Arlan Hamilton: As She Is

“Be yourself so that the people looking for you can find you.” – Arlan Hamilton

Arlan Hamilton can remember being no more than six years old when the thought came to her that one day the world would know who she is. She was climbing onto a little daycare bus when the realization hit her. She says, “I can just remember looking around at all the other kids and thinking everyone is going to know my name. I don’t know what I knew that to mean back then, but anytime I want to conjure up the image, I can still see it. It’s like my rosebud.”

No specifics came with that long ago knowing for Arlan. But today that inner assurance is coming to fruition. Growing up poor, black and gay in Texas, her opportunities where limited. Feeling “less than” was the perfect prerequisite for forming Backstage Capital a seed investment fund that backs up underrepresented startup founders. So at the tender age of six, the path to her life’s purpose was already being paved.

Arlan was an insatiably curious child. In grade school, she wondered about what her classmate’s houses looked like, how they lived and if they were happy. In third grade, she wore six watches, set to different time zones. She wanted to see what time it was in different parts of the world. That was the same year she started her first business. She repackaged the candy her mother bought at Cosco, into smaller units, and sold it to her classmates at a profit. If she had been born into a family with financial means, she would have been enrolled in a school for the gifted. I shared this thought with Arlan and she agrees.

“Oh yeah, like the Hockaday School. I would have gone there. I love discussing things and thinking about different angles. I also think there is not always one right answer. That’s why I got into so much trouble in school.”

Arlan and her brother were raised by their mother, Earline Butler Sims. She was devoted to her children. An ardent Jehovah’s Witness, Earline never challenged the religion’s extreme intolerance of the LGBTQ community. Arlan couldn’t accept the idea of a higher being doling out its love to only a select group of people. “I grew up believing gay people were bad and wrong and going to die.” When she was fifteen, she told her mother that she was an atheist and left the Witnesses. Earline didn’t try to stop her. Not long after that Arlan knew without a doubt who came first in her mother’s life.

“I really understood how much my mama loved me when she told me that she knew I was gay one morning. I wholeheartedly believed that when she returned from work that evening I would need to have a plan for where I was going to live. I knew she wouldn’t hit me or call me names. But I also knew her religion and her deep down beliefs were stronger than anything. When my mama came home, she was laughing about the whole incident. She said, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ From that moment forward if any of her friends said anything about gay people, in jest or not, she would set them straight. When she chose me over her religion is when I knew she was in it for the long haul.”

Before Arlan was founder and managing partner at Backstage Capital, she was a live music production coordinator and tour manager. Through it she became an expert in dealing with all kinds of people, a skill she relies on today. 

“There was a lot of salesmanship in being able to handle all of those personalities. I mean being on the road with musicians, you have to be a certain kind of crazy to want to do that. I had to learn how to endear myself to all different types of people. And most of them were white. To them I was this black woman who is telling them what to do, overcoming that was a feat.” 

There was a lot of uncertainty with Arlan’s gig in the music business. When she understood the feast or famine nature of it, she began giving thought to starting her own company. Around that time is when she began noticing people like Ellen DeGeneres and Ashton Kutcher making small investments in a place called Silicon Valley. “I wondered with their big lives, why where they interested in putting money into a three person startup based in a garage? Then it hit me that those small companies could go on to become something much bigger and have a broader impact on the planet.”

Arlan began researching the world of venture capital. When she came across the statistics that in the United States 90% of venture funding goes to white men, she was blown away. It became clear to her that bias was the reason so many promising startups failed. She was shocked by how many people of color, women and members from the LGBTQ community where being overlooked by investors. So much potential was being left on the table. Having that awareness pointed her in the direction of what she now considers her calling.

“I couldn’t believe that this disparity hadn’t already been addressed when there are so many intelligent, wealthy people around to address it. I was like, ‘this doesn’t make any sense, and why do I care?’ But it just kept pulling me, and there was nothing that could stop that pull. So, I answered it.”

Focusing on funding startups by the marginalized is not only making Arlan money, but it is waking other investors up. Backstage Capital has done over 160 deals so far, with investments in everything from online beauty retailers to satellite internet companies. The title of her book, It’s About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated into Your Greatest Advantage says it all. Thanks to Arlan, what were once liabilities are now considered assets.  Mark Cuban, billionaire investor and Shark Tank co-star, would agree with that. He normally doesn’t fund companies like Backstage Capital, but his trust in Arlan lead him to give $6 million to invest in any way they saw fit. 

When she interviewed him on her podcast, “Your First Million,” Arlan asked Mark why he invested in Backstage Capital. 

“You go places that I can’t get to. And there are doors you walk through that I don’t even know exist. Historically the best investments come, where nobody else is looking. That’s it in a nutshell.”

Arlan says she’s frequently asked the same questions she asked herself when she started Backstage Capital, “How do I know if I should keep going on with this company, on this project, or this mission?”

Her answer always is, “If you close your eyes and can’t imagine the world without the thing you are working on and want it to exist whether you get to enjoy the benefits of it or not, then not only is it important to you, it is your calling.”

Growing up seen and accepted allowed Arlan to trust her instincts. In many ways the world was weighted against her, but having Earline for a mother softened the blow. Her mother’s love gave her permission to shine. Any believer in destiny would have no problem following the thread of providence woven throughout Arlan’s life. It seems that at some level Arlan sees it too. When we spoke, she told me that all of her life experiences are an education built just for her. No lesson has gone unlearned on Arlan’s journey. Nothing has been wasted. Her life’s purpose is wrapped up in being exactly who she is. 

“I often talk about being authentically yourself. It’s emblazoned across my wall. It will be on a t-shirt eventually. What I’ve found over and over again is that any problem I have can only be solved by remaining true to myself. I don’t look for validation from the outside. I follow my inner compass.” 

As time goes on, Arlan is a little more open about the existence of God. She says, “It’s not that I don’t believe that one exists. It’s just that I don’t feel one. Today the way I find hope and keep going is in my belief that what I’m doing is right. And I believe right always wins.” It doesn’t matter whether she feels God or not. Something greater than Arlan Hamilton believes in her. I’ve heard Oprah Winfrey say that she is supported by a whole team of angels and guides. Atheist or not, I suspect the same holds true for Arlan.

*Coming up next month: Jenna Lamia, actress and a writer/producer for film and television. She serves as a consulting producer for NBC’s Good Girls and is appearing as “Judy Cooper” on SyFy’s hit series Resident Alien.

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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

Kimothy Joy: Metamorphosis

“I believe everybody’s light is bright as a child. It’s really bright and pure. And then slowly you are influenced by who everyone wants you to be. Over time if not nurtured and protected your light dims. And then there is nothing left of you to shine.” – Kimothy Joy

Kimothy Joy’s mom, Merri, had a huge personality. Her vibrance could not be contained. When she died of breast cancer in 2009, Kimothy was lost. Her mom’s dying words, “Go have fun, Kimmy,” seemed like an impossible task. Kimothy wasn’t ready to lose her best friend and anchor. She was only 25 years old. Up until then, things had been going along as planned. Shattered for the first time, Kimothy saw that those plans weren’t even made by her. “Losing my mom magnified my lack of self-awareness and identity. It sent me into a black hole of grief, self-destruction and eventually, on a quest to know my true self.” 

Kimothy began questioning everything she thought she knew. She felt like a Russian nesting doll. The real Kimothy had been covered up with layer upon layer of belief systems that had nothing to do with who she genuinely was. She had fit herself into a mold created by others. Kimothy Joy was a good girl. She had forfeited her soul for that title.

She had been taking directions from the outside for so long that she had no idea how to rekindle the connection within. Kimothy set out on a journey of self-discovery. Digging deep meant coming to terms with feelings that were hard to look at. For starters she wasn’t happy in her marriage. She was attracted to someone else. She readied herself to tell her high school sweetheart that she wanted a divorce. She was terrified of the flack she would get from the people around her. They had only been married for a year and a half. He was the right guy but not the right guy for her. Looking back Kimothy says deep inside she always knew that the marriage wasn’t going to last. “It was a small voice, and I just ignored it. But that voice was so clear in my mind, ‘This isn’t it.’ And I still got married.”

After her divorce and a few more relationships, Kimothy decided to hit pause on dating for a year. She could see that never being alone was a distraction from listening to herself. She learned to savor solitude, read more, travel solo and hang out with friends who energized her. She began painting with watercolors. Creating for enjoyment was a revelation. Previously Kimothy thought doing something just for fun was a waste of time. She had always felt so much pressure to make money that she never allowed herself to play. Watercolor and pen quickly became powerful tools for healing and self-discovery. Painting became an outlet to express her emotions that didn’t feel safe to talk about in the past. 

After the presidential election in 2016, healing herself through painting took on an even larger role in her life. Kimothy was shocked by what a woman running for president looked like in this country. The disrespect, shaming, and superficial sexist commentary pointed at Hillary Clinton horrified her. All of it. To rebuild hope within herself Kimothy began painting images of strong women throughout history. “I wanted to tap into their stories, their work, and their power.” She began posting portraits with quotations on Instagram to remind the collective of what females are made of. She was thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive response they got.

To Kimothy’s delight the Huffington Post began sharing her portraits. Next, the website, “Join the Uproar” reached out for permission to make her illustrations available as free downloads. The website was collecting feminist artwork that could be printed out and used on posters at women’s marches across the country. Without a moment’s hesitation Kimothy said, “Yes.” That generous act would soon land her a literary agent.

At the same time, Kimothy began shining a light on women, her soon-to-be agent, Cindy Uh, dedicated her career to amplifying diverse female voices. Cindy and her sister were planning to walk in the Women’s March in Washington D.C. that January. Downloading Kimothy’s art from “Join the Uproar,” they made signs using her images to carry at the event.

During the march, Cindy was asked so many times about Kimothy’s art that the night she returned home she looked her up online. In an email, Cindy told Kimothy that she really wanted to support her in making a book out of her women’s portraits. The email was waiting for Kimothy when she returned from the Denver Women’s March. She couldn’t believe what she was reading. “I thought, Oh my God, this is a dream! When I was painting those portraits, I actually envisioned them being made into a book. I had even put together a template of what it could look like. I did a cover and everything!” With Cindy as her agent, That’s What She Said: Wise Words from Influential Women was published in 2018. It’s design stayed true to Kimothy’s original concept.

Coming from the heart meant Kimothy was no longer taking directions from the outside. She was honoring what felt right to her. “Feelings are the breadcrumbs that lead you to where you need to go. Don’t judge them. Just follow the nudges. Tap into your inner being because it knows before you know.” 

There are a myriad of ways to do that, Kimothy discovered. Painting with watercolors is still at the top of her list. She makes a practice of turning off her electronic devices. The quiet leaves an opening for insights from the Universe to come in. Being in nature is another way she listens. But her most profound awarenesses come through meditation.

“I meditate daily, but in my own way. I never went to a workshop or anything. Maybe we should call meditating something else so it’s not so intimidating for everybody. Even going for a walk and listening to the wind blowing through the trees can be meditative. When you slow down you can hear the messages and cues from your inner being. Getting quiet, with no distractions is when I get lit up with ideas.” 

Kimothy says there is nothing inherently special about her. We all have gifts and talents. What sets her apart is she is willing to go within and  “follow the breadcrumbs.“ “When I began connecting to my inner light, my whole world expanded. Things that I never thought were possible happened and continue to happen when I keep coming from within.”

Sharing her good fortune is something that she feels called to do. 10% of the profits from her online shop go to organizations that work to empower women and girls. Kimothy passes on insights about life and her art to schools across the nation. In the past she spoke in person, today she is shifting to presentations on Zoom.  

“If I can minimize some of the suffering that I experienced when I was young, it’s so worth it. Usually it’s just as simple as telling students to, “Follow your bliss.” There’s so much to be found in that phrase. It is counterintuitive to what everybody else is teaching, especially to college kids. The old careers that appeared to be safe are no longer holding up. If you are going to make it up why not make a living by doing something that makes you feel alive? I wish I would have heard that message.”

Since her mom’s death, Kimothy’s life has opened up. Her wings are unfurled. She is now navigating the terrain of motherhood. She has a huge following on Instagram, a creative design firm and recently scored a deal for her second book. Rekindling the connection to her heart has changed everything. Since her mom’s passing, Kimothy has figured out that coming from her center and living in joy are one and the same. She has taken her mother’s dying words to “have fun” to heart. She had the word “joy” tattooed on her wrist, in her mom’s handwriting, as a reminder. Embracing life and living her truth are working well for her. Anyone ready to fly should be taking notes.

Coming up next: Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner at Backstage Capital, a seed investment fund that backs up underrepresented startup founders. Author of It’s About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated into Your Greatest Advantage

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Seth Avett: The Dynamics of Light

“I’ve seen the reward in my own life for accepting who I am.” – Seth Avett

I set my sights on talking to Seth Avett after hearing an interview with him. In it, Seth said that it took him eight years to write the song, No Hard Feelings. That gave me hope. You see, I struggle with how lengthy my creative process is. Whether I am painting an illustration or writing an essay, I’m slooowww. True my paintings are extremely detailed, but it seems that there is no good reason for my writing to dribble onto paper at a turtle’s pace. Over the years, I have frustrated myself by trying to speed things up and then beat myself up when I couldn’t. If Seth was okay with the length of time it took for his masterpiece to come to fruition, perhaps I could be okay with my process. Letting the still, small voice within have its way has paid off for him. 

When I got Seth on the phone, I was surprised that he immediately understood the premise behind my Porch Light Profiles. Most creatives that I interview are a little confused about what “living from their inner light” means, even though that’s exactly what they are doing. But not Seth. He admitted to, after some trial and error, coming from the heart with The Avett Brothers. 

At the beginning of their musical collaboration Seth and his brother, Scott, assumed that they would need to become something that was against their nature. They put their attention on being a rock band, like Sound Garden or At the Drive-In.

As Seth put it, “Basically we tried to be like something we had seen on TV.  And then when that fell apart, Scott and I had to start over. We simplified and started writing songs leaning towards what came to us naturally, from the actual region that we’re from. It all kind of started falling into place immediately.”

There were a couple of milestones Seth credits to bringing about this shift in focus. One was discovering American roots music from North Carolina. The other was meeting bluegrass legend, Doc Watson. Seth had met Doc when he was around 14 but didn’t apply the knowledge he had acquired from him until some years later. Witnessing Doc play acoustic guitar and sing on stage, opened up Seth’s mind to what makes a powerful musical performance. Power doesn’t come from volume. Power comes from character. 

Seth learned early on that the only thing he could offer to the world was himself. He never bought into the notion that getting a degree and then plugging into a 9 to 5 job was the only pathway to success. Getting to know and be himself is what turned out to be his formula for success.

“Right, totally! And that is at the root of every, every great thing there is. The reason Stevie Wonder is Stevie Wonder is because he was himself, you know? And Tom Waits and Randy Newman. All the great ones have found a way to just be themselves and find the most purest way to present from who they genuinely are.”

Early on in our conversation it was apparent that Seth has a spiritual foundation. You can hear it in the Avett Brother’s lyrics, too. I think that’s why they have such a strong core audience. More than ever people ache for that. Seth agreed.

“Well, I know I certainly do. I am infinitely benefited by discovering and really spending time with music that’s honest. And that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily positive. I need that too, but it’s good to listen to and hear the darkness. The darkness is true, and I think it’s good to take part in that. It’s important to take part in all of the dynamics of light. I personally need music, and not just to tap my feet to. It’s part of my spiritual practice and my discipline. I need it on a daily basis. It’s just part of my health so I enjoy being in a position where I might be able to provide some of that as well. I hope I can. I feel like it’ll be one of the great honors of my life if I’m able to take part in an effort that provides that for any number of people.”

Giving back is part of the bedrock of Seth’s upbringing. His grandpa was a minister. For Seth and his brother, music is their own spin on bringing people together. Albeit in a different, more expansive way.  “Well, we’re very thankful to be a part of the flock. We’re thankful to be connected to the people that come to our shows and let us know it’s important to them. They in a very real way, are giving us fuel.”

Seth honors that there are many pathways to God. He describes his spiritual practice as being  wide open. 

“I believe that I have an indescribable, inarticulate dialogue with God. I don’t hear voices though,” Seth jokes. “I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I do feel that I have an ongoing dialog with Providence and I use any spiritual guide I can get my hands on. Some of them are Christ’s teachings or are based on the words of the Buddha. And Ghandi, certainly. And Martin Luther King.” And he adds laughing, “Andy Griffith.”

With our interview winding down I had made my way to the question I was hoping would help bring me peace.

“I do love your song No Hard Feelings. To me it encompasses all you’ve spoken about. I heard you say that it took eight years to write. When you were writing it, were you ok with the song coming at its own pace? It sounds like the first lines were downloaded  and then you gave the song a rest. Later on another phrase would come. Is that how it worked?”

“Yes. The first few lines of No Hard Feelings came to me immediately. I was almost in tears, you know? It sounds ridiculous to think about starting to weep about what you’re writing. You know, the song is a death letter. To think about everything going on in the world without you, to think about being alone and stepping away from all these people you love so much…. It’s difficult, you know? The first few lines came to me while I was driving through Statesville, North Carolina. I’m left-handed,  so I’ve got a piece of notebook paper on the console. I’m driving with my right-hand on the steering wheel, crossing my arm over, trying not to wreck and feeling super emotional while I’m driving. And trying to continue to drive back home through the mountains.

Writing No Hard Feelings was a very intense experience, and I was not gonna rush it. It took eight years to write because it took eight years for it to visit me enough times for me to understand what the song was in its entirety.”

Seth went on, “You know some songs are just about having fun or are avenues for being clever. This is a bit of a cliché thing to say, but there are some songs that are more of a channeling than a creation. Sue, I had a phone call from a dear friend about a month ago. She works at the airport in Charlotte. When I answered the phone, I was expecting her say that my flight was overbooked or something. She called to tell me that there was an employee at the airport who passed away. He was loved by everyone, just loved. Adored. And 500 employees from the airport went to his funeral because they were so affected and so connected to this person. She let me know the only song that was played at the funeral was No Hard Feelings.

Her call came at the very beginning of the day. I was not in a deeply spiritual place at the moment. It immediately hit me and I slowed down and stopped. I just listened to her. She made me promise that I would thank anyone that was involved in the recording of that song. To let them know how much it meant to her and to all the people at the funeral. So I promised her I would. Then it hit me. I realized that song is for everyone. Even from the earliest moments of writing it, it was not mine. You know?  It’s like the song Hallelujah. It’s not Leonard Cohen’s and it’s not Jeff Buckley’s. It’s not anybody’s song who sings it. That one is for everyone.”

I think that Seth is right about that. Some songs, or paintings, or books are for the whole world. I think it’s remarkable that he was trusting enough to not to try to force the song into being. He allowed it to flow. At its own pace. As he matured the song was crafted from a broader perspective. Life experiences shift the way you think. 

“I’m thinking about how I would’ve treated that song when I was 22. But you know, God would never have given it to me then,” Seth laughs. “I believe you don’t have access to anything that you’re not ready to have access to.”

That was all I needed to know. It’s not necessary to try and force your creative project into being. Whether it’s meant to be shared with the masses or for your eyes only, let it unfold at its own pace. Creativity is a gift to be enjoyed and is always completed in perfect timing. 

A couple of months later as I watched The Avett Brothers perform from front row seats, I noticed something. More than once Seth placed his hand on his heart when the words he sang especially moved him. Yes, coming from the heart serves Seth Avett well. 

No Hard Feelings – The Avett Brothers

When my body won’t hold me anymore 

And it finally lets me free 

Will I be ready? 

When my feet won’t walk another mile 

And my lips give their last kiss goodbye 

Will my hands be steady?

When I lay down my fears 

My hopes and my doubts 

The rings on my fingers 

And the keys to my house 

With no hard feelings

When the sun hangs low in the west 

And the light in my chest 

Won’t be kept held at bay any longer 

When the jealousy fades away 

And it’s ash and dust for cash and lust 

And it’s just hallelujah 

And love in thoughts and love in the words 

Love in the songs they sing in the church 

And no hard feelings

Lord knows they haven’t done 

Much good for anyone 

Kept me afraid and cold 

With so much to have and hold

Mmh

When my body won’t hold me anymore 

And it finally lets me free 

Where will I go? 

Will the trade winds take me south 

Through Georgia grain or tropical rain 

Or snow from the heavens?

Will I join with the ocean blue 

Or run into the savior true 

And shake hands laughing 

And walk through the night 

Straight to the light 

Holding the love I’ve known in my life 

And no hard feelings

Lord knows they haven’t done 

Much good for anyone 

Kept me afraid and cold 

With so much to have and hold 

Under the curving sky 

I’m finally learning why 

It matters for me and you 

To say it and mean it too 

For life and its loveliness 

And all of its ugliness 

Good as it’s been to me 

I have no enemies 

I have no enemies 

I have no enemies 

*Coming up next: Author and artist extraordinaire, Kimothy Joy.

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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

Scott Avett: The Mining of a Soul

“There is no question – God created me as an artist – do I know? No just suspect. But my suspicion is strong.” – Scott Avett

Before I made my way to my seat to watch The Avett Brothers perform, I was given clearance to go backstage and have an impromptu photo session with Scott and Seth. Whenever possible, I like to base my portrait painting on pictures that I take. We were led into a windowless room when Scott had the idea that we should go outside. The lighting would be so much better. I appreciated his understanding of the artistic process. My friend, Danette, was along for moral support and began telling the brothers what a fabulous painter I am. They were instantly curious about what medium I used. They acted as if it were understood that I’m no amateur. I liked the level of respect they gave me without ever seeing a stroke I had painted. Clearly, Scott and Seth had been raised right. They reminded me of my own boys, unfailingly cordial to their elders. The thought occurred to me that I wouldn’t mind being their mom. Then it hit me, “Is there such a thing as a ‘mom crush?’”

Even though the brothers are a duo, I am doing two separate profiles on them. I’m going to start by focusing on Scott in this one. He lives in rural North Carolina, adjacent to the farm were he was raised. He and his siblings all have land connected to their parent’s. To Scott the land is sacred. There is a kind of comfort born in knowing that your children roam the same woods that you did as a child. When he is not on the road, he has time to devote himself to what could be called the canvas of his home.

“I was just talking to my wife about that yesterday. Since we aren’t touring, I’ve shifted my focus into getting involved with the farm that we live on. I was seeing it just like I would see making an album. I was expressing myself with a piece of land, just like I express myself through music or art. It’s just another creative medium, another approach, another thing to work with.” 

Besides Scott’s family dwelling, there is a small ranch style home on his property. His art studio is housed in it. Painting is another medium he makes use of when he isn’t traveling. He is an accomplished visual artist. Now in his forties, Scott is mindful of giving time to each of his creative gifts. On the day we spoke, he had scheduled the hours between 8:30 and 11:00 a.m. to paint. Without discipline he admits he could easily be distracted with sound checks, phone calls and the like. Scott is training himself to concentrate on the job at hand. “It’s all about the efficiency of time,” he says. “It’s what I’ve got to do to make the space to let the magic happen.”

And his paintings are magic. Scott’s art comes from the depths of his soul. He creates from what he honestly experiences. “That is how God works through us. We have to trust that.”

His oversized portraits of the people he loves most (himself included) stop onlookers in their tracks. Scott’s most often painted subjects are his wife, Sarah, and their three children. Although documented in banal settings his brood looks anything but ordinary. I marvel at Scott’s ability to encapsulate energy with his brush strokes. And in the age of body obsession and plastic surgery I marvel at the vulnerability of Sarah to allow herself to be captured as she is. Not many women would permit their image to be on display without make-up, breasts exposed. The honesty of it is somehow comforting. If the real Sarah is enough we all are enough.

“Motherhood” 2012
“Fatherhood” 2013

In the loft of the ranch, is a recording studio. Plenty of magic materializes up there too. Recently the band released their eleventh album, “The Third Gleam.” The songs were written before the pandemic and unrest of 2020 but you’d never know it. The lyrics give voice to the collective struggle of humanity making sense of a world unhinged. The album does not leave the listener without hope. The chorus of track 4, “Back into the Light,” is a worthy mantra for anyone who feels overwhelmed. Listening to Scott and Seth sing it is a sure fire way to keep despair in check:

“Sometimes I don’t see love in anything

And just when I surrender to my shadow

I snap out of it, and step into the light

I step back into the light.”

Having crossed the threshold into the second half of his life, Scott has become an increasingly thoughtful man. He is deeply spiritual but not in the conventional way. Lately he has been immersing himself in the teachings of Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr. When I ask which religion he subscribes to he responds, “I think I would say what Woody Guthrie said when he was asked that question, ‘All of them.’”

Scott’s take on listening to the heart is that it’s the same as listening to God. He admits that he hasn’t always honored that connection with much discipline. “Getting involved in the general idea of following the inner voice, that’s a very recent endeavor for me. But I think that I have been nonstop dabbling in it forever. You know, for as long as I’ve lived.“

Having parents like Jim and Susie were the cornerstone for what would eventually become  heart-centered living for Scott. He was always supported in being himself. There were never any expectations for what career path he should take. Hard work was honored in their household. Scott and his siblings were encouraged to follow their instincts while their parents simultaneously followed their’s. The family attended church on Sundays. In order for their children to believe in themselves they needed to believe in something greater than them.

Scott is grateful for the stable foundation he was given. “We’re all so privileged that our folks loved us and said you are a sweet child of this planet. A child of God. You are. You are. And go be that.”

With that kind of support, Scott never had a need for a master plan. He was comfortable coming from his center and going through the doors that felt right to him. To many, not having your future mapped out, sounds counter productive. Not so for Scott Avett. He toured with his brother for the first time when he was twenty-six. He was in the midst of shutting down a gallery that he’d opened. He walked through the door of expressing himself musically without giving thought to how much time it would take from his career as a visual artist. If he had considered that he may have done things differently. 

“So I guess in that regard, not having a master plan and focusing on what was before me worked for me. I always needed to be free to know that I was following an instinct and creating for some purpose that I saw as sincere, that I saw as true to my inner voice.” 

In the 2018 documentary, “May it Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers,” viewers are given an inside look at the band from their origins to a collaboration with legendary record producer, Rick Rubin. At the closing of it, their father gives evidence as to why his sons are so grounded.

“They have a job; this job happens to be making music, and they happen to be fairly popular with it. That ain’t the end of the world. It’s nice to be successful at your job. I mean if you were an accountant, or you were a plumber, or you were whatever, it’s nice to be successful at it, but you can’t let that go to your head.”

When the end of my 30 minute interview was approaching, Scott’s publicist broke in to say it was time to wrap things up. Being reeled in always makes me nervous and I told him so. I had so many more questions I would have loved to ask him. Instead of ending the conversation Scott extended it. He said, “Don’t feel rushed. Let’s do another. Let’s do one more before you have to go.” I was touched. It confirmed to me that what I was told is true. Scott Avett is a kind man.

I told him, “Originally my final question was going to be, ‘Is doing what we love and answering our calling the same thing?’  But talking to you made me wonder if our true calling is just being ourselves. Everything else stems from that. Does that make sense to you? Can you give me some feedback on that?” 

“Yeah it does. It does. I do think you are dead on, Sue. I think regardless of what my calling is I’ve got to be true to myself. I’ve got to be myself, and one step further, I’ve  got to go out there and try to do things that have love at their core. But make no mistake, I’ve got to serve me first, you know? I have to. And that doesn’t always look like love to the world, but it looks like love to me. 

Yep, it’s official. I have a “mom crush” on The Avett Brothers.

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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

*Coming up next: Singer-songwriter, Seth Avett, member of the American folk rock band, The Avett Brothers.

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Brandi Carlile: Coming From the Heart

For me, I started answering the call at such a young age that I’m mixed up with what I’m called to do and what I love. – Brandi Carlile

I have never known anyone whose parents approved of them dropping out of school until I talked to Brandi Carlile. No one in her immediate family finished high school. She explains it like this, “It was one of those familial things where it just happens, you know?” By the time Brandi was a teenager she was pretty much playing music full time. It was getting harder and harder for her to see school as an element in her future. So she left.

A lack of a diploma does not translate into Brandi being uneducated. It’s obvious when chatting with her that she is well read. Poetry is woven throughout the lyrics of her songs. I am so moved by the beauty of her music I admitted to being a little starstruck to her. “Oh my goodness, no need for that!” she said. “I’m just a boring old mom sitting here in my pajamas.”

There is truth in that. Brandi does make the case for ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things. She was raised in rural Washington state and for part of her childhood lived in a trailer on a dirt road. Yet she was gifted with a scenario that many of us long for. She grew up surrounded by love.

The confidence born from being cherished made it easy for Brandi to move forward with her goal to be a performer. She never had to take the time to build up her self-esteem or dim her light. “My parents and grandparents treated me like an adult and like what I said mattered. They didn’t smirk or smile at my dreams or things that I couldn’t control in my life – like being gay.”

Growing up, Brandi assumed her love of playing the guitar and singing meant that she would one day be a rock star. She now sees sharing her music as just an aspect of her calling. “I’m more of an entertainer than I am a singer and I’m more of a singer than a songwriter. But they are all a means to an end, which is just to be with and love people.” 

The Looking Out Foundation is extension of that love. Brandi, along with band members, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, founded it in 2008 to empower those without a voice. Learning about Elton John and his Aids Foundation in a fifth grade book report made Brandi associate the heroic qualities of celebrity with activism. “Since then every artist I became infatuated with has had a heavy philanthropic angle.” Recently Brandi celebrated her 39th birthday with a virtual concert and fundraiser for two equality advocacy groups. Phil and Tim performed alongside her. They ended up raising over $100,000.

Attending one of Brandi’s concerts is like being in the center of the frequency of love. Her hope is for the show to open up parts of her audience that have been shut down. She wants to make them laugh, but also to make them feel comfortable crying. Her performance is a give and take kind of thing. “I’m absolutely being fed every day that I do this job. I need that, you know, to feel like a whole person.”

A big part of who Brandi is can be found in her faith. When I asked her what her spiritual practice is she said, “Well you could call me a Christian, but I don’t really need to use that word anymore just because I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s got a lot of baggage attached to it. I don’t think Jesus requires it. Brandi admits to having a problem with the box the Conservative Right has placed God into. She believes, “He is bigger than our holidays, bigger than our rules, bigger than our cultural slant, bigger than the color of our skin and all the things that we use to define God, you know? She has studied the bible and is disillusioned with how it has been interpreted. 

“There’s a whole movement of change around it. There’s a reformed ideology and a way to interpret the Bible that I feel is more authentic. But it requires context, and vision. And a love of language. When it’s tainted with a puritanical, Western lens it can become really militaristic. And that never was the way the text was meant to be interpreted. It’s much more poetic than that.”

Brandi knows first hand how biblical teachings can be used to hurt others. It happened to her was when she was 15. She was at church waiting to be baptized when her pastor refused to go through with it because she was gay. Pastor Tim waited until all of her friends and family were present before he made that decision. As painful as her pastor’s actions were, Brandi came to terms with the need for forgiveness. Today she shares her story to help other LBGTQ kids who feel shunned. Brandi addressed Pastor Tim on social media, “I’d like you to know that I still love you and that I understand we’re all on a journey together, trying our best to walk through the world with honor and dignity – but what I want you to know most of all is that you did not damage my faith. Not in God, not in humanity and not in myself.” Posting her feelings was just part of her healing process. She continued to work through her heartbreak in her 2018 Grammy award winning album, “By the Way, I Forgive You.” 

Right around the age of 27 another calling began to form inside Brandi. She realized that playing music was only a part of her life’s purpose. She was ready settle down and have a nest of some kind. “I just woke up one day and I was like, oh my God all I do is tour and sing.” She married her wife Catherine Shepard in 2012. They welcomed their daughter, Evangeline, in 2014 and their second daughter, Elijah, in 2018.

“Oh, I’ll never hit the big time without you, 

So they can keep their treasure and their ties to the machine, 

‘Cause I am the mother of Evangeline” – Brandi Carlile, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, The Mother

Brandi’s declaration of love in the song, The Mother is so beautiful it gives me chills when I listen to it. I told Brandi when her first born arrived she must have had a shift in focus. What was essential in her life had changed. She still wanted to share her gifts with the world but her ego didn’t require her to be a mega rock star.

“Yeah, you interpreted that perfectly. That’s exactly what I’m saying. I knew that if I were to take what I do to another level, there would be a separation required. Not just physical, but emotional, because it would take more focus and it would get more complicated. I’m not trying to sound complacent, but I’m extraordinarily happy with my life as it is.”

Based on a photo from Brandi’s Instagram feed, my watercolor of Evangeline.

“The world has stood against us, made us mean to fight for you

And when we chose your name we knew that you’d fight the power too” – Brandi Carlile, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, The Mother

She and Catherine named their first-born Evangeline as a manifestation of Brandi’s Christ-centered faith. “I wanted to take the word back from the evangelicals and make it mean the good news again. You know, the love of people, the love of equality and the love of one another.”

They chose the name of the prophet Elijah for their second daughter.  Brandi says, “He was a truth-teller and signifies the returning of the light. I feel like the more we contemplate faith and God, the closer we grow to God, despite who you call God or who God is to you. And so, I like for my kids to be a reminder of that, you know?”

That made sense to me. I shared with Brandi that my daughter, Bridget, was pregnant with her first and had painstakingly chosen the name Bernadette for her baby because it means “brave as bear.” She wanted her girl to be a force to be reckoned with. 

“That’s so tough!,” said Brandi. “I told my wife I don’t want a cute name for either one of the kids. They’ve  got to have strong, powerful names. Where would Hilary Clinton be if her name was Candy? Or fucking Brandi?I mean I was given the most 80s pop-princess name and I’ve been fighting it my whole life!”

It was time to wrap up my interview. I had one final question for Brandi, “Is it possible for everyone to make a living by following their heart?” 

“Oh man that’s a good question,” she said. “I think that you can make a life by following your heart but not always a living. And I don’t think that you can be defined as successful if you’re not truly following your heart.”

I think that may be the best answer I’ve ever gotten for that question. After I hung up the phone, I felt buoyed up. It occurred to me that Brandi Carlile is more than a dose of positive energy. She is a light.

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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

*Coming up next: Singer-songwriter, and fine artist, Scott Avett, member of the American folk rock band, The Avett Brothers.

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Dolly Parton: Dreams Begin in Books

 

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“Inspiring kids to love to read became my mission.” – Dolly Parton

I waited over six months for my phone interview with Dolly Parton. When we finally spoke, it felt surreal when she said in her familiar twang, “Is this a girl named Sue?” Talking to this American icon was like having a conversation with someone that I intimately knew but had never met. When she asked me what book I was reading, I told her I would get to that at the end of the interview. With only 15 minutes allotted to question her, I wanted to make sure I didn’t run out of time.

Most people are familiar with Dolly’s multifaceted career. Truth be told, she is almost as well known for her looks as she is for her singing and songwriting. She jokes that “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Her fans have always seen right past the superficial and connected to her heart. And she has a huge one. 

One of Dolly’s proudest accomplishments is one of which many devotees are unaware. Inspired by her father’s inability to read or write, Dolly established her Imagination Library program for children living in the county in which she grew up. Her vision was to foster a love of reading among preschoolers by mailing them a specially selected book each month. Today that program spans four countries. Since its inception in 1995, it has given away more than 133 million books.

Dolly’s love of books began with her mother reading her the Bible as they cuddled. She was the fourth child born to her parents, Avie and Robert. Dolly and her eleven siblings were raised in a one room cabin in the hills of East Tennessee. What her family lacked in material things, they made up for in love.

Knowing of Dolly’s spirituality, my first question to her was whether she thought her childhood was illustrative of the Bible verse, Romans 8:28. “And we know that all things work together for the good to those who love God.” On the surface, her father’s illiteracy denoted adversity, but it could be looked upon as a gift in disguise. I wanted to know, had he been able to read, would there be an Imagination Library?

“You know what? That is a very good point! And it is so strange that you quoted that scripture. I swear to you that today I was looking out the window and I was thinking of that very scripture, and for you to repeat it is very odd. But you’re right – if Daddy had been able to read and write, the Imagination Library probably would not have happened.”

Watching her father struggle deeply affected Dolly. She remembers her mother having to sign her school papers because her father was too embarrassed to try and scribble his name on them. Creating a program to support literacy was the best way she could honor him. Robert Parton was prouder of Dolly’s Imagination Library than of any of her other accomplishments. He loved that children referred to her as the “book lady.” 

“We thought Daddy was the smartest person in the world, and he was! That’s why I think the Imagination Library meant the world to him. It gave him an outlet. He really had wonderful ideas and input for me because he knew how it felt not to be able to read. We were never ashamed of Daddy. He was sometimes ashamed that he couldn’t read and write but we never made him feel like that ‘cause he was the best.” 

Her father’s illiteracy wasn’t the only thing working together for the good in Dolly’s life. In many ways, growing up poor was the perfect setup for her to be the “book lady.” The struggles of her childhood made her keenly aware that not having books in the home often translated into feelings of unworthiness. A child may be brilliant, but without being read to, they will be behind in school. Part of her Imagination Library’s mission is for all children to know that they matter. One of her most famous songs, The Coat of Many Colors, is about her experience of not fitting in when she was a grade schooler. She feels fortunate to have been surrounded by a love that softened the blow.

“Having such a loving, accepting mother made us all feel special. All little kids were special in our world. If I hadn’t had the good mother I did, ‘The Coat of Many Colors,’ and all the things that we do for kids probably wouldn’t have happened. So I do think that life can be part of a pattern for good for those that do believe.”

Because she is such an advocate for children, it is a little surprising that Dolly and her husband, Carl, never had any of their own. Although, if you look at it from a higher perspective it makes perfect sense.

“I have thought about that often through the years. If I had had children of my own, I probably wouldn’t have been able or willing to be as devoted, and spend as much time with other peoples’ children. So I really do think that was meant to be as well. That, you know, we didn’t have kids so everybody’s kids could be mine.”

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I painted this in 1999. The girls in it were supposed to represent a young Dolly and Oprah. I knew that, like me, books had been the launching pad for their dreams.

Without being exposed to books, it’s hard to say if Dolly’s career would have unfolded as it did. Books fueled her imagination. They showed her a world that she wouldn’t have known existed without them. She credits them for helping her to dream a bigger dream.

“As a child I loved books. You know, I don’t ever remember learning to read. It just seemed like I always could. Because we were poor and there were so many of us, we didn’t have books outside of the Bible. I used to love the smell of books, the touch of books, and the pictures that I saw in books. I was so fascinated about the world beyond the mountains and just what all that was about. I think books really trigger the imagination of a child. I mean, what could be more exciting than the things that pictures and words can create in a child’s mind?”

Over the years, Dolly has learned that books do more than educate and entertain her. Reading makes an opening for the light to come in. By absorbing the author’s creativity she fuels her own.

“When I read, I think, ‘Oh my gosh! How did they ever think of that?” I’m just amazed at the gift that God has given them. When something they’ve written touches me I think, ‘I hope I can do that with my writing.’ I really try to get into what they’re thinking and where their heart is.”Dolly-Parton-Childrens-Album450A big part of Dolly’s success is her ability to see life through the eyes of a child. In 2017 she used that gift to make a children’s album, “I Believe in You.” All of its proceeds benefit her Imagination Library. On the cover she is pictured in a blue gown with butterfly wings. Butterflies carry a special significance for her. She still recalls wandering off and chasing them in the fields when she was young.

“I always loved butterflies! They were so beautiful and seemed so harmless. They’d just flit around, and I kind of related to them in my own personality, I think. Just trying to be colorful and gentle, and curious. You know the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly is something I identify with. Come out of your shell and shine. Be all the colors you can be! I’m a girl of many colors.”

With that last answer, Dolly was being summoned by her team. My fifteen minutes with her were up. Before disconnecting, I answered her question about what I was reading, “Right now the book on my nightstand is a biography of Joan of Arc. She was a true, true badass. Her connection to God gave her the strength to do what she felt called to do. Kind of like you, Dolly.”

She laughed, “Lord, I’m no saint! I’m a scoundrel and a saint. I don’t claim to be anything other than a person that’s trying to do as much good as they can. I’m more like the ‘Little Engine That Could.’ I thought I could. I thought I could, and I did!”

That must be all it takes. One little, colorful person sharing their light with another and then another and then another…. And before you know it the whole sky is lit up.  

*Watch Dolly read “The Little Engine that Could” on “Goodnight With Dolly.”

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*Coming up next: Grammy award winning, singer-songwriter, Brandi Carlile

Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Gordana Biernat: #ShineOn

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When you are tapped into the unconditional love of ‘All That Is’ you are tapped into your true self. And when you know that, nothing in this world can touch you.

Gordana Biernat makes her home in Sweden. Her preferred method for an interview to the States is Skype. No phoners for her. She wants to look into your eyes while she talks to you. When our session began, I couldn’t help but blurt out that she is even more beautiful than in her photographs. She thanked me and said, “ So are you! I do feel beautiful from the inside, and I think everyone that is connected to their core are experienced as beautiful people. That’s why I say ‘so are you.’ I can sense it. There’s something in the energy coming from you.” 

I set my sights on profiling Gordana after I became one of her Twitter followers. She has close to 375,000 of them. Her tweets are sound bites on the perception of reality and consciousness. Although simple, they resonate with the heart as truth. Just ask Oprah. She included Gordana in her SuperSoul 100 Teachers – a group of awakened leaders and visionaries who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity. Her book, #KnowtheTruth was published in 2017 to wide acclaim.

Oprah and Gordana

Oprah and Gordana

After talking to her, it was clear that she was not raised to be the empowered women she is today. So many of the people I’ve interviewed for this series were launched by beautiful, supportive families. Not Gordana. She was brought up under the regime of a harsh father. He believed the only role for a women was to be in service to the patriarchy. When she was four months old, he pressured her mother to give Gordana to her aunt in Serbia to raise. That abandonment turned out to be a blessing for Gordana. Her aunt was a beautiful soul. “She was amazing. I loved that woman because she knew exactly who she was. She was a strong woman. She was my father, my mother, my everything. When my parents came to take me back to Sweden, when I was six, I really didn’t want to go. I couldn’t fit in with my parents, I didn’t feel them.”

Thus began the dark years of Gordana’s youth.

“My father was a very dominant man. He thought that his way of seeing reality was the only way of seeing reality. I was a girl. That meant I shouldn’t have an education. I should be in the kitchen. I had to do exactly what he wanted me to do.” In her spare time (which she didn’t have much of), she read. She loved wondering about metaphysical things. Where do the stars come from? Who am I? Why am I here?

One of the most misleading beliefs we have in our society is that our thoughts do not matter. The truth is that thoughts become matter. – Gordana Biernat

One crisp, cold winter night when Gordana was eleven she lay in her bed pondering.

She couldn’t fall asleep so she allowed her imagination to take her to the outer rings of the Universe. “I wanted to see where the night sky ended. If I pushed my mind, could I see what was beyond it? The more I pushed, the more galaxies and stars popped up.”

She thought the ‘real’ night sky may give her a clue. She looked through her window, over the rooftops, but there was no ending in site. “That’s when it hit me! The stars out there and the stars in my mind are made of the same stuff. There is no difference between the thoughts inside my head and in the reality outside it.”                                                                                                                                                               

That realization sent a tingling through Gordana’s body. Everything in our physical existence was a thought first. Everything. She knew what she had experienced wasn’t safe to share with anyone. It must be her secret. Grasping how powerful her mind is helped Gordana survive those dark years. Even so, growing up under her father’s regime left her exhausted and disheartened.

When Gordana was 19, her life took on a new direction. Seeing her future husband, Gregor, standing in a doorway changed everything. “When I first saw him, I could feel my heart jump. I heard a voice in my head say, ‘It’s him!’ which means I must have recognized him. We both felt a connection on a soul level that remains to this day”

Even a bad childhood is a treasure because you can always use it in order to help others. – Gordana Biernat

Feeling loved and appreciated by Gregor gave Gordana the space to let go of the anger she had for her father. To keep the bitterness at bay, she had to distance herself from him.  When she moved out of her father’s house, he was furious. She was no longer alive to him. Gordana now sees his reaction as a gift. “I think that the years of silence from his side were one of the best things that he could have done. It gave me time to heal.”

Gordana gives Gregor much of the credit for who she is today. “He has been like an angel watching over me. Every single day he has reminded me of my beautiful soul. When I talked to my husband about what I grew up with, and he saw it, I could release it. I didn’t have to keep it anymore.”

Gordana and Gregor

Gordana and Gregor

Making the shift from the worldview she had been indoctrinated with under her father’s rule to who she is today happened over time. Gordana eventually came to the realization that by absorbing her father’s belief system she was creating his reality. Not hers. She decided she must begin to trust the “soft inner voice of her soul.”

Do not pretend. Because in the end, being YOU is what you came here to do. – Gordana Biernat

At 31, another person came on the scene that pushed Gordana’s healing to an even higher level. Her son, Hubert Maximilian, was born. She remembers the first time she held him in her arms and looked into his eyes. “I saw the best version of myself in his eyes. I felt that if I don’t know who I am, how will I help this child know who he is in the world? I made a sacred vow to myself that I have to be authentic. And that’s when I started this journey back to finding who am I and why I am here.”

Going from being a new mother to becoming a thought leader took years in the making. When Hubert became more independent, Gordana began a career working as a facilitator of leadership workshops. Although her job was lucrative, she could feel that she had strayed from her true self. All the material she had to write and memorize was stifling. She longed to speak from her heart.

One day, while sitting in their garden Gordana told Gregor of her frustrations. His response was for her to share her truth with the world on Twitter. Revealing her soul on social media was a stretch for her. It was a chancy move, but she was ready to take a leap.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God! If I tweet my unfiltered thoughts then I won’t have a job anymore.’ But I did just that, and it actually set me free. Now I’m doing exactly what I want to do. My purpose has become to help people realize how powerful and unique they are. I don’t need to memorize things. I can just allow my truth to flow through me. Following my inner guidance, following my passion is what lead me to this.”

Another one of Gordana’s passions is her family. She has never questioned that spending time with her husband and son are part of her soul’s purpose. “My love for for them is primary. For me there is nothing in this world that comes before that.” Nourishing that love adds to her energy. It leaves an opening for even more creativity to flow through her.

Thinking is a brain activity; knowing is a gut feeling. – Gordana Biernat

Gordana believes that we all have an inner guidance system. It is our connection to our Source. Coming from our center is what allows our light to shine. No matter how disconnected we are we can all learn how to rekindle that flame. In her book she says, “Every time you deny a desire, ignore a passion, neglect a true calling or silence a truth within you, your spirit fades. Follow your bliss!” Taking our cues from the outside is a slow death. We miss our life’s purpose when we do.

In her early years, Gordana viewed the world through a portal of fear. She believed if she wasn’t afraid that meant she was happy. She has outgrown that philosophy.“Today I understand that life isn’t about dodging fear. Life is about actively seeking joy.” Following your bliss and following your inner guidance are the same thing. Living from the heart puts your life on a whole new trajectory. The clouds part to reveal a future without limits. #ShineOn

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*Coming up next: Grammy award winning, singer-songwriter, Dolly Parton.

Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Valerie June: Shine On You Crazy Diamond

IMG_7281-Editmoth_edited-2I feel called to share light and to shine through my art.” – Valerie June

I was delighted when Valerie June’s rep told me that Valerie was on board to be interviewed for the series of profiles I’m writing. I am a big fan of her music. Her lyrics intrigue me. They are a sure sign that she is connected to a higher power. I wanted to learn more about that connection and how it moves her through life. She is a stunningly beautiful woman, but her soul easily outshines her physical appearance. Talking to Valerie is like having a conversation with your favorite guru in funky packaging. She is an evolved soul. Her sweet southern drawl reveals someone who has no pretenses. She has worked hard to overcome her doubts about who she is.

Born Valerie June Hockett, Valerie June, is an American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Memphis, Tennessee. Her sound encompasses a mixture of folk, blues, gospel, soul, country, Appalachian and bluegrass. She is signed on with Concord Music Group worldwide.

Valerie was raised in a loving close-knit family. Her parents encouraged her to dream. They advised her to put her energies into something that lit her up. At the same time, to be safe, they nudged her in the direction of college. 

“They never really pushed us to become anything in life other than just good people. I feel like my parents always followed their hearts, and so then that was my earthly start to it.”

Valerie is the quintessential artist. Not only does she play a multitude of stringed instruments, she writes songs, poetry and loves to draw and paint. Before her career as a musician unfolded, she found many less creative ways to support herself. Even so, Valerie found contentment.

“I’ve had so many jobs in my life. I tried to do all of them from an inner place. I just feel like you’ve gotta have a lot of heart, and a lot of spirit and soul in what you do, or else what’s the point? So even when I was cleaning toilets – it was like, you know, this is my heart right now. I gotta give it everything I’ve got.”

Cleaning houses is where Valerie developed a spiritual practice that she carries with her to this day. She needed something to occupy her mind while she worked so she began using affirmations to keep herself in a positive place. 

“As I would go dust a house, or vacuum, I’d be saying, ‘Thank you Goddess for I am now beautiful. Thank you Goddess because I am now confident. Thank you because I’m now respectful. Thank you because I’m now mindful. Thank you because I’m now gentle.’ I felt everyday I’ve got to have something to keep me rising, keep lifting me up because discouragement is always waiting.”

Valerie uses those affirmations to this day to fortify herself from the challenges that come her way. She has learned that you have to protect your dreams. When she and her ex-husband first started playing in Memphis in her early 20’s, somebody ripped up a dollar bill, and threw it in their tip jar. 

She laughs, “My ex-husband took it out, and taped it up and put it on the wall and said, ‘Not everyone is going to like what you do.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.’ So what’s going to get you out of it? You need to just keep quiet and tell yourself things like those affirmations to build yourself up.”

Valerie in Memphis

Valerie Playing for tips in Memphis.

Fifteen years later, Valerie’s career is on a steady rise. In 2017, Rolling Stone proclaimed her album, The Order of Time, to be one of the 50 best albums of the year. Surprisingly, Valerie says she never made a formal decision to play music professionally.

“Well… I think that’s an everyday decision really, you know? Everyday I wake up, and I look at the world, and there’s so many things to do and to be. I’m interested in so many things because I’m such a huge dreamer.”

Valerie is a believer in the value of living in the now – to a certain point. Owning that she is a romantic, she sees the importance of setting goals in her career, although, she believes there comes a time when you have to let go and allow the work that you’ve done to work for itself.

“I think that you have to do the physical work within the physical realm, working with the physical laws. Because that’s where we are – on Earth. There are other realms where things happen easier and faster. But part of our lesson here, in this school, is to go through that process of planting the seed, watering the seed, giving the seed enough light and nurturing the seed. That can be looked at as pushing, or it can be looked at as just part of the process of growing and just part of dealing with time on Earth and the limitations of this realm. You know, it’s not really a limitation either. It’s just a law.”

Valerie was raised in the Church of Christ. As the years go by, her faith in God deepens and broadens.

“I’m a very doubtful person, which is why my practice is important. It’s the only way I can stay in line. But I don’t have doubts that there’s a power greater than me. I can feel it in the earth I walk on and in the music I get into. I can see it in the skies and in the plants I watch grow and in the people that have come in and out of my life. I can just see it! It’s so visible to me.”

Valerie considers the songs she writes to be living things. She allows them to come to her at their own pace. For her, writer’s block is a near impossibility.  

“The biggest thing I can do is not put any pressure on them and go about my daily life and let them come whenever they want to. I’ll be washing dishes or watering the plants or walking through the airport and they will come into my head. I keep them in my head on repeat until I can right them down. When I don’t get the whole song, I call it a skeleton. I have all these books filled with skeletons.”

Valerie looks at each song she is given as a doorway to another existence. Some of her songs she sees in colors. She describes the place she visited when she wrote, Astral Plain as being “colorful, etherial, otherworldly and iridescent.”

“They have other worlds these song do. My songs are like a portal. When I play for an audience, I hope they get to go to the world they originated in through me. I hope they get to sit in that world where the song was when I wrote it.”

Interestingly, Valerie doesn’t give every song she writes to her fans. The same goes for her poetry and the pieces of art she creates. She believes that no matter what size the audience, beauty shared raises the consciousness of humanity.

“Not everything that you do for your life’s purpose is for everyone in the world. Sometimes it’s just for your best friend or your mom or your dad or your loved one. I feel like every song creates something in the world, whether it’s heard on the radio or not.”

Valerie is grateful for being raised in the church. Her robust spiritual life is her foundation for feeling safe. Even so, at times she falls back into uncertainty and worries about the future.

“How are you going to survive in the physical form is always on a person’s mind, you know? When I do my daily budget, I can get scared and think what happens if…? If, if, if! I remind myself not to get carried away with the future. Be here right now. Calm down. Having people in my life, like my 93-year-old grandmother, who does so many things, gives me confidence that I’m going to be just fine. I’m going to make it. She made it! We have elders in our lives that can guide us when we start to get scared.”  

“Is there a light you have inside you can’t touch? A looking glass can only show you so much.” – Valerie June, Astral Plain

Valerie is a constant reader. She recently came across a book that supports a theory of hers. In Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry she read that each and every one of us is light. We all shine if we don’t dumb ourselves down. In fact, if an alien with evolved vision looked down on our planet it would see that every human being shines their own unique color of light. It’s like a chemical fingerprint.

“That just blew my mind that we all have different lights! I was like,‘Wow, how beautiful!’ If it’s true that everybody’s light really is different then we definitely have a reason to come and be fearless about shining. Just giving it our all and loving the hell out of it. The world would just get so bright. We would be so elevated. Maybe there would be things in the universe that would open up to us. Answers that we need. Answers that have always been there, but they would become clear to us at a higher level of consciousness, you know? Sometimes I feel like we’re not ready to receive all of the information that’s available. So shining is the only way to get to it!”

And shining is about being yourself.

“Mmm hmm. It’s about being individuals and being fearless about it. Tapping into your inner light is the true reason you came to Earth. If that color is already out there, why do you need to shine? I’m telling you that no color is the same. I don’t care if we got blue, if we got purple, it’s not your shade of blue or purple. So come on out and shine, you know we need it!”

Valerie herself is a colorful person. These days she admits to wearing shiny cloths to remind people to tap into their inner light.

“I feel like we should be a little kinder to each other and live in a beautiful light. If you fail, get yourself together, so you can go back out there and shine. Your light gets stronger every time you dust off and get up. It’s the true reason you came to Earth. You don’t have long here, you know?  You got to keep moving forward. Everyday you wake up just go for it. Just be like, okay I’m the star of this show. I’m going to make it happen today and shine. It is your life.”

All of us being made of a spectrum of colors of light is a beautiful thing to ponder. That lead me to my final question for Valerie, “What color of light do you shine?” 

Looking at the rings that adorned her fingers, I shouldn’t have been surprised when she responded, “Turquoise.”

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*Coming up next: Thinker, writer, speaker and wisdom keeper, Gordana Biernat. She is one of Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul 100 teachers,

Text and images © Sue Shanahan and Valerie June

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Kirsty Mitchell: A Wonderland of Her Own

Kirsty Mitchellmoth_edited-2“For me being an artist is getting out what is inside of me.”- Kirsty Mitchell

I first heard of Kirsty Mitchell when a friend invited me over to look at her Wonderland book. Mary was obsessed with it and was sure I would be, too. Being unfamiliar with Kirsty’s fine art photography, I dismissed her offer. I already had put Kirsty’s work in the same category as some of the digitally altered, fantasy photographs that I’d seen on the web. Finally, at Mary’s insistence I looked up Kirsty’s website. I was awestruck. Her otherworldly photographic series, and book, Wonderland floored me. She had begun the project in 2008 after her mother, Maureen, died of cancer. Immersing herself in its creation was Kirsty’s way of working through her grief. Each exquisite image encapsulated a kind of raw emotion. Absolutely no Photoshop was used to fabricate the magic in her pictures. I couldn’t believe mortal hands were responsible for all the elaborate costumes and props. What the viewer sees is the same thing Kirsty saw when she clicked the camera’s shutter.

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The next month when Mary asked me to take a road trip to see an exhibit of Kirsty’s art at the Paine Museum in Wisconsin, I was immediately in. The museum was also hosting a dialogue with Kirsty the evening the exhibit opened, and we planned to attend. I had fallen into the Wonderland series headfirst. I had to see the photographs in person, meet the artist and get my book signed. 

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An awestruck viewer at the Paine Museum

At the question and answer session, I soon realized that Kirsty and her art are one and the same. She is totally transparent. There are no details of her life that she won’t share. I felt a deep connection to her personally. I understood how she used her art to work through her difficulties. I had done the same thing my whole life.

“I was doing something because it was coming out of me and I just had to follow that calling to see where it would lead me.”

After losing her mother, Kirsty became consumed with making something beautiful in her memory. She confessed to being shattered. That vulnerability is what endears her audience to her. Wonderland is healing to anyone who has suffered a loss. When Kirsty began the series, she was in the midst of a successful career as a fashion designer. As a photographer, she was an amateur at best. For seven years, she worked tirelessly creating sets and costumes to photograph. She had no idea why she was driven to bring this alternative existence to life or where it would take her. All Kirsty knew was if she didn’t express her grief in this tangible form, she could’t go on.

During the journey of making of Wonderland, she had the good fortune of a friend putting her in touch with an “old school” gallery curator. It was a pivotal point on her artistic path. He wanted to know if the photographs Kirsty brought to him were her best work? He made it clear that he didn’t believe so. At his suggestion, Kirsty took a year away from social media and put her heart into creating a small group of images.

“And so I did it. I went cold turkey. I was really frightened that no one would remember me. In that year away I made what is known as the ‘White Queen Trilogy.’ When I came back and I released those pictures is when everything changed. Everybody just sat up and was like, ‘What the hell is this? This is something totally different.’ You know, you have to labor over something if you want people to trust and believe in it and see who you are through it. That’s why following your passion is so important. If your heart’s not in it, how are you going to give it all you’ve got?”

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The White Queen Trilogy

“Nature is intrinsic in my work, inseparable. It’s my inspiration. The woods are my church.” – Kirsty Mitchell

Kirsty admits to being an “insufferable perfectionist.” Shooting outdoors meant she had to come to terms with the unpredictable weather conditions in England. She and her production team took days off of work whenever a photoshoot was scheduled. Rain or shine, there was no turning back. Kirsty discovered that no matter what the day brought weather-wise, it always gave an unexpected beauty to her photographs. She links this to the energy of her mother. Amid all the little glimmers and changes in the atmospheric conditions, they always felt an undeniable presence with them.

“There is this thing. I worked with a very tiny team of people. There is my husband, Matthew, Elbie the amazing make-up artist and hairstylist, and Katie the model. And then there’s this other person – my mum and she does the weather. I have this mantra, my mum does the weather and we embrace whatever is sent to us. There’s always a reason.”

Kirsty’s spiritual leanings evolved through her mother’s illness and came into focus after her passing. Kirsty’s belief that we are all energy is reflected in her photography sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately.

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Gaya the Birth of an End

“There is one picture in the series where I tried to put that into an image. Gaya the Birth of an End was about me trying to create an image that explains the power of the release of the human spirit, how we are this wheel, these vibrations. If you throw a stone into a lake, the stone is gone, but the vibrations continue. In the same way the circle of life has sort of vibrations that go out, but come back into somebody. People may leave you physically but not in other ways.”

Behind the scenes, Kirsty is certain she had help creating every aspect of Wonderland. She sees her mother’s love as an equal partner in the venture. If Maureen hadn’t taught her daughter to dream and embrace who she was Kirsty may have never become an artist. That same love was the alchemy required to transform the biggest tragedy of her life, the passing of her mother, into a masterpiece. 

“When I lost my mum, I had nothing to cling too. I felt like a kite whose string had been cut. I just felt weightless and lost for so long and then suddenly one day I began just walking in the woods. I just can’t explain it. I began to feel this kind of vibration from the land. I remember the day that it happened and I remember sitting on the forrest floor with my back against a tree trunk, just sobbing and crying. I guess that’s why creating the series became such a therapy for me. I felt like I was in my mum’s arms every time I was in the woods creating this stuff.” 

Kirsty’s Wonderland book was published to huge acclaim in November 2015. Since that time, its popularity has snowballed. In 2018, the first major museum show of Wonderland opened at one of the world’s most important museums of contemporary photography, Fotografiska in Stockholm, Sweden. The exhibition will continue to tour at Fotografiska’s sister venues in London and New York over the next two years.71GRjTMBMQL71hZymDy1wL

Since her monumental book was published, life continues to take Kirsty down unforeseen paths. On Christmas Eve of 2015 she gave birth to their son, Finch. Shortly after that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went through treatment and today is cancer free. It seems like a natural for her to, once again, turn straw into gold.

“I’m so excited about being able to connect with people again through turning my personal story into something beautiful. In this new project, I am a completely different woman. I’m now a mother. I gave birth to my son, and then faced my own mortality all within eight months of each other. Where Wonderland was a kind of escapism, in my new series I want to stand with feet firmly planted on the ground and face all the emotion I went through.”

Today Kirsty is immersed in the production of a new series of photographs. Once again she has stepped back from the social media front. She imagines these images will take two to three years to complete. She envisions producing 45 pieces versus the 75 that she did for Wonderland. “I want to make the most beautiful, extraordinary, costumes and sets and bring the quality level up again, raise the bar again.”

There is not a doubt in my mind that Kirsty won’t bring her intention to fruition. Look out world. Prepare to be wowed. Again.

*In my painting the pink magnolias woven around Kirsty symbolize beauty and perseverance. The forget-me knots signify love and remembrance. They are, of course, for her mum. The greenfinch represents her son, Finch. Kirsty recognized its significance immediately.

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*Coming up next: American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, Valerie June

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. Wonderland photographs ©Kirsty Mitchell

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Lori McKenna: Song Chaser

Lori McKenna_edited-1moth_edited-2“Before you knew me I traveled around the world

I slept in castles and fell in love because I was taught to dream.”

– Lori McKenna, Fireflies

The first time I heard the name Lori McKenna was in 2006. Faith Hill had brought the stay-at-home mom with her to perform on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Four of Lori’s songs were on Faith’s newly released album, “Fireflies.” As a homemaker, sandwiching in time at my drawing table between household chores, that show ignited hope in me. If Lori’s music could be plucked from obscurity, perhaps my artistic gifts could be found too.

Lori’s songwriting didn’t come to Faith through the usual channels of the Nashville music scene. It was more like a friend, of a friend, of a friend brought them to Faith’s attention. Lori laughs, “It was like I won the lottery without buying a ticket.” That scenario is not entirely true. There were years of hard work on Lori’s part before any fairy dust was sprinkled her way.

Since Faith discovered her, Lori has gone on to have her music recorded by country stars like Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, Keith Urban and Hunter Hayes. In 2016, she  won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year for the second year straight thanks to co-writing Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” and writing Tim McGraw’s number one hit “Humble and Kind.” Both songs also clinched Grammys for Best Country Song. In 2017, she became the Academy of Country Music’s first female Songwriter of the Year.

Despite living far from the music mecca of Nashville, Lori’s gifts have certainly found a place there. She grew up in the blue collar community of Stoughton, Massachusetts. She was nineteen and pregnant when she married her high school sweetheart, Gene. They live a half mile from her childhood home. Many of her songs were penned in between cooking and carpooling. 

Her mother died of a blood platelet disease when she was only seven. Even so, Lori considers her childhood a happy one. Her older brothers stepped in to help raise her. Their love protected Lori from being overcome by a sense of loss. She barely has any memories of her mother, “I was the youngest of six and my mom was sick a lot. I don’t remember her almost at all. I think what I recall are just stories that somebody told me that I’ve made into a memory.”

Growing up, Lori’s family was a musical one. Her brothers were obsessed with James Taylor, Neil Young and Carol King. Her brother Richie played guitar and is the reason she took it up. “He was a songwriter as well. I was sort of always copying whatever Richie did.”

Mimicking her siblings musical leanings meant that Lori spent a lot of time alone. 

“I was not a kid that couldn’t be alone. I was sort of good at it,” she laughs. “I remember one day overhearing my Grandmother in the kitchen saying, ‘She’s so strange. She just stays in her room.’ It wasn’t like I was left alone or I didn’t have friends. I was not lonely being alone in those years. I think I spent a lot of time just writing poetry and listening to music.”

At thirteen, she composed her first song and hasn’t stopped writing them since. She was 27 when she finally found the courage to perform them in public. She was leery about putting herself out there. She had seen too many people who were disillusioned because the music business hadn’t turned out the way they had hoped. 

“They seemed a little broken about it, and I knew I didn’t want to go in that direction. When I had my kids, I knew that they were my purpose. So if music wasn’t my purpose, I could stay in my kitchen. I thought, ‘well my kids are my job, and I can try music and see how it goes and not expect anything out of it.’” 

Without her family Lori, acknowledges she wouldn’t be where she is today. Gene’s job as a master plumber supported them in the early years. It allowed her the freedom to hone her craft. Immersing herself in the lives of those she loves is what feeds Lori. Plus, an ordinary day often supplies a starting point to build a song around. 

“My songs always have a little piece of my life in them. Sometimes I think they’re going to be 100% about me, but then they end up going somewhere else. If you’re limited to just yourself then it’s going to be harder to write the song and maybe the song won’t be as good. It might be a little boring. If the song suffers from being true, I’m not going to be true. I always take the song’s side first.”

Taking from her world is a good thing when Lori is writing songs like “Humble and Kind” for her children. But there are also songs that could put her husband in a negative light. Songs like “Stealing Kisses” and “The Bird and the Rifle” seem to point to the quiet desperation of a disintegrating marriage.

“Life is hard. You have to go full force.” – Gene McKenna

“The thing about Gene that’s interesting is he never, ever questions anything that I write. He knows the way my brain works. He knows how dark the roads will become in the song to get the point across. Gene has never asked me not to sing something or to change anything, even if it sounds like it’s about him. In some ways, putting my songs out there is more brave for him than it is for me because he will get the blame.”

Most would assume that the poetic insight in her lyrics means that Lori is an avid reader. But not so. She writes from her instincts and confesses that she is not a conventional learner.

“I’m not a good reader. I rarely finish a book. I can’t absorb them or digest them the way other people do. I learn differently. There is some sort of visual thing going on with what my eyes see and what my brain processes. I just feel like I’m simplified in those ways.” 

But beneath what Lori’s refers to as simplicity lives a brilliant mind. For her lyrics, she draws ideas from sources other than the written word. “I’m an idea puller, and I do reach to other things for inspiration, like going to live shows or listening to podcasts.”

Lori confesses that some of her best ideas come from television and movies. The song “Witness to Your Life” came from a conversation in the Susan Sarandon movie “Shall We Dance.” “My Love Follows You Were You Go” was taken from a line she heard on the “The Real Housewives of New York.” The song “The Bird and the Rifle” had a similar inception.

“I wrote that with Troy Virgus and Katelyn Smith. This makes it sound like I watch so much TV (she laughs), but that title was from the television show ‘Modern Family.’ It was the punchline of a joke. I just loved it. I thought, it’s five words and everybody sees a picture in those five words.”

As of right now Lori is still based in Stoughton penning songs and raising the tail end of her brood. She travels to Nashville once a month to compose with other songwriters. For her the toughest thing about life is being tugged in so many directions.

“I’ve been blessed to have the best of both worlds. Really the hardest thing is balancing. I’m still trying to figure out when to put it down and pay attention to my family and when do I chase a song all over the house?”

At first glance, it doesn’t seem possible that Lori’s background could be the springboard for all she has accomplished. But it was. Evolving into a mega-hit songwriter is a byproduct of being fully herself. At the same time she knows she didn’t do it alone.

“I have this career now that I never dreamed I could have. Now that I know how the music business works, there is no way there wasn’t a Higher Power guiding me and helping me along. If I’ve proved anything it’s that crazy dreams can come true.”

Assistance from above would explain a lot about Lori’s success. She never tried to force any of her hopes or ambitions into being. She played music for the love of it. She walked through the doors that presented themselves to end up where she is today. It’s been said it’s good to hang loose with how your goals will manifest. Letting go leaves space for God to out-dream you. Lori McKenna’s career reminds me to keep the faith. If she can be out-dreamed, anyone can.

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*Coming up next: Award winning fine art photographer, and author of the record breaking Wonderland Book, Kirsty Mitchell.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com