The award-winning musician, who was born with brittle bone disease, talks about going on tour, finding love – and fighting for accessible green rooms
Six weeks before her wedding Gaelynn Lea was dangerously ill in hospital after complications from surgery. She had to persuade the doctors to let her fiance stay overnight, since they weren’t technically married. “And every night he was asleep in this little chair by the bed. Going through this intense experience confirmed a lot of things for me: that he was as good a guy as I could have found. And that you make it through together.”
Lea recovered and the wedding went ahead. A year later, working as a full-time music teacher in her home town of Duluth, Minnesota, and doing regular solo fiddle shows, she decided to write a song inspired by that time. “Side by side,” she wrote, “we face the night.” The result was Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun – a haunting melody that won NPR’s prestigious Tiny Desk song contest, beating more than 6,000 other entries.
Almost overnight Lea went from being a part-time performer to a touring artist. “The prize was to do four gigging trips around the country and after the first one Paul [Lea’s husband and now tour manager] was saying, ‘That was so fun!’ And I said, ‘Can you see yourself doing this full-time?’”
The 34-year-old’s schedule has been busy for the two years since she won Tiny Desk. This month, she is in the UK and Ireland, where her Celtic-inspired music has found an enthusiastic audience. “I have a song called Birdsong that has a singalong part, and the last time I played it in Ireland I finished playing and the audience kept going,” she says with a laugh. “They wouldn’t stop singing!”
Using a looping pedal to create rich, layered accompaniment, Lea’s act explores the gamut of emotions, from love and forgiveness to her fight for disability rights. Lea was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. Her bones broke more than 40 times while she was still in the womb; her arms and legs are bent and she uses an electric wheelchair to get around.