It’s a mild, rainy day in Queens, New York. Austin native Jackie Venson walks through the front door of that night’s venue with her guitar over her back. With an easy going and straightforward air about her, the artist seems immediately at home in this new space. She is only in town for a few days – playing shows, being photographed. This should be a whirlwind, but Venson seems entirely in the moment.
When we caught up with Jackie Venson, it was in a small corner of the noisy and energetic L.I.C. Bar, before she and her band took the stage. With candor and an ever-present sense of humor, she unfolded her story. When she was a mere eight years old, Venson’s mom put her into piano lessons – which Venson promptly quit, due to her dislike of the teacher. In retrospect, the artist highlighted this moment as one of her first learning experiences in the industry. She relayed the importance of always surrounding yourself with the right people.
Eventually, Venson found the right teacher, who she stuck with on classical piano for 12 years. Subsequently, the artist attended the Berklee College of Music, where she majored in arranging for bands and ensembles. While at Berklee, Venson veered away from classical piano, as she was immersed in jazz and blues. Austin natives may label this as fate – given the artist’s father is well known Austin blues musician Andrew Venson. The elder Venson was a professional singer and bass player for 40 years before retiring. His daughter has now taken up her own interpretation of the family gauntlet and is making waves in the process.
While frequently labeled as an indie blues guitarist and singer, there is a unique flair and fusion to Venson’s music that doesn’t perfectly suit that box. We sat with this dynamic creator to talk about the heart of her sound, the music industry at large and how she came to be the artist she is now.
The making of Jackie Venson
TCC: I’m curious why you stuck with classical so long in a family that it sounds like was much more blues-oriented.
JV: Berklee. It was like four thousand people all like, “Well, look at how cool the thing I do is. Look at how cool the thing I do is.” Like, everybody is doing these cool things, and I’m just like, “Wow, I just don’t think what I’m doing is that cool. Like, how am I able to make money? Nobody wants to listen to this shit. I can’t even jam with you guys because I don’t know how to. I don’t know how to play jazz. I only know how to play classical.” I just got lost. I was like, I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s kind of lame. It’s not lame. It’s just that it’s not as inclusive. It’s a lonely lifestyle where I’m playing all these hard songs, and everybody is just sitting in the audience just trying to understand what they’re even hearing…
Whereas you play in a Blues band and everyone’s like, “Yeah!!” Everyone’s there, it’s like a community. And I didn’t get to see that with just one person advocating for it. I had to go to a whole school full of people to see that there are other things out there. My Dad always was like, “Hey, why don’t you learn how to play this song and come play it with me in my band?” He was always trying to slowly just pull me away from it. I remember in college my Dad was like, “I told you, I’ve telling you to not play that stuff anymore, it’s cool that you can play it, but I told you five years ago, you need to start learning Jazz, you need to start learning Blues. I’ve been telling you this for years, Jacqueline.” And I’m like, “Yeah, you’re right.”
TCC: So once you were done with college and you went back to Austin, what was the relationship with him like?
JV: I called him up a week after I got back from college. And I told him two things, I was like, “Dad, I need to come and get all your old Karaoke equipment because I need to get a job. And not work in a Starbucks… And then also, we’re going to Guitar Center, I want you to help me pick out a guitar, I’m learning how to play the guitar.” And he was like, “Alright, I’ll be over in an hour [laughter].” So he came over and he gave me all his Karaoke stuff, some of it was really old. He gave me this big-ass TV. I’m like, “No, I’m going to go get a flat screen TV Dad.” But he did give me all of his music, his CDs. Shit, you gotta buy that stuff, the Karaoke police might come get you for copyright infringement. Kind of like the liquor– the ABC? — they come in and they’re undercover. Karaoke people do that too, isn’t that weird?…
Anyways so, and then we went to Guitar Center and we picked out a guitar, and on the way back from Guitar Center he’s like, “Jacqueline, I don’t really know what’s gotten you on this whole guitar kick thing, but if you’re going to do this you have to really do it, like you have to kick ass.”
TCC: So at least it was a supportive thing, as opposed to an ‘in the shadow of’ thing?
JV: Always. Oh yeah, no. It was never like, “Why don’t you just go back to playing the piano?” No; it was never that. I told them that I wanted to play the guitar; they said, “Okay, well, if you’re going to do it, do it.” I’m like, “Did I stutter? I said I want to play the guitar.” They’re like, “Okay, prove it [laughter]. Prove it!”
A voice standing out from the crowd
TCC: You’ve talked in the past about the parallel between audience members recognizing a singer’s voice and recognizing a guitarist playing by their style. How do you craft a voice so unique in playing guitar that people can recognize it as yours?
JV: It has a little bit to do with equipment. A little bit. Whether it’s good or bad; it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the consistency of the equipment that you use. So I don’t care if that guitar was $100 and you customized it: always use that guitar. Always use that one… and then it’s a little bit like just a lot of practicing and figuring out what stands out to you. If you’re playing at home and let’s say you’re looping something and you’re soloing over it and you hit a string in a certain way and it sounds really cool, just keep doing that. Figure out exactly how you made that sound and then do it again.
And then also it’s a little bit like who do you like? What are all the people you like? And then kind of combine them all together. So take all the best things from all the different people you like, don’t just pick one person and transcribe them. Don’t do that. No. Transcribe a shit ton of people and then mix all of those things into one of your own things. It’s a lot of different things.
And also just really wanting it, wanting to be unique. You know what I mean? Some people don’t want to be unique. Some people are like, “I want to sound exactly like Jimi Hendrix.” I mean, I’m sure you’ve heard that before. So they go out and they buy the Jimi Hendrix guitar and they buy the amp that he bought and they even use the exact instrument cable that he used and they use the same pedals and everything. Whatever man. YOLO. That’s your prerogative. If you want to sound exactly like somebody else, more power to you. This is America, God damn it [laughter]. You know what I mean? You can do whatever you want, but I don’t want that.
A serious boss in a male-dominated community
TCC: Do you find in this community that, specifically in American music, men are always over-represented?
JV: Yeah, of course.
TCC: Do you find that that’s changing at all, or not really?
JV: It’s changing just the way it’s changing everywhere else. Slowly [laughter]. It’s changing in music, changing in with the law, it’s changing at the same rate that it is everything else. Basically, it reflects exactly how quickly or slowly the world is changing, period. So yeah, it is changing but it’s not overnight. Hell no. It’s still a sausage fest around here. To the max.
And actually, I capitalize on that. A chick with an electric guitar? And then there’s no other dude. The only players I have in my band are a bass player and a drummer. So before we even start everybody’s like “Where’s the lead guitar player?” And then they stick around, they’re like, “Wait, is she? Nah. Well, I guess we’ll just have to see [laughter].” I’m serious. It works in my favor.
TCC: Do you feel like it fuels you with kind of a sense of defiance?
JV: Like a mission? Hell yeah. It’s like, look chicks, you can do this too. You don’t need to point over to your male lead guitar player to take the solos. You don’t need to do that.
TCC: How is it with your band? How do you feel being in charge as the only woman?
JV: They’re nice. They don’t have to do anything. All they got to do is show up to the gig. Show up to the gig, play the gig, get your check, go home. They’re stoked. They don’t have to do shit, man [laughter]. “Wait a minute, what you’re saying is that I dance and play music for a living and then you give me a check? You could be a dog for all I care, I don’t care. You can be anything. You can be a man, you can be a woman, you can be both at the same time, I don’t care. Just let me play music and get paid.”
They’re not like that, is what I’m saying. They’re in their right mind. Like I said, I don’t care who’s paying me. But that’s how artists are, we don’t care. We don’t care if you’re brown, white, tall, short, male, female, we never care. Musicians have never cared. Integration happened in music before it happened anywhere else.
Building the band
TCC: Who are these guys you’re playing with and How did you meet?
JV: I met Alán [Uribe] in a Guitar Center five years ago. I was selling a keyboard- sorry, I was selling a guitar that somebody gifted to me. It was a terrible guitar so I was selling it to get money for a keyboard because I wanted to start gigging but I wasn’t good enough on guitar to play for more than 45 minutes without my hands cramping up to where they were gripping. That’s the thing about guitar, you got to build the calluses, it’s hard. But I wanted to start playing it, I was hell-bent.
I’d already been doing open mics. I went to this open mic, I played, and the guy at the open was like, “Hey, do you want to come play at my bar? And it’s a three-hour set, we’ll pay you. Do you have a band?” And I was like, “Yeah. Of course I have a band.” And he’s like, “Sure. That’s great. Okay. Come in on Friday and play this three-hour gig from 7:00 to 10:00.” I was like, ” See you there.” I called my dad, I’m like, “Dad, oh my God, I need a band [laughter].” My dad’s like, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll call Rodney [Hyder].” Rodney’s been playing with my dad for 25 years. My dad retired and now, Rodney’s my drummer…
So we’re at Guitar Center because I’m like, “I got to get a keyboard. I’m not going to get through this gig if I don’t get a keyboard. I cannot play this gig on guitar. I can switch.” I was like, “But I still want to play guitar because I need to get better at guitar and I need to play it, especially in front of people.” It’s kind of like speaking a language to people versus just repeating it. Being thrown into the situation, you learn so much faster.
So I was like, “Okay. I want to play this gig on guitar, but I cannot do three hours.” Me and my dad roll into Guitar Center. I’m selling this junky guitar to get money off it for a keyboard. So I didn’t have one. Mine had broken, and that’s when I met Alán. He comes up to me and he’s like, “Hey. You play?” And I’m like, “Yeah. Yeah.” We’re hitting on each other, and he’s like, “Well, do you have a band?” I was like, “Yeah. Sure the f–k do.” And he was like, “Well, you playing a gig?” And I’m like, “Yeah. I’m playing tonight.” I told him where I was playing. He was like, “I work right around the corner from there, and I get off work like an hour before that. I’ll totally come to your gig.” I was like, “Okay.”
And he came to the gig, and he stayed the whole time. And my dad plays a super vintage bass, and Alán is a gear nerd, right? So he’s slobbering over my dad’s bass the whole time. He’s not even looking at me. He only came to the gig because he was hitting on me in Guitar Center. He gets to the gig and sees my dad’s bass, I don’t even exist anymore [laughter]. And he comes up to my dad after the gig, right? And he’s like, “Dude. Is that what I think it is?” And my dad was like, “1963 Fender Jazz Bass.” And he’s like, “Is it a reissue?” My dad was like, “No. I bought this in 1963. I’ve been playing it ever since.” Alán was like, “Nice.” That bass is worth like $25,000 now. So he’s just shaking his head. He’s like, “Can I please play it?”
I found out later Alán has like seven basses. He’s crazy, a gearhead. And so he’s playing it, and he’s getting down, right? And we’re packing up the PA, we’re packing up stuff. Finally, my dad’s like, “I got to pack it up.” And he’s like, “Thanks for letting me play it.” We’re driving home, my dad’s like, “Hey, he’s a good bass player. If you want to start a band, you should hire him.” Here we are.
TCC: It worked out pretty well. It’s crazy how life works.
JV: Yeah. Rodney wasn’t in the band until two years ago because my dad was still working with Rodney, so I had to find another drummer for like three years… He [Rodney] is a great drummer. Great drummer. Really reliable. Also just the coolest dude ever. Also, people trip out because he’s blind. Yeah, they trip out. And also, he wasn’t born blind, so he knows how to use his eyes even though they don’t work. People don’t know he’s blind until he stands up from the kit and snaps out his cane, and everybody’s like, “What the f–k!?” [laughter] They flip out because they see this guy play, and they’re like, “Wow, he’s really rad. Great drummer. And he’s what?!”
The millennia-old conversation
TCC: People really identify your sound with your geographic area in a lot of ways. What’s it like for you going to Germany and the Czech Republic and all these other places? What is the response like?
JV: People are obsessed with Texas music, man. People are obsessed. They’re like “Oh, Texas! Blues! Yeah! Willie Nelson!” Texas music’s rad. There’s a lot of things I’m not proud of when it comes to that state. A lot of things. I’m sure you know what I mean. Pretty scary place.
TCC: I could hazard a guess or two.
JV: Yeah. Or like 15, I’d guess. Two or five or 15. It’s not exactly the greatest state when it comes to a lot of things, but you gotta admit, man, Texas music is rad.
TCC: We’re curious, if you had to write a mission statement for your art, your sound and your voice, what would it be?
JV: To continue the conversation. We’ve been having this musical conversation for a millennium… I want to contribute to the conversation positively. Some people don’t contribute. Some people are just like, “I’m going to copy James Brown.” And they don’t add anything new. They just capitalize on what’s already been done and I don’t want to do that. I want to to take what I’ve heard and what has influenced me, and I want to process it and spit it back out in my own interpretation, and I want to contribute to the conversation. Yeah, and I would like to eat well doing it.
TCC: Mere details.
JV: Details [laughter]. Here’s a beer. Now, shut the f–k up [laughter]. That’s how it usually is. “We gave you beer.” You can’t deposit beer. You can’t pay my bills with beer. You can stop giving a shit about your bills with beer. Briefly. For a short period of time.