Local Current Blog

Tiny Desk contest winner Gaelynn Lea talks about her big victory

Photo by Michael K. Anderson, via Gaelynn Lea on Facebook

It’s been a wild week for Duluth artist Gaelynn Lea, who has been selected as this year’s Tiny Desk contest champion and is on her way to Washington, D.C. to perform at Bob Boilen’s desk for the entire NPR Music crew. After years of making haunting, captivating folk music around Duluth with collaborators like Alan Sparhawk — who she performs with in a project called Murder of Crows, which is how she first landed on many of our radars back in 2012 — this new opportunity is giving Gaelynn a national platform, and her first opportunity to tour outside of the Midwest.

Judges for this year’s Tiny Desk contest included Boilen, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius. “The way her voice resonates is so unusual and beautiful, like nothing I’ve ever heard before,” gushed Wolfe, reflecting on Gaelynn’s standout video, while Boilen praised her by saying that, “The melody of this song wouldn’t let go — it just stuck with me. It conveys an overwhelming emotion of yearning and love that’s unforgettable.”

I called up Gaelynn this week to chat about this tremendous news and find out where she’s headed next.

Andrea Swensson: Hey Gaelynn, how are you?

Gaelynn Lea: Awesome! This has been the longest week of my life, because I’ve known since Friday.

So how did it work? Did you know you were a finalist?

No! It’s crazy. I got an email from one of the staff at NPR that said, “We’re wondering if we can talk to you sometime soon about your submission, preferably today.” So I set up a time — it was right before I had a fiddle lesson, so I had to try to focus on that, which was crazy — and I was not sure what it meant, but I kind of thought, because I had read somewhere that they pick 50 finalists, so I thought they were calling to say you made it into the finals, and I was really excited about that even. They called me and it was actually Bob Boilen that answered the phone, and he was like, “I just wanted to say I love your video and the whole panel loves your video and the music that you make, and we would like to declare you the winner.” And it was just crazy. It was the most surreal experience.

And then I couldn’t talk about it. I had a show that night actually. And I was like, crap! Everyone’s like, “How’s the music going?” And I didn’t want to be like, “You have no idea.”

To think about how many people submitted videos across the country, and to know that you stood out above everybody, that must just be such a thrill and such a cool validation of what you’ve been working on.

Yeah! Especially because we recorded the video on my phone. It’s a terrible video. Well it’s not a terrible video, but the cinematography is very low-tech. We did the best job we could. I just don’t own a video camera. We tried to make it look pretty in my office and tried to get the lighting right, and we were like, “Well, we’ll do the best we can.” Then I started watching some of the other videos, and I was like, oh man, some people’s videos are pretty stellar. But that’s why it was even cooler. Because I think they really liked the actual song, so I was really happy.

What does it mean to you, to win a contest like this?

I don’t even know if I’ve fully wrapped my brain around it yet. First of all, I guess it’s just exciting because I’ve been doing this solo thing for the last year and a half, and you just don’t really know — you put out as much art in as truthful a way as you can, but it’s cool to know that other people connected with it and also appreciated it. So that’s really validating. And then, just the idea that I knew that I wanted to do music for a career — like, I already had decided that — and I didn’t think there was going to be any quick ticket, you know? I mean, I still play a gig at a pizza place, and I do all these random things. And that’s ok with me, because I’d prefer to do music than a day job. So I like it. No matter what.

Obviously, I’ve always thought it’d be fun to play music out of town. Just to see the world with my music is something that I’ve always wanted to do. And I kind of wondered if that would happen, or what I’d have to do to make that happen. Now, in these next couple months, my husband and I are going to get to go to all these places that I’ve thought about, California and New York and D.C. I’ve never been to any of those places. So I’m really excited. It’s just a cool opportunity. I’ve put in a lot of time and effort — and I’m sure most of the people that submitted videos did, too. But I’ll get to do some of the stuff that I had on my lifelong bucket list.

I was wondering about that, if you’d ever played outside of Minnesota.

Well, besides like Wisconsin, no. Not really. [laughs] I was going to — and I’m still going to — book a Midwest tour, to Chicago and Madison and Milwaukee, and maybe Michigan, just to try it out. But this is going to be really cool, because it’s right before that.

Alan Sparhawk and Gaelynn Lea performing as Murder of Crows (Photo by Ben Clark)

Tell me more about the album that you’ve put out. How has that release been going?

Well the album came out in November. I recorded it in August at Sacred Heart with Jake Larson, the sound engineer. It was just me and him, and I rented the studio for five hours and did all the tracks in one day. It was crazy, because it’s live looping, so you kind of have to do the whole song all at once.

Wow, and in five hours you did the whole thing?

Yeah! It was a crazy day. It was a very long day. But I knew that once I got going it would just be easier to just keep going. And then at the very end of the day, we had a little bit of energy and time left so I wrote two vocal tracks, and I wasn’t actually going to use them on the album at all. That was never my intention; I wanted it to be instrumental. But then I heard the recordings and I really liked the way they turned out, and I figured that since it’s my first solo album, and I don’t record that often, that it would be kind of cool to make it as diverse an album as possible.

And three papers reviewed it, and they all gave good reviews, so that was cool. Because in Duluth, obviously like Low and Trampled by Turtles and Charlie Parr, everybody knows who they are, and they do a lot. And I play a lot, so people know who I am, but I’m still just nervous, because, I don’t know. You don’t know if anyone is going to like it. But it got good reviews, and then I started feeling more comfortable, like whatever happens, happens. Because I was happy with the way it all turned out.

Well I think everyone in Minnesota is going to feel really proud and excited about this, knowing that someone from Duluth won. Congratulations!

Thank you! Yay!

Learn more about Gaelynn Lea on her website, and listen to her solo album, All the Roads That Lead Us Home, on Bandcamp.