Q&A: Jackie Venson talks transition from classical pianist to shredding electric guitarist

Tiana Woodard

Growing up, classical piano was all local singer-songwriter Jackie Venson knew. Little did anyone know Venson would later make her way into some of Austin’s most popular venues, strumming away at an electric guitar.  

Venson’s skills have earned her many accolades, including the first black woman and third woman overall to win the Austin Music Awards 2019 “Best Guitar Player” title. To preface her numerous SXSW performances and upcoming album, The Daily Texan spoke with Venson about her journey to becoming an award-winning guitarist.

Daily Texan: How did you transition from piano to guitar?

Jackie Venson: One half of the answer to that question is I drifted away from the piano, and I drifted away from classical music, because I knew I wanted to do music for a living, and I didn't know how I was going to turn classical piano into a living. My experience with it was that it's not a very widely listened to genre, as anyone can imagine. There's a way to make a living, but it's even tougher than what I'm doing now. I also didn't really like how I sounded on the piano. I didn't like my songs that I wrote. I was always compared to Alicia Keys. And so I was like, okay, well, what if I just reinvent myself and pick up a whole new instrument? I thought about the violin and I thought about all the instruments, like pick up and play. And for some reason, the electric guitar just seemed the most exciting.

DT: How did your family react to this change?

JV: In a way, I had literally mastered a whole instrument, and now, I'm like sounding like trash on the guitar because I just picked it up. And so, my parents would hear me and they'd be like, ‘What are you doing? Not only have you mastered another instrument, you also have gone to college with that instrument.’ I was like, ‘Believe me, this is the better path if I want to perform for a living.’ And that's what I just kept telling them. ‘I'm going to suck for a few years, and then I'm going to be really good.’

DT: Have you ever felt pressure to perform a certain genre of music?

JV: No. There are a ton of women shredding the electric guitar, and there have been a ton of women, especially black women, who have shredded the electric guitar long before I have.

However, they haven't gotten any spotlight. For some reason, a lot of women have like gotten all the way to the top playing and singing on the piano, like Alicia Keys, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Carole King … I felt like the niche has been cornered, and I need to move on and maybe corner my own niche.

DT: Whenever people listened to your music, what do you want them to get away from it?

JV: Just acceptance of one’s self. Sometimes society trains us to think that being an individual or being different is a weakness, when really, it is a strength. I really would like people to feel that way when they listen to my stuff, to be like, ‘Oh, I am myself and I can be myself.’ We're all ourselves, and we're all different, and we can't be grouped or stereotyped or generalized, because every single person is a completely individual story.

DT: What advice would you give to young musicians hoping to fill your shoes one day?

JV: If you want to make it a career, it can't be a hobby. However much you put into it is however much you're going to get back. Decide if you want it to be a hobby or a career. If you decide that you want it to be a career, start researching what everybody's gone with, gone through, making this a career so that you can know all along. Then you're going the right way.