Could the very next “American Idol” star hail from our region? It’s certainly possible, as three local musicians try their hand at winning this television favorite.
Since 2002, the Fox network’s singing competition “American Idol” has helped to launch the musical careers of many artists, among them Kelly Clarkson, Jordin Sparks, Adam Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson. And for those 13 seasons, television viewers in record-setting numbers have tuned in for the final episode, hoping to hear host Ryan Seacrest announce the name of their favorite contestant as the winner.
This season, several thousand regional residents have had even more reason to follow “American Idol,” with three area artists making their presence known: Abby Alton of Roscoe, Alex Fischback of Morrison, and Gina Venier of Dixon all made it through their blind auditions to move on to the next round in Hollywood.
Alton sang for the judges in Minneapolis, impressing them with her versions of “Saving All My Love” by Whitney Houston and “Chandelier” by Sia, although her audition didn’t appear on the show. Her fate following Hollywood Week is still unknown. The Hononegah High School senior is a member of jazz choir and is focusing on college plans. She hasn’t chosen a major but will minor in music.
Fischbach, a 2013 graduate of Morrison High School, also sang for the judges in Minneapolis. Although his audition didn’t air, he received his Golden Ticket to Hollywood. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it to the next round. The 19-year-old singer/songwriter has performed at the Whiteside County Fair and various local venues since age 12, and currently resides in Rock Falls.
Venier has received quite a bit of air time on the show. The 24-year-old musician/singer/songwriter’s audition was shown on Jan. 7, during the show’s two-night season premiere on Fox. It included the show’s signature “get to known the artist” segment leading up to her performance. Also, host Seacrest interviewed her while she waited to be called in, calling her “a one-woman band” because of her instruments. “Getting face time with Seacrest was a highlight,” Venier says. “I really enjoyed seeing everything behind the scenes.”
Venier immediately grabbed the attention of judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick, Jr., when she walked into the audition carrying a drum box called a cajón, a percussion instrument which none of the judges recognized. Her performance of ZZ Ward’s “Put the Gun Down” earned a quick and unanimous thumbs-up.
“I wanted to do an upbeat song and use my cajón, and try to be somebody different right away,” Venier says. “ZZ Ward has been one of my musical inspirations since I first heard her music, so that’s why I picked ‘Put the Gun Down.’”
Using her “lucky” egg shaker, and a drum pedal and her fingers on the cajón while she sang, Venier had all three judges keeping time with her rhythm, and they clearly enjoyed her performance.
“It was very interesting and cool for Harry, Jennifer and Keith to be surprised and not really understand me,” Venier says. “I get a similar vibe at many of my gigs, and I’m used to it. The cajón is a non-traditional instrument. It’s a portable drum kit that I can take anywhere, and since I’m a drummer at heart, it’s awesome to play – I knew I could add a few extra finger rolls and get the judges to perk right up.”
Parents Mike and Marguerite Venier work in the 70-year-old family business, Venier Jewelers, in downtown Dixon. Venier says she comes by her musical talent naturally – her father played drums in a Blues Brothers tribute band for more than 15 years.
“My musical drive definitely springs from him,” she says. “I watched him perform with his band when I was growing up, and he’s always been my inspiration. He taught me to play the drums when I was 6, and I started playing the guitar at 13. He’ll still play drums for me when I do local gigs, and we’ll just jam together. Music has always been a collaborative thing for my family.”
At Dixon High School, Venier participated in choir, softball and a band. She attended Elmhurst College, where she continued in athletics and graduated in 2012 with a degree in sports broadcasting. “I worked at a local radio station at school, and here in Dixon,” Venier says. “I enjoyed it, and I can always go back to it. I think broadcasting has helped me with being onstage. It just became clear that I should put all of my efforts into music.”
Following college, she moved to Chicago to find gigs in clubs and other city venues. “Right out of the gate, Summer 2012, I entered a music competition in Chicago called Big Break, and I won,” Venier says. “I’ve pursued music full-time since then, playing anywhere that’ll have me and writing songs.”
She moved to Nashville last year to hone her songwriting, and auditioned for “American Idol” there.
“I’d watched the show for years with my parents, and they’d ask if I should try for something like that, but the timing just wasn’t right for me,” Venier explains. “When I was in Nashville, working as waitress, gigging at night and writing music every day like mad, I heard the show was auditioning in town and decided that this could be my ticket.”
During a meeting at ASCAP (a group that assists musicians, writers and performers with copyrights), Venier casually mentioned her interest in auditioning, and that led to her setting up a meeting with “American Idol” producers. “The process is unbelievable – interviews, meetings, preliminary auditions, more interviews,” she says. “Even with all of that, I didn’t know for certain that I was actually going to sing for the judges until the last minute, so I hadn’t told my family at all yet. Once I had the confirmation, I called my parents, and they left immediately that night and drove down to Nashville to be with me.”
Then came the waiting – and waiting and waiting. “It was an all-day thing,” Venier says. “You wait in line outside, you wait inside. It’s nerve-wracking.”
How does a performer prepare for such a life-altering chance? “In an amazing, beautiful way, I think I’ve been preparing for that moment for years,” Venier says. “It’s all the experiences, conversations with friends and family members. I give credit to a lot of people, over a lot of years. It’s not the first time I’ve had to be fearless and sell myself. I’m ready to introduce myself to world.”
Venier’s Hollywood audition will air sometime during February, and the rising star gives no indication of its outcome, good or bad. “I’m a firm believer in living each moment,” she says. “I’m not looking to the future. I just want to soak up every amazing moment of this unbelievable opportunity. My hope is that people hearing me for the first time will want to hear me again.”
Venier didn’t strategize before her audition. “My strategy was to be myself, to be honest, confident and genuine, to be true to myself,” she says. “I’m very blessed. One thing my dad has always told me is ‘Know your roots, toots.’ I’m a small-town girl with big-city drive.”
Fans can follow Venier’s progress on “American Idol,” on Twitter, @ginavenier, and learn more about her music on her Facebook page, GinaVenierMusic.