While the acoustic guitar as we know it has been around for hundreds of years, songwriters like Yasmin Williams are helping us listen to it with a whole new extraordinary perspective. Williams grew up in Virginia, where her family introduced her to various music styles that eventually led her to pursue her own sound and earn a degree in composition from NYU. Her colorful harmonics and percussive plucking and tapping techniques transport the listener to a relaxing musical oasis. Her debut album, Unwind, has garnered massive praise from the folk and fingerstyle guitar community and earned her multiple Billboard spots. In her second album, Urban Driftwood, Williams takes her songwriting to the next level, beyond just a great guitar album. Though her playing style might be unorthodox, Williams’s sound is sure to feel warm and familiar.
When did you first start playing? What attracted you to the guitar?
It was definitely after I started playing the video game Guitar Hero. I played the game basically every day after school. Eventually, I beat the game on every level, and my parents got me a real guitar after that. I guess they were impressed.
Did the Guitar Hero controller buttons have any influence on your tapping style?
Yeah, a lot of the game consisted of metal songs, and once you reach the higher levels, there was a lot of tapping going on, and I loved that. I wanted to figure out how to go from tapping on the five buttons to tapping on the six strings of an actual guitar. It didn’t really work that well for me on an electric guitar— I don’t know why; I’m better at it now, but it’s still kind of rough. I was able to mimic the tapping motion a lot better on the acoustic guitar. That’s also why I started lap tapping, because that’s the easiest way for me to tap.
Your sound is so unique—what are some of your biggest influences?
When I first started playing electric, I was definitely influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana because their songs were easy to play. I learned a few Black Sabbath songs like “Iron Man.” I was definitely into more of the hard rock stuff back in those days. Now, it’s a lot more folk. Elizabeth Cotten is an influence of mine. I’m listening to a lot more acoustic music now.
You studied music theory and composition at NYU. Are there any particular composers that influenced your sound?
Yes, but I didn’t realize it until a friend of mine actually analyzed my music and said, “You were definitely inspired by Debussy and Ravel,” and I was like, really? Then he pointed out the chords that I used. I thought I should know this because I majored in it, but I never really analyzed my music at all. When he said that, it made sense because I love Debussy, I love Ravel, and I’m a big fan of neo-romantic and classical music. I also learned about composers like Florence Price in school, and I guess that was kind of an indirect influence too. Their music is very inspired by nature too, so I think that could be considered one of my influences.
Tell us about Urban Driftwood. What was the inspiration, and how did it all come together?
I really don’t know how it came together, especially that quickly. I finished most of the songs in 2020 because the album was largely inspired by just being stuck in the house and dealing with the pandemic. The social justice movements that were happening, like Black Lives Matter, also inspired me. I went to a couple of protests in D.C. and going to those directly inspired me to finish the song “After the Storm,” the last song on the album. There was a lot for me to reflect on, especially since gigs were canceled and things were so up in the air at that point. The album kind of wrote itself, really. A lot of the songs were just natural extensions of how I was feeling throughout the year. I don’t want to say it was an out-of-body experience because I did think very hard about the songs and the propositions. However, it was like an internal conversation. That’s kind of the first time that ever happened really for me; usually, songs kind of take me a superlong time to finish, and I put a lot of thought into them. This was a very natural, reflective period that just kind of culminated into the album, which was great.
How does Urban Driftwood differ from your first album, Unwind?
With Unwind, I was focused on being known as a good guitar player. I would ask myself, “How can I show that I’m a good guitar player?” Whereas the second album was about using my composition skills. I wrote most, if not all, of the songs after college, which helped me to grow a lot as a composer. I was focused on writing more meaningful songs. I was also thinking about my unique position of being a Black guitarist—on the first album, I was kind of naive to that, but now I am much more aware of what that means, especially after all of the stuff that happened last year. I often thought to myself, let’s just kind of explore the music that I listened to as a kid and what my parents played around the house. Not to try to sound like other guitarists I knew of, but just to try to sound more like myself. I think I definitely accomplished that, at least to the best of my abilities right now.
What is your songwriting process? Do you usually come up with a melody and build a chord progression around it or vice versa?
About 98 percent of my songs come together like a puzzle. I’ll record maybe a snippet of an idea that I have one day, and then maybe a week later, I’ll come up with something else that might match that snippet. Then I’ll piece it together and come up with something else. It’s very rare that I write a song from start to finish. Usually, it’s like, here’s a chorus, here’s a bridge, here’s a verse—do these go together? Yeah, they do, cool. Let’s figure out how to piece them together. That’s kind of a longer process; it’s not like sitting down, having a songwriting session for like eight hours and finishing it; I can’t do that. For my song “After the Storm,” I wrote the climax of the song first, which happens right before the end. Then like six months later, I wrote the rest. It’s like a puzzle that kind of comes together after some time.
Tell us about your current favorite gear—what are you using right now and why?
This Skytop Grand Concert guitar just sounds like me. It characterizes everything I would want out of a guitar. It’s clear, and it has a kind of bell-like tone. The bass notes are very pronounced but not muddy. The highs are crystal clear, and the midrange is very nice. You can hear every note in every chord. Even when I’m tapping, everything is clear. For my sound, this guitar is definitely necessary. I also use Black Mountain thumb picks. Not many people give thumb picks much love, but I can’t really play without one. Sometimes I do have to take it off if it gets in the way while I’m tapping, but most of the time, I have it on because I’ll use it for the bass notes. I love reverb, and I have a Strymon BigSky, and that’s always on because it’s basically on every track on my first album too. I’m a reverb fiend.
What are you looking forward to the most in 2021 and beyond?
I got a booking agent and a manager this year, and they’re really helping me with getting a tour set up for the fall, which I will be superexcited to announce hopefully soon. But yeah, I’m definitely touring in the fall. I wish I could tour sooner, but I cannot because nothing is really open. There’s a group in NYC—their name is Contemporaneous—who is arranging three of my songs from Urban Driftwood for a concert of theirs, which is really cool. They’re like kind of a small orchestra, and I’m superexcited for that. I’ve never heard these songs in an orchestral setting. I’m writing a piece for a berimbau group, which is an Afro-Brazilian instrument. I’m also writing a piece for a group called Projeto Arcomusical, which is cool because I get to be a composer and only a composer—I don’t have to worry about playing guitar. It will be nice to use my degree for something, and I’m excited to write that piece for them. It’s going to be a three-movement, 15-minute piece. So there’s a ton of stuff happening, but I’m mainly excited for just touring in the fall; we’re still working on routing and planning and all of that, but it’s going to be great.
What advice do you have for other young hopeful composers and songwriters out there?
I feel like this is said by everyone, but I would definitely say to be yourself. It’s not worth compromising your musical integrity, or personal integrity, just to try to get somewhere quicker. Work on your music or whatever your talent is, and eventually, you’ll see some success. It always kind of sucks when you see someone who is coming into the scene, and their music is great, but then they feel like they need to go more of a pop route or change their sounds to be more successful. I would try to stray away from that. Also, this might sound kind of harsh, but don’t have idols, because it’s not really helpful to want to sound like someone else. There’s only one you, so focus on that and making that as great as you can. Those are my personal mantras, and I hope that helps someone else.