Moving the Conversation Forward
by Shelby Campbell Berry
A certain kind of person makes a lasting impact on the world they leave behind, but often, the impact is not apparent to the person. Gaelynn Lea, a musician, public speaker, and disability rights activist, is undoubtedly that certain kind of person. At only 38 years old, she has influenced others so profoundly that people will talk about her work for years.
Lea was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta or Brittle Bones Disease, but she hasn't let that stop her from pursuing her dreams. She was rooted in the thriving music scene of her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, from the first moment she heard an orchestra play at her elementary school.
Immediately inspired to pick up a stringed instrument, Lea began playing the violin at ten years old due to an orchestra teacher willing to take a chance and help her adopt a method of playing the violin that fit Lea's abilities.
"I also grew up around music," said Lea. "My mom was choir director at my church, and my family owned a dinner theater. Duluth is a very musical town. It's a beautiful port town near Lake Superior with natural beauty and a musical community that really shapes artists."
Lea found her sound in college, being drawn to Celtic music through extracurricular groups and jam sessions, and eventually found her way to playing violin in folk groups and writing her music. She has become known for her haunting original songs and approach to traditional fiddle music.
Combining this with her incorporation of live looping and sonic exploration has made her an artist like none other—creating a place for herself in the music industry all her own, opening up for artists like Wilco, LOW, The Decemberists, and Pigface.
"I like having the combination of both traditional and unique, modern music. My original music is more experimental and spooky," Lea said. "With the looping peddle, fiddle tunes have a lot of repetitive chord structures. It's exciting for me to create new and innovative ways to perform music that has been around for hundreds of years. I love bringing those tunes to a modern audience."
In 2016, Lea won National Public Radio's Tiny Desk Contest, introducing her to a continuously broad audience of fans, touring, and a community she didn't know she was missing. It also opened up other opportunities, including Lea's most recent accomplishment—composing the music for Macbeth on Broadway. This iconic Shakespeare play, starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga and directed by Sam Gold, was nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Sound Design.
"Growing up, musical theater was in our DNA," Lea said. "So, getting to do the music for Macbeth on Broadway last year and really getting back into theater made it such a full circle moment for me."
Lea is known for so much more than her music, however. She also uses her platform to advocate for people and artists with disabilities. She has become a sought-after public speaker on disability rights, accessibility in the arts, finding inner freedom, and the power of music.
Lea regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and music festivals and has multiple widely-viewed TEDx Talks. She shared her experiences on PBS NewsHour, On Being with Krista Tippett, The Moth Radio Hour, NowThis, The Science of Happiness Podcast, and Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine My Best Break-Up Podcast, all while touring the world with her music.
"In the beginning, I started speaking because I had a terrible phone call with a case worker about healthcare after I got married."
Then, Lea talked with a social worker friend and started having enlightening discussions about her experiences and doing general disability speaking. "Winning Tiny Desk, it became clear that accessibility was not something that was talked about in the music industry. I shifted my speaking to being more music-focused and why it's important to have visibility and diversity in the music industry," Lea said. "Music is still my passion, but as long as speaking is something I can help move the conversation forward, I'll keep doing that."
Focusing on the universality of disability culture and the fact that 26 percent of Americans have some form of disability, Lea has made it her mission to break down the norms of our society, specifically in the music industry.
Part of this goal was becoming the Co-Founder of RAMPD, Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities. The mission of this fast-growing group led by people with disabilities is to amplify disability culture, promote inclusion, and advocate for accessibility in the music industry.
"My Co-Founder Lachi and I officially launched RAMPD in January of 2022. Our main goals were to provide accessibility consulting and artist development to help artists with disabilities get more established. We wanted to become a source for groups and companies when they want to know how to become more diverse and inclusive," Lea said.
In less than a year, RAMPD has already helped make the Grammy Awards accessible for the first time in history.
"The time is right. People understand diversity is important," Lea said. "They've never thought of it. Folk Alliance has been very supportive as well. They created a whole summit topic on accessibility and invited us to be a part of it. For the first time, they had ASL and captioning. These changes need to happen."
Working with the Recording Academy on consulting through RAMPD has led to additional opportunities for Lea. She is now a voting member of the Recording Academy, lending her unique perspective and creating awareness for artists with disabilities.
"I'd love to focus on committing to keeping RAMPD growing," Lea said. "Seeing accessibility as a built-in part of the music industry is the goal."
As if she wasn't already busy enough, Lea is currently working on writing a memoir about her life in music and disability advocacy as well. She says that disabilities are a contribution to culture rather than something to overcome. As a person with disabilities, she connects to the world differently and sees through a different lens.
If Lea's music and projects indicate in some way how she views the world, then her view must be extraordinary.
"It always feels like you are on a journey in music, but it's exciting to present a more inclusive way for all," Lea said. "To reimagine what the music industry could look like is exciting. We do things the way we've always done them, but it's great to think outside the box."