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How violinist Gaelynn Lea is redefining who can be a musician


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Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight, a musician making her own sound and her own mark as an advocate for disability rights.

Jeffrey Brown found just that in a performance and talk with Gaelynn Lea in Austin, Texas, in this report for Canvas, our ongoing arts and culture series.

Jeffrey Brown: A concert in a packed church, the audience captivated by the performance of an extraordinary musician. Gaelynn Lea is transforming what can be done with a violin, and, more importantly, showing us what can be done with a life.

Gaelynn Lea: I really want there to be the acknowledgement that life is both, like, difficult and beautiful at the same time.

Jeffrey Brown: Lea, now 35, was born with a congenital disability called osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. Her bones broke more than 40 times while she was in the womb, and 16 more have broken since.

For her, that need be only one part of the story.

Gaelynn Lea: If I only focused on the negative, I would just not be a happy person. And so there usually tends to be an undercurrent of hope.

Jeffrey Brown: We joined Lea in Austin recently at the South By Southwest Festival. Fans lined up hours before the doors open.

Classically trained, Lea is now best known for her haunting original songs and versions of traditional folk music passed down for hundreds of years.

Gaelynn Lea: That's because they are good. Are we going to still be sing Britney Spears in 200 years? Maybe, but they have to be pretty good to last that long.

And so every fiddle tune that you know now, the melody is just so infectious. And it's just a really fun medium to work with.

Jeffrey Brown: She's a one-woman band able to create soaring sounds.

Gaelynn Lea: I use a Memory Man looping pedal. And so what that does is that there's two buttons. One is a record and one is a delete, basically.

And I push it down with my leg to record a segment that I want. And then it plays back again and again. But you can build up layers, and you can do it craftily, where you bring things in slowly.

So, what I started doing in 2013-2014 is recording traditional fiddle tunes and reworking them with the looping pedal.

Jeffrey Brown: It obviously gives you a bigger sound, right?

Gaelynn Lea: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: You can be a solo performer.

Gaelynn Lea: Yes, it just allowed me to kind of explore a new genre almost.

Jeffrey Brown: Lea grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, with a supportive community, teachers and family. Her parents ran a dinner theater. Her three siblings included her in what she calls all of their hijinks.

Was there a concern or fear that it just -- you wouldn't be able to play a violin or...

Gaelynn Lea: I realize that you probably don't know unless you have a disability that you spend every day modifying everything.

I'm not concerned with doing it the way everyone does it, because I can't really do anything the way other people do it. So, for me, finding a way to play violin was just a matter of time.

Jeffrey Brown: And so, even then, you just did it? You just figured out how to do it?

Gaelynn Lea: Yes. We tried the cello first. And the cello is just too big. And then we tried violin and we tried all the sizes. And even the tiniest one was too long for my arm to reach up on my shoulder.

And so I guess it was, like, a divine inspiration or something that one of us thought of playing it up and down like a tiny cello.

I took adaptive ballet and adaptive gymnastics and I did some kayaking one summer. Like, adaptive sports are a thing, but I think adaptive music is maybe not as common, but I hope that it becomes more common.

Jeffrey Brown: Lea studied at Macalester College in St. Paul and the University of Minnesota in Duluth, graduating with a political science degree.

She met her husband, Paul, at an open mic night and they bonded over their love of camping, gardening and cooking. She sings of him in her song "Moment of Bliss" from her latest album, "Learning How to Stay."

Another milestone came in 2016, when Lea, then working as a music teacher, submitted her song "Someday We'll Linger in the Sun" to NPR's Tiny Desk Contest. She won, beating more than 6,000 other musicians.

The video of her performance at NPR's Tiny Desk has been viewed nearly 2.5 million times. The contest, and the attention it brought, jump-started a touring career for Lea, and she and Paul, a janitor, quit their jobs, bought a van and hit the road for the last few years.

She's performed in 43 states and seven countries. On every stop, she makes time to speak with groups in her growing role as an advocate for disability rights. Her song "I Wait" is a call for maintaining the Affordable Care Act, protecting those with preexisting conditions.

Gaelynn Lea: People with disabilities die without health care. So, I felt really left out of the discussion and frustrated by people who claim to value human rights not mentioning people with disabilities. So that song kind of bubbled up out of that.

By the time I went to school, the school that I went to had an elevator. And so I have grown up feeling like I have rights. Like, that's just part of my consciousness.

And I think there's a -- like, a shift of thought away from seeing disability in any way negative really, and just -- and celebrating it and celebrating the people who are doing it, rather than something that you have got to fix or overcome or struggle with.

Jeffrey Brown: Gaelynn Lea told us she's writing a memoir, and even thinking of running for political office.

In the meantime, she's speaking out and singing with her own and what she calls her second voice, her violin.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Austin, Texas.

Judy Woodruff: She is something. What an inspiration.

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