Austin singer-songwriter Jackie Venson’s work includes several songs about celestial bodies, like “Back to Earth,” “Jupiter,” and “Stars.” Celestial bodies are natural objects visible in the sky, and Venson, a born beauty with a shimmering voice, may be counted among them when her band illuminates the stage with “something a little different” as part of the hard-hitting jazz lineup for the Austin Jazz Festival at the Backyard on May 25.
“I love space,” Venson says. “I’ve always loved space, and I’m obsessed with space and time, just how it’s not a real thing, but at the same time that it is. And I just wake up some days and don’t know what I’m doing in life, so my songs are about that, too.”
Last month, Venson was selected as one of six winners out of more than 2,000 musicians for the 2014 Belk Southern Musician Showcase. She auditioned at The Parish on Sixth Street and won, among other things, a performance at The Fillmore in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her awards video features the always direct and smiling Venson telling the camera, “I was born and raised in Austin. I’ve always been a huge Texas fan. I tried to move North for college, and it sucked. So I came back to Texas, and I’m just like, South Forever.”
Venson played the piano for 15 years before beginning to teach herself guitar three years ago, patiently mastering each chord, spending the first three or four months learning to not to make them buzz. Half the inspiration was satisfying a lifelong desire, and the other half was a practical suspicion that it might result in more gigs.
“I wanted to write more upbeat songs and move around the stage. I was just really bored with the piano. So bored,” says Venson, who plays a Fender Stratocaster with the band and a Martin acoustic for solo performances. “I didn’t know it was going to be like this, though. It’s true; I get like 95 percent of my work with the guitar now. People are just like, ‘Oh, you can play the piano, too? That’s cool. But you’re gonna play the guitar on Friday night, right?’”
On her track “Sins of the Father,” Venson lays jazz vocals over heavy guitar accompanied by a smooth rap by KJ Hines. The song features Gilbert Ayala on the drums and Alan Uribe on bass.
Scrolling through her work on ReverbNation, you might next find yourself listening to “Witchcraft,” which is reminiscent of tracks by the band Living Colour, who describe themselves as a fusion of free jazz, funk, hip-hop and heavy metal. Like Living Colour and many artists who find themselves around the edges of the contemporary jazz sphere, Venson’s work may be more easily defined by what it’s not. Venson says she doesn’t perform these: straight blues, straight rock, straight metal, and straight jazz.
What I play is for anyone with an interest in blues-influenced music. If people come to my show looking for straight blues—they’re not going to get that. I would say what I do is True R&B, ” Venson says firmly and without apology, dropping a blues beat to clearly demonstrate what she does not do. “It’s not like Jill Scott; it’s not Just Blues. I do not do Just Blues. I do blues and a little jazz, a little Reggae, a little rock, a little country rock that doesn’t sound like blues at all. So, I guess I could say I’m blues alternative.
Venson herself is the product of a multiplicity of perspective. She’s the youngest of nine children in a blended family. If you’ve been around Austin for a while, you may know of her parents.
Her dad is 30-year veteran of the local music scene Andrew Benson, who played bass with the band Blue Mist, as well fronting his own project, Seeds of Fulfillment. “There was a good decade between the 80s and 90s when Austin was really into jazz. It was all over town,” Venson reflects on the time when Blue Mist was playing R&B, jazz, soul around Austin, including at Aquafest and SXSW.
Her mom may have even been present at your birth or the birth of someone you know. She’s Diane Brinkman, MD, obstetrician, co-founder of Austin Regional Clinic, and chief of its obstetrics department. (The clinic is one of the few affordable resources for healthcare in Austin, providing services for those of us who might otherwise have to go without.)
The background music at Venson’s mom’s house drifts through the air from the band practicing at nearby Westwood High School, which Venson attended before earning a degree in music composition and studio production at Berklee College in Boston and then returning to Austin.
“I just love Austin and I will always live in Austin,” Venson says from a hotel in Los Angeles, where she’s currently on a sort of music vacation to tour open mics and make connections. “Austin has so many opportunities for music. The only cities that compare that I’ve seen are Nashville and New York. And all of my family is in Austin. It just makes sense to stay here. In New York, an up-coming artist can’t afford to live. Here, I have a house.”
At home, Venson naturally likes to peruse music shows. She likes SoCo: One-2-One Bar and Baker Street Pub & Grill, for both the food and the stage. Downtown, she likes the low-key porch concerts in the summer at House Wine on Josephine Street.
“I went to Strange Brew for the first time, and it was sweet. And I really like Spider House; I‘m thinking about booking a show there. And I love Maggie Mae’s!” Venson gushes. “I love playing there, being there. I love Maggie Mae’s.”
Los Angeles, on the other hand, may need to pick up its game. “I am having a really hard time finding any open mics here for anything that’s not comedy,” she says, looking on the bright side that at least her quest for contacts takes place mostly after the evening begins, so she’s not in traffic.
When she returns from California, Venson will re-focus on her youtube series, TRUTH IN MUSIC. It’s a vehicle to ensure her audience can count on content without having to await albums. After experimenting with the first season, Venson decided to push big into the series, with more money, more thought, more production planning. Rich Baur directed and John Stinson produced the video for “Show My Light.” Chris Eckert directed directed and Eddy Hobizal produced the video for “Beauty of Your Love,” and Merritt Fields directed the video for “Jupiter,” with Brad Bordine producing.
She’ll also spend some time planning for the jazz festival at The Backyard. She thinks about The Backyard a bit and quips, “I really like the actual space. They have a lot of cool rocks, so it’s a nice combination of nature and modern entertainment. It really is like being in someone’s backyard. The weather’s going to be nice, and the staff is professional, so I know it’s going to sound good.”
Venson’s choosing her set list carefully. “What we play at the festival will appeal to people who want to see something different. I’ll start with my songs that are jazzier and ease the audience into something more.”
“Show My Light” is one of those with a classic jazz feel, while “Rollin On” sounds like blues standard. As the set expands, the audience might get to jam to diverse tracks like “Lost in Time,” which clearly has a Reggae beat that might carry well in the early summer. The vocals and song as a whole call to mind Maxi Priest’s 1990 album BONAFIDE.
“I’m really excited about being at the festival with the other performers. My music is a little different from theirs because most of them play straight jazz. But this is why I love festivals and open mics: Hanging out with like-minded musicians,” Venson muses. “Sometimes you want to just hangout with people who understand where you’re coming from.” For someone who’s not straight jazz musician, she’s still quick to get to the real.
Venson will release her new album, THE LIGHT IN ME, in June.