Striking a Chord

Rising phenom and classical pianist turned blues guitarist Jackie Venson discusses the journey behind establishing her music’s genre-crossing message.

By Rachel Rascoe, Photos by Rudy Arocha, Styled by Ashley Hargrove, Shot on location at Spider House, 2908 Fruth St., 512.480.9562, spiderhouse.com

Jackie Venson is a people person. As a performer and songwriter, the 27-year-old is fascinated by what makes people tick. Her latest obsession: observing other people’s expressions and choosing her words—carefully—to formulate the perfect question.

“I definitely love to study people,” Venson says. “My biggest thing lately is learning to ask the right question. A lot of people will tell you a lot more than they probably intended to depending on what you ask them.”

Venson’s ability to connect with listeners through her smoldering vocals and expressive, blues-inspired guitar playing has earned her a spot as a rising star in the Austin music scene.  

Venson recently wrapped her last day in the recording studio, where she was working on a new EP before heading off on tour. The upcoming release, to be titled Transcends, falls in line with a variety of new developments and happenings in the musician’s life. The EP marks Venson’s first experience recording with local producer Michael Ramos, who has worked with the likes of John Mellencamp and Paul Simon. Venson also recently began working with a manager after years of representing herself.

 On the heels of all this growth, all these fresh and new experiences, Venson says this recording has been her most successful to date. A die-hard performer, Venson struggled in previous album recordings to fit her music into the structured studio space.

“Everyone does this career for a different reason,” Venson shares, taking a sip from her cup of coffee. “Some people don’t like to perform; some people just want to write. I am obsessed with performing. All I want to do is perform all the time. Everything else I do is just to get me opportunities to perform.”

Her devotion to the energy and spontaneity of live shows led her to release a live album in the fall of 2016, recorded at now closed South Austin café Strange Brew. Venson’s cheery, playful stage presence comes through on the live release. At the start of the reggae-infused track Lost in Time, Venson can be heard warning the audience, “It looks like this show’s going to be a sexy show, so you’re just going to have to deal with it.” Her soulful laughter chimes in throughout the energetic album, matching up with her wide grin, ever present in person and on her album covers. The accompanying visuals align with her music’s optimistic message.

“In my music, I like to err on the side of positivity because I believe in manifestation and direction of energy. I feel like if I direct good energy into music, it comes back to me,” Venson says. “Even when crappy things happen, I’ve got a lot of good energy surrounding me, so I feel like I can just roll with the punches.”

Venson’s simple lyrics transmit a message about the importance of freedom and compassion directly to listeners. Her bluesy guitar licks provide the kick to her uplifting ideals.

“I’ve decided I’m definitely going to stick with this message because it seems to work,” Venson says of her music’s inspirational themes. “All my heroes had a message and they stuck with it forever.”

Referring to her penchant for studying human nature, Venson jokingly warns of the dangers of using “social engineering” to understand and potentially manipulate people. Venson assures that she plans to use her insight for good.

“You can use it to get where you want. I want to use it to get to a certain platform because I want to spread a message, and I think this message is positive,” Venson says. “There’s a lot of people on this earth. You have to separate yourself from other people, which is very difficult.”

Venson’s hybrid sound certainly stands on its own, pulling from rock, blues and soul, with interspersed moments of jazz, reggae and hip-hop. 

“I like playing all types of American music, not just one genre,” Venson says. “Just blues gets really boring. It’s the same chord progressions.”

Venson’s musical roots start with her father, Andrew Venson, who’s well-known for working as a professional musician in Austin for more than 40 years. He provided bass for the blues group Blue Mist and later fronted his own soul project, Seeds of Fulfillment. Venson’s earliest memories of music include hearing her dad’s band rehearse in their at-home practice space. As the youngest of nine siblings, Venson was often toted along to her dad’s gigs when the other kids were old enough to watch themselves.

At 8 years old, Venson began her serious venture into the world of classical piano. She never held any doubts that music would be her career and lifelong pursuit. With plans of becoming a singer-songwriter, Venson started taking voice lessons during high school. By the age of 16, Venson was performing 14-minute-long advanced Chopin piano compositions. She notes that she stuck with the same private piano teacher for more than a decade because he made her learn only songs she liked. Venson credits her first voice and piano teachers for really teaching her how to work at being a musician.

“It’s like they got inside my head and spoke my brain language,” Venson says of her instructors. “They made me understand the paths that I needed to take to learn how to do the things I needed to be able to do.”

With all of her focus dedicated to music, Venson says she barely made it through high school. She remembers staying up all night practicing piano, not starting her homework until the bus ride to school the next morning. Venson scraped by on just-passing grades and graduated with a 2.1 GPA. She had no plans to pursue higher education until she heard about music-focused colleges. 

“When I found out that music colleges existed, I applied to all of them,” Venson recalls. “I only got into one because my GPA was terrible.”
 While studying composition and studio production at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Venson lost some of her energy for classical piano. She says the songs she wrote on piano sounded too much like musical theater songs.

“I didn’t have enough passion for it. I didn’t like what I wrote on the piano, and that kind of took me away from the piano as well,” Venson says. “I was kind of getting over classical music and I wanted to move on to something else, but I couldn’t figure out something else on the piano that I wanted to do.”

In search of a new direction, Venson looked back toward home, and to the blues music she grew up around. 

“Austin is my home genre,” Venson says. “I branched out from blues, but it starts with blues. I think a lot of that has to do with growing up in Austin and going to shows in Austin.”

Venson says her hometown’s six-string-centric, rock-’n’-roll reputation also decided her next instrumental venture: the electric guitar. During her final semester of college, Venson launched into her intensive blues-guitar education. She bought a book covering guitar basics, learned the entire thing front to back and began practicing for as long as six hours a day. A huge part of developing her early guitar understanding came by listening. 

“I would turn the guitar off and I would press play on the iPod,” Venson says, reflecting. “That was my life for, like, three years—thousands of hours of blues-guitar listening.”

Venson studied the guitar tone of blues legends Buddy Guy, George Benson and B.B. King. For vocal inspiration, Venson turned to the sounds of Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder.

“It’s like learning how to speak a language,” Venson says of her somewhat new musical venture. “If you don’t know what the words sound like, how are you going to learn how to pronounce them?”

In her early days of wrestling with blues guitar, Venson says her past mastery of classical piano helped her push through the learning curve. She recalls being frustrated with a certain guitar technique and giving herself pep talks. 

“I’d be like, ‘Hey, remember that one Chopin song you tried to learn? That took you, like, three years.’ And then I’d go back to practicing,” Venson says.

After graduating from Berklee, Venson returned home and began taking private blues-guitar lessons. Back in Austin, Venson faced the challenge of being one musician in thousands trying to make it in the music capital. In her usual optimistic attitude, Venson says she embraced the difficulty after years of structured piano performances.

“I actually prefer to be a small fish in a really, really big pond,” Venson says. “I don’t ever want to see the whole pond. I want to die and still have more pond to explore. That way, life never gets boring.”

Before becoming a full-time musician in 2014, Venson worked as a babysitter, sang in a wedding band and hosted karaoke nights. She remembers her first solo performance as a singer-songwriter at a bar on Sixth Street equipped with a mechanical bull.

“Any night I wasn’t working, I turned it into work and went to an open-mic night. I didn’t know how else to get gigs,” Venson says. “I knew I didn’t sound very good, but I didn’t care. I knew if I kept on doing it, I would get better.”

Starting out, Venson struggled through four-hour sets at corporate parties. She says the lengthy performances pushed her as a guitarist and helped her write enough original material to not have to repeat songs.

As Venson began to build up her local following, the singer-songwriter was eventually able to start performing with a backing band. 

“Once I started playing with a band, everything I had worked on alone in my house skyrocketed,” Venson says. “Seriously, for two years, I felt like I was running in place, but then, all of a sudden, it just took off.”

Venson’s current band includes Rodney Hyder on drums and bassist Alán Uribe. The trio frequently performs at beloved Austin venues One-2-One Bar and Antone’s Nightclub.

Venson says her dad is the ultimate source of wisdom on how to succeed as a bandleader and professional musician. His main advice has always been for her to distinguish herself from every other guitar player in the city and always bring something new to the table.

“He always told me, ‘If you want to be the bandleader, own the PA and book the gigs.’ And it doesn’t hurt to have the rehearsal space in your house,” Venson says. “If you want to keep a band, make it so they need you. Make is so they have to hire you.”

In her YouTube series, How to Become a Musician, Venson shares her father’s wise words and discusses the trade with other working artists. Her most recent episode features local hip-hop group Riders Against the Storm. In the video, captured by Venson’s selfie-stick style of filming, the group first meets up with Venson at East Austin venue Sahara Lounge before proceeding to walk down the street. The artists chat about Venson’s father and his one-liner advice to “treat the audience as if they were your family because they are.” Previous video guests on Venson’s YouTube series included Austin-based musicians Carolyn Wonderland, Dale Watson and Kate Priestley of the band KP and the Boom Boom.

With years of touring and two full-length album releases behind her, Venson has curated some of her own advice for aspiring musicians. Tapping into her superpower ability to see the best in human nature, Venson says people who looked down on her throughout her career were only revealing their own flaws.

“People treat people the way that they treat themselves. It’s hardly every personal. When people are mean or negative toward you, they’re actually showing you a huge weakness on their part,” Venson says. “It’s just information. It’s not something you should take to heart and it’s not something that you should let stop you.”

Venson says being a female musician has taught her to stay true to her own goals and authentic self in the face of criticism. 

“Do exactly what you want to do,” Venson says. “Anything you need to do is what you want to do. Don’t worry about what you look like. All of that stuff comes naturally.”

Venson caught a big break on tour last year in New York City. While performing at a coffee shop in Harlem, a friend of Stay Human, the house band for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, took a cellphone video of Venson’s impressive guitar chops. The video made its way back to the band, which led to an Instagram message inviting Venson to fill in on guitar for a five-night run on the late-night talk show. Venson shared the stage with Stay Human bandleader Jon Batiste and visiting artists Mac Miller and Anderson Paak.

“It was just complete luck that I checked my Instagram messages,” Venson says. “That was probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done.”

Following her Late Show appearance last September, Venson started 2017 with local recognition from artist-championing organizations Black Fret and Austin Music Foundation. She is currently part of Austin Music Foundation’s artist-development program, alongside local artists to watch like Charlie Faye, Gina Chavez and Magna Carda. The intensive seven-month program supports a select group of established Austin musicians by providing information on more advanced topics, like getting press, copyrights and building a management team. Venson says the program gives artists the “next-level info” that record labels used to provide during her father’s time in the music industry.

“We’ve gotten [the process of] booking gigs figured out, and now we’re trying to figure out this weird gray area that we’re not getting any help in because labels don’t do that anymore,” Venson says. “Now, you’ve got to already be opening for The Rolling Stones for [labels] to even care about you. It’s like, how do I get there? Austin Music Foundation is just an answer to that question.”

Venson says Austin Music Foundation is extremely valuable to local artists of all levels. For musicians just starting out, it can help with the basics of booking gigs, getting paid and connecting an artist with other musicians.

“I had my own Austin Music Foundation just because of my dad, but that’s why I say it’s so useful, because not everyone has my dad just sitting around,” Venson says. “Austin Music Foundation is my dad for everyone else: the trained, professional musician that shares experiences and gives you an opportunity to learn from them.”

In March, Venson was included among a selection of local musicians receiving grants from Black Fret. The nonprofit allows nominated artists to “unlock” their grant funds through musical achievements, like releasing new material and touring.

Venson says Austin’s support of local musicians is completely unique to the city. 

“I’ve been to a lot of other music cities and there’s just nothing like this. There’s nothing like Austin Music Foundation, and there’s nothing like Black Fret either,” she says. “Do you really think there’s something in New York City that’s going to give you a free consultation? Come on! Do you think there’s anything for free in New York City?”

This month, Venson heads out on her third European tour. This will be her first time performing overseas with her full band, which she couldn’t afford to bring along to past performances in Europe.

For the remainder of 2017, Venson plans to continue touring and expanding her reach to audiences outside of Texas and hopes to potentially find a record label to release her upcoming EP, Transcends.

“[The album cover will] read like, ‘Jackie Venson Transcends.’ People are going be like, ‘Transcends what?’ ” Venson says in her true-to-form lighthearted humor. “I’m going to be like, ‘I don’t know. Listen to the EP and find out. It’s a cliffhanger.’ ”
 
The new EP will continue the young artist’s trademark mixing of genres, citing the sounds of Prince, Funkadelic and ’90s pop hits as inspiration. 
“It starts with pop and it kind of goes through rock and funk and soul,” Venson says, excitedly describing the upcoming release. “It’s like soul-rock-funk-pop. I can’t stick to one. I just can’t.”

The EP will also explore the idea of platonic love, including self-love, friendships and family relationships. 

“It’s love in all other forms except for romantic love. No one ever sings about that,” she says. “It’s a really mysterious form of love, and it can be really confusing. There are some people where it’s just like, ‘We must have known each other in a past life or something.’ ”"

In addition to the new EP, Venson says she also has a full-length album written, waiting to be recorded. It comes as no surprise the devoted singer-songwriter likes working ahead of time on content.

 “I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh crap, this EP did really well and now they want a full album and I have nothing!’ ” 

Venson says. “You never know about the timing with stuff. For all I know, if I sleep on it a little bit, the window where it might do really well could mysteriously just fly away or close.”

While navigating the mysterious timing of musical success and connections made, Venson seems to possess the perfect combination of devotion to her art and faith in her personal journey as a musician.

“Some of that stuff, you can’t control, but damn it all if I don’t try,” Venson says. “I’m feeling pretty optimistic about what’s coming next, but either way, I’m playing music for a living and life’s good. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll try again next year.”

Those sentiments are echoed on One Step Forward, a track from her most recent album, in which Venson makes a promise to listeners in her final lyric: I’ll keep playing till the sun goes down on my life.


How to Learn to Play an Instrument
As a blues-guitar champ, Jackie Venson shares her practical tips for picking up a new instrument.

  • Build from the basics. “Starting out, I bought a Hal Leonard basics-of-guitar book and I learned that whole book. I basically taught myself until I couldn’t teach myself anymore.”
  • Get a private teacher. “I always tell people [to] take private lessons. Don’t waste any time. These people already know what you need to do and they’re just going to hand you the information. My teachers taught me all this stuff I could have never taught myself because I didn’t know I needed to learn it.”
  • Listen to artists you want to sound like. “I thought of myself as a baby. A baby just sits around for two years and makes noises and listens. That’s exactly what I did on the guitar. I made noises and then I’d just listen. How else are you supposed to figure out tone and what the guitar is supposed to sound like? Then, eventually, you shape your own voice from all the information you got from listening.”
  • Practice, practice, practice. “Learning is very hard. It takes a lot of patience. It felt like I was never going to be able to play the way I wanted to play. It felt like that for two years, but I knew I was going to get good at it if I just put the time in, no matter how bleak it looked.”
  • Start before you’re ready. “Just start. Don’t sit around thinking, ‘I’ll start when I’m a little better.’ You’re always going to need to get better. Just jump in and don’t care about what anybody else thinks.

Jackie Venson’s Summer Jams

To get in the summertime spirit, Austin Woman asked the blues powerhouse what songs she plans to have on repeat this month. Her genre-spanning playlist picks pair well with the singer-songwriter’s free spirit and varied musical influences.
 
New Slang by The Shins
“Roll the windows down and let the wind blow your hair as you cruise with your friends. This is that kind of song. I love the sing-along ‘oohs’ sprinkled throughout the song. They make me happy.”
 
Mad Behaviour by Izzy Bizu
“Summer is all about love, and this song is about love in its most accepting and wild form. [It says] he or she will love you, no matter your mad behavior.”
 
SpottieOttieDopaliscious by Outkast
“Now it’s time to kick back and reflect on how blessed we all are to be sharing the earth together at this time. Chill out and get lost in life for a second. This song will assist you with that, I’m sure of it.”
 
Love and Happiness by Al Green
“[This song is] classic, groovy and full of soul and meaning, just like Al Green always is. The depth in this song and the hypnotic ways of this band just make you want to cannonball into a body of water and kick it with your friends.”
 
One Nation Under a Groove by Funkadelic
“Togetherness: What’s life without the people you love? We are all in this together, and it sure is hard as hell to enjoy summer without friends and family all gettin’ down just for the funk of it.”
 
Sweet Life by Frank Ocean
“[This song is about] learning to live life from all angles and all experiences, whether you’re blessed with material riches or other types of riches. I love this song because it’s from a point of view that many of us don’t get to experience.”
 
Monte by Zee Avi
“Simplicity, that’s what I’m all about. Too much clutter or too much noise drowns out what’s really important: appreciating your life and the people you’ve been given to guide you through.” 
 


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