INTERVIEW: Gaelynn Lea
Posted on 20.12.2016
Gaelynn Lea with Attitude is Everything's Music Without Barriers sign.
Gaelynn Lea is a classicaly trained violinist and songwriter from Duluth, Minnesota, who recently embarked on her first European tour. We managed to catch up with her during her 48 hours in London, at Windmill Brixton, where we talked about her new Christmas album, the differences in access between the US and Europe, and how ramped stages would make life easier for everyone.
First of all I wanted to ask about your new album, what inspired you to do an album of Christmas songs?
I love Christmas music, and so after I recorded my first solo album in November of last year I was already starting to think about this album. And it turns out that Christmas carols are very loopable, so the songs I ended up choosing, either it was because they were really big favourites of mine or because they worked well with the looping pedal. It's really fun to mess around with them because you can make medleys, and reinvent the songs. All the carols on there are pretty old so I wanted to play them in a different way.
How did your collaboration with Alan Sparhawk from Low come about?
Well, I was playing at a farmers market with a mutual friend, and he walked by, although I didn't recognise him. And a couple weeks after that, I got a text message saying "I was wondering if we could do a project together, this is Alan from Low". And I had obviously heard of Low but the only thing I'd heard from them was their Christmas album. So when I met him I said "I really liked your Christmas album", ha! We ended up doing the soundtrack to a live film together. We had a lot of fun doing that so decided to book some shows, and came up with our band name The Murder of Crows. We’ve been playing on and off for five years now!
I was wondering how your European tour came about, it's a really interesting story!
Well, we started touring nationally in September, but a few months beforehand I got an email from a band in the Czech Republic called The Tap Tap. They have maybe 20 band members, most of them have disabilities, they’re really good. Anyway, they asked if I could join them for two songs, on their Christmas concert, and they paid for the airfare and hotels for me and Paul, so why wouldn't we do it?
I talked to Alan about it and it just happened that Low was doing a Christmas tour at that time, so he suggested we could maybe do something together with The Murder of Crows. Alan came back and said I can’t do a separate show with you, but maybe you can open for us in Ireland? And we decided because there was a four day gap, that we would try to book a show in London. Finally, just by chance a guy from County Clare who’d read my newsletter, emailed asking if I could do a show there. It kind of all came together at the right time.
You ended up having to do a crowdfunder to bring an extra person along, I was wondering what the reasons behind that were? For an artist touring on a small budget, was accessibility an issue there?
A big issue, yeah! Well, we had agreed to all the shows, and I woke up one morning and thought – how are we going to do this? I have an electric wheelchair, and I can hang my violin on there, and drive myself, but it's very different being in a manual chair and needing help getting everywhere. And I had this really bad feeling that this could even be dangerous, like in the airport, I can't have Paul just leave me and go do things because I can't push myself.
I thought there's got to be a solution, so I figured out the crowdfunding thing – for this particular tour. In the future if I want to come over I have to have enough resources to pay for three people, because it’s necessary if I'm not bringing my wheelchair.
And the main reason why you needed to bring your manual chair rather than your electric one, which obviously gives you more independence, was because of...
Accessibility! Flying is very hard with an electric wheelchair. It's possible, but it's not very good for your wheelchair, cause sometimes it just ends up being like, thrown in the plane essentially. And then I was told that Prague isn't very accessible – although I was pleasantly surprised! I'll be curious to see how Ireland is because we're going to some smaller towns. We just figured we'd have more options this way.
I would love to travel with my electric wheelchair someday. But also, what about charging it? We did buy adapters but we made one of them start smoking, so, I don't know!
What was the show like in Prague?
Oh my gosh, it was so fun! It was basically everything I was hoping it would be.
Both in terms of accessibility and in terms of attitudes, do you feel like you've noticed a big difference between the US and Europe?
Well, it's been about 36 hours! But so far I've been pleasantly surprised. A lot other countries don't have the equivalent of the ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] yet, and I wanna know just as a person with a disability, like, what does that actually mean? Because I'm only seeing a very small portion of society and I'm curious. I was impressed with the fact that Prague had kerb cuts and more ramps than I expected and stuff, because everybody tells you that it's terribly inaccessibile in Europe but so far it hasn't been as bad as I thought.
In the UK we have the Equality Act which is a bit different from the ADA, but what we do as an organisation is work with venues to fulfil, but also go beyond the requirements set out in the Equality Act. There's still a long way to go though.
That's what it's like with the ADA. And a lot of people see it as this bar that once they reach it they can stop. And it's like too bad, it's really supposed to be a minimum you know, it's not necessarily meant to be the be all and end all.
If you could change one thing, in terms of access, at every venue, what would it be?
I just think every venue should just have a ramp to their stage. Just have one. And not think, oh we'll rent one especially for this event. I mean, have you ever seen a bass amp? They're huge and heavy! But for a performer with a disability it adds a whole other layer of things you have to worry about, especially if you're touring. Luckily I’m very light and Paul can carry me, but if I weighed more, or had an electric wheelchair, there's no way I'd get on to a lot of these stages.
Actually the other day in Minnesota, I could have had five people lift my chair up, but I decided to play my set from the floor, because I don't really want five people carrying my wheelchair. You know, they know my show is happening in advance, at the very least they could rent a ramp, but what I would love to see is just finding a way to just have a ramp there, for everybody.
I've heard that before, a venue putting in a ramp for accessibility and then finding, hey, it helps us move our kit too!
There's a big venue in Minnesota that we played in a couple of months ago, and it was really weird because it's this institution in Minneapolis and they have a lot of great music, but the stage was super tall, and there was a really big struggle to get my chair up there. And I said, how do you get the equipment up there? They were like oh we just make do. But if I was the tech guy, I would have demanded a ramp for that reason alone!
In your bio you always mention where you're from and it seems quite important, do you think that comes across in your music?
I do think that Duluth has a certain aesthetic, it's very beautiful but very cold, and there are very long winters. And summer is a really sacred, beautiful thing that only lasts a month and a half. And so I think that does colour people's music. There's like a happiness and a sadness simultaneously, I think a lot of Duluth music is like that. And there is something about the lake. So many musicians will gush on about Lake Superior – including myself – and I think it must affect things on some subconscious level.
I was wondering what you would like to say to a venue that doesn't provide information about accessibility on their website, what your message to them would be?
Now we've been touring as a full time thing, I realised how important it is, because there are a few shows I've played where if someone using a wheelchair came, they wouldn't be able to get in. I would want to know that in advance, because I don't want to play in a place where people with disabilities like mine can't even go. If they don't advertise their level of accessibility, they’re putting the artist in a hard spot, because they're kind of being hypocritical – especially in my case where I'm saying access is important but I'm playing on the third floor!
And then also I would feel really bad for any of the customers who came and tried to see the show and had to leave. Either they're put in a place where they have to be carried, which is dangerous, or they're just not able to go and that's obviously a second class citizen kind of thing.
Obviously it's gotten better, but if you think about a lot of the barriers that people with disabilities face, if it was due to any other issue like race or sex it would be very clearly discrimination but because it's disability, for some reason people think of it like "oh what a pity it's not accessible”. But it's actually still discriminatory. It’s starting to change though. I mean this is a very cool organisation, I wish we had something like that in the states! I don't think we do yet, do we?
Not that I know of, but there's somebody called Sean Gray who runs a website called Is This Venue Accessible?
That's really neat. My goal in Minnesota at some point is to have venues sign an agreement that they'll make an effort to book 10 or 20 per cent of artists with disabilities, so it becomes more of a thing they're going to commit to doing. I've met lots of artists with disabilities and they're good, it's just not a mainstream part of culture yet.
What I've loved is seeing people with disabilities coming to my shows. That's really cool and that's happened quite a bit more since the Tiny Desk thing.
I imagine the Tiny Desk feature has had quite a big impact for you?
Yeah, well, we sold our house, and he took a seven month leave of absence, and I took the year off teaching, and now we're touring for the whole rest of the year. And then we're gonna evaluate and decide if we can still do it. Will we want to do this in May, Paul? No, we will, it's been really fun!