My first encounter with Jackie Venson was at 2018’s Austin City Limits Festival and I was instantly drawn to her because she reminded me of a close friend: personality, looks, and demeanor. Her 30-minute set at the festival left me and those around me wanting more from her. Shortly after her impressive performance, I had my second encounter with her, when we met up for an interview in ACL’s media tent. What was supposed to be a 15-minute interview, ran for nearly half an hour because of Venson’s candidness and relatability.
Our third encounter was a few months later during her visit to southern California in which we bonded over some of the best Mexican food on the west coast. During both conversations, we shared our love for the music and our frustrations with the lack of creativity and originality in much of today’s music. As a journalist, I sometimes encounter artists who are afraid to be their authentic selves and shy away from going “on the record” about their opinions. Not Jackie; her enthusiasm during our times together was refreshing and appreciated.
Though she’s been a musician all of her life, her professional career as a blues artist began in 2013. In the six years since her debut, she has released countless singles, three EPS, a live album, one “special edition” album, and two studio albums. In addition to this laundry list of accomplishments, the pianist-turned-guitarist not only writes her own lyrics, but she composes her music as well. She has sold out shows all over the world, opened for Gary Clark Jr. and Aloe Blacc, and recently jammed on stage with the legendary Buddy Guy. She released her second studio album, Joy, in April 2019, and spent most of the last year touring, domestically and internationally. Venson is a classically-trained pianist, who picked up the ax only eight years ago and has been garnering praise from around the industry.
Jade Newton: How did the transition from classical piano to guitar come about?
Jackie Venson: I played piano for 13 years, so I already had a solid foundation in instrument playing and learning. [With the guitar] I just decided to commit to it. I didn’t want to play the piano anymore; I was bored of it. I wanted to learn how to play a new instrument and I wanted it to be the electric guitar. I wanted to do blues solos; that’s what I wanted to do because they’re just so rad. Who doesn’t love a great guitar solo? And so, I was like, ‘If I’m going to do this, I have to treat it the same way that I treated the piano: find a teacher; get a book; practice every day.’ And I was like, ‘I’m going to do it.’
JN: Did you grow up in a musical household?
JV: Yes, I did. My brother plays in the church; he makes a living doing that. And that my dad just played around town, a lot, kind of like what I do. He never really toured a lot; he toured a lot before he had kids. So, then we came along and he just played around and he actually helped me get into it; he helped me get my first gigs in Austin. He inspired my stage presence; I also got my humor from him.
JN: Who would you say encouraged your pursuit of music?
JV: My mom told me to do it [the piano] for six months and if I really didn’t like it, I could quit. So, I did it for six months and my teacher was terrible. She would literally hit my hand every time I made a mistake; I hated it. I was like, ‘How am I supposed to learn like this? I’m sitting here you’re trying to play and I have anxiety over the next time you’re going to hit my hand.’ So I hated it and I quit. And then my sister kept on going [with piano lessons] and I just saw how cool it was that she could play a song. And I wanted to be able to just play a song for my mom and her friends. So, I just kind of chilled on it for a while and then it happened organically. I met another piano teacher when I was eight who I was really vibing with; maybe because he didn’t hit my hand. So, I stuck with that piano teacher for the next twelve years.
JN: Social media and streaming services have made it possible for unsigned artists to be successful in expanding their reach. It also shows how much the music industry has changed. Despite these things, independent, unsigned artists, such as yourself, still run into a lot of challenges. What are some of your biggest career challenges?
JV: Creating high-quality content is extremely expensive. So, unless you have a steady flow of gigs or maybe some other kind of job bringing in some money, it is extremely hard to stay relevant and produce the amount of content you need to produce. It’s very hard to do that at a low cost because it needs to be high quality and it needs to be on par with the people who are signed; it ends up costing a lot. And the people who can do that kind of stuff, they have expertise and skills but they’ve also spent a lot of time and money developing. So, honestly, it’s the expense of this that’s the most challenging part and also touring is extremely expensive.
JN: Talk to me about the challenges of touring, because you do tour significantly.
JV: I’ve had to get extremely creative with how I present myself, the types of instrumentation that I use. I have to get extremely creative to be able to just keep the train going. I’ve had to come up with an engaging solo show that took me years, just because I need to be able to tour. I can only afford to bring the band like every fourth tour, so I have to have a solo show that’s just as intense [as if I did have the band]. And all the stuff that people really love about the band show I have to be able to translate into a solo show. The only way I can really do that is a looper pedal and that’s like learning a whole other instrument.
JN: In the six years that you’ve been touring and performing, what have you learned? About yourself? About this industry?
JV: When I sit down and think about all the stuff that I’ve had to do just to be able to show up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, it just blows my mind. I had to learn how to do this and I had to learn to do that. I had to learn to play the piano and then I had to switch to the guitar; all this stuff I had to do just to keep the train rolling. It’s crazy. I had to play this corporate gig, I had to be in a wedding band, I had to host karaoke. There’s so much stuff, I had to do. This is 2000% hustling, man. I can almost say that if you’re really good at hustling, but you’re not that talented, you’ll probably get further than someone who’s more talented than you. Just because you’re good hustling.
JN: I think the process is more important than the end result…
JV: There’s never really an end. There are people who you think got to the end but then you have someone who was really famous in the 80s and they’re playing the same game as me because they didn’t keep it up or whatever. There is no end and it is a journey, you think of it as a path. It’s like, “I can’t believe I climbed that 2000-ft tree.”
JN: But what happened when you got to the top of the tree?
JV: It’s a pretty sweet deal. But then, here’s the thing, you’ve got to climb down. And then you have to keep walking. It’s all a metaphor, but that’s touring.
JN: Aside from the challenges of touring, what are some of the highlights for you?
JV: Touring is intense, but just seeing the reach is really cool. I’ll post something online and seeing it go as far as like Finland or the Netherlands is really cool. The people that I interact with on the internet are real people; it’s nice being able to see them.
JN: What’s your favorite song to perform?
JV: I love playing “Transcends,” because like has a really hard beat and people always like it.[When I’m performing] I can literally see the crowd and it’s like a wave of everyone just like totally freaking out. And then the guitar solo is so freakin’ rad. For some songs, the guitar solo is the focus, so it’s just a melody, it’s just as much a part of the song as the chorus is. Sometimes guitar solos have a utilitarian purpose; sometimes guitar solos are just off the dome, and that’s what “Transcends” is.
JN: What is your creative process like?
JV: Sometimes it takes me a while to finish writing a song and I’ll finish other songs in the interim. There are some songs that I’ve been writing for like a year. I came out with a song in April 2018 that I had started writing two years prior. I record every idea that I get and I recorded the source materials for that song in 2016. And then one night, I just finished it all in one night. I won’t let a song be finished unless I really like. If I don’t like it, it’s not done because I can’t stand to play it for the next however many years and not like it.
JN: I know what I like about your music, but what do you think makes your music unique and original?
JV: I really work hard on making it so that the melodies are catchy and I try not to do stuff that people have heard before. There are only twelve chords, so no song is ever going to be truly original but I do think that there is an infinite amount of available melodies; kind of how there is an infinite amount of orders you can put words in. You got a thousand people writing a horror story but each horror story is gonna be different because they all order their words differently. They write sentences differently, they construct the dialogue differently. And that’s how I feel about melodies. Melodies are the only truly unique potential for a song. For a recording, it’s the melodies and the arrangements; it’s the only time you truly have the chance to put out something that’s never been heard. How many times has love been used in a song? But that doesn’t mean you can’t tie it to a melody or put it into an arrangement and make it something that’s so much more powerful. The same words are striking people all over again. But if you are lazy with your melody and with your arrangement, then you have this boring, trite, and meaningless song, and frankly, I find it offensive.
JN: We’ve shared somewhat we appreciate about music and what we don’t like about some of what is being put out. Can you expound more on your thoughts?
JV: Music is supposed to be the creation of art. There are so many people on this earth who truly care about it, but their art doesn’t get to see the light of day because of copycats; people jumping on a sound simply because it’s popular. There are many people out there who really, really care about doing something that’s their own. The only people in the spotlight are the few who are really good and those who copy the few that are really good; it’s sad, so many geniuses out there who aren’t appreciated. People should try to be original in the creation of their art so as not to sound like everybody else.
JN: Who are some of your favorite bands or musicians?
JV: My favorite, favorite, favorite is Stevie Wonder! He’s the best! The best thing about Stevie Wonder is that you can’t copy him. He has like six million hits and you can’t do that with Stevie Wonder, you can’t copy. And his voice is just…like an angel fell out of the sky. He’s also like literally a genius: he can be in any band, he can play any instrument and he’s also a great songwriter. He’s completely and fully inevitable as an artist.
Jackie Venson will be kicking off her Make Me Feel tour in March and releasing her third studio album, Vintage Machine this spring.