Yasmin Williams puts a fresh spin on finger-style guitar


“After the Storm” is the ultimate monitor on her new album, “Urban Driftwood,” which might be launched Jan. 29 on the intersectional feminist label Spinster. Just like the album’s 9 different instrumental compositions, “After the Storm” is a showcase for Williams’s busy, soothing finger-style guitar work. Her clear notes ripple by as she makes use of a looping pedal to construct layers with every refrain. “After the Storm” could have discovered its form within the wake of a vastly emotional time, however the final impact is calming and open-ended.

“I didn’t want it to sound aggressive, that wasn’t how I was feeling,” Williams says from Woodbridge, the place she grew up and now lives. “I wanted to be hopeful, because we could always use more of that.”

That’s fairly an announcement for an artist who wrote and recorded “Urban Driftwood” amid the overlapping crises of 2020. She labored in studios in Kensington, Silver Spring and Takoma Park, constructing a set that’s meditative, even fairly. It isn’t the apparent product of such a troublesome time, however as Williams says, “This is how I was processing.”

Regular optimism isn’t the one distinctive factor about Williams’s enjoying and writing. Anybody who approaches the acoustic guitar with a thumb choose or their naked fingers in suburban Maryland inevitably invitations comparisons to Takoma Park’s John Fahey, whose experiments with nation blues made his identify within the 1960s and ’70s. After inventing the time period “American primitive” to explain his spare type, Fahey based Takoma Data, which launched solo guitar information by such comparable visionaries as Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho and influenced generations of youthful gamers, together with Jack Rose and William Tyler.

Williams could also be a D.C.-area lifer and a Montgomery County record-maker, however she stands outdoors the “American primitive” lineage. For one, her enjoying doesn’t resemble Fahey’s. She is polyrhythmic, typically including her personal hand percussion beats to her songs, and he or she’s a fastidious technician on her instrument, the place Fahey had rougher edges. And Williams doesn’t play the blues in any respect. She’s nearer to Basho, who included Japanese influences into his raga-like enjoying, and even to the proto-New Age guitarist Ralph Towner, whose enjoying has the crystalline tone of a classical piano.

However extra importantly, Williams rejects the “primitive” notion altogether. She doesn’t want to hunt out supposedly misplaced Black traditions when her family and historical past have given her a lot.

“I’m not from that tradition,” she says of Takoma Data’ lengthy shadow within the finger-style guitar world. She doesn’t say it defiantly, simply as a degree of clarification. “Both my mom and dad have family from D.C. I am Chocolate City. I grew up with go-go and Earth, Wind and Fire.”

The latter’s 1974 single “Kalimba Story,” for instance, impressed Williams’s use of the African thumb-piano on the tune “Urban Driftwood,” which additionally options her on the harplike kora. A visitor djembe participant enlivens the piece as effectively, and lends it a texture not typically heard within the Americana world, the place most acoustic-based music like Williams’s nonetheless resides. Within the final decade or so, Black artists comparable to Leyla McCalla and Valerie June have opened up the style to new lyrical views and kinds. Rhiannon Giddens, the banjoist and musicologist, has led an effort to coach the style’s viewers about conventional American folks music’s debt to African traditions. Williams admires these artists and plenty of others within the conventional folks world, even when her type and ambitions are just a little extra versatile.

“There aren’t many voices like Rhiannon Giddens’s or mine out there,” she says. “I don’t have influences in terms of who I want to resemble.”

Williams earned a level in music composition and concept from New York College, the place she took an curiosity in kinds from math rock to Ethiopian jazz. Since graduating, she has performed domestically, particularly on the Takoma artwork area Rhizome DC and on the Kennedy Middle as a part of the 2019 Folklife Competition. Because the pandemic started, Williams has maybe change into overly aware of streaming live shows (“I’m sick of them,” she jokes), however she is trying to find new technique of expression now that the dreamy time capsule of “Urban Driftwood” is full.

One of many album’s songs, “Adrift,” required her faculty compositional expertise to rearrange. Now Williams is considering of writing extra ensemble work, and collaborating with different artists, so she’s not enjoying solo. It might sound that collaborators would take a number of the strain off a performer who usually performs alone, however for Williams it’s tougher to carry others into her imaginative and prescient. “It’s easier for me to play solo,” she says. “I have total control.”

If she does take that step outdoors her personal consolation zone, Williams might be following her personal recommendation. Above all, “Urban Driftwood” is her problem to widespread preconceptions concerning the music made by younger Black individuals or acoustic guitarists. It’s Williams’s achievement that she makes that problem sound so calming and exquisite.

Yasmin Williams’s “Urban Driftwood” might be launched on Jan. 29 and accessible on Bandcamp and different streaming platforms.



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