Jackie Venson Strips Off Her Blues Band and Becomes Her Own "DJ"
Austin's reigning Best Guitarist scales the ladder to the roof
Jackie Venson intersperses casual munching, humorous sarcasm, and smacking her hand on a countertop into a discussion primarily on the challenges of operating as an independent musician in the age of the internet. On this Memorial Day, the only barbecue at the South Austin home of John Bune, Venson's self-proclaimed "shameless promoter," takes place inside the mind of the town's reigning Best Guitarist. A fire blazes within, but never out of control.
"I'm trying to figure out if I want a lights person or a bass player," she calmly states about an upcoming headliner set in November at UtopiaFest.
Venson chomps down a handful of trail mix and looks blankly into space.
"Lights person or a bass player?" she mutters.
Given that her Joy to the World Tour revs up on European shores less than two weeks from the date of this interview, travel expenses come up more than once in a long-ranging, two-hour summit. For starters, an estimated $10,000 in unplanned road expenses forced her to forgo a band and go solo last year. As such, venues now host "DJ" Jackie Venson, a classically trained pianist turned electric blues guitarist and bandleader turned singer/guitarist/DJ.
The path to musical success proves confusing for many and the industry's twisting undulations exhaust even the most optimistic of dreamers. Debt isn't the only hurdle musicians must overcome to reach their desired destination. Whether it's finding good players or receptive locales, the path taxes the mind.
"It's a creaky old ladder and there's too many people on it," says the 29-year-old. "There needs to be five or six different ladders. And yet, there's only one and there's like 20,000 people trying to climb it. There's no one way to climb it, because other people screwed around with it, then the internet blows off a few rungs, and it's just a really hard ladder to climb.
"Everybody who comes up goes back down, so you climb it for as long as you emotionally and physically can."
The Berklee College of Music alum figures she's got another 10 years of climbs left in her.
Facts & Reality
Jackie Venson operates in facts and reality. The soulful rhythm-and-blues-and-pop purveyor grew up in Northwest Austin next to the Arboretum, a suburban upbringing that might not qualify as a typically local childhood. She rarely went Downtown outside of occasional trips to the historic Paramount Theatre. DNA, however, fuses the multi-instrumentalist to her hometown culture.
"My dad had his rehearsal space in the house," the second-generation talent recalls with a smile on her face. "I used to fall asleep underneath the chair he would sit on while playing bass."
In fact, Andrew Venson was the only sighted player in local R&B act Blue Mist for a decade. A semi-retired professional musician with over 40 years of experience, her father, now 75, demonstrated the ability to gig, parent, and keep the lights on thanks to the capital's vibrant music scene. Blind drummer Rodney Hyder, a former bandmember with Andrew, today backs Jackie on occasion.
While she might not have frequented Sixth Street often, there occurred many a show right in her home. In fact, Blue Mist represented both the achievement standard and almost exclusively the sole source of her music exposure until she went off to woodshed in Boston. These days, the two Vensons sometimes share the stage, including a May 30 appearance together at Austin City Limits Radio's Unplugged at the Grove series.
Meanwhile, Jackie jokes about Kanye West swiping her bass player for the rapper's Sunday service. Then there's fellow homegrown guitar hero Gary Clark Jr. hiring away her keyboard player. The two Austinites toured together in 2017.
"I got a damn good ear for players, that's all I take from it," she proclaims without blinking, fist resting on the table. "Also, maybe they're watching me," she adds sarcastically before bursting into laughter.
Venson's second full-length studio disc, Joy, released this spring (revisit "Texas Platters," June 14), showcases a fast-evolving artist conversant in blues, soul, rock, reggae, and robot noises. Manager Louie Carr suggested the name in response to concertgoers' glee at her instrumental gifts.
"I get really lost in the beat and I focus on the subdivisions of the beat," the electric soulstress describes. "I focus on all of the melodies floating in the harmonics of the beat, so I just allow myself to get lost in front of people in the cloud of music surrounding me."
The expansive album turns catchy ad-libs into universal hooks ("Witchcraft") and does so as the author shreds over its 20 songs like Kelly Slater used to ride waves. Tracks range from tender vulnerability ("Don't Lie to Me") to guitar-hoisting victory ("Never Say Die"), with the combination of both ("Rollin' and Tumblin'") stating, "I don't need no man, just my guitar" before the track gently fades out.
Some have suggested it sounds like St. Vincent in spots. Like Venson, Dallas electro-pop guitar goddess Annie Clark also attended Berklee.
"We might have a similar delivery," bristles Venson. "Maybe she has a sampler, but you'd have to look into how she performs and that'd be the basis for any type of similarity. Otherwise, [the comparison] is like Jill Scott and Madonna, and they don't sound anything alike."
Point delivered like a stinging solo, she brushes off the follow-up apology.
"No, no. People compare me to her all the time. You gave me an opportunity to tell people how I feel about the comparison."
Live at the Paramount Theatre
Winner of February's Austin Music Awards plaque for Best Guitarist and the first black woman to win the award, Venson knows that climbing ladders for a living isn't necessary to feed, house, and clothe oneself. Ambition nudges creatives onto the ladder. This dreamer holds clear-cut goals well above the poverty line of mediocrity: She strives to reach a point where she can regularly sell out 1,200- to 5,000-capacity venues nationwide.
"I want to make a lot of money because I want to make really great art," the former Westwood High School student declares. The temperature inside the house increases a few degrees. "I want to go to someone's town and be in front of them and share energy with them and provide a nice night, a nice thing to do, or maybe their daughter just got into guitar and they want to expose them. I want to provide that experience for them."
Or at least pack venues in Texas, she admits, reciting the cost of airfare from Austin to El Paso in a millisecond.
"But the things that you have to do to make it where just 1,200 people are ready to buy your tickets in different towns – the stuff you have to do, the opportunities you need to land, the doors you need to open – that's the ladder," she waves. "I'm only climbing the ladder to get there. That's why I'm saying I have another 10 years in me, because I just wanna get there because once I get there, I'm going to be like, 'You know what? I can stop now.'"
On April 12, 2019, Venson sold out the Paramount Theatre. John Bune hastily digs in his pocket, ready to disprove anyone who might suggest otherwise.
"I got a picture of the marquee: 'Sold Out,'" he says with exaggerated Southern enunciation of the phrase "sold out."
That night, his client completed the first step toward her goal in the town where she learned to walk. Because of this, she's in the process of trying to turn that performance into a live concert special. She fantasizes about landing it on Netflix, but would settle for any of the big streaming services.
"We documented the starting line," she says passionately. "Let's say in 10 years I've reached my goal: I can fill 1,000-to 5,000-capacity rooms in every major city in America. You'll be able to see the person I was when I was just trying to keep my head above water. You're going to be able to see it, because it was literally filmed. I don't think this perspective is ever offered."
All she needs, then, is $200,000 to get the project completed. Presently, every dollar she earns goes toward paying outstanding debt, Venson having plundered her savings to start realizing the Paramount documentary. That's a whole other problem – her overhead – since she claims a label services company "screwed" her out of $6,000 last year. (The company vehemently denies her claims.)
As such, her upcoming tour will feature just Hyder. The three-month, 46-date odyssey ends with six consecutive August dates in Alaska and omits New York City, a hub where she's lost $30,000 and once had her car towed. All but five cities are a crapshoot where she might "lose her ass."
"Guess what?" she interjects. "This is not a sob story. This is not me saying I had to pay for it with my savings, feel sorry for me. No.
"This is how real it is and also how I will never get back the first time I sold out the Paramount Theatre. That is worth way more money than what I paid. It's priceless."
A Perfect Day
Jackie Venson opted to reinvent her live format rather than accrue (more) debt. Formerly backed by a threepiece blues ensemble, the guitarist now works primarily off of a sampler, playing over a live backing track that's controlled by a foot pedal. She then mixes the sound live in real time, spending copious hours before shows sampling her own music and rearranging it. Mixing and matching beats, she obsesses over transitions like a DJ would.
Except this "DJ" can do all of that and go toe-to-toe with a world-class guitar god like West African bluesman Vieux Farka Touré, who she opened for at South Lamar's 04 Center at the end of May.
"I think I'm going to bring her to Mali with me, because they think women can't play," grinned the Ali Farka Touré scion.
Indeed, this woman will send over one-fourth of Gustavus, Alaska's population into a three-hour trance with nothing more than her guitar wizardry.
Equally enchanting, the second track from Joy, "Keep On," got picked up by the Spotify playlist "A Perfect Day" shortly after Joy's April release. The mix currently counts over 600,000 followers with songs from artists such as the Beatles, Elton John, and Lady Gaga. "Keep On" has amassed nearly 250,000 streams since its placement on the collection of "timeless melodies," old and new.
How fitting, since Jackie Venson keeps on climbing with unrelenting conviction – fully conscious of her debt, abilities, and the frailty of her aspirations.
"I don't think that I'm not worthy of believing in," she declares. "I'm not letting it affect my self-worth, but you specifically asked me about a career and running a career, and this is where it is right now. I don't think it's always going to be like this. Give me another 10 years and I think I'll be able to accomplish that goal.
"It will take that long, but I think I'll be able to do it. If it takes any longer, then I might have to reassess what I'm doing with my life."
A Fistful of Venson
Picked up by Spotify's "A Perfect Day" playlist, the second track from this year's full-length studio album Joy is by far the Austinite's most successful song on the service with 300,000-plus streams. A triple threat of plush vocals, fine-tuned composition, and varied instrumentation make it a heavy hitter.
Joy's title track offers a comprehensive guide to happiness, Venson's voice deepening mid-speech as she asserts her soul isn't for sale.
“A Million Moments”
December 2018 single littered with synths, explosive blues riffs, and drums.
When Venson isn't closing her eyes during a killer solo, her pupils are open in search for more. This fourth song from 2017 EP Transcends features powerful lyrics.
“One Step Forward (Live)”
Author exposes her "tender heart for the world to know" on this transparent cut from 2016's Live at Strange Brew, a stripped-down drums and guitar tango.
Jackie Venson’s Joy to the World tour continues through the end of August.