It’s 9:30 a.m. on a mid-December morning and while the rest of the city merrily bustles toward a holiday break, Jackie Venson is not slowing down. The 27-year-old electric blues guitarist — voted 2017 Breakout Artist of the Year by a panel of Austin critics, industry insiders and superfans in the inaugural Austin360 Awards — just rolled out of bed after playing a holiday party for the Texas chapter of the Grammy association the night before. When she gets off the phone she’s heading to the studio to remix a single.
“I’m going to be doing a single a month every month (in 2018),” she says. “I’ve recorded six singles and videos already. … I have six months of content that needs to be edited and finalized.”
2017 was a big year for Venson. She took her trio to Europe, played to a hometown audience of thousands at KGSR’s popular summer Blues on the Green series and did a series of 10 national tour dates opening for homegrown blues superstar Gary Clark Jr. In September, she released “Transcends,” a five-song EP that features her strongest songwriting to date.
And 2018 is shaping up to be even bigger. She rattles off an exhausting itinerary:
“In January I’m going to go back to the Midwest to do all the towns I did with Gary on a followup tour. I’m also going to Nashville for a couple dates. In February, I’m going to Finland. In March, I’m going to Scotland, the U.K. and California. In May, I’m going to go to Germany.”
In April, she plans to set up shop in New York City for a month. She has no desire to become a New Yorker, but she hopes basing herself in the city for more than a few days will help “move the needle” on her career, giving more industry players a chance to catch her. She’s in the process of locking down a residency gig and already has tapings scheduled with Relix and Paste Magazine.
Venson is a musician’s musician. She’s laid back and down to earth, quick to laugh. She calls everyone dude. Her singing voice is lovely, her stage persona is charming and her songcraft keeps getting stronger, but like Clark before her, the standout moments in her shows are when she leans in and speaks through her guitar. Watching her follow musical ideas is entrancing. She chases arpeggiated runs with muscular chords that build into explosive flourishes. She makes her guitar howl, then whisper, then sing triumphantly. She plays with pure passion, losing herself in the melodies, leading the listener on an exhilarating ride.
Ironically, she says her choice to pick up the guitar, after finishing a piano training course at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, was a business decision.
“At first, it was kind of like a gimmick,” she says.
She wanted to be a singer-songwriter, but as a light-skinned black woman playing piano, she found herself plagued by Alicia Keys comparisons.
“I think she’s actually the exact same skin color as me,” she says with a laugh, “And it’s hard, because there’s a lot of different shades of black but I think she’s literally the same skin color as me. There’s no way that I would be able to corner that niche. She’s cornered that niche so hard.”
When she looked at electric blues guitarists, there weren’t a lot of women and very few of them were black. She saw an opportunity to stand out in the field.
“It was this really cold, like record executive, decision at first,” she says. But she took to the guitar quickly and as she built her skills, she started to pick up fans. A few years in, women began messaging her, telling her how she inspired them.
“My daughter, I show her your videos and she loves you and I bought her a guitar for Christmas,” she recalls them saying.
“And I’m like, Oh, wait a minute. There’s potential for an impact here…I’m like, OK, I can be their role model. Now I’ve got to get really, really, really good… If I’m going to carry this torch I have to be able to stand up to the men.”
Standing up to the men, she realized, was about finding her voice. “I wouldn’t be able to stand up in a shred battle to someone like Yngwie (Malmsteen), but that’s not what people care about,” she says. “People care about the feeling and the soul and the musicianship behind it. They don’t care that you can play a bunch of notes fast.”
What people care about matters to Venson. She devotes a significant amount of time to establishing a direct connection with her fans. She answers their messages and responds to their comments on her social media feeds. In December, she created a new Facebook group, the JV Squad, where she’s providing exclusive content for her diehard fans.
“It’s the most important part of the job besides the actual music,” she says. “Fifty percent is the music and the practice and the craft and the other 50 percent is the influence that it has on people, how it makes people feel. That’s, like, the entire point of music. I don’t really know what else it’s there for. It’s there to make our lives better. And, so, I feel like I’m there to make people happy.”
She’s also there to take a stand. “Love transcends death, destruction, exploitation/ Love transcends shame, regret, mass, confusion,” she sings defiantly on “Transcends,” the title track to the new EP, a song she describes as a “raw fight song.”
“There’s a really strange shift going on over all right now,” she says. “There’s a lot of weird stuff going on in politics … there’s a lot of really weird stuff going on in our society that we don’t necessarily like to see. It’s like all these ugly old scabs have been picked off.”
The power of love to overcome has emerged as a motif in her music. “I started to settle into this theme that was like love yourself and accept yourself … and people started to react really positively about it. They were like, ‘Hey we like these messages. It’s stuff that we’re hearing more and I feel like we all really need to hear,’” she says.
The “Transcends EP” gathers all her “social fight love acceptance” songs onto one collection. “Now here we are and I’m kind of carrying this message like a torch,” she says.
Universal love has become the banner she’s organizing her career around and it suits her.
“It’s a personal brand that contributes positivity to society,” she says. “I like that. It’s all I really ever hoped for honestly.”
ARTIST OF THE MONTH: JACKIE VENSON
Recordings: “The Light in Me” 2014; “Live at Strange Brew” 2016; “Transcends” (EP) 2017
Austin shows: March 14, Saxon Pub.