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Yasmin Williams takes the Music Industry by Storm: The Inside on how she Built a Career from the Ground Up and What’s Ahead

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Special Edition 2022 – I Belong

Yasmin Williams is a multi-instrumentalist. Watching her perform live gives you a glimpse into her diverse approach to being a one-woman band. She plays finger-style guitar and often wears tap shoes during performances to provide a percussive effect. Songs such as “Through the Woods” showcase her songwriting ability to engulf the listener in a pure and tranquil experience through melodic licks and phrasing. Being amongst the few Black women in folk music, she has made waves with performances on NPR’s Tiny Desk, Billboard charting music, and praises from the industry’s top publications. Yasmin is truly the definition of a multi-faceted artist. 

What sparked your love for guitar and music composition? How old were you when you began playing?
I’ve always loved music. I remember singing songs with my family in the car as a child and singing in the church and school choirs. I started playing the clarinet around the 4th grade and loved being in the school band. I fell in love with the guitar around 12 years old while playing Guitar Hero 2! I played the game every day until I beat it. After that, my parents bought me an electric guitar, which I’ve played ever since. Once I started playing guitar, I started composing my tunes. I realized early on that I didn’t quite enjoy learning other people’s songs as much as I enjoyed writing my own. Playing guitar piqued my curiosity, wanting to learn more about composition. I wanted to learn how to compose for other instruments, use various music composition software, and more. Guitar opened up my musical world. I wanted to know as much as possible about everything, from playing guitar to composing for ensembles, writing my music, and other things I hadn’t thought about before playing guitar. 

How many instruments do you play? Why did the guitar become your instrument of choice?
I play a few instruments: most types of guitar (acoustic, electric, bass, classical, 12-string, etc.), clarinet, which is the first instrument I studied seriously, kalimba, and a bit of piano and harmonica. I’m teaching myself how to play the banjo, kora (a West African 21-string harp-lute), the pedal steel guitar, and the rhythm bones, a percussive instrument commonly used in folk/old-time music. The acoustic guitar became my main instrument for several reasons, the most important being its versatility in supporting me as a solo performer. There are endless tonal possibilities, as the acoustic guitar can be a percussive or melodic instrument. The other thing I love about the acoustic guitar is that I could take it to school with me every day to practice because it’s super portable! I also love how the acoustic guitar sounds and how I feel when I play it.

Photos by Zach Pigg and Kim Atkins

How would you describe your tone and style of music?
It’s always been hard to pin down my particular tone or style of music since I draw influences from many seemingly unrelated musical genres. For example, I listened to a lot of hip-hop, go-go, smooth jazz, R&B, and gospel. As a kid, I was drawn to percussive and melodic music, music that you can sing or hum along with. As a teenager, I discovered rock, folk, and many other styles of music, so I like to incorporate some influences from those genres into my music. I also enjoy coming up with new techniques and methods for playing the guitar, which can lead to different sounds. However, I’d say that my music is overall relaxing/easy to listen to, super melodic, and somewhat complex. My music might fit into the folk genre, but I think of it as a hybrid of many different styles, including my way of playing guitar and what I think sounds good. 

What made you fall in love with playing fingerstyle guitar?
I prefer playing with my fingers over using a plectrum because it opens up more avenues to play in unique ways, i.e., more percussively. Acoustic guitar allows me to find different modes of expression in a solo performance. Sometimes, fingerstyle guitar can make one guitar sound like two or three, which is cool. 

What is your songwriting/composition process? Did some of your compositions start as improvisations?
Several songs started as doodles or little improvisations, eventually becoming actual compositions. Others came from a small musical idea I had, like a melody or chord progression, and grew from there. My process is similar to a singer-songwriter approach; my songs have verses, a pre-chorus, a chorus, a bridge, etc., a lot like the song structure of a pop song. So, I compose with this structure in mind (subconsciously most of the time), and sometimes I stretch out certain sections to make the song structure less apparent or more enjoyable. I like songs with a singable melody, so I also focus on that a lot in my compositions. Sometimes, I compose songs like one would finish a puzzle, with different song ideas that I thought of at other times, and if the ideas fit together, I put them together gradually to form a song. 

What is your practice routine?
My practice routine is somewhat inconsistent. I should practice more often, but I’ve always practiced by playing my songs in mind. I don’t often practice to strengthen my fundamentals, so if I’m not writing a piece of music or practicing ones I’ve already written, my practice schedule can get slightly erratic. If I go for more than a few days without playing, I start to feel strange since I love playing guitar in general, so I always find time just to play, even if it’s not necessarily “practice.” 

Let’s talk about your setup; what amps, guitar pedals, and pickup are in your rig right now?
My current rig is set up to be as streamlined as possible, so my sound can be self-contained. My main touring guitar is my Skytop Guitars Grand Concert acoustic guitar. I’m currently touring with the following pedals: a ToneDexter by Audio Sprockets, the Afterneath Reverb pedal by EarthQuaker Devices, a Polytune Mini by TC Electronics, an iPad Pro and Audient iD14 to play backing tracks, and a One Spot CS7 power supply (a plentiful power supply because it can be used internationally without a voltage converter). I also frequently use the Microcosm by Hologram Electronics, the Infinity Looper by Pigtronix, the BigSky by Strymon, and the Looptimus Foot Controller to play synths and trigger backing tracks. My pickup is the James May Ultra Tonic, which makes my guitar sound spacious, bright, and highly detailed. I also travel with a wooden tap board for my Capezio tap shoes, two kalimbas, and instrument cables by Rattlesnake Cable Company.

Are there any particular artists that inspired you when you first began playing?
I was inspired by folks like Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana when I first played guitar. Nowadays, I’m inspired by many female/female-identifying guitarists, with my main inspiration being Elizabeth Cotten. I also really love the ingenuity of guitarists Algia Mae Hinton, Etta Baker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Kaki King, and Vicki Genfan. 

Your album Urban Driftwood was released in 2021 and was well-received by many. Tell us about the inspiration behind the music. Do you have any favorite songs you like performing from that album?
I don’t like to say I have a favorite song from the album; I love them all! I do find that I play “Juvenescence,” “Through the Woods,” “I Wonder,” and “Dragonfly” the most during live shows. I enjoyed recording “Urban Driftwood” and “Adrift” because I got to play with other artists, who also happened to be my friends, which was the first time I’d ever done that on a record. I also enjoyed writing the track “Urban Driftwood” since it was the first time I’d played kora on a song, and the way that track came together left us proud of what we did. My friend, who plays multiple drum parts on the track, Amadou Kouyate, improvised the drum parts and came up with unique beats, which was extremely fun to watch. I recommend fans listen to all of the tracks, but “Juvenescence,” “Adrift,” “Swift Breeze,” “Through the Woods,” “After the Storm,” and “Urban Driftwood” are the tracks that show the depth of what this album offers.

Tell us about the process of recording an album during the COVID lockdown.
I composed most of the album during the beginning stages of the 2020 lockdown. The process was pretty streamlined since I didn’t have to worry about touring during that time. I could sit for hours and work on the album, and the songs came together faster than usual. I notated many pieces as I composed; several songs had multiple instrument parts. Finishing the album was easy for us since I had access to a great studio nearby, Blue House Productions in Silver Spring, Maryland. We did mastering in-house/studio at Tonal Park in Takoma Park, Maryland. Overall, it was a very introverted process since I wrote all the songs myself and recorded all but two of the instrument parts, which I enjoyed. It was nice to devote myself full time to composing music and creating the best album I could at the time. 

What has been your experience as a Black woman in folk music?
My experience has been rather interesting. On the one hand, there’s a “shift” happening within folk and Americana music, which has benefited many other Black artists and me within these genres. Black artists are getting more exposure, press, and opportunities than they did in the past. Being a part of this movement has been amazing, and it has been exciting to be part of the growth. On the other hand, being a Black woman in majority white spaces gets a bit tiring. My music doesn’t fit neatly into any specific genre; it can be slightly tricky to fit into the folk world, not that I necessarily have to. The greatest thing thus far has been witnessing the positive reactions I receive from audiences. 

Through it all, navigating the music industry can be arduous, but building relationships with audiences makes it all worthwhile. I’m happy to play a role in opening the doors for future Black folk artists, specifically Black acoustic guitarists. 

Talk about your song “Sunshowers.” What inspired the song and music video?
“Sunshowers” came about as a reflection on how most people were highly excited for the year 2020 and how no one could have anticipated the pandemic changing the year’s trajectory. The song is meant to be a joyful, reflective, and hopeful introduction to the album, and the music video was also meant to reflect this sentiment. 

What about your song “Swift Breeze”?
I originally wrote “Swift Breeze” in high school when I was about 15 years old. I remember getting into hard rock music at that point, which is why the song has a different vibe than my recently written music. I rearranged some of the guitar parts since I’m a better player now than I was at 15 and made them more complex. The overall song structure and most of the melodic ideas in the song, however, are unchanged. I thought the song fit perfectly with the album’s narrative arc, so I included it as a segway to the “darker” second half of the record. 

Your song “Through the Woods” is a fan favorite. Tell us about the story and creative process behind the song.
Thank you! I wrote the song and realized afterward that it gave me a sort of whimsical, almost uncontrolled feeling; the music is somewhat complex and has many moving parts that must be played carefully, but it also has an interesting, playful quality. I play guitar, kalimba, and tap shoes in the song. I thought the kalimba added a calm melodic voice along with the guitar. The tap shoes are used for percussion since my hands are busy playing guitar and kalimba throughout the song. The creative process was simple: I came up with the melody and immediately knew that the kalimba should go with it. I bought a kalimba specifically for this song since the other kalimba I already had was in a different key. Putting the tap shoes in was simple, and the song came together relatively quickly. It was pretty fun to compose.

Photos by Zach Pigg and Kim Atkins

Do you typically write out the compositions for all of your music?
Yes, I do notate most of my music while composing or after I’ve finished the piece. It’s helpful to have my music written down so I don’t have to depend exclusively on audio recordings or voice memos, although I have tons of those too.

As a composer, what do you think and feel as you are in the thick of music composition?
I don’t usually go into composing a song with a specific emotion or thought in mind. Once I start a new song and sit with it, I can pinpoint what it’s about, if anything. For the Urban Driftwood record, I didn’t realize what many of those songs were about until after I finished them. Once I listened to the songs thoroughly, I realized there was a clear narrative arc about the pandemic and how I felt about everything happening in the world around me; from the pandemic to the police brutality against Black Americans, political turmoil, etc. But that’s what I enjoy about composing music; It helps me reflect on my thoughts in or out of those moments. I composed a couple of songs, like “After the Storm” or “I Wonder (Song for Michael),” with a more explicit message and thought in mind.

What has your journey as a guitarist, musician, and composer taught you about yourself?
It has taught me that I have a lot of audacity to be who I am and play the music that I play. It has also taught me that I have a lot of patience and persistence since I’ve spent countless hours practicing, composing, and thinking about music, and hoping that I can build a career from the ground up. It’s also taught me that I should share things I’ve learned along the way with others since super successful musicians have done the same with me. 

What are some things you enjoy about touring and performing live? What are some of your favorite songs to perform live during your set?
My favorite part of touring is playing the shows and having time to explore the new cities I’m playing in. I also love to interact with fans after my shows. Some of my favorite songs to play live are “Juvenescence,” “Restless Heart,” “On a Friday Night,” “ I Wonder (Song for Michael),” “Guitka,” and a currently unreleased song.

What are some career goals and aspirations you intend to achieve within the next three years?
I’ll put these loftier goals into the universe: win a Grammy, win some sort of grant for my music, get more film scoring work or song placements, work with and go on tour with one of my favorite acts, and become more proficient at the instruments I’m trying to learn now. My immediate goals are to finish my next album, continue touring worldwide, and keep improving as a guitarist and composer.

Photos by Zach Pigg and Kim Atkins

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians and guitarists?
Everyone says this, but: be yourself. If I wasn’t myself in my music and on stage, I doubt I’d have the success I have now. Everything in my career stems from my being true to myself and my music. Don’t try to change yourself for more immediate success. Instead, be patient and cultivate your craft to be the best it can be. Also, take some music business courses and have a trusted mentor. The music industry is callous to navigate and is built to confuse newcomers.

Guitar Gabby

Gabriella “Guitar Gabby” Logan is an Atlanta Native and proud graduate of Spelman College and Vermont Law School. Her background in environmental and music law fueled her desire to start and manage the international all-women touring collective, TxLips Band, LLC. Logan believes it is important for artists to be well rounded and versed in many areas of the music business, thus inspiring women worldwide to be an unstoppable force. She is the Diversity Editor for Guitar Girl Magazine and the Board Chair for Girls Rock Asheville. http://www.txlips.com

Guitar Gabbyhttp://www.txlips.com
Gabriella “Guitar Gabby” Logan is an Atlanta Native and proud graduate of Spelman College and Vermont Law School. Her background in environmental and music law fueled her desire to start and manage the international all-women touring collective, TxLips Band, LLC. Logan believes it is important for artists to be well rounded and versed in many areas of the music business, thus inspiring women worldwide to be an unstoppable force. She is the Diversity Editor for Guitar Girl Magazine and the Board Chair for Girls Rock Asheville. http://www.txlips.com
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