Kind of blues
Austin songwriter and guitarist Jackie Venson brings dynamic performance back to Tulsa
Many Tulsans first became acquainted with 28-year-old Austin songwriter Jackie Venson’s skillful guitar work and energetic stage presence when she opened for Gary Clark Jr. last year at Cain’s Ballroom. A classically trained pianist who switched to playing exclusively electric guitar after college, Venson is a prolific, versatile songwriter and musician who’s clocked thousands of hours with her band. She released her latest EP, Transcends, a five-song exploration of rising above negativity, in September of last year. Venson will be at Soul City on Thursday, March 29 (with local singer-songwriter Casii Stephan) to kick off a string of southern U.S. tour dates before her next European tour early this summer.
Becky Carman: How did you get started playing music?
Jackie Venson: I started off at eight years old. My mom forced me into piano lessons, as many moms do, and I ended up actually liking it and stuck with it. For about 13 years, I played classical piano only. My last year of college, I got bored of it, I guess. I didn’t want to switch to a different genre; I just didn’t want to play the piano at all anymore. I still wanted to play music. I wanted to play blues and rock out, so I picked up the electric guitar.
Carman: How old were you then?
Carman: So you must’ve totally immersed yourself in guitar to get where you are this quickly.
Venson: Yeah, I’m 28 now, and I’m still totally immersed in it.
Carman: Was there anything in particular you can remember that triggered your switch from piano to guitar?
Venson: I don’t know. I guess I went to a concert in the cafeteria at my school, where they move the tables out and a band plays. A guy was playing electric guitar, and he was having a blast.
Carman: You went to Berklee [College of Music]. I’ve interviewed a lot of people from there, none of whom sound remotely like each other. How did that aspect of your musical education affect your path as an artist?
Venson: When I first picked up the guitar, I lived in the dorms, next door to a million guitar players. I got a lot of help from them. One of them even loaned me a guitar. They asked what kind I wanted to play, I said electric blues guitar, and they told me what books to buy and what music to listen to. It was just really helpful to have that wealth of knowledge around me.
Carman: How do you think being from Austin has affected your career?
Venson: It definitely helps having people do music as a career around you. My dad was not the only person I witnessed have a music career. It helps to know that it actually is possible, so in that way, Austin was a huge influence on me. Austin is a super guitar town. I probably had the seed planted in my brain before I even realized.
Carman: Do you find it super competitive?
Venson: Mmm, no, it’s not like Berklee—that was cold, every-man-for-himself. In Austin, there’s enough gigs for everybody. You just have to know where to look.
Carman: You’re obviously blues-influenced in your guitar, but I don’t get the sense you’re writing blues songs, and your records vary a lot in genre. Do you have any songwriting ground rules?
Venson: One of my biggest rules is to not write a song that sounds like a song I’ve already written. If there’s a melody that sounds like another melody I’ve used, I have to change it. Sometimes, things slide by, though—but only I can hear them. If they slide by, that means they’re subtle. That’s only happened one or two times. Another thing is that however I was feeling when I wrote the song needs to be written into the song. If I was feeling sad, every time I sing that song, it needs to automatically have that tone. I have to be able to translate the emotion behind the song. That’s why I switch around genres so much. Sometimes blues does not translate something as well as rock or pop or reggae would.
Carman: Some musicians who are people of color or who are women tend to shy away from those social identifiers. In a way you seem to have embraced them, and you have a lot of them: young, female, black, guitarist. There’s a lot of conditions. Do you think that’s been problematic at all, or advantageous?
Venson: I honestly don’t know. There’s no way for me to know. I don’t know why I’ve gained the things I’ve gained. Sometimes someone will say they really like my music, and is that the whole truth? Is it that they like my music and also haven’t talked about a black woman this month? Or do they honestly just really like it? It definitely does affect things, but there’s no way to track it.
Carman: Were the shows on that Gary Clark Jr. tour the biggest you’ve played to date?
Venson: Actually, no, but they were definitely the most exciting. The biggest audience I’ve ever played in front of was 20,000 people at this cool event I did in Austin, so it’ll be a while before I get back to that. So they weren’t the biggest, but they were the most career-advancing.
Carman: What was it like stepping onto those stages as a relative unknown? Was there pressure in each new city?
Venson: There was no pressure at all. Me and the band have played like 6,000 gigs together at this point. Every gig is just another gig—not meaning I don’t enjoy them or they weren’t exciting. But me being nervous, that would mean I was unprepared. Nervousness comes from a fear of looking bad, and I knew it wasn’t going to sound bad. Me and the band had just gotten back from a European tour where we played a gig every day, then the one in front of 20,000 people, then the ones with Gary. We were super prepared, and I knew it was going to be fine. I was excited.
Carman: Is there anything you’ve taken away from playing those larger shows that translates into your club dates?
Venson: Just be relaxed. It’s important to be relaxed and to be happy that you’re there, and that’s what playing a million gigs will get you. When you have 4,000 hours of playing together, nothing will scare you after that.
Carman: What’s next, after these club dates and your next European tour?
Venson: I have a new single and video coming out every month this year. I’ll probably compile them into an album and release it on vinyl since I’ve never done that before. Why not?
Jackie Venson with Casii Stephan
Thursday, March 29, 8 p.m.
1621 E. 11th St.
Tickets $15 at eventbrite.com