There were 6,100 entries in this year’s Tiny Desk Contest, representing every state in the nation. We asked you to send us a video of an original song, behind a desk of your choosing. We didn’t care much about the quality of the video or even the sound. We wanted something singular, a song and a sound that felt original and a performance that felt inspired. We at NPR Music watched all of those 6,100 entries and in the end our six judges — Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and The Arcs, Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of Lucius, Son Little, Robin Hilton and I — found one artist so compelling we’re thrilled about this announcement. Our winner is a haunting fiddler from Duluth, Minn. Her name is Gaelynn Lea.
Holly Laessig said it best: “Hers was the one melody that stayed with me throughout the process. It’s captivating and powerful.” Robin Hilton, my cohost on All Songs Considered, said, “Gaelynn Lea had the most arresting voice and overall sound I heard in this competition. While judging each entry, I’d listen to the song first, then watch the video if I was moved by the music to spend more time with it. I was profoundly moved by Lea’s song, particularly its serpentine, earworm melody and the tremendous heartache in her poetry.”
Gaelynn is a 32-year-old classically trained fiddler whose music is steeped in Celtic tradition and American fiddle tunes. Her fiddle style is shaped by those traditions but also the challenge she has, playing an instrument that is almost as large as she is. Gaelynn was born with brittle bone disease, a congenital disability that makes playing the violin tucked tightly under the chin not a comfortable option. Instead she plays it upright, as a cellist might.
In the original tune she submitted, “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” Gaelynn creates a beautiful droning loop with her JamMan Express loop pedal and after a moody minute begins to sing a yearning tale of life’s preciousness and time’s constant ticking and why we should always care. “Don’t tell me we’ve got time / the subtle thief of life / it slips away when we pay no mind,” she sings in a somewhat childlike and haunting voice. She ends with the phrase, “Someday we’ll linger in the sun / And I love you.”
That’s such a universal message — simple, thoughtful and relatable. Truth be told I saw musicians with better craft than Gaelynn, heard singers more capable. That was true of last year’s winner as well. Skill and craft is a part of how we select a winner. What Gaelynn Lea did for all of our judges, myself included, was to make something memorable. As Jess Wolfe put it, Gaelynn Lea created something “so unusual/beautiful and like nothing we’ve ever heard before.”
After I voted, I spent some time trying to find out more about Gaelynn Lea. I learned about her congenital disease; I learned that she was a fiddle teacher and that she plays many of the same fiddle tunes my son and I have played together in Irish music camps and for contra dances. I also learned something I hadn’t expected: One day while playing at a farmers market in Duluth, Alan Sparhawk, the guitarist and singer of the band Low (also from Duluth) heard Gaelynn Lea playing. That night he emailed her, asking her if she’d like to play together. It was the beginning of a musical friendship. That friendship is a casual one they call The Murder of Crows. I discovered that they’d made a record together back in 2012 called Imperfecta. Working with Alan helped Gaelynn envision and shape her sound. Fans of Low might be able to hear that band in the way her music unfolds, slow and mysterious, every moment existing for each moment to come.
I love this. I love the way musicians change and shape each other and open ideas that might not arrive naturally but become part of a vocabulary of expression. My hope with the Tiny Desk Contest and concert series has always been about discovery, about finding music outside our comfort zone. One day there might be Adele, the next day a Colombian jazz harpist or a punk band from Detroit. We want you to hear something new and inspiring, something which moves you in some way, makes you think of something — in this case, the preciousness of time — in a way that may cause you to be more appreciative, more thoughtful, more expressive, be it musically or personally. Gaelynn Lea’s music felt like a perfect gift.