Gaelynn Lea is waiting.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 promised equality, and the violinist/singer-songwriter is still waiting for that promise to become reality. “It’s not equal rights yet in America, or anywhere in the world, really,” she says. “At some point, you realize it’s not going to change unless people start talking about it and doing something about it.”
While she waits, Lea, who has Osteogenesis Imperfecta (a.k.a. Brittle Bones Disease), makes music and raises her voice as an activist for people with disabilities. Her new album, Learning How to Stay, includes the urgent “I Wait,” in which she hopes she won’t be overlooked, that her pain won’t be minimized, that history will not forget her. “I may seem angry/So please forgive me,” she sings. “But I am still not free/In this society.”
The Duluth-based artist started her career in the folk duo Gable and Gaelynn before forming the atmospheric alternative band Murder of Crows with Alan Sparhawk of Low. He introduced Lea to the looping pedal, and at age 27, she started writing songs “pretty spontaneously.” In 2016, she won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, and took the plunge into a full-time music career. She stopped teaching fiddle students; her husband quit his job. The couple sold their house and bought a Ford Econoline, and Lea has since played more than 250 shows in 42 states and seven countries.
Lea’s early releases relied primarily on her voice, a violin, and a looping pedal, but in 2017 she decided to record a full-band album. To join her in the endeavor, she gathered “a bunch of awesome people” from Minnesota, including Sparhawk, Al Church, Martin Dosh, and Dave Mehling. The instrumentally lush and precise Learning to Stay took longer than a year to make, but it was time well spent. As Lea says, “What’s cool about this album and what’s different is you can tell there’s more than one brain behind it.”
Lea’s lyrics are both forceful and forgiving as she sings of seeking light in darkness, finding common ground, and learning to be more loving. “I think you write songs about what you’re bad at,” she says, explaining that the album’s title comes from her struggle to stay awake in, and accept, the present moment.
Lea is in the midst of an intense U.S. tour in support of the album. “It’s a lot harder right now than it would be if I didn’t have a disability,” she says. Many venues aren’t accessible, a frustrating fact given that “most of them are fixable. They are things that we could change if we put our minds to it.” Lea rents ramps to accommodate her wheelchair or plays on the ground. She used to be carried onstage but has since stopped that practice, in part because it doesn’t send a message of “you can do this, too,” to children and adults with disabilities. “It’s definitely not empowering,” she says.
Lea talks to venue owners explicitly about how they can make their spaces more accessible. “The ones that are willing to work with me are really cool,” she says. “I’ve got to give them a lot of credit for renting a ramp, building a ramp, or already having a ramp. I’d like that to be a lot more standard than it is now.”
Things other musicians take for granted when touring, like crashing on people’s floors, aren’t an option for Lea. In the U.S., she can get around pretty easily thanks to her van, but transportation overseas is more complicated.
Although music is not a form of activism for Lea, per se, “it is a handy tool to be able to talk about it, not even necessarily in my songs as much as in interviews and after shows,” she says. Lea herself featured people with disabilities alongside her in the music video for her track “Lost in the Woods.” “Representation in the media is a really important part of how we’re going to get to the changes I’m talking about,” she says. “If you don’t see people with disabilities in the media, you’re never going to think about them.”
Lea also speaks at conferences and educates those who work with people with disabilities about the barriers they face. “Accessibility or job equality or health care access—all those things are man-made things that we could make better,” she says. “People with disabilities are way behind in a lot of the measures we use to talk about economic and social well-being, and it’s not because they want to be, it’s because our society is not set up in an equal way at this point. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
With: Mary Bue
When: 10:30 p.m. Fri. Oct. 26
Tickets: 21+; $10/$15; more info here