Episode 2: Gaelyn Lee
Join host Christopher Smit as he interviews artist and musician Gaelynn Lea who recently won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Competition.
Episode 2: Gaelynn Lea
NPR = National Public Radio
[Rock music playing]
Woman’s Voice: From DisArt Productions, it’s DisTopia.
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Christopher (Chris) Smit = CS (Interviewer/Host)
CS: Hi folks. Welcome to DisTopia. I’m your host, Christopher Smit. Every week we take a look at disability from the inside out hoping to find some clarity in the beautiful confusion that fills our lives. Today on the show an interview with musician Gaelynn Lea. Gaelynn stormed the internet at the beginning of March 2016 when it was announced that she had won the NPR music’s Tiny Desk Concert competition with a rendition of her haunting song, “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun”. The song is quite amazing but so is the video that she submitted. The camera takes its time to reveal that this beautiful fiddle and voice comes from a woman who uses a wheelchair to get around in the world. Disability and arts swimming perfectly together in this amazing song and performance. Stay tuned to hear us talk about music, its role in the disabled life and much more. But first, an invitation.
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CS: Couple a weeks ago on our first episode I did some talking about how this podcast, DisTopia, was not just going to be me and special guests doing the work, but actually, you, listeners. All of us speaking, talking, working together. It helps me to think about DisTopia as a big kitchen table… DisArt, the people who produce the show are the hosts, they put out some snacks (ah, probably healthy), and the rest of us fill out the places at the table. So who’s there? Who’s with us? Well, disabled people. People who have a vested interest in things like disability rights or disability culture, disability politics. But also there’s probably disabled people here that have no idea there’s a disability culture calling to them. I also hope the podcast gets into the eyes and ears (we do transcribe these things) of those disabled people that feel alone, or pissed off, those of our brethren who struggle on a daily basis to get good care, good transportation, opportunities to take part in their communities.
But as I thought about it, the podcast that we’re putting together actually should make sense for a lot of people who find themselves feeling like they’ve been left on the outskirts of popular life. I’m not sure what makes you different or what makes you feel different. Is it your sexuality, maybe your gender or class or your race or ethnicity, or maybe none of those things or maybe all of those things. You see, I’m pretty sure that all of us, disabled or otherwise have moments in our lives in which we feel alienated from the rest of the people around us. You know, alienated from those quote “normal” people for whom it seems like the world was made for. You know who they are. They look good all the time, they smell good, that never seem to have to go to the bathroom in inappropriate times, their kids behave, they have good jobs, they have good health care, nice teeth. Most of us aren’t invited to that party… But, the DisTopian table is open for everybody.
And here’s the deal, those people that have everything going for them, they’re invited here as well. Allies, family members, curious folks. You know understanding disability is going to take everybody. It takes an effort by all human beings to understand the way that difference operates for us, for all of us. Now, this ain’t no frickin’ freak show. If you find yourself listening for the spectacle of disability that sometimes might pop up here, then move on, buddy. But, if you are curious about how to take part in this experiment, then our arms are wide open. To you, and all the folks at the table, we offer this invitation.
On our website DisTopiapodcast.org you’re gonna find a big pink box that says Submit Your Voice. It’s very simple to do. And we have three options at the moment to give us your voice. First, you can send us some stories and thoughts about caregiving or caregivers. This is a vital element of the disability life and it can go so great and so bad all at the same time! So send us your funny tales of caregiver wars or serious stories about caregiving victories or defeats. Or, secondly, maybe you just want to bitch about something in a safe place. That’s our second option; the rant of the week. Vent on us, people. We want to hear it, unedited, just let it out. You can send us both caregiver stories and rants very easily. Just record a voice memo on your cell phone or your computer, and then just send it to me Chris@DisArtFestival.org. It’s all there on the website. Or, if you fancy yourself a journalist, a reporter, or a writer or creative type, pitch us a story on the website. Instead of This American Life, just think This Crippled Life. DisTopia could be a platform for your work.
Anyway, we need you. Please listen, go to the website, submit your voice and pretty soon you’ll hear yourself on the podcast making it all happen. Alright, let’s move on…
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Alright, right away I want to point out that my conversation with Gaelynn Lea, out of necessity, happened over Skype. Which, as some of you know, sucks…sometimes. Not too bad, though. There’s some small sound but please forgive that because, otherwise, the content of the conversation is quite striking. She’s a busy musician, a music teacher, an artist and she is very articulate about the ways her disability fits into what she does. I started out this conversation by asking her how winning the big NPR Tiny Desk Contest has helped her career.
[Short music transition]
CS = Christopher (Chris) Smit (interviewer)
GL = Gaelynn Lea (interviewee)
CS: Most of the listeners will know, of course, that you have won this huge Tiny Desktop Concert and we’ll talk about that in a bit but since you’ve been on…I mean, I got, no joke half a dozen if not a dozen people, you know, calling me or emailing me or texting me saying, “Dude, you got to talk to this person. You gotta listen to her music.” Has that NPR coverage changed your life a bit?
GL = You know it’s definitely changed my potential trajectory, you know. It’s been really exciting. I got a lot of emails from people for interviews (that doesn’t happen very often). Just different things that I didn’t really think about the consequences of winning something like this because I never thought I was going to win in the first place so it’s been interesting. And then what I’m excited to see…well, I’m excited to travel for the Tiny Desk Tour that they have set up. It’s going to be really fun. And I’m looking forward to that. And then, afterwards, I’m just excited to see where the road goes. It could end up just being a really fun 2 months of shows and go back to normal but it could also end up being a little bit of a new beginning for me, you know, with music being able to do things I wasn’t planning on doing for many years. I actually, ironically, this summer is the first summer I was planning to do a tour anyways and I had never done that before, but I’ve been playing a long time and I have a repertoire now and I felt like this would be a good summer to try that so it came at like the perfect time because things like traveling with my music are things that I had already been thinking about and trying to figure out how I could do with my disability…get on the road and do things like that so it came at, like, the best time possible. I feel like it’s kind of meant to be because a couple years ago if you had said, “You know, do you want to travel all over?” I would have said, “Maybe, but I don’t know how that’s gonna…you know there are so many logistics to work out” and it just so happens I was actually planning these kind of things (Chris’s wheelchair movement sound is heard in the background)…they were going to be a lot smaller tours. They weren’t going to be these kind of shows. It was going to be a coffee shop, you know what I mean?
CS: Right, yep.
GL: So, not the same thing as what’s going to happen now, but I think every artist has a chance if they do DIY, you know, Do It Yourself, to gradually build their career over a course of many years. This just kind of shot it forward a ways, but I had always planned to continue performing and expanding my audience and my musical abilities and stuff, but it just kind of shot it forward a few years or 10, 20 years. (laughs)
CS: Right, yeah, right.
[Short music interlude]
CS: You know, with all these interviews you’re getting and with all the attention I’m really curious about whether disability comes up in all of those interviews, some of them? Are you in control of that? How’s that been for you?
GL: I’ve been pretty impressed, I gotta say. I mean, I’m not saying, there was one interview that came out in a news story that really skewed it in like the inspiration porn kind of way…the way that you don’t want, you know. But only one so far. Everything else has been…you know, a lot of times I talk to the reporters and I say, or to the people who’s writing the blog, or whatever, and I just say, you know, usually you say “person with a disability”, you don’t use words like “confined to a wheelchair” or “suffers from”. I try to kinda say, because I don’t think of my body as the issue, it’s if there’s any barriers with disability for me it’s societal barriers, really. And I know everybody’s different and sometimes their disability affects your daily life in your body more, you know, but for me personally I don’t want my disability to be seen as this thing I think about everyday and overcome each day because, in reality, the things I overcome is how to book a frickin’ ride. You know what I mean? So, that’s the real barriers for me are not so much my own body at this time in my life. I mean, that could change but right now I don’t want that to be the focus because its not true, that’s not where I’m at and everybody with a disability has a different experience, of course. But for me, I try to explain that I don’t necessarily want to be, well I don’t want to be a poster child unless the message is that like we need to see more of this. You know what I mean? If that makes any sense.
CS: It totally does and what I love, what I’m hearing from you is that you have this understanding which I try desperately to have whenever I’m in public and that is to say, “Look, this is my personal experience of disability and this is not a universal experience. Right? That disability affects everybody in a different way and what frustrates me and when I hear you say things like, that you tell them, okay “Use person with a disability instead of, you know, wheelchair bound or whatever”. The frustration of a disabled life is, of course, when those opportunities to control the story aren’t given to us, right? When they are sort of taken out of our hands and so I’m delighted, actually, to hear that you are able to have some input in how you’re being represented. In all the things that I’ve read have been mostly about your music and then they mention the brittle bone stuff sort of in passing. So, I’m delighted to hear that. Were you surprised by that or was that just something that you were, you know, you’re like “Look, I’m going to control this and we’re going to go and just make it happen”? What was your reaction to that?
GL: Well, so, I’ve got to give a lot of credit to NPR, like a lot of credit. When they announced to me that I was going to hopefully be the winner, I had to fill out some paperwork and everything. The next day after they made the announcement, we had a phone call and they said we’re just going to let you know that the day we announce this everyone in the world is going to want to talk to you and we’re not really kidding…like a lot of people are going to be calling you and so first we want to prep you on how to handle that because they let me form some of the emails to them and stuff and they were really supportive. But then they also said we have to talk about interviews. Is there anything you’re not comfortable talking about? is there anything that you really don’t want to see in print? They were so thoughtful about it and they said, “How do you feel about talking about your disability?” And I said, “I’m not opposed to it at all. It’s obviously a big part of who I am, I just want it to be done in a way that’s not out of pity or inspiration for the wrong reasons, you know”. I mean, I’m inspired by people. I don’t think inspiration is necessarily a bad thing. People inspire me all the time. I don’t want people to be inspired because I wake up every morning, you know what I’m saying?
CS: Well, of course, yeah. One of the things that always bothers me so much is that we inspire people for the wrong reasons and, again, it’s often out of our control, right, so if I’m giving a lecture at a conference and I have an audience that I think is attentive to me and they’re hearing my ideas, I get really excited but then I meet a couple of them face to face afterwards and, not all the time, but I often get, “Boy, this must be really difficult for you to do and it must be really difficult for you to travel and I’m so thankful you’re here and I’m so inspired by just your presence” and, you know, I’m graceful and I try to be grateful as well and I say thank you but it really irks me because it shows me that they’re not hearing me at all in some ways, you know, because often times I’m talking about disability culture or disability art or whatever and, you know, it made me think about performing. I’m a musician and I’ve played in bands and I haven’t played in a long time and I think one of the reasons I haven’t played in a long time is that was getting to a point where I wasn’t sure if people were coming to see my band to hear music or to see the disabled guy in front of the band, you know what I mean. Does that resonate with you at all?
GL: Well, I mean, I’ve thought about this stuff a lot. I guess there’s a couple things that come to mind when you say these things and I mean, again, everybody’s totally different so I respect where you’re coming from but for me when somebody says it must be really hard for you to travel, for example, because I’ve gotten that too. I say, “Yeah, it is kind of hard but it’s fixable. Like, there are some things that society needs to do and here are a few of them that would make it easier,” you know, and so when people come to me and say, “Gosh, it just must be so hard to be you” basically I say, “It’s not particularly hard, like I like my life, I’m very happy, but there are things that are harder, and that’s real, but there are things that we can fix as a society if we choose to” so then I try to really be open about what is actually wrong. Because I do think that there are, I mean you know that, that there are definitely some unfair barriers if you have a disability in this society so I like to focus on those so, for me, when I got married, I lost my SSI so I can work right now, and that’s awesome, but if I couldn’t work we’d have to probably get a divorce because I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. You know what I’m saying?
CS: Oh, I totally do and isn’t that one of the most alarming?…I mean, I’ve told people that before too. I’m married and I’ve been married for 20 years and, yeah, once I can’t work which is certainly sometime in my future. I don’t when but if it gets to a point where I can’t work, you’re right, divorce becomes this sort of way to get back on the sort of governmental support and, yeah, that really…that’s a reality of disability that most people, you know, they don’t know and, to be honest with you, that’s fine. I don’t care if they don’t know that about me personally but maybe when…
GL: I want them to know that. I think the only way it’s ever going to change. Because, look it, all it would take is the government raising the income and asset limits. It’s not some crazy rocket science but nobody knows about it so nobody cares, so nobody advocates for it so I try to talk about that a lot, actually. I mean, like, not to every guy on the street but if it comes up where someone says, “I’m just so inspired” I say, “I wouldn’t be feeling bad or anything but there are things that, if you really are moved, there are things that you should be doing as a person.” You know what I mean like…
GL: ….like advocating, like talk to your legislators. There’s a lot of things that are not followed through on that would be fixable, in my mind, if enough people knew about the problem. So many issues with disability nobody even knows what they are and it’s not my body that’s the problem. I don’t want surgery, but I do want to have the ability to work and yet be married or not work and be married. You know, what I mean, like, keep my health care and all those things?
CS: Yeah, I mean I’m totally, I’m totally loving the way you put some of this stuff. You know, I think that when we are, yeah, when we’re out in public and doing stuff I often, for me, it’s like I have to think about whether or not I’m going to let other people define me or whether I’m going to fight through and just sort of be my own person. But when you’re talking about this idea that society disables us, right, we talk about the social model of disability versus the medical model, right, and this idea that we are disabled in some ways by attitudes and stereotypes as much as we are by stairwells and unaccessible buses and whatever. And communicating that to people can be very difficult and what I love about disability art is that it helps us explain in different ways, in ways that maybe people aren’t expecting to be exposed to so I love that. That’s why music is so powerful, that’s why all the art that we look at is so powerful, right, because it has the opportunity to help us tell our story in a way that, quite honestly, is more accessible than just rolling into a coffee shop and sometimes people just freaking out, you know?
GL: Yeah. Yeah. That was an interesting thing when they did call to say that I won that Tiny Desk, I wondered for a split second, “Oh, is it just the disability. Is that what it was?” But they were really quick to say that two of the judges actually only listened to the music a couple times through; they didn’t actually watch the videos so, I guess, I’ve always felt in arts and in your whole life, you can’t control what other people think of you anyway. I mean, nobody can, even if you don’t have a disability and so, for me, I just really try to be as authentically myself as I can at all times. I’m not saying I succeed that way all the time. I think maybe disability for awhile…I’ve read a lot of comments about the song actually…”at first I thought this was just a video, blah, blah, blah, but then I listened to it more times and I see why they chose her, you know what I’m saying, and I think that your message in your art comes out eventually even if it’s sort of met with closed minds or stereotypes if you’re being authentic. I mean, maybe I’m being overly optimistic or something but I feel like for me, if you’re yourself and you’re really okay with that I think people resonate with that on a bigger level even if at first it’s for this superficial reason of like, “Oh, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be them. I feel so bad” but then eventually if you really are yourself at least, in my experience, or the way I feel about the world is that eventually people resonate with that too because everybody wants to just be themselves so if you can help them to realize that, and not in a pity way. Literally if you were yourself in any body how could you be yourself? You know what I mean? Your soul.
CS: Yes, yes, exactly.
GL: That’s how I feel about it and that’s kind of a rant.
CS: I like that rant. (Gaelynn’s violin music begins to play) Again, I think this idea of authenticity within the context of disability is always very tricky.
[Violin music plays] – Gaelynn’s music plays 22:43 – 23:40
CS: (Gaelynn’s music continues to play) You know, NPR made a really big deal of the video “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” (music fades out) that you pan over to your body after the song has started. I know that in the interview you sort of talked about doing that quite intentionally. Can you talk about that a bit?
GL: Oh yeah, it definitely was. I mean it wasn’t intentional when we started. Like when we started that day, that evening, we recorded one night we, first of all, were going to zoom in on the amp just so we had an effect because I recorded it on my phone so it was very low tech. So, we were like, we could start by filming the amp and then just zoom right out but then she realized if she looked, because there was such little zoom on my phone. If she looked at the amp my hand got in there but she was actually, “It actually looks kind of cool.” But then it kind of clicked inside of me…yeah, that’s the right way to do it because I know that people at NPR, you know, they’re all pretty thoughtful and I know they really care about music and internet can be a cruel place and so I just wanted one little bit of time where they had to just hear the music and if they wanted to turn it off after the first 30 seconds they could but it wouldn’t be about, it wouldn’t be because they looked at my body and they made an assumption. And it’s not out of shame. I was wondering how other disability advocates would feel about it because, for me, it’s not about shame it’s about knowing there is such a long ways to go with the ways people view disability and I, personally, am really happy and comfortable with myself but I know that if I’m trying to enter a contest, like, it’s a contest, right, so you want to make sure that you’re being judged for the right reasons and I felt like, its not like I had a stand in for the whole video and I wasn’t in there at all but I thought the first few minutes, I guess it’s not minutes, I guess it was a minute and 20 seconds, why not leave them wondering what they’re listening to. And because I use a live looping pedal there’s more than one layer of violin and I thought it was kind of neat, too, because you were probably wondering how many instruments there were playing, you know what I mean?! Are there 4 violins, are there 1 violin? And so that was another added bonus. So there were a few different trains of thought in that. But I’m happy with that decision even though I was like, “I wish I could put a disclaimer on the bottom…don’t worry, people with disabilities, it’s not because I…”
GL: It was just that I know how the world works and, still, you don’t read the comments below YouTube videos, by the way, but most people were extremely gracious and kind and, like, not weird and then of course there’s the people that is really all they saw, you know what I mean. Even then, even with that minute and 20 seconds some people didn’t get over it. But its not my job to judge them either so it doesn’t really bother me.
CS: So you’ve lived with this condition, just like me, my whole life and what’s life like? What are your memories of being a kid?
GL: I mean I am pretty fortunate. I have really awesome parents and 3 really awesome siblings and none of them, none of my other family members have a disability so I grew up, I don’t know, I don’t know how I got so lucky, but I grew up with it very much in the background of my childhood. I broke bones and I remember, you know, being 7 years old and every 3 months or something I’d get really sad that I couldn’t walk and I’d cry for like an hour and then I’d feel better and then it would go away and then it’d be in the back, you know, go back to the background. So it would kind of surface and as I aged I remember those feelings surfacing less and less and by the time I was in junior high that wasn’t the problem, the things, like my disability, not being able to walk no longer bothered me because I found music. I suppose it’s a big part of it. There’s a certain rodding surgery that you could have done, they would break my arms while I was asleep, obviously, and then rod them and they might strengthen my arms and lengthen them but I had already started playing violin and there was a chance it would mess up my nerve function in my hands. I didn’t want to do it for that reason, pretty much, and who wants to have 4 humongous surgeries when they feel fine and they have a wheelchair and they can get around. To me, it just didn’t seem worth the cost, I guess. So, I mean, the stuff got rough for me disability-wise in college I got really sick and the doctor’s basically said that I was going to die and my mom said, “What?” and so she got a second opinion and that was not true at all. I started realizing…the reality of disability for me set in for me a lot more as I got older I realized that stuff like medical emergencies were more traumatic and stuff and so I ended up having some anxiety around that and then, of course, dating and stuff was non-existent for me until after my junior year of college so that was hard. But we were such nerds, my friends and I. There were four of us and none of us dated anyway so nothing really matter. We were like happy nerds who hung out and played orchestra and math league and so it wasn’t like we were all dating and I was the only one that was left out. So it wasn’t really like that at all anyways so I just feel really fortunate for the way that my experience with disability unfolded. I mean I still deal with post-traumatic stress and anxiety and depression sometimes…more anxiety now, it started as depression. But because of different things that happened as an adult with my disability but I get help for it. I see a counselor, I read a lot. I try to deal with it and so, right now, I don’t know, that’s kind of been my experience. Even breaking arms…I guess maybe I’m one of those diehard optimists because I break my arms. One time I broke 2 arms and a leg and I was in 7th grade and I had an aide in school who helped me do stuff like get my books and use the bathroom and stuff and when all my bones are broken I was in the nurse’s office a lot laying down because I would get really sore. But I remember her reading me Huckleberry Finn and we would laugh in the nurse’s office so even that time, which, I guess, could have been really shitty in my memory does not come back to me as a negative time. So, I don’t know. I don’t know, again, may that I mean everything changes all the time but so far, I just feel like you gotta appreciate everything that you can But I know I have a positive outlook and I know that sometimes it’s harder for some people to do that so, I don’t know.
CS: Can you remember your parents talking about disability? When I come back to my own childhood, you know, my parents were basically…the message was, “Do whatever you want to do. Nothing’s going to stop you. Just go out there and do it and it’ll be fine.” It’s interesting that you say disability doesn’t, that your realism of disability sort of kicks in college and when you start getting more sick or whatever. For me, it was graduate school. I always joke that I didn’t think I was disabled until I was 29 because my parents were just like, “Do it! Go frickin’ do it. If you want to do something, do it.” Is that how your folks were too?
GL: Yeah, they totally were. That’s exactly what they were like and then my siblings, because they grew up with me…I mean, we didn’t talk about it, it’s not like we didn’t we didn’t pretend it wasn’t there or something it’s just that it wasn’t a big focus. I mean my brother Ben, my big brother, was really good at making sure I was always involved. One time they tied me to the back of a bicycle rack with twine so we could all go on a bike ride together. We got in really big trouble for that. I was sitting on his newspaper rack tied up with twine so that I wouldn’t fall off on a bike ride all over town and we got caught because one of my dad’s co-workers saw us doing it so I never got left out by my siblings and that was neat. I guess it’s just a matter of having your parents be supportive and then you grow up feeling that way…that I can do what I want to do and then my parents were really cool, too, about dating. An issue I wish was talked about more often was sexuality and disabilities and so my dad especially was really cool and my mom, they both said really powerful things. My mom said, “Just keep developing yourself and doing cool things and you’ll get cooler and cooler and so when the right person comes along you’ll have all these amazing experiences behind you rather than a lifetime of just sitting there wishing you were dating someone” and then my dad said that, “Men are idiots until they are at least 25 and, so, don’t worry about it, they’ll come around. Their brains just aren’t developed enough.” And so those were both helpful things for me. Sorry all the men out there.
CS: (Laughs) So did you meet your husband around that time, like 25?
GL: Yeah, well, a little earlier. I dated a guy who later ended up being gay so we’re not together, obviously, my junior year…we’re still really good friends. My junior year of college so I was like 20..21. And then I met my husband the next year in Duluth when I was 22. But we started dating maybe 6 months after we met and then we have been together for 9 years and we’ve been married for 2. So it happened a little faster than I thought, actually. But I think I needed that first experience with my friend because I trusted him a lot and it was good to know, okay, eventually I’ll probably meet the right person even though he was gay. You know what I mean? Eventually I think it’s going to work out and that gave me some peace of mind so when I did actually meet my husband I was comfortable with the idea that I wasn’t somehow destined to the life of solitude.
CS: One of my favorite songs of yours is “Bird Song” and I want to talk about that in a minute. I love the version with Murder of Crows. How did that band start? Where did you meet Alan Sparhawk and how did that whole thing come together?
GL: Well, I met Alan because I was at a farmer’s market and I was playing alongside, just jamming with this other musician from Duluth name Charlie Parr and the two of us were playing and Alan and Charlie are friends and so it turns out that Alan had come down to see Charlie…just popped down to the farmer’s market and he watched us play for awhile although I didn’t know he was there. I didn’t recognize him. I didn’t know he was there. So later on, a few weeks, maybe 2 or 3 weeks later, I got a text message from Alan and he said this is Alan from Lowell. I’m wondering maybe we could do a project together. I thought it was a joke because I didn’t really think it was him because I didn’t know why he would be texting me but it turns out that it really was him and he had liked the way I could improvise because it was all just on the spot jamming and so he had a silent film project coming up where he had to do the soundtrack for a silent film and he asked if I would do it with him and I did but we practiced maybe 6 or 7 times for that show and they were big rehearsals because we had to get a whole movie going, you know. And so by the end we had played together quite a bit and he was like, well this is fun, we should probably book some shows. So we booked our first show at a coffee shop in Duluth in November of 2011 after the silent film thing was done and right before that I randomly for the first time in my whole life wrote a song that I sing and it kind of just came out of nowhere. I think he was pretty inspiring to me in just like expanding my mind and what the violin can do and stuff and so I’m sure, I know he as a lot to do with it. So I wrote this song and I sang it for him the night before a show…we had a practice and he’s like, “Well, let’s do that tomorrow” and so that was kind of how the band started.
CS: And that video is available online, right? In fact, I think it’s on the Murder of Crows website? Is that right?
CS: That’s awesome. Cool.
GL: That night, that’s the first time I had ever performed any of my own music. But then, because of our friendship and musical bond, I kept writing songs. I don’t write a lot of songs. I think I’ve only done like 10 but it’s more than 0 which is what it was before I met him. So, I’d show him the songs and we’d practice them and we’d do them live and stuff and that’s kind of how “Birdsong” came out and stuff and it was kind of fun to have this new inspiration to suddenly start writing music and I don’t think, I don’t know, I don’t have a style in mind; they just come out the way they come out which is why “Birdsong” is really happy and the one that won is really sad. It’s not intentional, it just kind of comes out that way.
CS: Well, “Birdsong” is very happy. [“Birdsong” begins to play in the background] There is this sort of…I love it because it’s sort of call and response.
[“Birdsong” continues to play until 41:04 then begins to fade]
CS: There’s something cinematic about your music. I don’t know, I don’t even know exactly what I mean by that but it’s so interesting for you tell me that first time you got together was to play for a silent film because I see your music as much as I hear it. Does that make sense? I don’t know. It makes me visualize a narrative. It’s wonderful.
GL: That’s interesting because I’ve heard that from other people. I don’t know. I don’t know what it is about it that makes it sort of a visual experience but it’s fun to hear that. And “Birdsong” is the only song I ever wrote that really is about disability, actually, so I mean to me, that’s what it is about so it’s kind of fun that you like that one because that’s actually the only song where that was the point of the song.
CS: Can you elaborate on that? That’s fun that that one resonates with me. I was maybe thinking disability while listening to it, but again, I try not to over interpret until I’ve listened to it many many times and it’s been in my head for the last 3 days and I love it. But, yeah, can you elaborate on that disability content a bit more?
GL: Yeah, I guess to me it’s…well, it’s about disability and music, actually, more specifically. I’ve always played and I always intend to play and I love performing and I really don’t mind the size of the venue. It’s not really about that for me, how big you are, it’s just not…I don’t know, I think everybody deserves to hear music so I don’t think it needs to be at a big venue all the time. But playing with Alan was the first time I thought of myself as someone who could write a song or perform my own music or expand my creativity in a way where I could use the violin as a central part of a band and Alan was really supportive. He was like, “Yes! You should do this. Let’s work on this together. We’lll do this song.” He was always…he never said no about an idea I had in terms of music which is really big for someone who has never done anything like that before. If you get shut down early, I assume you just probably feel like, “Well, that was a bad idea.” You know what I mean? So it was awesome that he wasn’t like that. So, I guess, when I wrote that song I felt like our band kind of gave me this feeling of being a bird and suddenly being able to take everything I had been doing for a long time to a different level. I mean, emotionally too, not just show-wise or anything. All of a sudden the sky was open and it was so unexpected. I mean I never planned on playing with that person. But then, to me, like with a disability that’s why it says, “Bird why do you sing, fate has clipped your wings” because to some extent I was pretty sure that my disability was going to put a ceiling on what I could do with music but then, but then you sing anyways and so that’s what this song is about to me. And it’s so cool to have won that contest 5 years later, you know, it was such a weird thing because part of me just never thought that someone’s music could reach a wider audience if they had such a physical and visible disability but like you have to do it anyways because you can’t do things if you don’t show up for them so I sang anyways and that’s sort of what the song is about. But, then, I wrote that a long time ago so it’s got a lot of meaning for me today, too.
CS: Yes, that’s fantastic. Thank you for explaining that. I think that’s just so…sometimes I think you can over explain music but I think it’s so nice to hear the way in which music comes out of you, again, in such an authentic way. So you have the tour coming up with the Tiny Desk Tour, and then what’s after that or what’s next?
GL: It’s kind of up in the air right now, this whole journey is going to unfold bit by bit, I think, in the next few months. If I can get on a record label, I’ll obviously record and tour and that would be the awesomest thing ever but it’s not a guarantee. I know I’m looking into that with a management company but it’s so up in the air that it’s not even worth talking about yet because it’s not a done thing by any means. And then if I don’t do that I think I’ll just kind of continue on my journey of DIY music stuff because I was enjoying myself. And I teach fiddle too so I have a career here that I could definitely keep doing it. I mean I’d like to still teach even if I toured just because I like…it keeps you grounded when you’re working with people who aren’t necessarily playing to perform, music is about more than performance for sure so I like teaching, it teaches me a lot too. Yeah, I don’t know. I wish I had a better answer but it kind of depends on what happens in the next couple months and, you know, everybody’s existence is really unknown but it maybe feels more solid for people when they have a steady job but right now everything’s kind of up in the air.
CS: That can be a good place to be sometimes. So…awesome.
GL: Yeah. I’m really happy about it. It’s just kind of funny that I’m …I don’t know, not sure what’s going to happen.
CS: Well, thanks. Thanks for letting us all come along on the journey with the music. Yeah, I’m just so thrilled that you’re out there and I look forward to hearing more from you. That’s fantastic.
GL: Thank you so much.
CS: I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty happy that Gaelynn and her music are in the world. We’re all better for it. I hope you enjoyed that conversation. Look, if you haven’t yet bought her new CD or downloaded it on iTunes, do it. It’s called All the Roads That Lead Us Home. It’s amazing. Your life will be better for it. On our next episode, an interview with author Susan Nussbaum whose book Good Kings, Bad Kings recently won the Bellweather Prize for socially engaged fiction and we hope you join us for that. Until then, DisTopia has been a production of DisArt. DisTopia is produced by Liz Waid with help from Katie Matheison and Jacob Meyer. Music this week is always from the New Midwest and David Molinari. And we get help every week from DisArt’s Managing Director, Jill Vyn. For more informaitno about DisArt Festival visit disartfestival.org. I’m your host Christopher Smit. Talk to you soon.
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Social Model of Disability: http://www.pwd.org.au/student-section/the-social-model-of-disability.html
Identity First Language (IFL)
Person First Language: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarah-blahovec/basic-myths-about-the-dis_b_9560556.html
Parenting Style: https://www.disabilityscoop.com/2012/11/16/parenting-style-big-impact/16842/