Last night I saw Gaelynn Lea — a singer/songwriter and fiddle player rooted in Irish traditional music — perform in Burlington in a small black box theater in the basement if the Flynn Center. She played solo but since she works with a looping pedal you have the sensation of an unseen backup band of many. Her work departs from tradition pretty quickly, venturing, occasionally into the experimental. We sat off to the side, seeing only the side of her face throughout, which produced the weird effect of my spying on a performance from the invisible realm. And her sound heightens the disembodying effect — while her fiddling also insists that you be here now, scratching and rasping, drawing attention to the materiality of the instrument. If her performance were a book, it would start, “This page is made of a pine tree, planted in Minnesota. It shimmered with the divine then, and now in it’s new form, it casts a spell.”
This pine tree has also been through a lot. Lea does not write lighthearted songs, which stand as a contrast to her sunny public disposition. I’m not a fan of musician chatter but hers was not only delightful, it was in some ways essential. She explained her looping pedal, she explained the context of most of her songs, why she plays the fiddle in a different position than anyone else (like a cello) and she insisted, at one point, that we sing a harmonic verse for her. Yes, she insisted. Virtually mandatory. As someone of part Irish extraction myself, I don’t take to orders very easily, so if it had been anyone else, I may have pouted instead. In this case, I sang loudly.
As a lyricist, Lea is developing into a poet of the highest order:
our love’s a complex vintage wine,
all rotted leaves and lemon rinds
i’d spit you out but now you’re mine.
This stunning sequence is from a song, Some Day We’ll Linger in the Sun, which describes her feelings about and around a double event that occurred several years ago when she needed emergency surgery and was, at the same time, getting married a few weeks later. It all worked out, but was a terrifying/ exhilarating few months. Her music is tender but aggressively avoids sentimentality. She understands — intuitively or otherwise — the importance of diving into one’s own darkness. Authenticity demands it.
She also sang a rather pointed song on the topic of disability rights. She dwells especially on the waiting required on the part of disabled people. … the waiting, waiting, waiting for full inclusion. It was angrier than any other song of hers I’ve heard and she’s earned every word of it. As someone who uses a motorized wheelchair herself, she lives with exclusion daily. After the show as my spouse and I headed back to our car, I was imagining what it would be like for her to go to dinner afterward; most places would not be able to accommodate her. Like James Baldwin asking how long black people were supposed to wait for justice, she wonders when we will start to notice what is going on around us. I was also reminded of a woman who took questions on reddit just a few days prior — a woman who experienced the sudden onset of a serious neurological condition in her 20s and described that as her condition waxes and wanes, sometimes she must use her scooter and sometimes she can manage short distances without it. She wanted us to know that people — sometimes the same person — treat her completely differently based on whether she was in her scooter and when she is not. I am unable to find words to respond to this.
But Lea’s songs overwhelmingly speak of the imperative of connection to others and remembering who we are. “Who are you?” she asks in her final spoken-word song of the night. “Are you your inconsistencies?” The poem introduces a beautiful traditional Finnish melody heavily interpreted, that subtly references eastern sounds and non-linearity — fitting both her Buddhist inflected poem and the Finnishness of the song, as Finland lives at the border of east and west.
But you have to go see her live. She is fun and funny and brilliant. And to be in the presence of someone — especially a great artist (and I don’t say that casually) — who is exactly, unapologetically who they are is a lifeline for those of us who still haven’t figured out how to be who we are (hi).
Erica Da Costa