For Austin singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jackie Venson, getting enough sleep is the secret to processing the insane ups and downs of the music industry.
When watching Jackie Venson perform, it’s easy to assume she’s a natural. And, in many ways, she is. The Austin born-and-raised singer, songwriter, and guitarist is the daughter of professional bassist Andrew Venson, who toured the country for more than 40 years with Blue Mist and as an independent artist, and a music-loving mom who signed Venson up for classical piano lessons at age eight.
But calling Venson a natural would also minimize the decades of hard work that got her to where she is today: on track to have her biggest year during one of the most chaotic times in recent memory.
Venson will be the first to tell you that building a music career has not been easy, despite how it may have looked. In fact, the meteoric professional growth and success she experienced between 2016 to 2018 precipitated a rollercoaster of emotions and stress.
Below, Venson explains why and how she leaned on a tried-and-true technique to get through the tough times: getting a full night’s sleep.
Picking Up a New Instrument—And Insecurities
Jackie Venson is a gifted pianist. Like, really gifted.
But in 2011, after graduating from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music where she studied piano composition and studio production, she changed course.
“I wanted to pursue music as a career and I wanted to perform, but I didn’t ever feel like I connected with the piano as a performance instrument,” says Venson. “So, I came back to Austin after doing all of that education on the piano and I picked up the electric guitar.”
Even for someone with innate musical talent like Venson, learning how to play a new instrument is tough, methodical, grinding work, and progress can be slow.
According to Venson, the average person likely doesn’t take into account how long it can take and how challenging it is to master an entirely new instrument and “make it” as a musician.
“It’s a lonely build,” says Venson. “Everybody expects you to be as great as the greatest person and as successful as the most successful person right from the get-go. And the older you are when you start, the harsher people are going to be. I started guitar at age 21, and I didn’t play for anybody until I was 24 because I knew everyone was going to be like, ‘Jackie, why the hell do you sound like crap on the guitar when you just got done with a college education and 13 years mastering the piano? What’s wrong with you?’”
Venson eventually found her footing on the electric guitar and, seemingly, her blues-rock calling. But even as she was building a career as an independent performing artist—twisting and blurring guitar genres on stages all over Austin and steadily amassing a following live and online—those doubts and insecurities over whether she was ‘good’ enough and ‘successful’ enough persisted.
Career Success Adds New Stress
Then, in 2016, Venson’s career took off. She was invited to play with the band on The Late Show with Stephen Cobert for five episodes and then toured with Grammy Award winner Gary Clark, Jr. in 2017, playing 2,000+-person, sell-out venues. But for Venson, that success felt more like a rollercoaster than an escalator.
“I had this preconceived notion that after you do something big and national, that your career is permanently changed in that you’ve moved up,” says Venson. “I thought after I went on tour with Gary I was going to get a booking agent, I was going to get signed. I’m going to be famous. But when I came home from these big opportunities, it didn’t seem like my life had changed. I went back to my normal in-town gigs, playing the piano again at the restaurant behind the bar just to make 500 bucks.”
Stress Takes a Toll on Venson's Dreams
The stress of trying to be “the next big thing” as well as the worry that people viewed her as a failure took a toll on Venson. Between 2016 and 2018, she stopped dreaming, her sleep became choppy, and she lost six inches of hair.
“People’s perception of what a musician is supposed to be and mean and what their career is supposed to mean can put a lot of pressure on artists,” says Venson. “It can belittle the work they’ve done, and it can make them feel inadequate even though they’ve done really amazing stuff. The expectations are just really high from the average person.”
Sleep Brings a New Perspective
Although the quality of Venson’s sleep suffered during the intensity of that period, the amount she was getting didn’t.
“I actually didn’t lose sleep in the time period that I lost hair, says Venson. “The sleep actually helped me.” In fact, she credits it for helping her get her mind right.
“Not everybody is going to have the experience of playing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and then playing in the backyard of someone's house and having them all ignore you and you're getting bitten by mosquitoes—literally within the same week,” says Venson. “Not a lot of people are going to even know what that feels like. The only way I can process something that abstract is to get several nights in a row of good sleep.”
So Venson leaned into her sleep schedule as the one thing she could control, and by doing so a new perspective began to crystalize in her mind—one that separated her self-worth from her accomplishments.
“The good nights of sleep I collected over the course of a year and a half helped me come to the realization that art is really about finding yourself,” she says. “A music career isn't about getting recognition and being acknowledged. That's not where you find your worth. You find your worth in your own personal pursuit of the art, of the skill. That's the point of it.”
Turning to sleep to overcome difficulties isn’t new to Venson; it’s something she’s done most of her life.
“I’ve always used sleep to get through times of confusion and slight or sometimes even heavy depression,” says Venson. “If you know me as a person, if I'm going through a hard time in my life, those are the times that I sleep for 11 or 12 hours at night. And then when my life is just normal and chill, I usually get about nine hours of sleep."
Looking Ahead: Well-Rested and Ready to Rock
Since coming to that new realization in 2018, Venson’s career has again taken off.
She was named Artist of the Year by the Austin American-Statesman in 2018. The following year, she sold out Austin’s Paramount theater for the release of her second studio album, “Joy,” and became the first black woman to win “Best Guitarist” at the Austin Music Awards.
And this year—despite the curveball that the coronavirus has thrown performers—she's continued to soar.
In the spring, Venson released a new EP titled “jackie the robot vol 1,” comprised of remixes of her older material, followed by “jackie the robot vol 2.” On September 25, she released a two-disc “Live” album, on October 1 she made her Austin City Limits debut (which you can watch November 14 on PBS if you missed the live stream), and at the end of this month, she’ll release “Vintage Machine,” her first studio album since “Joy.”
While it’s all incredibly exciting, Venson keeps a level head. “We're taught to pursue music so that we can look cool and be cool and travel the world—that's what everybody thinks music career is,” says Venson.
But she now rejects that notion.
“A music career is about the mastery and the constant learning that you have to do to keep evolving—it’s about pursuing that mysterious thing you were born with and unraveling it like layers of an onion.”
And although that process can be inherently messy, Venson knows just how to cope. “Sleep helps me process the insane ups and downs of this career,” she says.
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