Yasmin Williams Lights Up the World

An interview with one of the most innovative solo guitarists around.

Yasmin Williams makes guitar music unlike anything else I’ve heard. Though I just learned about her work earlier this year, I’ve been totally enthralled. What strikes me most about Williams music isn’t just that her technical ability is almost beyond comprehension – she dances around a fretboard in new, unheard ways with endless grace – but her songwriting ability is on the same level. With her latest album, Urban Driftwood, it’s the emotions the songs evoke and the story they tell that keep me returning to it over and over. This interview was conducted in early February 2021. Yasmin will perform on Thursday, February 25th along with LaraajiNailah Hunter, and more as part of Printed Matter’s Virtual Art Book Fair. You should also pick up a copy of Urban Driftwood here!

What made you want to become a guitar player?

I wanted to play guitar after I beat the video game Guitar Hero 2 on expert level. I asked my parents to buy me an electric guitar so I could learn to play a real guitar and live out my dreams of being a shredder like Buckethead or Paul Gilbert or a metal guitarist… but I realized pretty quickly that I may not be cut out for the type of playing I thought I wanted to do!

What is it about an acoustic guitar that you prefer compared to an electric?

The acoustic guitar gives me more to work with than the electric guitar. It has more timbral options, from percussion sounds to harmonics to metallic sounds and lots of other things, which in turn gives me more compositional options. All of these things allow me to write more interesting songs and to express my ideas exactly as I imagine them. Electric guitar, on the other hand, was a bit too limiting for me. 

How did you end up playing on your lap like you do? 

Guitar Hero convinced me to incorporate tapping into my guitar playing style since the mechanics of the game call for more of a tapping motion than strumming (at least for the songs I liked on the game). I also wanted to learn how to tap like the guitarists I mentioned earlier but I could not learn to tap using the traditional two-hand method. After struggling with this for a bit of time, I eventually decided to try to put the guitar in my lap so I could see the fretboard clearer and allow my fingers to stretch more laterally instead of vertically, which worked out great! For me, playing in my lap was as natural as playing guitar in a more orthodox way, if not more natural. 

What was the biggest challenge you had to deal with to get to this point?

I’ve created some challenges for myself in terms of being a solo guitarist and wanting to expand the instrument. For example, if I want to include another instrument or timbre in a song, I had to come up with a way to do this by myself. This is where the kalimba and tap shoes ideas stem from. Actually, I wouldn’t really call this a challenge since it was fun to come up with different ways of playing the instrument and adding other instruments in with the guitar to create a new sound. My biggest challenge to date is probably maintaining a music career while trying to focus on writing the best music I can and continuing to grow as a guitarist and composer.

One of the things I love about your songs is how you work in rhythmic elements to complement your guitar playing. What first gave you the idea to use tap shoes?

My having only two hands sparked the tap shoes idea. Usually if I want to incorporate percussion into a song I use my right hand to drum on the body of the guitar. However, when lap tapping, my hands are often busy tapping on the fretboard. To play a percussive beat while lap tapping with both hands or tapping with my left hand and playing kalimba with the right, I decided to use my feet. The only thing I could think of that allowed my feet to be percussive was tap shoes! I believe Guitka was the first song I used tap shoes in. I’ve also used a homemade MIDI controller to trigger and play MIDI drums on occasion, which I may be doing more of in the future. 

Kalimbas have long been a favorite instrument of mine and I always get excited when I hear them used in new or interesting ways. When did you first start playing and incorporating one into your work? What is it about the kalimba that drew you to it?

I got the idea to use a kalimba with my guitar from the group Earth, Wind, and Fire. Their song “Kalimba Story” was always cool to me, even as a child. In college, I wrote Guitka, a song off my first album Unwind. I remember wanting to include a different timbre with the guitar part in the song. For whatever reason, my mind went back to how I liked the sound of the kalimba when Maurice White played it so I went out and bought a kalimba. I played around with it constantly for a couple of weeks (even taking it to my classes) before deciding to tape it to my guitar and try to combine it with the guitar parts for Guitka. After about a week or two, I came up with the finished song. 

Okay, I want to talk a little more specifically about the new album. What’s the story behind the name Urban Driftwood?

Urban Driftwood has several meanings. First, Urban Driftwood refers to me. It’s sort of a playful tease on how, being a black musician, I’m expected to play some type of urban music. You may expect to hear beats or something when considering the album title (which is somewhat the case since there are some beats on the album!). While I do playfully undermine this expectation, I also embrace my heritage more in this record by showcasing a bit of my early childhood musical influences of smooth jazz, hip hop, RnB, and Go-Go music. I wanted this album to be different from the fingerstyle guitar or american primitive canon that has been established throughout history since I don’t come from this lineage in the first place and I think the title Urban Driftwood exemplifies how this album is different from other instrumental guitar records in terms of overall instrumentation, melodic and percussive ideas, and the type of person who composed the album (me being a black female guitarist). 

The title also refers to other things like the social injustice in the US that was happening throughout 2020. I wanted to create a record that served both as a personal reflection on the tragic events of 2020 like the police shootings, the pandemic, etc and as a hopeful respite for people who listen to the album. Another aspect of the title is that it’s a bit of an oxymoron. You wouldn’t expect to find a piece of driftwood in an urban space. I expand on this idea in the song “Urban Driftwood” as well as the music video for this song. The video was filmed in Baltimore, a city that isn’t thought of as a city with verdant or nature specific spaces. However, the music video shows that nature lives in harmony with the urban environment of Baltimore and that one doesn’t necessarily end where the other begins. This concept also applies to the people who live in Baltimore and other cities. Black Americans mostly live in cities. I liken them to driftwood in a sense: Driftwood is wood or debris that gets washed ashore by wind or tides. It often provides necessary shelter for various animals as it floats in the ocean and promotes a healthier ecosystem for fish and other animals.

The title even applies to my own guitar since my guitar is made out of a large piece of driftwood and is full of nature (like the natural mollusk holes in the top of it or the beautiful spalted, fungus filled, back and sides of my guitar). 

I have been thinking a lot lately about how music and sound can be used to create worlds or transport the listener somewhere else. It’s something that, for me, has been more important than ever this past year. Urban Driftwood absolutely has that power, but it’s also so grounded with the narrative flow and how it tells the story of this past year. What I’m curious about is what your process is like and how you take these ideas, events, and emotions and translate into the language of your music?

I’m not really sure how I do this; a lot of the processing that happens seems to be subconscious. I don’t really think about how to translate events or emotions into music since this would most likely cause me to overthink the music. Sometimes I do try to capture a general mood or moods if it changes throughout a song and I think a bit about how to best do this (as in, for example, After the Storm), but most of the time, this is just a natural thing that doesn’t require much conscious thought. I do, however, consciously think about a song’s form and if it matches the overall mood I’m trying to emote. 

Tell me about how you used influence from West African griots on the title track and where you hope to take that in the future.

I’ve been interested in the kora, a West African harp like instrument, for a long time and finally got my hands on one in 2019. I began to attempt to teach myself how to play it and have been using it mainly as a songwriting tool. I’ve been a fan of west African classical music for a long time and have thought about how it could mesh with more African American/urban musical styles, which is a bit of what I tried to achieve in Urban Driftwood. Incorporating Amadou Kouyate’s djembe and cadjembe in a more hip hop style in some parts of the song along with my kora, guitar, and kalimba playing, allowed me to combine my West African classical music influences and my childhood hip hop influences, which is very cool and unlike anything else I’ve released so far. I plan on maybe doing more of this and potentially collaborating with bigger ensembles in the future. 

Speaking of that influence, Amadou Kouyate’s playing on the title track is fantastic and really propels the song forward in this wonderful way. How do you know him and how did you end up getting him to play on the song?

Funnily enough, I originally met him after I reached out to him on Facebook asking if he could teach me how to replace some broken strings on my kora! I had just gotten the kora and didn’t know how to replace the strings and someone at a local music store gave me his name since he’s a griot/master kora player as well as a master drummer. He very graciously agreed to help me and we stayed in contact. I eventually asked him to play drums on my album. I sent him a rough demo of the track Urban Driftwood which included the basic framework of the overall drum part. A short time after sending the demos, he popped into the studio after I had recorded the rest of the instruments on the track and he basically improvised both drum parts in a few takes with very minimal (and probably not helpful) direction from me. It was a mind blowing experience and he’s now a great friend. 

Solo guitar music as a genre is often dominated by white men and a lot of it comes out in a very particular style (i.e. the Fahey thing). I love that your music is so clearly rooted elsewhere, but how have audiences or even fellow guitar players reacted to that? 

I’ve had an amazing response so far with this album precisely because it is rooted in another lineage – a different lineage than one would expect when listening to a solo acoustic guitar album. Reviews for the album have been amazing and other players have also been very supportive which is awesome. Prior to releasing the album, I did have some thoughts on how it would be accepted since it is so clearly not rooted in the established guitar canon and, unlike my first album Unwind, I’m making it very clear that Urban Driftwood comes from a different musical perspective and is a more personal record for me. I could not have asked for a better response and the album has led to great conversations regarding the problems with American Primitivism and how to push solo guitar music forward and make it more inclusive of different styles and backgrounds. I’m glad to be a part of these much needed conversations and am super honored that so many people are taking the time to listen to the record and take it in. 

“After the Storm” is such a calming and hopeful piece of music. I’m not going to lie – I get pretty emotional every time I listen to it. What gives you hope and what brings you peace?

Music gives me hope and brings me peace. In general, I’m not the most positive person like my music may suggest. I’m more of a realist, but through music, I can express more hopeful sentiments which help me process things more clearly. 

What have you missed most this past year?

I’m starting to miss playing live shows more now since it’s been almost a year since I’ve regularly played out. I miss interacting with a live audience and meeting people at shows. I definitely miss going to concerts. I don’t really miss too much to be honest because the pandemic allowed me to focus on finishing my album, which was a great experience overall. The pandemic also gave me a reason to learn more about music technology and home studio equipment which has been very helpful. I also don’t mind staying home! 

What’s next?

I’m hoping to get out on the road sometime this year once COVID is less of an issue (fingers crossed this happens soon!). I’m also collaborating with a few ensembles. Contemporaneous, a NYC based ensemble, is arranging some of my songs from Urban Driftwood that will be played in a concert called After the Storm, this summer. I’m also writing a piece for Projeto Arcomusical, a berimbau group, which is really exciting. I’ve finally written my first harp guitar tune and am very slowly thinking about what a future album could sound like. 

Yasmin Williams can be reached through her websiteUrban Driftwood is out now on SPINSTER.