Guitarist and songwriter Yasmin Williams showed up last year with Urban driftwood, a record whose title perfectly sums up its sound — earthy but urgent. At just 25, Williams is shaking up long-held stereotypes that instrumental acoustic guitar music is the domain of John Fahey fanatics who don’t sing because they can’t, have no say, or both. .
In the morning the Scene reached Williams, she enjoys a brief respite after an airplane gig in Houston. Next up is a tour that will take him to First Baptist Church in Knoxville for the first in-person Big Ears Festival since 2019, then to Third Man Records’ Blue Room here in Nashville on March 29 with local pedalboard guru Luke. . Schneider opening. Williams’ concert at Marble City’s avant-garde music summit follows a late 2020 streaming show, presented by Big Ears and filmed at the Loghaven Artist Residency in the Smokies. There, Williams took on veteran six-stringers Marisa Anderson and William Tyler.
“As a fan of both of their music, I was nervous,” Williams said. “I was just hoping it would go well.”
Williams did more than defend herself. It was the first time I saw her play and I became a convert within minutes. All three bands will be present at this year’s Big Ears. Williams notes that she and her Nashville native son, Tyler, are also considering collaborating on a soundtrack in the near future.
Williams grew up in Washington, DC, with her parents and four brothers. Hip-hop, gospel, jazz and R&B played a lot in the house, “and we were always singing,” she recalls. Go-go — the call-and-response-based proto-hip-hop sound pioneered in the district at the turn of the ’80s by artists like Trouble Funk — was also a constant. But there wasn’t much rock ‘n’ roll until Williams started playing Guitar Hero in 2009. For the then college kid, playing was a crash course in the ins and outs of the guitar in particular and rock history in general.
“I played the clarinet growing up, but playing Guitar Hero and hearing all this music, I became obsessed,” she says. “When I beat him, my parents bought me my own electric.”
Getting his sea legs with “lots of Nirvana, because it seemed pretty simple,” Williams quickly graduated from Jimi Hendrix. Eventually, she gained the confidence and skills to want to play, but she wasn’t interested in starting a band and, as she notes, “I didn’t really know anyone else who played anyway. .” She chose an acoustic and began learning fingerstyle techniques, starting with The Beatles’ “Blackbird.”
Make our way through Guitar Hero might have planted the seed, but Williams’ original material prioritizes feelings over chops. His music is loaded but relaxed, precise but never gratuitous. In its most epic form, Urban driftwood reminiscent of the endless post-rock crescendo of artists like M83 or Sigur Rós, minus the reliance on rare analog synthesizers or boutique delay pedals.
Becoming a player also gave Williams a new appreciation for some of the music of his youth, like the go-go genre’s own guitar hero, the late chuck brown. For many, the DC sound is punk rock, synonymous with Fugazi and their world-renowned, region-focused label Dischord. But the district is a majority black city, and natives of all ethnicities will tell you go-go is its pulse. You can hear his influence on Urban driftwood, which includes cello, djembe and mbira accoutrements. Suave melodies and mosaic-like arrangements are the focal point, but foot-tapping rhythms drive it forward.
And where instrumental rockers’ song titles typically fall into one of two categories — inscrutable combinations of letters and numbers or inside-sentence jokes — Williams takes it a step further. Where side A of Urban driftwood is pensive and pretty, her back half takes on a more stormy turn. The liner notes reveal the stories behind emotionally charged material like “Through the Woods,” which Williams wrote during the 2020 nationwide civil unrest. “To me, walking in the woods is walking in the auto -reflection,” she wrote. “As a country, we are stuck in the woods with no clear way out.”
While sequencing the album with producer Jeff Gruber, Williams “went to the protests and realized the order that I was going to find — the atmosphere, the vibe — that matched the year 2020.” During quarantine, Williams also dove deep into the Afrofuturist sci-fi literature of NK Jemisin and Octavia Butler, influences that she says listeners can expect to have a tangible effect on. Driftwoodis the follow-up.
Williams plans to play some of this new material during his time in Tennessee. And these days, his nerves going into that livestream are a distant memory.
“The time off has definitely made me appreciate getting back on stage and having people to talk to. I don’t want my live show to just be me playing you music for 90 minutes. I want that looks like a bribe – not a gig.