At just 26 years old, Jackie Venson has already made a name for herself in what many call the live music capital of the world. But she’s put in the work: her career has spanned 18 years, through a decade of classical piano, through Berklee College of Music, and through her many gigs all around Texas. But it’s finally paying off: she recently released her first album, The Light In Me, she’s got a tour this summer, and a live album is due in September. Below, she talks about what formed her multi-genre sound, her love for Lauryn Hill, and Austin’s bustling music scene.
You’re playing a bunch of shows right now around your hometown, Austin. How are they going?
They’re going great! I mean, sometimes there’s minor hiccups, but that’s always gonna happen. As long as nothing major happens, I’m going to classify that as pretty good.
You are such a beloved celebrity there—I mean you play there all the time, you’re very involved in the community—they even held a day in honor of you! [May 21, 2014]
(Laughs) Oh yeah, that was pretty cool.
How does that feel? That approval must be important, in the sense that you hold your roots in high esteem, too.
Well it feels pretty—I feel accomplished is the wrong word, I feel kinda triumphant. It’s a really oversaturated town. Like you throw a rock, you hit not just one musician, but like five musicians. Everybody’s just trying to do the same thing. I realized that a long time ago, and I realized how much work it was gonna be. So whenever all this stuff started happening, within the past year or two, it just felt really good to know that all the work I put in was actually going somewhere, because for a really long time it felt like everything was falling on deaf ears. Which is understandable—it’s easy to go deaf in this town.
And your dad [Andrew Venson] is also a famous musician in Austin. Did he help you get interested in music, or does he help you with stuff now?
Well he helped me when I was kid, when I was learning, I got to listen to him and his band play, that was really cool. In high school, he hired his band to play my talent show with me—I was the only kid on the talent show lineup that had a 100 percent professional band. […] I grew up listening to him play blues music, and Motown and soul. So definitely, I’m sure he influenced me in that way.
You can definitely hear that in your music, the Motown, the blues, even rock and a bunch of other stuff.
Yeah…he didn’t play rock so much, that hit me later. All the jazz and the blues and the Motown I listened to him play that stuff, twice a week with his band either in rehearsal or at a gig every year. I used to go and hang out in his rehearsal room, because we had a room decked out in the back, and I was listening to him rehearse with his band, at least once a week, and I would go to his gigs sometimes, so I’m sure that rubbed off on me in a huge way.
It’s interesting that you’re classified as a country musician, but I would say that there’s so much else in there, genre-wise. I saw you were listening to Lauryn Hill in your SoundCloud, so that’s in the music too…
Yeah, I love Lauryn Hill!
I love hip-hop. I try to incorporate it as much as possible, but I can’t always because I’m not a rapper. If I do hip-hop, I have to get another person to collaborate with. I have a hard time just pulling off hip-hop alone. But sometimes I do meet rappers and hip-hop artists that do want to collaborate, and I always jump at the chance.
That’s one of my secret wishes: I wish I could rap, I really do. But can’t have everything, you know?
What are some of the challenges in bringing country and hip-hop together?
Well, I just can’t understand, like my brain doesn’t think fast enough to be able to rap. Or maybe it’s just wired differently; with words I always get tongue-tied, I just always have. And I don’t think I have the right voice for it, I’ve always been listening to singers. I just recently got into hip-hop like five, six years ago, so it’s kind of a new thing. Maybe if I listen to more I’ll get better at it, but that’s why it’s challenging to me. I have a hard time thinking on the brainwave you need to be on to speak that quickly.
But the challenge in working with rappers is that sometimes they want me to come up with a song that they can rap over, and sometimes I feel like sometimes my stuff is not—like my beats aren’t hard enough, I feel like I’ve always gotta come up with this hard beat, you know. The harder the beat, the more pronounced the space here, the harder kick drum, the easier it is to speak over it. Sometimes when I come up with rappers to work with, it’s not hard-hitting enough. It’s challenging, I’m used to singing over the other stuff that I write. I don’t think of it in that way.
When you’re working either with collaborators or alone, do you say to yourself, “Yeah, I wanna push this and, like, make it more blues-y,” or is it something that happens organically for you?
I think it does happen naturally. I can’t really control the songs that come out, sometimes I don’t come up with songs for months or weeks at a time, and I’ll just come up with pieces for a song. I’ll just be practicing, because I’ve gotta keep my guitar chops up, without any intention of writing a song, and I’ll come up with this really cool line, or like a really cool groove. Or I’ll just hear something floating around and I’ll start singing it. […] So it is pretty random, long story short.
Could you talk a little bit about how your album, The Light In Me, came about?
I had all these songs that I had written, and a lot of them weren’t recorded…I have much more than what’s written than what’s on the actual album. And I knew that I really wanted to come out with a new project, because I wanted people to hear these songs, I wanted to present them. So I kinda just made setlists out of all these songs, until I had like 15 songs that I hadn’t recorded. They were just guitar, vocals, and lyrics. And I’d play them in order, and record them, and I’d listen to them and be like, “Okay, that one doesn’t fit, take that one out.” And then I’d play them without that song in it, just 14 songs. Then I’d just go on eliminating until I felt like it was a list of songs that fit together. And that’s kind of where it came from.
And even though one of the songs on the album is called The Light In Me, I felt like calling the album that, because I feel like these songs are a little part of me, they’re the light that shines out. When I’m singing, I feel full. I feel full of energy, and I feel joy. So I felt it was appropriate to call the album that as well.
And when you were editing the album, what was that common thread that made everything fit together?
It was the fact that they’re all kind of experimental lyrics, experimental in how we recorded them. The first song could’ve been arranged in any way, but we arranged it as like a soft, acoustic song. And then the second song, I didn’t write it as a rock-reggae song, but when we were arranging it, it kind of came out that way, with the producer. I just felt like it’d be a really cool exposé of genres. So some of the songs didn’t make it because they were the same genre as another song on the album. I’m like, “Nah, nah, I want this to be a full sampler plate.” You know, these are all the things that I love doing, and I love listening to. And, so actually the threat that holds everything together is that they’re all different, ironically.
I mean, it definitely worked out for the best.
Yeah, I think so! And a lot of people do that, where the main genre of their songs is the thread that holds them all together, but I wanted it to be the opposite of that. I wanted to do something different. So the thread is that they’re nothing like each other, if that makes any sense.
So like if someone said, “What’s the Jackie Venson sound?”
(Laughs) yeah…I don’t really know. I got one bad review on that album. I set up a Google Alert for my name so that I would know what people are saying. And I got a Google Alert for a bad review. They said, “the production sounds good, and the songs sound good, but it doesn’t really make sense, because every song is a completely different genre from the last.” And I’m like, “I’m glad you picked up on the thing that I did on purpose, and sorry you don’t like it.” (Laughs) so you picked up on the thing I was trying to do, and then didn’t like it. But it’s alright, I appreciate all feedback, good or bad.
But at the same time, when people are downloading full albums less and less, and just picking out songs that they like anyway, it seems like your way would make more sense.
Exactly! You get it.
I hate to use this clichéd word, but you’re a pretty precocious musician. You’ve been playing music, it says in your bio, for 18 years now. How have your tastes, sounds, aspirations all changed?
Well, these days I feel like they change every other day. When I was a kid, from age 8 to 20, it was the most consistent time of my life. I played classical piano every day, and I loved it. And I thought it was going to be my life, I really did. But I got to college and I was very slowly and very rudely awakened to the fact that trying to make money off of classical music is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
[…] It’s just been kind of evolving since, going to places I never expected it to go. And I think that was actually the original plan—pick up the guitar and see what happens. Every now and then, I think I have a handle on where it’s going, and then something else happens that completely veers it off to another direction that I would’ve never planned or dreamed of. It’s weird. So now, I’m basically just practicing guitar, writing songs, seeing which songs come out, and just coming out in front of people and playing gigs. It’s just like, shit, I don’t even know if I’m gonna be alive next year, so I try not to plan too far ahead.
So to sum up, it’s all just random.
Yeah, and that’s how life is […] When you grow up and get out of the house, shit gets weird.
Jackie Venson’s latest album, The Light In Me, is out now. You can catch her performing at the Rockwood Music Hall on May 13 and the Bushwick Public House on May 16. For more information, visit her website jackievenson.com.