Jackie Venson: Guitars, Music, and Inspiration

Photo by Ismael Quintanilla III
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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Summer 2020 Issue

Jackie Venson is an Austin-born singer-songwriter and guitarist who was the first African American woman to receive the ‘Best Guitarist’ title at the Austin Music Awards.

Here, we take a closer look into the evolution Venson went through during her career so far, her influences, how she perceives music, and what advice she has for aspiring female musicians who are willing to take their chances in the music industry.

Venson began playing piano at the age of eight. Trained at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in composition, studio production, and piano, she decided to pick up a guitar during her last year. We chatted with Venson at Winter NAMM about her decision to switch to guitar, and she told us, “I played classical piano for the first decade or so of my musical career, and then I decided that I wanted to do something a little freer. The thing with classical piano is that you have to learn other people’s music and there’s a lot of structure and rules, and I was tired of that. So, I decided to play electric guitar and kind of express myself differently.”

Venson is not just an incredible artist, but a versatile performer as well, who leaves nothing to chance when it comes to giving the crowd a fantastic show.

Forbes magazine in 2019 even went as far as claiming that Jackie Venson is on her way to becoming “an Austin legend.” As a matter of fact, May 21, 2014, was declared Jackie Venson Day by Austin City Hall.

Venson has been obsessed with music from a very early age. Over the years, she has seen a lot of changes in her style while working through various genres of music. She has been cited as drawing influences from Buddy Guy, Sade, and Alicia Keyes, and had the opportunity to tour with Gary Clark, Jr., Earth, Wind & Fire, and The Doobie Brothers, to name a few. Numerous national and international festivals have added to her extensive performance schedule. When discussing memorable tours, she says, “I would have to say it’s between the first European tour, the month I spent in New York City, and headlining Gruene Hall.”

RELATED:  Tone Talk with Jackie Venson

Her last album, Joy, was released last year, which contains twenty incredible tracks. “One of the songs was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, but the rest were recorded in Austin, TX, at either ORB or The Bubble,” she says. She goes on to say, “I really loved working on ‘Afterglow’ and ‘Joy’ because it was my first experience really buckling down on an arrangement, making decisions based on the rest of the collection of music, and really digging deep within myself for all of my accumulative musical knowledge.”

Music that inspired her in her early days

The music in Disney movies was a significant influence in Venson’s early life. She is impressed by the precision and brilliance that goes into the writing and production of these musical scores by “some of the most legendary people on Earth.”

“Elton John himself wrote some of the music for The Lion King, while Hans Zimmer did the score,” says Venson. She recalls, “And here I am as a kid, wondering why the music is making me feel a certain way, wondering how the people created the music. These thoughts that early on in my life were huge for me and left a lasting impression on song form, arrangement, and lyrical style.”

Music that influences her present style

At the moment, Venson’s music is inspired by more than one specific genre. She finds it difficult to just stick to one particular style, and instead, prefers to capitalize on what sounds best to her while leaving out the things she doesn’t like.

“I’m just kind of casting a really wide net,” says Venson. “Every time I release a new record, I’m kind of honing in on what I liked about the last one and leave out what I didn’t like. I try to hone in on the sound right now, and in order to do that, you kind of got to explore a lot of sounds. So that’s what I’m doing.”

Photo by Ismael Quintanilla III

Talking about her Gibson Les Paul Studio named ‘Rosetta’

Rosetta is Jackie Venson’s Les Paul Studio, which has a beautiful grain finish with gold accents, has a coil tap with two pickups producing distinct sounds upon tuning volume knobs. “It has about ten to eleven tones available,” she tells us.

“I tried out a few other different models, and I just didn’t think that the tone options were possible for what I need,” says Venson. “I was like, I need to be able to do everything, and the people at Gibson suggested to me the latest Les Paul Studio. The Studios, particularly with coil tap pickups, are really awesome,” added Venson. “You get a lot of variety in terms of tone, and you can play any genre. You can do whatever you want with that guitar. You can mellow it out and make it a jazz guitar, or you can engage the humbuckers and make it cut through the wall. You can do whatever you want with that guitar.”

When it comes to her definition of tone, Venson says, “Tone has always been and will always be in the hands of the beholder. I don’t think the brand of the instrument or pickups or anything has a lot to do with it. Whether or not the person is known for certain effects like distortion or fuzz comes into play as well, but even through that, there’s a foundational tone that exists only in the hands.”

Jackie Venson’s advice to the young women looking to get started in the music industry

Jackie Venson is an inspiration to hundreds and thousands of young women who are willing to work in the music industry. “Be yourself, don’t chase pipe dreams, do it for the music. There’s no road map—there’s no right or wrong,” says Venson on being asked what she would say to these young women. “Everything is a grey area, and if you don’t love music to the very core of your being, you won’t last very long. Never get desperate. Be patient.”

We had a chance to catch up with Venson recently to talk a little more about her album, Joy, her songwriting process, and what’s next.

Jackie Venson: The power of Joy

Last year, you released a twenty-track album titled Joy. What does joy look like for you?
Joy, for me, is being myself and expressing myself the way I want to express myself. It comes from within me, and I guard it and only share it in certain ways so that I can protect it. I think of my personal joy as a secret well, that only I know the location of, with a locked cover on it that only I have the key to. This keeps outside forces, haters, or whatever depressing stuff happening in the world away from my personal “supply” of joy.

You must have had to spend quite a bit of time in the studio working on the album. What does your creative process look like when you’re songwriting?
I record everything, even when I’m on an airplane or somewhere in public. I will still pull out my phone and record an idea. I have done this for over a decade and have a huge library of demos that I continuously draw from. I usually come up with the music or the beat first, and then after I lay that down, in my sampler or with a looper. I play leads over the music until I find a melody that resonates with me. From there, I work on arranging the song, and I do the arranging with my Pioneer Toraiz SP16 Sampler. Lyrics are the last thing to happen, and once I have the melody and the arrangement, I just listen to the demo over and over until words come out.

Photo by Ismael Quintanilla III

Some of the tracks on your album have very different sounds from each other, yet they all go together cohesively. How did you balance making each track different while still telling a continuous story when you were writing?
I believe what makes them all go together is the fact that I wrote all of the songs, so maybe they are different genres, perhaps even some of them are heavy synth and drum machine arrangements versus four-piece rock band arrangements. What’s common throughout the record is that I wrote all of the songs, that I am playing the guitar on all of the songs, and that I am singing on all of the songs. What I am trying to get people to understand is that genres don’t matter; it is the voice of the artist that matters. The artist IS the genre, especially if they write their own music or at least have a large part in writing their own music.

Forbes called you “an Austin legend in the making.” Does having something like that said about you add pressure to continue getting bigger?
No, I let go of all career pressure and don’t plan on ever inviting it back in. I am a human; I am an artist. I am going to be alive on this earth for a time period, so everything is just a natural progression for me that directly correlates with the timeline of my actual life. People don’t feel pressure to grow up and get old, so I don’t feel pressure to make my career grow faster than it organically would anyway. I am here for the journey.

How do you think growing up in Texas has affected your sound?
I play the guitar—Texas and guitars go hand in hand like Idaho and potatoes. Throw a rock in Texas, and you’ll hit a guitar player better than most you’ve ever heard, guaranteed. I think growing up in this state, as well as Austin, is what subliminally made me choose to switch to the electric guitar.

What attracted you to the unique mixture of blues, rock, and soul that you’re playing now?
I just write songs and whatever arrangement fits best is the arrangement I go for. I let the song decide the arrangement, and this method has led me to some really great songs that resulted in awesome shows and memories. I think the reason why I am so open to different arrangements is a mixture of the education I got in college and the different music I have listened to and been into throughout my life.

You had a world tour planned for this year, but it was obviously cut short by the pandemic. Are you writing more music? Will you reschedule your tour for next year, or will you wait to tour until you have new music?
My next album is actually supposed to come out this year in September, so it will have to be after that. I think next year I will be back to touring—we just have to take this all one day at a time.

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