• Sue Shanahan

Updated: Apr 9

Porch Light People: individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light. “I 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 and 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 and to put her energies into something she was good at, 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 any stringed instrument that she can get her hands on but she writes songs, poetry and loves to draw and paint. I wondered if she had always followed her passions? Did she ever support herself with work that was against her nature?

“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 her mindset 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 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 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 it’s also important knowing when to rejuvenate and relax. 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 has deepened and broadened. She admits to doubting herself at times, but she never doubts her connection with The Creator.

“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, making writer’s block 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’s 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. Will she be able to continue to support herself? Will she remain in good health? What if she loses her voice?

“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 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 is admits to wearing shiny clothes 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.” *Click to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5 X 7 print!

*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

  • Sue Shanahan

Updated: Apr 8

Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light. Kirsty Mitchell is an award-winning fine art photographer from Surrey, England. She is the creator of the otherworldly photographic series, and book, Wonderland. Kirsty began the project in 2008 as an escape from reality after her mother, Maureen, died of cancer. Immersing herself in the production of it was her way of working through her grief and making something beautiful in her mother’s memory.

“The Ghost Swift” (detail) ©Kirsty Mitchell

“For me being an artist is getting out what is inside of me.”- Kirsty Mitchell I first heard of Kirsty when my friend, Mary, invited me over to look at her Wonderland book. Mary was obsessed with it and certain I would be, too. Being unfamiliar with Kirsty’s art, 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. I couldn’t believe mortal hands were responsible for all the elaborate costumes and props. Each exquisite image encapsulated a kind of raw emotion. It boggled my mind that there was no Photoshop used to fabricate the magic in her photographs. What the viewer sees is the same thing Kirsty saw when she clicked the camera’s shutter.

“The Secrets Locked in the Roots of a Kingdom” ©Kirsty Mitchell

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

A young friend awestruck at the Paine Museum

At the question and answer session, I discovered that Kirsty and her art are one and the same. She is utterly honest without a tinge of fakery. There are no details of her life when asked about 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.” Kirsty’s openness about her fragility after the passing of her mother endears her audience to her. Wonderland is healing to anyone who has suffered a loss. When she began the series she already had an amazing career as a fashion designer. As a photographer, she was an amateur at best. She had no idea why she was driven to bring it 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. For seven years, she worked tirelessly assembling the sets and creating the costumes to capture her photographs of an alternative existence. During the journey of making of Wonderlandshe 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 they were. At his suggestion, Kirsty took a year away from social media and put her heart into creating a small amount of pieces. “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?” “Nature is intrinsic in my work, inseparable. It’s my inspiration. The woods are my church.” – Kirsty Mitchell Kirsty’s dedication to her series meant she had to come to terms with the unpredictable weather conditions in England. Everything she does is massively linked with creation and nature. She and her production team took days off work when a photoshoot was scheduled so there was no turning back. Kirsty discovered that rain or shine, the atmospheric conditions always brought an unforeseen beauty to the photograph. She attributes the influence behind the weather conditions as her mother’s energy. Between all the little glimmers in the atmosphere and changes in the weather they always felt a kind of a 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 death. Kirsty’s belief that we are all energy is reflected in her photography sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately.

“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.”

“Gaia, the Birth of an End” ©Kirsty Mitchell

Kirsty had help behind the scenes creating Wonderland. If you ask her, she would agree that her mother’s love was 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 Kirsty’s life, the death 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 then its popularity has snowballed. This year the renowned Fotografiska photography museum in Stockholm, Sweden, has slated Wonderland to be their 2018 winter show.

Where has Kirsty’s life taken her since her monumental book was published? 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 seemed natural to her to put her energies into a new body of work about that journey. 

“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.”

Kirsty is now immersed in the production of it and has stepped back from the social media front. She imagines this series 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.  *Click  to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5 X 7 print!

*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

  • Sue Shanahan

Updated: Apr 8

Watercolor by Sue Shanahan

Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light. Lori McKenna is a singer-songwriter who lives in the blue collar community of Stoughton, Massachusetts. In 2016, she won a Grammy for co-writing “Girl Crush” performed by Little Big Town. In 2017, she won a Grammy for writing, “Humble and Kind” performed by Tim McGraw. In addition to Little Big Town and Tim McGraw, her songs have appeared on the albums of Alison Krause, Keith Urban, Reba McEntire and Faith Hill. She is the first female to ever win the AMC Songwriter of the Year Award and was recently saluted by the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Poets and Profits Series.

“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 back in 2006 when Faith Hill took the stay-at-home-mom on the Oprah Winfrey Show with her. Faith had recorded four of Lori’s songs for her newly released album, “Fireflies” and wanted to share her music with the world. Lori’s songs 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. In Lori’s words, “It was like I won the lottery without buying a ticket.” That scenario is not entirely true. There was a lot of hard work done on Lori’s part before that fairy dust was sprinkled on her.

Lori’s award winning music isn’t the only reason I chose to write about her. I find a huge career being launched from songs written on a kitchen table, equally compelling. A devoted mother of five, she was nineteen and pregnant when she married her high school sweetheart, Gene. They live a half mile from the home she grew up in. Even though Lori lives far from the country music mecca of Nashville, her songs have found their place in that world in a big way. Her career gives hope to anyone who has a dream.

Lori considers her childhood a happy one even though her mother died of a blood platelet disease when she was only seven. Her older brothers stepped in to help raise her so she never felt a huge sense of loss. She barely has any memories of her mom and thinks that may be because she was the youngest of six and her mother was sick a lot. “I don’t remember her almost at all. I think what I remember are just stories that somebody told me that I made into a memory.”

Lori grew up in a musical family. 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.”

Other than mimicking her siblings as best as she could, 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.”

Lori wrote her first song when she was thirteen and hasn’t stopped writing them since. It wasn’t until she was 27 before she found the courage to perform them in public. 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.’”

Lori is devoted to her family and posts about her kids and Gene on Instagram almost as much as she does her music. She acknowledges that without them she wouldn’t be where she is today. Not only did Gene’s job as a master plumber support them in the early years, but the song writing inspiration she garners from her clan is priceless.

“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.”

Using her life as a starting point is all well and good when you write songs like “Humble and Kind” for your children but what about songs that potentially put your 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.”

I assumed that the poetic insight in her lyrics meant that Lori is an avid reader, but not so. She writes from her instincts and confesses to not being 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 think 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 Lori’s 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 admits 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 pulled 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.”

These days 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. She admits the hardest thing about her life is being tugged in so many directions.

“I’ve been blessed to have the best of both worlds and 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 Lori’s background doesn’t look like it could have provided her with the expertise necessary to be the mega-hit songwriter that she is. Yet somehow she has everything she needs to shine her light. She’s quite certain 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 career path. She never tried to force any of her hopes or ambitions into being. She simply played music for the love of it. She walked through the doors that opened and ended 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. I don’t know about you, but I’d say Lori McKenna has been officially out dreamed.

Lori’s next album, “The Tree,” will be released in July.

*Click to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5 X 7 print!

*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