Music That Trancendes Conventions

Photo: Jeff Hawkins


Let’s take a step back from the conventional pop-radio top-40s standard for music. We hear people talk about music this and music that, and what does our mind flash to? Is it the latest single from Bruno Mars? Does the hook “24 karat magic in air” snap to mind? CU Denver Live!, an on-campus organization, has a mission that aims to revolutionize that very definition. By seeking to inspire students with a range of multi-cultural arts activities to increase connectedness, embrace diversity and foster a sense of school spirit. On Oct. 5, Live! produced an event that hosted Gaelynn Lea, the 2016 NPR Tiny Desk winner, to do just that. 

The event began as an intimate forum between Lea and any CU Denver student who was available to attend. For an hour, there was an open meet and greet session that highlighted Lea’s open, passionate, and vulnerable nature. Due to a low-turnout of students, the setting reflected an intimate and personal atmosphere. During this time, the Sentry had an opportunity to sit down with Lea and chat about the zest of being on the road, man-buns, and how her life had drastically changed in recent months.

S: What’s the biggest change been with doing music full-time?

L: It’s funny! People think that I was a music major in school. Don’t get me wrong, I love music, but I majored in political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. Duluth has a crazy music scene. Most people know of Trampled By Turtles, but most don’t know that the city hosts the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival which has featured hundreds of local artists.  

The community has grown to be rich with collaboration, and don’t get me wrong collaborating is scary. The pros definitely outweigh the cons. Anytime you collab, you risk losing your identity, but it’s at the expense of growing and learning. The biggest change is finding out how to tackle the business side. Everything we’ve done up to this point has been DIY.

S: What do you like about being DIY?

L: Both my husband and I have read Martin Atkin’s music industry book Tour Smart cover to cover. It’s a great book on how to get your life together. I mean just look at our merch booth! (It really is pretty dazzling. It was a decked out suitcase with string lights, photos and colors.) I also feel like I’m a control freak in the studio. I have a particular way that I want to sound, and being DIY gives me a lot of freedom to execute that. A lot of artists also need to decide if going with a label is the best decision for them. The way we look at it, we love doing everything ourselves. We look at it through a pure cost-benefit analysis. If the business side is taking too much energy and time from the art, then it’s time to make some decisions. That’s why we decided to hire a booking agent. I don’t have the knowledge or time to research the best venues to play in each city. This year, I’m trying to find a balance between the arts and business. Selling and promoting: that’s the business. Being on stage: that’s where the art is.

S: *An audience member made a comment on man-buns and it lead the conversation to the popular male hairstyle*

L: I think it’s funny to see the progression of man-buns. It takes a lot of hair to actually turn into a bun, so the growth kind of starts like a sprout-sticking straight into the air. They try to rock the sprout for as long as they have to. Then slowly and steadily, it grows into a full and happy bun.

Post the meet and greet session, Lea was whisked off to sound-check in the King Center Recital Hall. The event rapidly changed gears as stage crew briskly budged around to move chairs, clean tables, and prep the venue for the Tiny Desk winner’s performance. It was during this time that a lanky, lone songwriter entered the room. Donned in all black, barring a pair of snug, creamy wool socks, CU Denver freshman recording arts student Ben Pisano, ringleader of the somber indie rock project Corsicana, had finished his warmup.

CU Denver Live! selected Pisano among a pool of entrants to open the event. Whilst waiting sidestage, the Sentry briefly chatted with the Corsicana frontman about his current musical inklings, and some of his instinctual euphonic tendencies.

S: Who is your most influential artist right now?

P: Right now I would say the things Justin Vernon did on the new Bon Iver album are downright revolutionary (also featured/reviewed on pg. 18 of this issue). The album is pretty   unforgettable across the board.

S: What have been some weird moments you’ve experienced as an artist thus far?

P: I’ve been recognized by people I haven’t formally met before based on my music, which is a little strange, but also a wonderful feeling. Playing the Bluebird Theater back in January definitely will always strike me as a surreal.

S: If you were in a room with only two items, what would they be and why?

P: Definitely a guitar and a drum kit. Guitar is where I write and where I’m most comfortable, but drums are really really fun to play and feel like the most “instinctual” instrument.

Following the brevity of the conversation, Pisano swiftly took the stage, as groups of last second attendees moved their way into the recital hall to catch the beginning of the action. Warming the audience up, Pisano played a truss of tunes from his recent LP, Haven. His floating falsetto and cycling chords filled the recital hall with warm and somber melodies. Leaving each attendee lulled into their seat.

The energy of the room changed rapidly as members of one of CU Denver’s Bluegrass Ensemble filled the stage. Featuring Sydney Clapp, Olivia Shaw, Anna Smith, Gill Clark, Alex Goldberg, and Caleb Hall, the sextet restocked the room with violent guitar shredding, foot-tapping strains, and character-suffused harmonies that put a groove and swing into each and every audience member. Featuring the music of David Grisman, the ensemble ripped through various tunes in the beloved songwriter’s catalog.  After a handful of riveting renditions, the ensemble cleared the stage and made way for Lea’s showcase.

Lea’s performance showcased the magic and beauty that rocketed her to the top of 6,000 plus applicants in the Tiny Desk competition. Living with Brittle Bone Disease, Lea learned to play the violin similar to a cello, and uses an adapted bow with a musical looping system to create her experimental signature. Ranging from classic celtic fiddle tunes to original compositions, Lea took time to speak with the audience to advocate her incredible story.

Near the closing of her set, she brought the auditorium to a tender moment, reciting the story of the song that thrust her musical career into overdrive. The song, “Someday We’ll Linger in The Sun” was “written right before I married my husband. I was encountering complications, and some medical procedures had to be expedited,” Lea said she concluded that “love doesn’t have to be easy to be beautiful.” The song creaks and glides through somber arresting layers of pizzicato plucking, and drawn string arrangements. 

CU Denver boasts a strong and proud arts programing environment. Beyond that, it attempts to lay the groundwork for fertile artistic exploration for students, fans, and listeners at many expansive levels.

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