a classical path to the blues
she picked up a guitar and found a career
A graduate of Boston's famed Berklee College of Music, Venson has already earned glowing press. Guitar World Magazine, which premiered her latest music video, "See What You Want," said she "channels the soulful sounds of Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse in her tunes. She has an impressive set of skills under her belt."
Her hometown Texas newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, said, "With an astonishing mix of raw soul, superb musicianship and laid-back grace it was easy to believe that we were participating in the origin story of Austin's next great export a Gary Clark Jr.-level talent who speaks boldly through her guitar while simultaneously entrancing with her gorgeous smoky voice."
Venson says her shortcut to mastering guitar was painstakingly studying classical piano from age eight. "When I would go to learn a guitar chord, I already knew the notes in the chord, I just had to learn to play it on a new instrument."
Classical music gave her a solid foundation. "The theory, the knowledge is so important. Also, how to practice, how to focus for more than an hour, how to sit down for four or five or six hours and work on one thing until I get it. That's the only way you can learn to play classical music. So it's helped me learn to play guitar in a relatively short amount of time."
Originally, it took a while for Venson to embrace the required discipline. "If you ask my parents, they'll tell you that I was practicing just enough to get by, just enough that my teacher wouldn't yell at me, all the way up until I was like 12. I'd sit down and 20 minutes would go by and it felt like five hours. I didn't know how to focus. I didn't know how not to want to go outside and climb trees. I didn't know how to practice. So if you take into account the amount of time it took me to learn how to read music, learn how to recognize key signatures and everything, as well as learning to focus and be interested enough to actually learn a song, those were years I didn't have to spend when I picked up the guitar. I didn't have those years of b.s-ing around. I bypassed all of that introductory crap that everyone goes through when they're learning their first instrument.
"It took me a year to learn to play a 12-minute Chopin scherzo. Can you imagine? So the transition to blues guitar was relatively easy. You don't learn to play a song on blues guitar for a year. You learn to play blues guitar for a year. Period. Then you can go play, like, a million songs," Venson says, laughing.
It was her mother, a doctor, who encouraged her to learn to play the piano. But her father is a musician, playing blues, R&B and Motown type material.
"When I was a kid, I was really all about piano," Venson says. "I just worked my butt off and learned song after song after song. But when I got to college, I realized there was no way to turn that into a career, so I picked up guitar. I've always wanted to play guitar. I had just been too focused on piano."
She says she learned more from studying Buddy Guy, Derek Trucks and Jerry Garcia than she did from listening to her Berklee professors. She had auditioned to be in the vocal department. The college gave her a piano scholarship. Venson says that might have been a better fit for their gender demographic.
"I hated it there. I didn't meet the right friends for like the first year and a half. And I was so far away from home. I didn't have the option of going and hanging out with my family. So that was hard.
"And it was a really competitive environment. I never thought of music as competitive. I still don't. My whole personality isn't suited to that."
Also, Venson says Berklee is primarily a jazz school. "Most of the teachers didn't even give half a crap about the fact that I could play classical music. One teacher was like, 'If you don't want to play jazz, why are you here?' As if there's nothing else offered engineering program, songwriting program. There's actually a million different reasons why you could want to be at the school. And that attitude from the teacher was like a microcosm of what I kept running into. 'Why are you here? What is it you want to do?' 'I came here to find that out! It's a school. I'm coming here to grow!' So it was frustrating."
Honing her guitar skills took work, even if the time frame was compressed. "It was so hard, man," Venson says, laughing, "I almost gave up two or three times. But I just knew that I was going to get it. I was like, 'If I can play the piano, I can play the guitar. But it was extremely frustrating. It took me a year to be able to even leave the house and play in front of people. And then it took me another year to learn to play a lead line. It was horrible, but I just kept on practicing."
Venson says the key was playing live, persevering through the multitude of mistakes, the fumbled fingerings. She'd go back home and practice the same riffs until she perfected them. "It's all about gigging. You just have to jump in and throw yourself out there, not be afraid to make a fool of yourself. If you fold, you have to get back up there and try again. That strengthens your confidence. Performing is the greatest practice ever. It has shot me forward."
Back in Austin, she hosted karaoke. It helped her polish her vocal skills, as well as helping to pay the rent.
She also nurtured her gift for writing songs. "I wrote that song 'Oh Na Na' [from her "Rollin' On" EP]. It's a really simple song. It was one of the first songs I wrote on guitar and everyone seemed to really like it. The positive reinforcement led me to keep trying to come up with chord progressions, whenever I'd practice. And here we are!"
After a couple of EPs, Venson has released an impressive new album called "The Light In Me." "I finally found my sound. On the earlier ones, I was just kind of fishing around. This one, I went in with a purpose."
Venson, who plays Mountain View's Red Rock Coffee House on January 10, 2015, gigs with a band at home in Austin. She says she actually has a bigger following in California now than in Austin. On the road, she achieves a big sound with just her voice, guitar and loop pedal.
With her sound dynamically taking shape, it's just a matter of gaining widespread attention. She relishes the journey.
"If it all happened overnight, it would be cool, but I'd be like, 'What now? Where's my white whale now?' Venson says, laughing. "It's like a game. You don't want the game to be short. But you don't want it to be too long either. My short-term goal is to get a name. The long-term goal is for the name to last forever."
Email Paul Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org