Jackie Venson on How She Created a Modern Style All Her Own

On 'Joy,' blues guitar extraordinaire Jackie Venson mixes tech, styles and genres to create a mesmerizing musical concoction.
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Jackie Venson isn’t afraid of technology. On Joy (Systemic), the Austin guitarist’s new album, she combines tones from a Moog synth and an Electro-Harmonix Synth9 pedal to create funky, futuristic-sounding songs with overdubbed guitars. When it comes to performing those tracks live, she’s happy to bring the tech, including a looper, to the fans. “I perform with samplers now,” Venson explains. “I load the samples and the stems from the actual record onto the sampler and use them live.”

Venson belongs to a new generation of artists who take a fearless attitude to songwriting and arranging. Her winning approach has connected with audiences at some of the most celebrated venues across the country and seen her open on tour for fellow Austin native Gary Clark Jr. She recently earned the title of Best Guitarist at the Austin Music Awards, making her just the third woman in 37 years, as well as the first African-American woman, to do so.

While the Berklee College of Music graduate has a uniquely recognizable tone on her Fender American Elite Strat, she only picked up the guitar in her final year of study after training as a classical pianist. “The electric guitar is my heart instrument,” Venson says. “It just took me 21 years to figure that out.”

Eight years later, she has four full-length albums and three EPs to her credit. On Joy, Venson’s sweeping guitar lines, infectious riffs and unexpected time signatures combine to create an emotional sonic brew that at times feels like modern-day boogie-woogie blues with a lyrical focus on overcoming obstacles.

Joy combines pop, blues, reggae, soul and rock. What’s the inspiration for your style blending?

I’ve always been a genre hopper, and I’ve always had a really hard time explaining why. I used to say it’s because I get bored, or because I can’t play one song over and over again and just put new words on it and call it a different song. Some people keep writing the same song. I can’t do that. I lose enjoyment in it. I care about the song. And you could trace it back to classical music if you want. Classical piano’s not uniform. The Romantic era is way different from the Classical era, and the Baroque era is nothing like the Contemporary era.

Has your experience as a piano player crossed over to your guitar phrasing?

In terms of stylistic elements, yes. I do trills a lot, which I used to play in classical music. And then there’s the presentation of my melodies and the dynamics of my songs — like the fact that a verse is at one dynamic level and a chorus at another. All of that came from playing classical piano. I think a lot of my songwriting and form ideas are very rooted in that. But as far as how I play guitar, there’s no crossover. I pretty much just play in standard E tuning, or sometimes in drop D, and I’m just playing whatever comes to mind. I’m just jamming.

Did you learn on acoustic guitar?

I started off on the acoustic, and after about a year and a half I switched to the electric because I figured life’s short and I might as well learn on the thing that I want to do.

What are your practice habits these days?

Usually I go in waves between writing and technical guitar work. My dad [Austin blues musician Andrew Venson] always referred to having a “lick bag.” Sometimes the stuff in your lick bag is other people’s, and sometimes it’s your own. There are no rules. He says what you have to do is jam on your own, or in front of people, and every time you hear a lick that you really like, record it. Then you have it and can pull it out at any time and use it. It’s a combination of what you learn and pick up by ear, or make up and record. That’s a huge part of my practice, just adding stuff to my lick bag so that I’m never caught off guard.

Give me an example of how you create something to add to it.

Sometimes I’ll just jam for hours and hours and record all of it. Then I’ll sit down and listen to the entire recording and single out what I like and commit it to memory, and then I’ll start regularly entering it into my repertoire. That’s how you develop a voice and a tone and how you’re able to improvise.

What are your tone goals?

I just want to sound like me. I’ve been working on just having my own tone. And it doesn’t matter what song I’m playing. That kind of stuff is always going to change, but as far as my actual tone on the guitar, I like it to be pretty uniform. I want people to be able to hear me through a wall and know it’s me playing.

It seems that for this album you relied on one guitar, a Fender American Elite Strat.

It’s the only guitar I’ve used on any record since 2016. I love its weight and its type of wood. It doesn’t sound like other Strats. You take your normal Strat and pour a layer of caramel chocolate over it, and that’s what this one sounds like. And I know that sounds really crazy, but it’s literally what it sounds like. You can hear it even unplugged. If I play one of my backup Strats and then play this one unplugged, I can hear the tone difference of the vibration of the wood even without an amp. The Shawbucker in the bridge position is really intense. And with the volume switch I get this dark, muddy sound, too, which I want. It sounds like the guitar is walking through mud.

The track “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” has a thick, bluesy tone. The song has a lot going on, especially from the guitars, and the solo is really upfront.

When I originally recorded the song, I was just going to have electric guitar and a drumkit beat. Then I lived with it, listened to the first version for two months and realized I wanted it creepier. You know when somebody gets their heart broken or something really bad happens to them and they go to this really dark place? That’s the vibe I wanted to get. I used a Fender Blues Junior amp but then doubled all of the guitar parts with a Kemper. The guitar is doubled throughout the entire song, even on the guitar solo.

A lot of musicians are using the Kemper Profiler these days. What do you find appealing about it?

That I don’t have to rely on backline amps anymore. If they have an amp, I can plug the Kemper into it so I can preserve the tradition of stage volume. I’m not dependent on anybody for my sound anymore. It’s completely freeing, and the Kemper sounds great. It’s like the most expensive, fanciest DI box you’ll ever buy.

Some purists would disagree with you.

I mean, it’s just new technology. There was a time when all of these amps that everybody swears by were new technology. If something happens with the Kemper, I have a small backup pedalboard with the essential effects I like, which is distortion and delay. And if I can’t use the Kemper, I’ll just bring the board and plug into an amp. I’m not against using amps.

Joy has a rich, layered sound, some of which comes from using samples. How did you incorporate them into your playing?

I’m getting studio-quality amp samples just plugging a line into the Kemper. I plug the Kemper directly into the sampler and sample guitar sounds as if it were a miked amp in a booth.

You’ve said every song has its “soulmate arrangement” — something that’s part of its evolution. What’s the evolution of the funk-rock track “Witchcraft”?

That’s a song I wrote 10 years ago for my EP Rollin’ On. It was a three-piece rock song, but I realized it was missing hooks. There were some verses that were really weak. The guitar solo didn’t add to the song or serve it. I thought that the song called for a better arrangement. I think the new chorus is way more memorable, and it’s basically a spruced-up version of its 10-year-old counterpart. Back then I couldn’t even step foot on a stage with a guitar. So that recording doesn’t have the dynamics that I have now, because I’m more comfortable in who I am and how I play.

Ultimately, what is it that drives you?

I love that I can just get lost in my own world when I enter the rehearsal space. I feel like I’m walking into Narnia and exploring this land of music that has existed in my brain. Nothing that’s happening in this world matters in that world. I can get away and surround myself with music and play. Then I come back and I’m like, “Hey, look at this thing I found when I was exploring that world!” And people are like, “Sweet song,” and everybody has a good time. It’s all positive.