Singer-songwriter Gaelynn Lea plays the violin and uses looping pedals to create intricate webs of sound. The Duluth, Minnesota, musician’s haunting Celtic-style songs caught national attention after she won National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Concert contest in March.
A video of her performing her song “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” caught the judge’s eyes and ears to beat out over 6,100 submissions from around the country.
“It was very surreal,” she said of winning. “Everybody enters thinking that it will be fun to win, but you never think you actually will.”
After an initial four city tour with NPR, she is now on a seven month cross-country tour, including Saturday stops at the Mill in Iowa City and at the Daytrotter studio in Rock Island, Illinois and a show at the Des Moines Social Club alongside Iowa City band the Awful Purdies Oct. 7.
“It’s impacted my life in a lot of ways,” she said of the NPR contest. “A tour was something I always wanted to do, but it wasn’t a realistic thing. A lot has changed.”
As she’s traveled the country, she said she’s enjoyed interacting with different audiences.
“Every show is different. That’s one of the most surprising things I’ve found touring. You can never predict how a show is going to be,” she said. “The other day I played at a Catholic church. I thought maybe a few people would come, but it was a wide variety of ages, and quite a lot of people came. Twelve people got up and danced, and it was really fun.”
She said she has always enjoyed performing.
“There’s a rush of energy,” she said. “Every time you play, especially with the looping pedals, every experience is different. It’s improvisational, it’s a creative process.”
Lea has osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bones disease, and she also travels as a public speaker addressing disability access and inclusion issues.
“A lot of what I talk about are awareness and rights. It has improved, but there is still a lot of discrimination,” she said.
On tour, she reaches out to venues in advance to make sure they’re as accessible as possible — not all are, and she said just having an artist like herself with a disability perform can move the conversation forward.
“I try to bring it up at shows, in a good way. A venue built a ramp for me to get on stage, and I asked the audience to give them a round of applause,” she said.
She hopes that makes it easier for others to follow in her path.
“A lot of performers and actors and creative types with disabilities find it harder to get involved,” she said. “Music is for everyone.”
What: Gaelynn Lea with Dusty Heart
Where: The Mill, 120 E. Burlington St., Iowa City
When: 8 p.m. Sunday (10/2)
Tickets: $8 to $10, icmill.com
What; Gaelynn Lea with the Awful Purdies
Where: Des Moines Social Club, 900 Mulberry St., Des Moines
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7
Tickets: $10 to $12, desmoinessocialclub.org