Jackie Venson is a new find for me, and I’m hooked. The first black woman to win Austin’s Music Awards’ Best Guitarist for 2019 gets had only been playing the guitar for EIGHT years prior to that honor. But don’t let the setting fool you — while she’s got mad blues guitar chops, she’s far from just another blues guitarist. Blending elements of synthpop, electronic, prog, rock, jazz, and blues, Venson’s blazing a path uniquely her own, filled with throbbing beats that recall decades past while lighting the way ahead. Here, the Berklee alumnus talks about switching instruments, skipping genres and avoiding the machine.
French Davis: I really enjoyed what you had to say on the two most recent albums I listened to; it’s interesting that you’ve only been playing guitar for a decade. Is that right?
Jackie Venson: Yes. That is correct. But I played piano for 13 leading up to that. So I didn’t just go from no music to that.
FD: Still, that switch is still impressive. I mean, your chops are fantastic. Can you talk a little bit about just making that switch? Was it just a natural change for you or was it something that you spent ungodly amounts of hours every day trying to make happen?
JV: No, it was actually an extremely difficult change, and it took about three years for me to finally think that I hadn’t made a huge mistake. It took probably six hours a day every day for three years. Two years in, I still wasn’t even halfway where I wanted to be. Two and a half years in, still not even halfway. I just didn’t know how many six hour days was it going to take for me to play an hour-long set and feel good about it. It took three years of that.
FD: Was it a switch flipped then suddenly?
JV: It was not exactly a switch flipped. I landed this touring opportunity with this department store called Belk. And I went on this really intense tour, and it was the first tour I’d ever been on. And it was all over the country, and it was so much traveling and the gigs were long, I’d sometimes have to play the two hours, and it was probably just one summer of that intense touring. Plus I was doing this looper show I had just developed. So I was essentially just jamming all by myself in front of people onstage. I mean, all by myself on stage, in front of people. And I was having to be creative and think fast and in the moment. And I think that it was three months of just intense training almost, just to be a performer, period. And that was kind of the turning point.
FD: You’ve established a strong name for yourself in Austin and Texas. And breaking out, it seemed you were on the precipice of doing that, and then COVID hit. And then touring stopped, venues disappeared, and you went online and did something pretty impressive there in terms of building your brand online and what you were doing.
JV: It was just insane timing for a lot of different reasons, both good and bad. The good was that I had actually been streaming on and off for probably two or three years. I’d been using it to sell my tickets to my shows. The first stream I ever tried to do was November, 2015. And I was in Berlin, Germany. And I tried to stream a show from the basement of a bowling alley/bar. And so here I am on my first tour in Europe ever, and I’m trying to live stream it. Live stream technology was probably four months old at this point. And then a year later, I streamed a gig from New York City, because I don’t know, I just thought the idea of streaming a gig and people being able to see my gig, even though I’m not in town, was really cool, and I just wanted it to work. But the technology just wasn’t there yet. So I had always believed in streaming ever since it first hit the scene. And so over the years, I’ve upgraded my equipment. I did Jackie Venson Live on Thursdays in 2019, so that I could sell tickets to my Paramount Theater show that I had that April. And so I’d already been doing it. So I just basically dusted off the old equipment, plugged it all back in, and just hit the ground running.
FD: Was there anything that surprised you in terms of the last year and how that was received and the kind of groundswell that you got?
JV: I didn’t expect it to be quite as explosive. I thought I was just going to kind of do my streams and people were going to see them, or they weren’t. I didn’t know it was going to be like, “Boom.” I thought it was going to be normal, because everything else in my career leading up to it is pretty normal, but nothing about last year was normal and I should have recognized that.
FD: So how are you stopping that from impacting what you do? How are you able to navigate your own path while this is happening and avoid getting pulled into that machine or pushed around by it?
JV: Same way I always did, French. My generation invented the internet, or social media, at least. The same way every millennial does. We just get on the internet and find another way. Everything is a Google search away, my friend. How do I get my stuff on iTunes without a record label? Google: Hey, check out cdbaby.com. How do I get my stuff to radio hosts and stuff? Hey, check out this website called Play MPE. I just do it myself, man… A lot of people don’t want to do it because it’s a lot of work, but having freedom is a lot of work. Freedom isn’t free. You either have someone do all the work for you and then they own you and tell you what to do, or you do it all yourself and you’re free. Things aren’t going to happen if the environment is not normal. So it was strange, but I could have never seen it coming. I could have never seen anything that happened last year coming.
FD: The first couple of videos of yours I watched, you were doing really straight ahead blues.. And then I pulled up Vintage Machine and I’m listening to that, and it’s totally outside of the realm. I mean, there were flavors of the blues still in there, but then I’m hearing Prince and MJ and—
JV: Yeah. Drum machines and synthesizers.
FD: It was awesome. I was like, “This is not what I expected, but I’m loving it.” Can you maybe talk a little bit about that album and the process and how that all came together?
JV: I started working with drum machines and samplers and synthesizers a lot more heavily in 2018. I started recording the songs that you’ll hear on Joy. And I think Joy, my album from 2019, is a pretty complete picture of me as a songwriter and artist. Joy is not any one thing. The first track is R&B-pop, but then the second track is reggae. And the third track is electronic rock, and then the fourth track is a weird hybrid, electronic blues, standard. So I did that on purpose because I’m not ever going to be a person who sticks to one genre. I never was. I don’t really know how I got the title of “blues guitarist.” I think it’s just because people don’t know where else to put me, and because my songs are electric-guitar driven, they just automatically go to blues. And so some people call me rock, but rock guitarists maybe don’t play as many solos as I do. I do a lot of guitar solos during my set. So I think that’s why people still push me over into blues because it’s just electric guitar, guitar solos, must be blues. And I’m like, “No, I’m trying to show you with my existence that electric guitar solos work over every genre.” You can have electric guitar solos over reggae also. And you can also have electric guitar solos over straight up electronic music. That’s what I’ve been trying to make people see, that it’s not about the genre, it’s about the artist, and the artist becomes the genre.
FD: Dig it. The artist becomes the genre. And I mean, that’s fair. The biggest names in history kind of define that, right? You don’t really stick Bowie in a genre. You just say David Bowie. Prince…
JV: Yeah. I mean, you can’t even stick the Beatles in a genre. You can’t stick Stevie Wonder in a genre. You could call Stevie Wonder Motown, but it’s not always Motown. Sometimes it’s funk, man, straight up funk. And then sometimes it’s really complicated fusion prog jazz. Stevie Wonder is a musical mastermind. He’s not Motown. He’s not just doo-wop the whole time. And it’s the same with the Beatles. Sometimes they’re rock. Sometimes they’re folk. Sometimes they’re singer/songwriter. Sometimes they’re acoustic. Sometimes they’re just a capella, just their voices. Man, one of the songs is actually pretty metal. That song “Day in the Life” is pretty metal. Gets real noisy and scary at the end. I’m just saying, you can’t even stick them in a genre, and who would want to? Do you want these people to stick to one genre? Do you really want that? You want one person whose lifespan could go 80 years, you want them to just sing the same four chords? You want that? All of the best people who’ve ever lived never did. So I won’t.
FD: Yeah. Miles Davis, he wouldn’t even want to play the same thing two shows in a row. He’d do an album, they’d say, “Play it,” and you’d be like, “No. You want it? Go buy the album. I’m doing something else now.”
JV: Yeah. The problem is that we’ve been so brainwashed by the machine that we think that things need to be separated in genres, when really that’s just been propaganda imposed upon us. Didn’t used to be like that. If you go listen to mainstream radio of the 1980s, it’s everywhere. It’s all over the place. And you listen to mainstream radio now, and it’s maybe two genres. You have pop and then you have electronic pop, and those are your two choices. And it’s crazy because if you go look at the top 10 artists in 1983, oh my God, it’s going to be all over the place. It’s going to be Paul Simon and then Depeche Mode and then Bowie, but you know what I mean? Those people are so night and day from each other. The radio used to be so poppin’ because of that. The mainstream radio.
FD: Yeah. You actually made me look it up. And you have Bonnie Tyler, Michael Jackson, Men at Work, The Police. The Eurythmics. Hall and Oates.
JV: Oh my God. You just told me an entire universe of music. But if you go to the top 10 now, I bet you three of them are Bieber. Three of them are the same person. Two of them are someone else who’s the same person. And then I bet you anything if you dig even deeper, all of those songs were written by two people and mixed by one and produced by one. That’s what I’m trying to say. It’s really weird. Music is not the only thing that is happening to, and people are starting to get fed up with it, and I know that, because they come to my shows and they don’t know what to say. They’re like, “I don’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to expect.” And I’m like, “I know, because the mainstream culture doesn’t prepare us for stuff like this anymore. It just makes us think everything is going to sound like one thing.”
Jackie Venson plays Fox Theatre July 10 at 9 p.m. Tickets start at $15, www.foxtheatre.com for more info.