Jackie Venson makes her guitar sing. She makes it speak. It whispers secrets. It screams for relief. Venson imbues its voice with her passions, her dreams, her joy and her pain. Then she sets it alight, soaring over crowds.
It’s a magnificent thing to behold, as the internet at large learned in December.
Austin-born Venson has been grinding hard, honing her skills and gradually building a solid following that reaches beyond the city limits for a decade. As 2022 gave way to 2023, her online profile exploded. A video of a guitar solo caught viral heat on TikTok, logging over a million views. Suddenly, she was getting virtual fist bumps from fellow musicians, celebrities and music lovers around the globe. Two of her musical heroes, guitarist Peter Frampton and neo-soul icon Erykah Badu, joined the chorus who sang her praises. It was an incredible, albeit surreal, way to start the new year.
“A lot of new people are finding me right now. It’s wild. It’s like a tsunami wave,” Venson said in mid-January.
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Her new fans will get a proper introduction to Venson’s sound on Friday when she drops “Evolution of Joy,” a remake of her 2019 album “Joy.” The new version recreates her live sound, swapping sparse original mixes with vibrant arrangements featuring a full band.
Venson will play the songs live on the final night of her monthlong residency at Antone’s on Saturday. Tickets cost $20.
You can also catch her at 5 p.m. on Feb. 3 at Waterloo Records, when she joins us for the next installment of our live music series, The Drop. Along with the album, we’ll be celebrating Venson’s 33rd birthday. (She’s bringing cake!) The show is all-ages and free.
Co-produced by the Statesman and KUTX 98.9 FM, The Drop celebrates the diverse artists who make Austin the Live Music Capital of the World.
The original recording of “Joy” was pieced together through a “hodgepodge” process that took place at “a bevy of different studios” around Austin over about a year and a half, Venson said.
The songwriting was strong, but “all of the songs were brand new, I’d just written them,” she said. As she took the songs on the road and played them with a band, they grew.
At the time of the original recording, she was a relative novice on the guitar, with just seven years under her belt. Her ideas about the six-string were not fully developed. She was still cutting her teeth, laying a foundation.
“I’m one of the few people who have built a career around an instrument that I also was, at the same, time learning how to play,” she said.
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She wasn’t yet able to sing and play at the same time, something that would become her signature style. On the new version of the album, “every song I’m singing and playing; it’s like the two are one,” she said.
For “Evolution of Joy,” she took a band into the studio for a focused, five-day session. When crafting the arrangements, she reached into her arsenal of skills and added acoustic piano to almost every track. Venson grew up playing piano, but she resisted using it for years as she tried to develop her identity as a guitarist. Now, she thinks of it as a powerful secret weapon, she said.
Venson has been steadily growing her national profile over the past few years. During the darkest days of the pandemic, she hosted nightly livestreams on Facebook for 200 days. Her vocal power blossomed from the experience, losing the wispiness that marks her early recordings. And she won a legion of loyal fans.
She built traction on other social media outlets, including TikTok, but her numbers had stagnated. In October, she sat at roughly 66,000 followers on the streaming video platform, “for like, the ninth month in a row,” she said.
Then in December, she posted a video of a “guitar solo from some random performance I did in September,” she said. It took off rapidly, hurtling through hundreds of thousands of streams. Fans began asking for the full version of the song, so she uploaded it to YouTube. Within a couple weeks, that video received 30,000 views. “That’s (expletive) crazy, because YouTube is hard as hell to get anybody to watch or subscribe,” she said.
She later learned that the “Better Call Saul” actor Bob Odenkirk saw the video on YouTube and sent it to his friend and co-star Michael McKean, who shared it on Twitter.
“One celebrity texts another celebrity,” leading to a “celebrity tsunami, everyone finding about you,” she said.
Peter Frampton’s son, Julian Frampton, saw the video and showed his father. Peter Frampton followed her on Twitter. Venson’s vocal-mimicking guitar style is often compared to Frampton’s, so his acknowledgement felt like a big win. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea also followed her. But the icing on the cake was when one of her childhood heroes, Erykah Badu, retweeted the video with the comment “the future is bright.”
Venson was floored. “I’ve been listening to her music for my whole life. I don’t even remember my life before her music,” she said.
Since the explosion of interest, her TikTok follower count has doubled, and she’s picking up hundreds of new fans a day. When she posts new videos, they immediately generate thousands of views.
As she turns 33, it feels like a fine way to start her “Jesus year.”
“It’s a good year, and I’m feeling good about it,” she said. “I’ve got all these new fans coming my way.” It’s the largest bout of “new people exposure (that) I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she said.