There’s something delightfully appropriate about the fact that violinist Gaelynn Lea has a ringback tone of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on her cell, especially since it’s the strain of the popular third movement of “Spring.”
As soon as the lilting strings start to swell a small, cheerful voice cuts in, and Lea’s personality comes across so bubbly and upbeat that I have no choice but to smile ear to ear throughout our interview.
It’s a sharp contrast to my musical introduction to Lea, which was through her collaboration with Low and Retribution Gospel Choir frontman Alan Sparhawk the Murder of Crows. In this new project Sparhawk takes sidecar and gives Lea center stage, laying down sparse electric guitar ambiance under her harrowing, sorrowful violin. The pair create a dynamic that is so overwhelmingly soul-stirring that some audience members found themselves openly weeping throughout their performance at Duluth’s Homegrown Music Festival last month, where Sparhawk and Lea performed side by side in an awe-inspiring church-turned-community music center called Sacred Heart.
“It’s so funny that people call our music sad,” Lea says, speaking rapidly and sweetly. “I’m not saying that it’s not sad, because it probably is, but we never really meant it to be sad. It just came out that way, I guess. I didn’t realize that people were emotional about it until Sacred Heart, because a lot of people said, ‘Oh we were crying our eyes out at Sacred Heart’ — that’s the biggest reaction I got from that show. Which is fine, I’m not mad at all, it was just really kind of eye opening because I guess we just have fun and play music.”
She lets out a small giggle. “Sacred Heart was probably one of our best shows. That space is so beautiful. It’d be hard to have a bad show in there, I s’pose.”
Sparhawk and Lea performing at Sacred Heart in Duluth; photo by Ben Clark
Lea says she and Sparhawk started working together last year, when he invited her to collaborate on a score for silent film The Penalty. “I was at a wedding and I got a text message at 11:00 at night or something, it was really weird, and it said, ‘This is Alan from Low and I was wondering if we could work on a project together,’” she remembers. “And I was like, that’s not Alan, he wouldn’t text me, what the heck is going on? But then later he called again. Apparently he had seen me play with Charlie Parr one time, which I hardly ever did back then, at a farmer’s market, totally random. Alan had been at that farmer’s market, but I didn’t know who he was. I really didn’t listen to Low or anything, so I didn’t even know he was there.”
“We practiced a whole lot for the movie, probably like six or seven times for a couple hours each, so at the last rehearsal he was like, well, we’ve practiced a lot, I suppose we should probably play some shows. And that’s when we decided to form a band.”
Lea is a classically trained violinist and heavily influenced by Celtic fiddle and roots music (her other project, Snöbarn, is a folk duo with fellow Duluthian Ariane Norrgard), and she says working with Sparhawk has pushed her to take more chances with her music and get into an improvisational mindset.
“He doesn’t like to be predictable, so he’s always asking me to do things that I wasn’t planning on doing,” she says. “He’ll be like, ‘by the way, let’s play this song now’ — and we won’t have rehearsed it. It’s good for me. I feel like I am growing a lot.”
As their musical bond has grown stronger, they have also cultivated a very sweet and unique friendship with one another, and spend hours positioned in front of a picture window in Lea’s living room watching the birds outside and playing music.
“I really like him a lot, and I know he likes me too,” she says. “We have a funny friendship, because he’s not a huge talker and I’m a ginormous talker, so I get him to talk a lot, like I ask him lots of questions and then we talk about stuff. I like it a lot, it’s not like any friendship I’ve had. We have the weirdest banter.”
In concert, the pair are a hilarious study in contrasts, with Sparhawk remaining deadpan and serious, gently prodding at Lea and getting her to laugh. Their music, too, swings between pensive, somber instrumental meditations and buoyant baroque melodies sung by Gaelynn, whose voice rings out strong and clear. Some of those atmospheric instrumental songs and two of Lea’s original compositions, the sprawling, reflective “Let It Go” and the uplifting “Bird Song,” are captured on the duo’s first EP, Imperfecta, which Lea says is a nod to her genetic disability, Osteogenesis Imperfecta.
“I had never really considered doing music that much,” Lea reflects. “I mean it’s always been a hobby of mine, but it’s never been this serious of a pursuit before. And playing with Alan has made me realize that maybe I could do that. Having a disability, you wonder how far you can go in the music world because there’s so much based on appearance and marketability. So I’m kind of seeing where it goes.”
She says she hopes that naming her album after her disease and playing out more actively in the music community will raise awareness and help show people that making a life in music with a disability is, in fact, possible. “It’s not that I feel like playing the violin is in any way an issue, because I just learned how to play differently,” she says. “But I guess the challenge is more the accessibility of space. Like a lot of times, stages aren’t accessible. So people are always lifting my chair or getting ramps, which is fine. But just the idea that — there are musicians out there with disabilities, and I think that’s really cool, but it’s just not that well represented, and it’s a pretty big segment of the population. People with disabilities are not that much of a minority, but it’s just not represented very much. So I wanted to name it that because there’s a lot of work that needs to be done still to have people equal rights, not only socially with attitudes, but just with people’s accessibility.”
“And at first, I used to feel kind of bad about,” she continues. “I used to feel kind of bad about having people have to lift my chair up, because it’s pretty heavy and the stage is usually at least a couple feet off the ground, but then I realized that if people don’t see it then they won’t realize it’s an issue, you know what I mean? So hopefully bar owners and places will start to realize, oh, we should probably have a ramp. I’m not necessarily going to talk about it a whole lot, but I like the idea that by just playing, by virtue of just being there, I think people will start to realize, oh, this isn’t very accessible. Maybe we can work on it.”
As the Murder of Crows gain more and more of a following up in Duluth, Lea says that they plan on traveling down to the Twin Cities to play some shows. For now, those interested in hearing more of the Crows’ music can check them out on Facebook and order a copy of their debut EP online.