Yasmin Williams sits on her leather couch, her guitar stretched across her lap horizontally with its strings turned to the sky. She taps on the fretboard with her left hand as her right hand plucks a kalimba placed on the guitar’s body. Her feet, clad in tap shoes, keep rhythm on a mic’d wooden board placed under her. Even with all limbs in play, it’s mind boggling that the melodic and percussive sounds that emerge are made by just one musician, playing in real time. With her ambidextrous and pedidextrous, multi-instrumental techniques of her own making and influences ranging from video games to West African griots subverting the predominantly white male canon of fingerstyle guitar, Yasmin Williams is truly a guitarist for the new century. So too is her stunning sophomore release, Urban Driftwood, an album for and of these times. Though the record is instrumental, its songs follow a narrative arc of 2020, illustrating both a personal journey and a national reckoning, through Williams’ evocative, lyrical compositions.
A native of northern Virginia, Williams, now 24, began playing electric guitar in 8th grade, after she beat the video game Guitar Hero 2 on expert level. Initially inspired by Jimi Hendrix and other shredders she was familiar with through the game, she quickly moved on to acoustic guitar, finding that it allowed her to combine fingerstyle techniques with the lap-tapping she had developed through Guitar Hero, as well as perform as a solo artist. By 10th grade, she had released an EP of songs of her own composition. Deriving no lineage from “American primitive” and rejecting the problematic connotations of the term, Williams’ influences include the smooth jazz and R&B she listened to growing up, Hendrix and Nirvana, go-go and hip-hop. Her love for the band Earth, Wind and Fire prompted her to incorporate the kalimba into her songwriting, and more recently, she’s drawn inspiration from other Black women guitarists such as Elizabeth Cotten, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Algia Mae Hinton. On Urban Driftwood, Williams references the music of West African griots through the inclusion of kora (which she recently learned) and by featuring the hand drumming of 150th generation djeli of the Kouyate family, Amadou Kouyate, on the title track.
Yasmin Williams is virtuosic in her mastery of the guitar and in the techniques of her own invention, but her playing never sacrifices lyricism, melody, and rhythm for pure demonstration of skill. As she said in an interview on New Sounds’ Soundcheck podcast, “The songwriting process drives the techniques. I don’t use techniques that aren’t needed.” Storytelling through sound is important to her too. As detailed in the liner notes, the songs on Urban Driftwood were completed during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, in the midst of a national uprising of Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The sequencing on the record intends to illustrate the unfolding of these events, beginning with album opener “Sunshowers,” with its rich texture of hammer-ons on pull-offs expressing innocence and collective excitement for a new year and decade, swiftly moving to the more contemplative speculation of “I Wonder” and the self-reflective “Juvenescence,” with its Bridget St. John-reminiscent opening and descending and ascending arpeggios throughout. On “Adrift,” the first track on Side B, Yasmin’s guitar engages in a call-and-response fugue with cello, played by Taryn Wood, emulating the political unrest, chaos, and floundering of the country as it reckoned with the persistence of white supremacy and vast inequality.
The narrative plot of Urban Driftwood culminates in the repetitive, meditative sounds of guitar, kora, kalimba, and hand drums on the penultimate title track, creating a sonic landscape that communicates the feeling of movement and evokes images of the natural beauty that persists within urban spaces. As she wrote the song, Williams was reflecting on her personal role in the context of the current societal moment, considering her position as Black female guitarist within a white male dominated field. Yasmin says, “There are not many Black guitarists within this genre and particularly with all of the political and social discord that was/is happening in the United States in 2020, I felt it was extremely important to include a song on the album that was inspired by my heritage and paid homage to who I am, the household I grew up in, the music I listened to as a child. ‘Urban Driftwood’ is more like the music I grew up listening to than any other song I’ve released so far.” The record concludes with the emotional, “After the Storm,” questioning the path ahead while embracing a sense of peace through its interwoven guitar parts. The track is a fitting denouement for this album, that while it illustrates current struggle, can’t help but open-heartedly offer a timeless solace.
Since its release in January 2021, Urban Driftwood has been praised by numerous publications such as Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, The Wasington Post, NPR Music, No Depression, Paste Magazine, and many others. Williams will be touring in support of Urban Driftwood throughout 2021.