Gaelynn Lea was born in Duluth, Minnesota with a rare genetic condition called osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), and she uses a wheelchair to get around. She began playing the violin at an early age, and was able to blossom artistically due to the encouragement of her music teacher. She developed her own style using a looping pedal, and coupled that with a unique soprano voice, eventually being discovered by fellow Duluth Indie musician Alan Sparhawk (Low), and in 2016 she won the NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest, which afforded her a lot of well deserved attention. Gaelynn is a passionate disability rights advocate who not only performs all over the world, but speaks at various conferences about the accessibility for disabled people in the music industry. She is an all around wonderful person, whom I’ve been lucky enough to meet on more than one occasion, and I dare say we’ve developed a decent friendship with each other over the past year. I have often said that Gaelynn Lea is the kind of person who could make just about anyone feel better about life simply because of her presence as a human on this planet. A kind soul, that woman.
Now, I could tell you all about Gaelynn’s advocacy, and dive into my own rant about disability rights and accessibility, but what I’d rather do is tell you why, despite the fact that she plays folk music, I believe she’s more “Metal” than damn near anybody I’ve ever met.
At some point Gaelynn was discovered by legendary Industrial drummer, Martin Atkins. Who is Martin Atkins, and why is he legendary? Martin Atkins is the brain behind Industrial supergroup Pigface, for one thing. A revolving cast of musicians from multitudes of genre have been “members” of Pigface, including Trent Reznor, Danny Carey (Tool), Flea, Black Francis (Pixies), Michael Gira (Swans), Jello Biafra, Chris Connelly (Revolting Cocks), Lydia Lunch, Steve Albini, Ogre (Skinny Puppy), and most recently Randy Blythe (Lamb of God). Martin Atkins played drums for John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Limited, as well as for Ministry, Killing Joke, and Nine Inch Nails. Gaelynn Lea was invited by Atkins to join Pigface on their 20th Anniversary Tour in 2019 (along with Blythe, Connelly, KMFDM’s En Esch, and a host of others). She not only joined the band on stage, she performed as the opening act on several dates of the tour. It was at one of these shows that I first encountered Gaelynn.
November 15, 2019, fellow Metal Wanderlust contributor and dear friend Rotnoxnatl and I went to the Pigface show at Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio. Gaelynn was set to open the gig, but due to an accessibility issue at Beachland, she had to relocate to a nearby juice bar. Rotnoxnatl and I chatted with her a bit beforehand, picked up some merch, then sat at a tiny table about five feet away from her, drinking friggin kombucha or some such nastiness.
Not five minutes into her set, the front door to the juice bar opened letting in that chilly winter Ohio air, and in walked Martin Atkins, Chris Connelly, Lesley Rankine, En Esch, and God knows who else… basically three-fourths of the entire Pigface crew.
It was a scene right out of some bizarre Cameron Crowe/David Lynch hybrid art house/bio-pic, and one would think at that point all hell would have broken loose. On the contrary, everyone remained calm and seated, transfixed by the haunting violin and voice of our new-found musical revelation. Over a dozen road worn Industrial/Punk musicians and road crew stood silently in the back of the room, watching Gaelynn Lea with a sort of reverential posture that I had never seen before. At one point, drawing attention to her “Pigface family,” Gaelynn gave Chris Connelly a shout out just before performing a breath taking version of “Point Blank” (A tune Connelly originally recorded with Pigface on the album “Gub”). It was an absolutely glorious moment, magnificent in the kind of way that ensures your life will somehow never be quite the same.
I was a fan before that moment, but afterwards… I can’t think of another musician I’d rather devote extra time writing about, and that in any capacity I’m able. There is a recorded version of Gaelynn singing “Point Blank” that Pigface put out as the B-side to a limited vinyl edition of the song “Suck” (with Trent Reznor). On the back of that single there is a picture of Martin Atkins sitting by his drum set, looking up at Gaelynn with exactly the kind of respect I’m trying to convey here.
Since that time, I have followed Gaelynn’s career and activism closely, and corresponded with her on occasion. I’ve seen her perform several times, and enjoy what content she shares with her Patreon subscribers. One of those Patreon goodies ended up being the album that has brought us all to this place: “The Living Room Sessions,” which is a live recording taken from one of her weekly YouTube streaming events.
There is no shortage of musicians who have taken to streaming events during the COVID-19 pandemic, being unable to perform elsewhere. Gaelynn’s weekly YouTube shows began at the beginning of lockdown, and at some point she started to incorporate improvisational material as a way to both express herself in a different and challenging way, and share something special with her audience. The album begins with an improvised piece called “Sunrise Garden,” which sounds a bit like what a sunrise in the garden might feel like. Likewise, “Dragons & Fairies” has a more menacing and anxious tone, Gaelynn’s bow work mimicking the fluttering of fairy wings, which is looped to convey a sort of hovering effect. The dragon in this case seems to be in conversation with its fellow winged creatures, lamenting over shared mythological misunderstandings. With these two songs Gaelynn Lea helps the listener imagine being in a different world. Her sound is often called “haunting and beautiful,” and there is no better example of that than the opening ten minutes of this album.
We’re given a glimpse of her spectacularly unique mezzo-soprano voice on “This Hunger Won’t Leave,” and “The Long Way Around,” the only two songs not entirely improvised, both of which share seemingly duelling themes. The former suggesting exhaustion and frustration (“But my habits are shackles – they drag me away – isn’t there more to this world than my pain”), while the latter exudes a calmness and acceptance of the current state of things (“And I’m taking the long way around with you – And I’m happy to be in this place with you”).
The remaining songs (“The Wind,” “Rebuild,” and “Twilight”) are all improvisational soundscapes, similar in tone to the first two tracks. Remarkably, once again, they sound quite like their titles, invoking chaos, pain, beauty, and clarity all at once. This is a rare talent, to be sure, and one that transcends genre entirely.
Gaelynn Lea makes folk music, but it is the kind of folk music with a depth and heaviness that is often lacking within more traditionally “Heavy” music. She takes all of the horror and all of the gorgeousness the world has to offer, bleeds it out of her pores, through her fingers and into that violin. You can feel this music while you’re listening, and there are times it weighs you down. It transfixes you, like elegant magic, and demands the sort of reverence typically reserved for players of more aggressive instruments. Gaelynn is not physically a large person, but the power behind the music she makes will knock you on your ass.
These compositions, as stated on the Bandcamp page, “were created on the spot using only her violin, her looping pedal, and her imagination. She hopes this meditative music will bring a sense of peace and calm during these turbulent times”. And to that I say…
Thank you, Gaelynn. The world so desperately needs art like this right now, along with the knowledge that we’re not in this alone.
Rating – 4/5
Below are some photos from the Cleveland juice bar:
Gaelynn Lea’s Bandcamp Page:
Link to “The Living Room Sessions”:
Gaelynn Lea’s Website:
Gaelynn Singing “Point Blank”: