Ali McGhee is a journalist, creative writer, and academic. Her work has appeared in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Romantic Circles, Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary...
There's no mistaking Jackie Venson's soulful voice and no-holds-barred guitar playing. The Austin-based musician grew up under the tutelage of musical parents—her father, Andrew Venson, was a renowned performer in the Austin scene, and her mother provided an entry point to the piano and instilled the value of regular practice. Venson, who studied at the Berklee College of Music, embraced the guitar in her last year there before returning home to make a splash in Texas. Now she's bringing her vibrant sound and high energy to Asheville. She opens for the legendary Gary Clark Jr., on Wednesday, July 19th, at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in the US Cellular Center. We've got a pair of tickets to the show, and you can enter to win them by leaving a comment on this post on Facebook. We'll announce the winner on Monday, July 17th.
Venson's musical upbringing was the first in a series of steps that led her back to Austin as a young adult after college, where she immersed herself in the local music scene. In 2014, the city even held a "Jackie Venson Day" that celebrated women in music and raised funds for the Dub Academy Youth Production Program. When you have a conversation with Venson, it's easy to see why a city would name an entire day after her. Charismatic and warm, quick to laugh and filled with stories, she has a personality made for the stage. And when she performs, she carries her conversational, easy energy with her, combining it with some really, really big guitar.
Venson followed her 2014 album, The Light in Me, with a live album that showcases the upbeat energy of her shows. She's about to release an EP that she's entering in the Grammies. So Asheville, now's your chance to hear a Grammy contender before she opens for a living legend (you'd better get on it).
I talked with Venson about the lessons she learned from her father, the influence of hip hop on her music, and the fact that she will take—and listen to—your demo tape.
What was it like to grow up with a musician for a father? What is one thing you learned from him about being a professional musician, just by dint of the fact that he was there and living that life?
My dad and my mom were crucial for very different reasons. I can't think of one piece of advice that was greatest my dad ever gave me, because there is so much to learn and so much you need to know to do this job, but to sum it all up, he saved me years of making mistakes and years of learning things the hard way by just telling me things.
For example, he said, "Oh no, don't do a band. Have a band but don't do a band. If you have a band, make sure your band is you." Players just play with you, but when you have a band, everyone is attached to each individual band member. And what happens when someone has a kid, or gets into drugs or something? If it's just you, you switch out the players as needed. Think about how many fail because one guy doesn't want to be in the band anymore because of an ego problem. A band can't break up if you are the band. All that people care about is me showing up.
Another thing he told me was, "Get the money before you play the gig." Also, "Be the band leader, learn how to sing and play, because if you learn how to sing and play that's less people that you have to hire." I'm two people in one person. So I could have thrown away 10 years as a keyboard player for someone else's band, and maybe that guy didn't get money before the gig. All of those things saved me years of BS.
Oh, and—"Don't shit where you eat." Do not date anyone you work with. "Hire people who are women, or men who are married so there's not even an option." He told me that when I was like 13 (laughs)! We were on the way to a piano lesson and he told me some story about a band where the musician started dating the singer and they broke up, and that was how he said it! He shared all of his stories about crap in his professional life and he saved me years of mistakes.Source: Facebook
You listen to a lot of hip hop, like Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, etc, and take inspiration from the artists. How does this inspiration show up in your music? How can hip hop and the blues/singer-songwriter/Americana musical styles speak to one another? What do you feel like these styles offer one another?
Kendrick's wordplay is just unbelievable, and it makes me strive to always be more and more clever with my words, but also to be really upfront. He's very blunt. Actually someone else that inspires me with his lyric writing is Jason Mraz. It's really incredible for the same reason: he's straightforward. That's Kendrick, and hip hop overall.
And it's the beat, dude, it's all about the beat! I swear that's why people are so nuts about hip hop, and why people have always been nuts about American music. It's always been the beat. Classical music is a wash of notes that you can't keep track of or bounce your head and dance to, and hip hop is the most beat-centric music ever. And with the drums on the recording sometimes you can't even hear the vocals. That's how intense the beat and bass are, and people have been crazy about it for the last 30 years, basically since it was invented. So whenever I write songs I make sure they have a really good beat. That's why I do a solo show with the looper pedal sometimes. That allows me to have that beat.
Many of the songs on The Light in Me are so much about personal growth and your personal journey. What experiences or practices have contributed to your personal or spiritual growth, for that album or in general?
That album was a combination of returning to Austin from college and dealing with that experience. My experience in college was hard for a lot of reasons, not because the school was a bad place, but because I just didn't have a very good experience. I didn't get the right teachers and I didn't meet people. I eventually had a good experience, but it was in my last year. I finally got teachers I absolutely loved. I finally met cool friends. Every other year was just doom and gloom. Plus, I was used to sunny Texas, and here I was in Boston, meeting all these weird people and being screwed over by a lot of them, and not being thrilled by teachers. All of that and the fact that I hadn't seen the sun in two weeks.
I got back and I had drifted away from the piano. And I didn't know what I wanted to do. I'm sitting in Austin and my head is spinning. I'm thinking about how it's so weird to go through an experience like that, and all of a sudden it's just over. Now what? I was spinning from all that, and that album was just a latergram, you know what I mean? (laughs) While it was all happening i was just taking it all in, trying not to just completely give up on everything. I finally got back to a place where I had peace of mind. When you're in it you're miserable, everything sucks. But when it's in the past, you start to remember it wasn't all that bad, that maybe some of the bad stuff was necessary. I'm a different person now, I've grown and learned a lot of things. You start to appreciate it, you just have to digest it first.
When did you actually start playing the guitar? Was it during school or after you got back and felt like you'd moved on from the piano?
I decided I wanted to switch to guitar during my last semester at Berklee. In January of 2011 I felt like I definitely wanted to switch instruments, and I was 95% sure that I wanted my instrument to be a guitar. But I also wanted to focus on graduating. In March 2011, I was like, "You know what, all of my classes this semester are pretty easy, and I have extra time, so maybe I'll start the guitar and see what it's like to start a new instrument." The last time I'd started a new instrument was when I was 8, so I wanted to see how it went! I bought a book called Basic Guitars or something from the school bookstore, and I borrowed an acoustic guitar from my neighbor.
That was a mistake! The acoustic guitar is way harder than electric guitar. After I went back to him a month later, he gave me his electric. I told him that I thought I couldn't play, and he said, "That's because I gave you my super high-action, terrible acoustic. I don't even play that guitar. You said you needed a guitar and it was the first thing I thought of."
Can you believe how many people quit playing instruments forever because of a stupid thing like that? Who might have bought the wrong guitar, or had a bad teacher, or were just hungry, and quit forever? (laughs) So I almost quit! And he handed me an easier guitar and I got a teacher as soon as back from college. I started playing two months before I graduated, but everything I learned about the beat, about doing what I'm doing, that was all Austin.
What is your favorite thing about performing live? What are you most excited for the Asheville show with Gary Clark Jr.?
My favorite thing is feeling the energy of the audience, taking it in, pushing it back out, taking it in again. They'll present me with energy, I'll take it and process it, and I'll put it back out in the form of a laugh, a story, a solo, or a song. It's a constant cycle of energy exchange. It's also addicting. I don't know how I'll ever get tired of it. And it's with any audience, whether it's brand new people or people I've seen before. I don't know what's going on in these people's lives. Maybe they're having a hard day or they're really pumped up. Working with that high energy is like a collective adrenaline rush. So every single show has this exchange between me and the audience, and it's awesome. We all need each other. I need them and they need me. We're two halves of one equation.
I'm really excited for the exchange at this show, because I've never played in front of Gary's crowd before. They're already going to be on same page. They'll be really open and accepting of it, like, "Oh, cool, a chick that plays guitar!" It will be an ATX takeover!
You're coming back to Asheville in August to play at Isis Music Hall, right? Will that be a solo show? What else will you be up to in the near future?
That's just going to be me, I'm pretty sure. I'm coming out with a new EP, the Transcends EP. I've already released a new single from it ["Flying"] that Vibe premiered. That was awesome.The EP will be released on September 30th. I'm in the process of submitting it to the Grammies.
What are you listening to/reading/watching right now that's inspiring you?
I used to listen to this Lauryn Hill radio station all the time. They played Lauryn Hill, Kendrick, Buddy Guy, Robert Glasper. For a year and a half solid I listened to that—hip hop, neo-soul, and blues, but my data plan was $50 over one month! Pandora uses a lot of data and so I had to stop listening! Now I go to shows on tour and other musicians will come and give me their CDs, so I have a pile of CDs from the Czech Republic, NYC, Argentina, all of these places, and I've been going through this pile of CDs that people have given me, and actually I'm really digging it. There's one guy, Pete Brown, that did songs and lyrics for Cream back in the day. And I just got done listening to this teenage chick's rock band. She must have been 17, and she asked me if I would listen, and I said, "Hell yeah I will!" I listened to that twice; it kicked ass. Sometimes they're really bad and sometimes they're good, but I'll take CDs from local artists wherever I'm playing. And I drive so much, so I will listen to people's demos. I can't pay for Pandora data anymore! The same goes for Spotify; it's too expensive. Especially when I'm flying and it's overseas—that flight home is so long, and I will listen! I have nothing else to do!
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Catch Jackie Venson Wednesday, July 19 at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium when she opens for Gary Clark Jr. Get your tickets here. And bring your CD!