating Fatigue Syndrome) kicked in, her music cut through all the noise and rose, beautifully, to the top. I and the five other judges (Bob Boilen, Dan Auerbach, Son Little and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of the band Lucius) were profoundly moved by Gaelynn's song "Someday We'll Linger In The Sun," and we were unanimous in picking her as this year's winner.
We learned a lot more about this remarkable musician after we dug deeper into her music and her personal story, including her friendship with Alan Sparhawk of the band Low and how her brittle bone disease has changed the way she plays music. On this week's +1 podcast, Bob and I talk with Gaelynn about how she came to play violin, how she wrote her winning song and the unique challenges she's faced as a musician.
You can read highlights from the interview below or listen to our full conversation with the link above.
On why she's out of frame at the start of her video:
"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."
How she came to write the winning song:
"Well, I was in the shower. And the line, the first line of the song, 'Our love's a complex, vintage wine, all rotted leaves and lemon rind,' that's what came to me and it just kind of sat there in my head, stewing about for a month or two. And then, finally, it kind of fleshed itself out and the melody came to me and that's basically how all of my songs come together. ... At least at this point, it has to be something that just kind of comes at a time when my mind's not really cluttered, and I happen to just not be thinking of anything, that's when the songs come. So it's an interesting process: It's fun but I can't control it very well yet. Someday maybe I'll be able to sit down and say, 'I'm gonna write a song,' but, for now, it's just that way, it's how it happens."
How her disability affected her approach to playing the violin:
"First of all, in my entire childhood, my parents have been awesome. I have three other siblings, and none of them have disabilities, and they were really cool too. So when they'd go sledding, they'd take me with or we'd go — one time my brother tied me to the back of a bike with a bunch of twine so that we could all go on a bike ride together; which wasn't safe and I got in trouble for that. But, that being said, I have been encouraged my whole life to just do the do the things that I want to do. And, obviously, to be kind and respectful doing them, but they never held me back because of my disability.
"And so, in fourth grade, the orchestra from the junior high came to my elementary school, and they played. I was just in love with sound, but I didn't really think anything more of it and it just kind of was a cool day and then it kind of faded away. But then in fifth grade ... they made an announcement and said there's going to be a music listening test for orchestra. ... And, of course, A, I wanted to leave class. And B, I remembered liking the orchestra. So I took the test and, again, like I stroke of luck, I was the only person that aced it. And so, I think that's probably why the orchestra teacher really took it seriously. She said, 'You know, nobody else got a perfect score. I really think we have to figure out a way for you to play, because it wasn't going to be super easy to figure out.' I'm so grateful that she didn't say, 'Ohhhh, maybe you should just do choir' or, 'This is going to be too hard.'
"She just took the bull by the horns and we 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."
On what she's learned from her friend Alan Sparhawk of the band Low:
"Fiddling, a lot of times, is about ornamentation and playing really fast and impressing people with your speed, which I didn't really do ever anyways — I always played harmony lines. But he helped me realize that pauses and long notes and meditative music is very powerful. So I know my violin playing has been influenced by working with him. I think what I do solo is still pretty different than what I do with him, because, if you can imagine, it's even slower and more spacious perhaps. But I feel like he helped me to kind of meld my fiddle background with this expansiveness that has been really fun. And the layers, he kind of taught me about layering just by playing with me, about how it ... can be rhythmic but it doesn't always have to be.
"And then the songwriting: I wasn't influenced by him per se, but honestly I never wrote a song until I met him. So I mean I obviously was influenced by him. It was like he woke up a part of my musical brain that had been never awake before, and so I owe him a lot for that too. But the song — I didn't try to make it sound a certain way or be like him. Honestly, it just comes out of nowhere. But I do think that the creativity he helped infuse in — and a lot of people along the way, I mean I've had a lot of fun, musical partners that helped stretch the boundaries — but him in particular, something kind of came alive and I started writing songs. It was really cool for me because I never thought I was going to write songs."
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