Gaelynn Lea’s ethereal vocals and soulful fiddle playing have made her a rising star in America’s folk music scene. She has toured the country for the past five years and opened for The Decemberists and Wilco, but Broadway was never on Lea’s radar until she got an unexpected call from Tony Award–winning director Sam Gold. Would she be interested, he asked, in composing original music for his forthcoming revival of Macbeth, starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga?
“Of course I said yes,” Lea says with a laugh, speaking from her home in Duluth, Minnesota, where she is putting finishing touches on more than 50 musical cues, underscoring, and songs for the highly anticipated production, which begins a limited engagement March 29 at the Longacre Theatre. “When Sam told me the scope of the project, I realized that creating the soundscape for this play would be right up my alley.”
As Gold began assembling his creative team for Macbeth, he turned to Lea as an artist at the top of his personal playlist. “Something about Gaelynn’s violin playing, and the atmosphere of her music, really speaks to me,” explains the director, who was especially drawn to “Metsäkukkia,” a mournful yet propulsive eight-minute instrumental track from Lea’s album Learning How to Stay. “Her music can be very warm and spiritual, which is not what you might picture for Macbeth, but I was interested in playing against stereotype and working with a collaborator who would bring a different color to the play.”
Lea is no stranger to breaking barriers as both a musician and an advocate for disability rights. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, she experienced multiple broken bones in utero that permanently bent her arms and legs. By age 3, she could operate an electric wheelchair; as a fifth grader, she announced her intention to join the middle school orchestra and learned to play the violin by holding it vertically, like a miniature cello. Around the same time, her parents opened a dinner theater in Duluth, and Lea and her siblings pitched in as ushers, lighting technicians, and musicians. She earned a degree in political science at Macalester College, but decided to pursue performing full-time after winning NPR’s Tiny Desk music contest in 2016. (Click here to watch the submission that bested 6,000 other contestants.)
Before speaking with Gold, Lea had never read Macbeth, but she immediately agreed that her “dark, ambient, and layered” pieces would be a good match for Shakespeare’s tragedy. “What’s cool is that the play informs the music,” she says. “It’s a big undertaking, with more music than I was expecting, but the play provides a road map.” In addition to transitional music and underscoring, Lea has composed a theme for each of the main characters and even a couple of songs for them — but she doesn’t want to spoil surprises for the audience by revealing too much about how and where these will appear.
Working remotely in Duluth, Lea recorded her Macbeth compositions on the violin and, after checking in with Gold, sent the tracks to musicians who play electric guitar, keyboards, and percussion. Everything then went back to Lea to mix and edit. “I feel like a kid in a candy store,” she quips, “going through what [the others] have recorded and adding layers with the violin. The goal is a full sound.” She looks forward to tweaking her work further during rehearsals and collaborating with Macbeth sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman make the music come to life at the Longacre. “When I took this on, I was curious to see if I would enjoy the process, which is totally different from making an album of my own songs,” she says. “The cool part of being in New York hasn’t even happened yet, but I’ve really been having fun.”
When she’s not composing or performing, Lea is an in-demand speaker on issues surrounding the disabled. She cofounded the advocacy group RAMPD (Recording Artists and Music Professionals With Disabilities), which aims to “widen the lens” in the music industry to provide greater exposure, inclusion, and accessibility. She feels strongly that a disability isn’t something that needs to be “fixed,” and that her music should speak for itself, apart from any discussion of her background. “One thing that makes me excited about this project,” she says of Macbeth, “is that it’s all about the music. A lot of times when people cover disabled artists, the angle is almost entirely about their disability and not the art they’re doing.”
In an essay on her website, Lea recalls having to get ready for a concert in a broom closet because the venue’s dressing room was not accessible and then being unable to make it to the stage on a rickety ramp. “I’ve dealt with that experience hundreds of times,” she says calmly. “I don’t think the general population knows how common it is, because we don’t talk about it enough.” Beyond making performance spaces easier to navigate, Lea wants to raise awareness of the types of adaptations that allow disabled artists to pursue their craft.
“I sound different from other violinists because of my disability,” she says. “I play my violin like a cello, so the vibrato is different. My [singing] voice has a different quality too, because I’m a small person. We need to expand our idea of what it looks like and sounds like to be a musician. Disability creates art from a specific place, and there’s a lot of great stuff happening.”
As she prepares to make her Broadway debut as a composer, Lea can’t wait to share opening night with her husband and tour manager, Paul Tressler, and her proud parents. “It’s rather surreal,” she says of working on Macbeth, “but it is so exciting to be back in the theater world. I hope I can do more work like this in the future.”
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