Performing in the clubs and coffeehouses of Nashville and Chicago over the past two years has taught Gina Venier a few things about how to win over an audience.
So when the singer-songwriter and 2012 Elmhurst graduate stepped onstage at the Music City Center in Nashville last August to audition before a panel of music-industry luminaries for Fox’s American Idol, she seemed her usual unflappable self. On the outside.
“I was incredibly nervous,” Venier said recently. “It was definitely one of the most nerve-racking auditions I’ve done.” In a performance that aired on January 8, Venier wowed judges Keith Urban, Harry Connick Jr. and Jennifer Lopez with a cover of ZZ Ward’s “Put the Gun Down,” advancing to the next round in the national talent competition.
Venier, a singer, drummer and guitarist, accompanied herself on the cajon, a box-like wooden drum outfitted with a foot pedal. She has grown accustomed to questions about the unusual instrument, a staple of her live act that she describes as “a really good alternative to dragging a whole drum kit around.” Singing and playing drums is “a combination with some uniqueness to it. People aren’t used to it,” Venier said. “I wanted to do something different, something that would make an impact.” Sure enough, the celebrity judges were intrigued by Venier and the cajon.
“Harry Connick Jr. was super-interested and asked all kinds of questions about it,” Venier said. “I’m used to people being a little puzzled about what I’m doing. So it felt just like another gig.”
But unlike most other gigs, Venier’s Idol audition won her some coveted perks: the show’s Golden Ticket to the next round of auditions in Hollywood; the chance to compete for the show’s top prize, which includes a major-label recording deal; and a shot of career-boosting national exposure. Venier was especially thrilled to hear from one new fan after her Nashville audition aired. Singer ZZ Ward tweeted: “Just saw @GinaVenier kill Put the Gun Down on @AmericanIdol So proud of you girl!!!”
“That was my moment,” Venier said. “She’s one of my all-time faves. I look up to her and the fact that she reached out is so heartwarming.”
A native of Dixon, Illinois, Venier graduated from Elmhurst, where she played shortstop on the softball team and hosted a show on the College’s radio station, intending to pursue a career in sports broadcasting. But she never lost her love of music, inherited from her father, who taught Venier to play drums when she was six and who himself played for years in a Blues Brothers tribute band. After working briefly at Comcast SportsNet in Chicago, she began performing in the city’s taverns and clubs—“anywhere that would have me,” Venier said. In 2012, she won a local talent competition called the Big Break, singing and playing another ZZ Ward song, “Move Like U Stole It.”
“I decided that winning was a sign that I should pursue music and put everything else on the backburner for a while,” she said. Venier moved to Nashville, where she honed her songwriting skills, played live gigs whenever she could, and held down a pair of part-time waitressing jobs. Venier jumped at the chance to audition for “American Idol” in Nashville last summer, and advanced through the show’s early rounds. When she learned that she would be performing in front of the judges and cameras in less than 24 hours, she immediately called her family. They drove from Dixon to Nashville in time to be with Venier for her big moment.
“It was really important that they were there,” she said. “They have been so much a part of my journey.”
When she found out that she would be moving on to audition in Hollywood, the “Idol” cameras captured the former college shortstop celebrating with a pantomimed home-run swing. She was soon flooded with texts from her ex-teammates.
“They all said that was their favorite part,” Venier said.
The show’s confidentiality rules prevent Venier from revealing just how far she will advance on American Idol. Her fans will have to tune in on Fox to see her next chance in the spotlight in February. Venier will be watching, too.
“My plan right now is to just enjoy being on American Idol.”