Songwriting with Gaelynn Lea

Songwriting with Gaelynn Lea

For our second songwriting session, we welcomed the talented Minnesota violinist and lyrical mastermind Gaelynn Lea. After winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2016, she began touring and has since played shows in 45 states and 9 countries, sharing her unique blend of haunting melodies, provocative lyrics, and traditional fiddle tunes with audiences around the world. Within the disability community, she has been a guiding light for aspiring musicians and an activist whose dedication to access is fostering a brighter musical landscape for all.

Gaelynn Lea poses with her violin

She joined us for a little more than an hour in which she discussed how she learned the violin and started to write songs, imparting a wealth of helpful tips and advice for beginning songwriters. As an emerging songwriter myself, these were my biggest takeaways:

Verses need not be identical.

In many of her songs, Gaelynn plays with the structures and melodies of her verses. This variety lends itself well to her layered sound, created by multiple violin lines recorded over each other and looped, allowing her to sing simultaneously. As she quipped during the session, altering how she sings the lyrics can make a song less boring for her as well. In my own experience, limiting myself to a stringent number of lines or syllables, rhyme scheme, or melody can often lead me to a dead end, or worse, to abandon songs entirely. So this truly was liberating advice.

You can use common phrases (sparingly), but find a fresh take.

If you’ve done any kind of writing, you’ve probably been told to avoid clichés at all costs. In songs, this isn’t totally necessary. Common phrases can be useful in certain instances because they’re relatable, universal–a way to reach many people. However, the key is to offer a new angle, something different from what listeners have heard before. The example Gaelynn provided was from her tune “The Long Way Around.” She re-purposed the saying “lay it all on the table” but made it her own by changing “on” to “across”, which better captures the listener’s attention.

“Sometimes the words you start with are not the words you end up with–and that’s totally okay.”

Gaelynn shared this gem of wisdom when discussing her process of deciding whether to use a curse word in a song expressing anger. Ultimately, she opted against the word because she felt it may exclude folks in other age groups. Hearing that reminded me of my own writing process: focus first on getting the words out because you can always change them later.

Don’t judge your work too harshly at first.

When a song is written, Gaelynn encouraged us to not give up on it until we have a chance to record it. Even if you feel uncertain about the lyrics, you may feel differently as you explore instrumentation. Often, the process of recording will change your opinions about a song. And Gaelynn knows from experience: a song she almost chose not to record became a favorite number on her last album.

Gaelynn’s Prompt

Choose one of the themes below, then write whatever it means to you. Start with writing just one line and don’t move on until you feel good about it.

  • Moving Forward
  • Light / Dark
  • Winter

Gaelynn hosts a concert on YouTube every Sunday afternoon where she performs with special guests. Learn more on her website.

You can watch the full workshop on our YouTube channel here:


Join us next Wednesday, November 4th at 7 PM Central as we continue to explore the art of songwriting with Art Spark 2020 Artist of the Year Robert Kelley!

Click here for details and sign up info

Robert Kelley formed Blue Mist while attending the University of Texas in Austin. In the 30+ years since, the band has been entertaining diverse audiences with a variety of rhythm & blues, jazz, soul, and popular music. The band has been regulars at central Texas’s most popular nightclubs and performed with various national acts such as: Little Milton, Joe Simon, D. Train, The Platters, Pinetop Perkins, grammy-winning R&B group The Manhattans and R&B/hip-hop singer Anthony Hamilton. Five of the group’s six members attended and graduated from the Texas School for the Blind.

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