Music

A Tiny Desk win put Gaelynn Lea on the road to wider exposure

Gaelynn Lea
Michael K. Anderson
Gaelynn Lea

Gaelynn Lea makes music imbued with a melancholic poetry so potent it must be heard to be believed. In her song “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” which beat out over 6,100 other submissions to win NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest last year, the Duluth, Minn.-born singer and violinist employs a looping pedal to create a swirling river of layered strings, over which float vocals that sing of love like “a complex vintage wine, all rotted leaves and lemon rind.” The effect is haunting.

NPR’s recognition catapulted Lea, 33, from coffee-shop performances in Minnesota to a nationwide tour, for which she and her husband sold their house, bought a van, and hit the road. Now, a little more than a year distanced from the contest, Lea, who’ll play the Red Room at Cafe 939 in Boston on Thursday, says she’s as thrilled and thankful as ever to be sharing her songs with audiences.

Q. What led you to enter NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest?

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A. I decided to enter because a bunch of people kept telling me about it. My good friend from college recommended it; I had never heard of the contest, and though I’d heard of the concert, I didn’t know the two were related. So I looked it up and saw it was NPR, thought that was pretty cool, and decided to do it. I looked around for someone to help me film the video, and I couldn’t find anyone but eventually the friend who recommended the contest agreed to help me film it. We used my phone camera, which was very low-tech, but we entered it anyway, because I figured I might as well try. I definitely did not think I was going to win, at all.

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Q. What inspired “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun”?

A. I wrote the song about my husband, Paul. Right before we got married [in 2013], I went through this really big surgery, that wasn’t planned. There were complications, which were stressful, about six weeks before the wedding. Paul stayed with me in the hospital, overnight, every night, and he hung out with me every single day, and it was a lot more bearable. We actually celebrated seven years of dating in the hospital. It was a really weird, surreal time, and about a year afterwards, I was reflecting on the experience, and I wrote a song about how love is beautiful, even when it’s very difficult or complicated.

Q. Outside of music, you’re a disability rights advocate and speak publicly about living with the congenital disease osteogenesis imperfecta, colloquially known as “brittle bones disease.” Can you explain a little more about what that is?

A. My collagen is not formed the correct way, so my bones are just not the same consistency as everybody’s else’s. My arms and legs have broken repeatedly throughout my life. Before I was born, I broke somewhere between 30 and 50 bones, in utero, so my arms and legs bent and healed before I was born, which is why I’m so short, why my arms and legs are bent, and I use a wheelchair. Since then, I’ve broken around 16 bones.

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Q. Would you say your sound has been informed by that disease?

A. I definitely play differently, with the influence of a cello in there, because I hold it like a cello player. I’m sure it sounds a little different than if I played the way most people play. But also, I think that to wish away something like your disability would change everything. You can’t take that away and then expect that everything else would have stayed the same, even with the music and the kinds of songs that I write. “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” has been integral to our whole existence.

Q. What has your experience been while touring with a disability?

A. Touring with a disability is a lot harder, because so many venues are not accessible. I say, “I need a ramp — I have a wheelchair,” but a lot of people don’t [get one]. There are the occasional venues — two out of 10, maybe — that take it seriously and either build a ramp, rent a ramp, or have an accessible stage. A lot of people think they can get their bartender to help lift you and so they don’t need to have a ramp. Accessibility isn’t understood yet as a human rights issue, in some ways. It should be a priority, not one of those “wouldn’t it be nice” things. I happen to be very small, weighing around 69 pounds, so it’s easier for Paul to lift me on stage than it would be for someone who weighed 200 pounds, but that doesn’t make it better to get on stage for the next guy.

Q. What’s the best part of touring?

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A. Seeing different parts of the country has been really cool, because I love traveling, but it isn’t something we could afford to do regularly, and now it’s part of the job. Playing so much, no matter what, through every kind of day, when you feel really good or really tired, is something I also really like. You always feel better at the end of the show than when you started. And the other thing that I didn’t really expect, that I love, is how many people you meet on the road. We have met countless sweet, helpful people, including some who’ve become mentors to us.

‘Every show is a little bit different, but I try to just connect with the lyrics of the song or the mood of the instrumental piece and channel those emotions. There’s not a lot of room to think when you’re playing.’

Q. How would you describe your mind-set while performing?

A. Every show is a little bit different, but I try to just connect with the lyrics of the song or the mood of the instrumental piece and channel those emotions. There’s not a lot of room to think when you’re playing, because if you think about violin too much, you mess it up. You have to go on autopilot and be present. I always try to be in that head space. It’s a good exercise, kind of like meditation.

GAELYNN LEA

At the Red Room at Cafe 939, 939 Boylston St., July 13 at 8 p.m. Tickets $10-$12, 617-747-2261, www.berklee.edu/red-room-cafe-939

Isaac Feldberg can be reached at isaac.feldberg@globe.com.