Gaelynn Lea - Deepest Darkness, Brightest Dawn
There were 6,100 entries from every state in this year's NPR Tiny Desk Contest. After listening to every entry, the judges selected a haunting fiddler from Duluth, Minn.: Gaelynn Lea. A lot's happened since then. "Well my husband and I decided that we would take this opportunity to try to tour nationally and actually internationally," Gaelynn says. "I haven't done either of those things before. So at the end of September, we sold our house and took off for a seven-month tour essentially around the country. And it's been really fun so far. We've been on it for a few months now and it's been a pretty neat ride."
Gaelynn's musical ride started when she was just 10 years old, thanks to special teacher who helped her find just the right instrument. "I have a genetic disability called Brittle Bones Disease," Gaelynn explains. "So because of the way my bones are formed, a lot of them broke before I was born, so my arms and legs are bent. The violin is an instrument I love but wasn't sure I'd be able to play because it's too big for my shoulder. So we compromised on playing my violin upright like a tiny cello. And I've been doing that for 22 years."
So somewhere along the line you had time to release two albums. Your first solo recording and now a holiday recording. It's called Deepest Darkness, Brightest Dawn. Tell me about the title and the theme behind that.
"I think that Christmas to me is a very happy time. But I know that there is a lot of mixed emotion around the holiday. The fact that it's the darkest time of the year, and for some people, there is some sadness or grief or anger on the holidays. I wanted to reflect in this album a full range of emotions, and that's what I tried to do with the songs that I picked and the themes of the ones that I sing — I want it to really encompass a full range of feeling because I think the holidays aren't just one cookie cutter image."
So what do you love most about the Christmas season?
"Well, I love the music. Obviously that's a big part of it. And I do feel that there is a sense of coziness or togetherness that comes from being in this dark, snowy time. I mean, I grew up in northern Minnesota, so it's very cold and dark. And that's when you kind of huddle in with your family and friends and it's a cozy time of year for me."
If I was going to sit down and listen to this recording where would be the best place to start?
"Well I guess the seventh track, 'Silent Night,' is a special one to me. I don't want to give too much away, but I thought a lot about how I wanted to convey that one because it is so common and it's one that's been done so many times. So I am really happy with the way that turned out. It's the centerpiece of the album that's been right in the middle.
"And that's interesting because oftentimes people will put that at the end, 'Yeah I had a specific tune I wanted to end on.' I don't know … the album really kind of made itself. And I didn't have a particular vision when I set out, like how I wanted to layer them and put them together. But they really spoke for themselves, and there was one track, the Wexford Carol and 'O Christmas Tree' — that was just such a lovely way to fade out that I knew that had to be the last track."
And one of the things that you do with this piece is it sounds like you're harmonizing with yourself.
"And that was intentional. So I'd build up layers of sound with a live looping pedal, so all the layers that you hear on this album are done in one take; it's a live looping. So it's pretty fun that way. And for my vocals, I thought it would be neat for this one track to layer my vocals as well. You can't do that live because there are different words and that wouldn't mesh up. But I did three different vocal tracks, and then the guitarist and percussionist Al Church added one, too. So at one point there are four vocal tracks playing, and it's pretty neat because I wanted to mirror what I do with the looping pedal in my vocals for that one track.
"Most of the album is instrumental. Eleven of the tracks are, and that's intentional because I really do think the violin is a beautiful instrument, and the looping pedal is a really fun way to explore these songs, so I didn't want to make it too vocal-centric. Some of my favorite instrumental pieces turned out to be 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel,' and I really liked 'The Holly and the Ivy.' I liked the way that one turned out. But then it was really fun to also do a few vocal tracks, so I did 'In the Bleak Midwinter,' which I think has beautiful words. It's actually based on a poem written in the early 1900s and the melody came along later. And so I was glad to be able to work on that one and figure out how to put it to a looping pedal, because you have to be a little bit creative for that."
What are you hoping people will experience when they listen to this recording?
"I guess I want them to feel comforted or perhaps hopeful. Although there is a time of deep darkness, there is this brightest dawn — you know that after Christmas is when things start getting lighter and we start thinking about spring. And so by the end of the album, I really want it to be a joyful or at least peaceful feeling that they get when they hear it."