Gaelynn Lea is a force of energy. Not only is she a remarkable musician and songwriter, but she is an incredibly generous and positive human being. In 2016, the universe suggested that I watch a Youtube video showing NPR’s Tiny Desk concert featuring Gaelynn. If you are not aware, Gaelynn was selected as the winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest from a pool of over 6,100 entrants. Later that year, Gaelynn and her husband Paul began traveling and touring with her music all over the world. Since that time, I have been fortunate to have seen Gaelynn perform live in London and New York. At the end of the interview, there will be links to learn more about Gaelynn and her music. Around the time that Gaelynn performed in New York last fall, she was extremely kind to grant an interview request of mine. What follows is that conversation.
Greg: What has been the most surprising aspect of your life since winning the Tiny Desk contest?
Gaelynn: The most surprising aspect for me was making friends on the road. I knew that I loved performing and luckily my husband and I both enjoy traveling. That has definitely been a blessing and really fun to see new parts of the world. One of the things that I never thought about was that I would make friends at shows. Alan Sparhawk [of the band Low] would casually mention that he had friends in Oakland or other places, but I never realized that he probably met them at shows. The more we return to the same cities more than once, you start to see the same people. When there are people that you connect with, you make the point to have dinner or a drink with them, or chat for a long time with them after the show. You get excited to see them the next time you go back. This was something that never crossed my mind as a part of touring. It is probably my favorite part of touring. Loving the performances is a given, as well as the travel. But to have the world shrink down is awesome.
Greg: Besides the obvious career path, how has music impacted your life?
Gaelynn: Music provides me with a challenge that I will never fully master. Violin, in particular, will allow me to keep learning how to be better, and that is forever. Because there is no fret and the bow is constantly going, playing the violin requires me to be present. Every time you are playing, you cannot go through the motions since the tone changes. The neat thing for me is knowing that there is this challenge that will always be there.
When I am performing, it is when I feel the most grounded. I am not the best at meditation and I get over-scheduled. In my daily life, I can do things that are not super-grounding. Music is the one place where I really do feel a connection to some grounding energy and spirituality, especially when I am performing. Anytime I am playing is a good place for me. Mental health wise, music is good for everyone. I have had a lot of anxiety throughout my life as a result of some near death experiences. No matter how bad you feel going into a show, you always feel better afterwards. Literally, I have never had a show where it didn’t improve my mental well-being. That’s not why I got into music, and it’s not even why I do music, but it’s a really neat thing to notice. When people talk about music therapy, I know that it is real because a side product of playing for me has always been mental well-being.
That has probably been the biggest impact for me. It is also super cool to find any art that allows you to express your deepest truths. That’s where songwriting became important to me. Playing is more about the act of mastering an instrument or expressing myself through noise, but writing a song is a little bit different and a little more personal, which I like. It’s a good challenge.
Greg: On a personal note, I lack any musical ability. Just recently, I bought a guitar because I would like to learn to expand my own personal horizons. For over twenty years now, I have been going to concerts and I can relate to the mental health connection. Although I am not the person playing, being present in the moment with whomever is performing is a really uplifting experience and a grounding process for me.
Gaelynn: I guess I usually don’t think of it, but I feel the same way when I watch music, too. When you go to a concert that is a meaningful one where you are in the moment and there is a good energy, it can be just as good as if you were playing in it. You should play a guitar! That’s the thing, people do not have to get to performance level. Maybe they will get there anyways. Adults can be really hard on themselves, and maybe you will be better than you think. Even if you never perform, there are so many good things about picking up an instrument. It is worth trying. I’m glad that you did that.
Greg: As a teacher, I am curious if there is a specific mentor or teacher who stands out as having a greater influence on your life?
Gaelynn: Obviously the teacher who was willing to look outside the box and help me figure out how to play. At the time, I don’t think I realized how big a deal it was that she was able to help me to learn to play upright. It completely changed the course of my life. I just saw her at Christmas, actually. Neither of us knew what was going to come out of that moment all those years ago.
The other teacher who had a significant impact on my life was my private lesson teacher during my senior year who had really high standards. We were working on a solo piece for the spring concert, and every time I winced he made me start over. I am glad that he didn’t have a different set of standards because I played differently than other people. Everyone needs that in your life, especially if you are serious about your instrument. You have to be taken seriously, even if you have different challenges. He was very nice in other ways, but he was never afraid to tell me if my performance was not good. I needed that.
Greg: As mentioned, I teach middle schoolers. Eventually, I would like to share this interview with my students. Do you have any advice that you could give to children who are in the middles grades?
Gaelynn: Find the one or two kids who you really connect with. Even if it’s not a huge group, having one or two good friends is enough to get you through. Having a friend that you can be yourself around is really important. Get involved in things that you think is fun. I did not always like junior high school, but what kept me going was the orchestra and the speech club. You wind up with good memories that way, even if all of it is not fun. I’m not sure if that’s good advice or not. I know that once in awhile, there are people who don’t find their group in school. In that case, I would say focus on the things that you really enjoy doing. That way, you’ll become a cooler person because of these awesome experiences that other kids didn’t bother to look for.
Greg: Thanks! Sometimes the advice from a teacher is not always well received. Getting advice from a musician will mean a great deal to many of the students.
Gaelynn: I hope so! I definitely had two or three really good friends, and we were kind of nerds. We did things that were a lot of fun, and that’s what I remember being the best part of junior high school.
Greg: What are you hopeful about for the future?
Gaelynn: I am hopeful that every time I go to a school and speak or play for them, I get to meet these very thoughtful and engaged kids. Every generation has a chance to make the world a better place. There are really awesome kids out there. As long as we can be kind to each other and creative, we can solve whatever problems are coming down the pike. There are some really neat people in the next generation who are going to end up doing great things.
Greg: Thank you so very much. As I had mentioned to you, I am just beginning to engage myself with this blog again, and I do not know where that future is going to take me. Awhile ago, I had this thought that I could perhaps build in some interviews. Just as you mentioned meeting really interesting people while touring, I have met some very unique people in my travels. In hindsight, I wish that I had taken the opportunity to ask them two or three questions and share out with others a chance to learn something new from these fascinating people. I am beyond honored that you said yes to this interview and that you were willing to share your time with me. You have had a really positive influence on my life over the past year or so, and I want to thank you for that.
Gaelynn: Thank you so much. I am really excited for you and I am hoping that this blog ends up being a fun thing for you. I bet people will do interviews and you can do your own blogs in between. Blogging is a really helpful thing for me. I read a lot of blogs for inspiration. I wish I wrote more often. But I like to read others’ blogs, and am excited to read yours as you write more.
Please take the time to explore Gaelynn’s website and the clip found below. Later this year, Gaelynn will be releasing her next full length album, which was produced using funds from GoFundMe. (Gaelynn Lea’s New Full-Length Album) A word of advice: If Gaelynn is performing near you at any point in the near future, get tickets immediately! Having been to hundreds of concerts in my lifetime, her shows have been some of the most memorable. This September, I look forward to her performance at Joe’s Pub in New York City. My tickets arrived in the mail weeks ago, and they brought a smile to my face.
This interview was conducted over the phone on December 28, 2017. Due to several personal factors, many of my projects that I had been working on were placed on hold. I want to thank Gaelynn for her generosity with her time with granting my very first interview many months ago, as well as for her patience and understanding that this blog entry needed some additional time to see the day of light.
Gaelynn Lea: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert