Gaelynn Lea Tressler ’06 plays her violin like a cello—a reinvention necessitated by the physical challenges of her brittle bone disease.

Duluth violinist and singer Gaelynn Lea Tressler—she performs as Gaelynn Lea—didn’t know quite what to expect that afternoon in early March when National Public Radio called. 

It was big news, bigger than she’d ever hoped for: Tressler had won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, an annual competition that provides aspiring musicians with the chance to become more widely known. A video of her one-song performance had beaten out thousands of other entries from across the U.S. “I remember just trying to focus on the words—it was surreal,” she says of the phone conversation. 

The award revealed to the country what people in her hometown had long known: There is no musician quite like Gaelynn Lea. 

Duluth born and raised, Tressler fell for the violin as a fourth-grader. “I just loved the sound of the strings—I thought they were beautiful,” she says. She later joined her school orchestra, working with a teacher who taught her how to play it something like a cello. Then there was the influence of Simon and Garfunkel, whose vocal harmonies enthralled her. “I grew up listening to them a lot,” she says. “I was obsessive.” 

Entering Macalester in 2002, Tressler met a group of students who made up Flying Fingers, musicians interested in learning and performing traditional Celtic music. She found acceptance and fun with Flying Fingers; the experience also broadened her violin skills and led her away from classical music toward folk sounds and performance. 

After a few years, however, Tressler returned home to finish her degree at the University of Minnesota–Duluth, and began immersing herself in her hometown’s musical world. 

It was a propitious time. Duluth’s music scene has flourished in the past decade, offering performers an abundance of venues as well as an annual festival called Homegrown, which spotlights local musicians. That musical richness has recently produced two nationally known bands—Low, with its dense layers of electrified drone; and Trampled by Turtles, whose music is more homespun and old-timey. 

Whatever their style, Duluth musicians and artists reflect a kind of artisanal ethos—a strong DIY element that’s supportive, down-to-earth, and idiosyncratic—just the kind of aesthetic ecosystem in which a distinctive performer like Tressler could flourish. 

Her first Duluth band was a bluegrass vocal duo called Gabel and Gaelynn, which lasted until 2009. Tressler also cofounded a group with friend Ariane Norrgard called Snobarn; performed with Duluth poet Tina Higgins; and played for two years in a duo called the Getarounds, with friend Dan Dresser. “It’s been really fun because every  band is different,” she says. 

Alan Sparhawk (left) of the band Low, a friend of Tressler’s, played on two of her Tiny Desk competition songs. They met when Sparhawk heard Tressler
perform at a Duluth farmers market.

In 2011 Tressler began working with Low guitarist Alan Sparhawk in a duo called The Murder of Crows. In contrast to her usual folk-focused music, what she does with Sparhawk she calls “more atmospheric—slow and winding. There are a lot of layers of strings.” Working with Sparhawk, she adds, has “expanded what I thought the violin could do” in terms of sound colors. He also taught Tressler how to use a looping pedal, a cunning little piece of technology that lets her play many violin parts at once. This allowed her to launch a solo performing career, and to record her Tiny Desk-winning song. 

Tressler is a violin teacher as well as a performer. Given her eclectic musical background, it’s no surprise that her approach to teaching is equally open-minded. Her students—mostly beginning and intermediate-level violinists—range in age from grade-schoolers to senior citizens. Most of them want to learn traditional fiddle music; each, she says, is unique. 

A couple of those students, along with a close friend, pushed her to enter the Tiny Desk Contest. But which song should she record? While performing at a Duluth pizza shop, Tressler asked audience members to vote on their favorite song. They chose “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” a mournful but utterly romantic piece about the travails that accompany love. 

A friend made a cell phone video of Tressler performing the song in her office, and then she waited. Nearly 6,000 musicians had sent in video entries, “so I was not thinking I was going to win,” she says. Then came the call, followed by NPR-sponsored appearances throughout April and May, in cities that were new to her as a performer, including Brooklyn and Los Angeles. 

So what’s next for Gaelynn Lea? “Everything is sort of up in the air right now in terms of my future,” she says. “The last guy who won [the NPR Tiny Desk Contest] ended up working with a record label,” but, she adds, “the industry’s so weird, you can’t predict that stuff.” 

Tressler does hope to perform in more cities. She’d also like to record a Christmas album, explore Nordic and Canadian fiddle music, and perhaps return to her classical music roots. And then, of course, she intends to write more songs. 

“So yeah, I’m working on all of those things,” Tressler says. “I want to keep expanding what I do.” Her audience is very likely to expand as well. 

August 3 2016

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