Name: Yasmin Williams
Occupations: Composer, guitarist
Current Release: Yasmin Williams's Urban Driftwood was widely praised as one of the stand out albums of 2021. It is still available directly from Yasmin's bandcamp store.
Recommendations: I’ve been enjoying studying the art work and life of sculptor Augusta Savage and reading books by NK Jemisin, especially her collection of short stories titled “How Long 'til Black Future Month?”
If you enjoyed this interview with Yasmin Williams and would like to stay up to date on her music and creative endeavours, visit her official website. She is also on Facebook, and Instagram.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing music around the time I got my first guitar at 12 years old and I started to take composition more seriously around 14 years old.
At first, I was influenced by the video game Guitar Hero 2 and, to a lesser extent, Rockband. I liked the rock/metal music in Guitar Hero 2, like Nirvana, Rush, Rage Against the Machine, and other bands included in the game soundtrack. I hadn’t been exposed to much hard rock music prior to playing the game so it was really cool to find that style of music as an angsty 12 year old! It just sounded new and cool to me, particularly the hard rock electric guitar riffs that permeated the game. I also loved Jimi Hendrix as a kid when I first started playing electric guitar.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
When I received my first electric guitar at 12, I was learning music from the rock bands I liked at the time. However, after learning riffs from Black Sabbath, Nirvana, and trying to learn fast solos by Paul Gilbert, etc, I grew really tired of playing power chords and realized that I wanted to do something completely different with the guitar. I then discovered acoustic guitar, open tunings, and fingerstyle playing, which really allowed me to spread my creative wings and focus solely on creating a playing style that lends itself more to my own compositional ideas instead of simply imitating sounds I heard from others.
So, originality for me came only after I got over wanting to sound like someone else. Luckily for me, it didn’t take me long to realize that the guitar can do much more than simply play distorted rock riffs in standard tuning. However, going through the stage of playing rock music was great for me since it allowed me to focus on learning to play music I actually liked instead of simply focusing on fundamentals, which I found to be quite boring as a 12/13 year old.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
This is a relatively new concept for me since for a long time I didn’t acknowledge that my identity had any influence on my music at all. With my newest album, Urban Driftwood, I began to focus on how my musical upbringing and identity play a role in the music I make now and why it sounds the way it does.
For example, I like to use percussive elements in my guitar playing (ie using tap shoes while playing guitar or playing percussive parts on my guitar while also playing melody and harmony). This is definitely the result of listening to lots of hip-hop, RnB, smooth jazz, gospel, etc as a child at home. My listening to and being exposed to these styles of music as a kid is most likely why I also focus heavily on melody and how it can interact with rhythm and why my songs tend to have a familiar ABABCB (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus) song form, or some variation of it, instead of using a loose song form like most instrumental music does.
I also feel like, since I didn’t have much exposure to acoustic guitar music at all when I started playing as a kid, that my identity and musical background could influence my playing much more since I really didn’t have anyone I looked up to as someone to emulate or try to sound like. I was simply trying to sound like myself when I started playing acoustic guitar and that was all I was interested in.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My creative challenges have always been related to figuring out ways to do what I want to do as only a solo guitarist. I have had to problem solve a lot throughout the years.
For example, if I have a sound in my head that I want to play, I have to figure out ways of either making my guitar sound like the tone I want, or playing multiple instruments at the same time to achieve whatever sound I need. This is why I play kalimba and guitar simultaneously sometimes, for example. Since I’ve never had a band, I’ve had to figure out ways to provide rhythm, melody and harmony as one person, which is always a fun challenge.
Now, my creative challenge has shifted more towards trying to learn how to play more instruments as well as composing for more instruments in my own music.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I first learned how to record music and use various computer software in my high school music technology program. We learned about production, DAWs, recording equipment, how to record, etc. I ended up recording my first EP in high school using the school’s music equipment.
I also studied recording/music technology extensively in college at NYU. I’ve built up a small collection of various software, hardware, microphones, instruments, etc over the years. I tend to focus on buying equipment to record my acoustic guitars at home, so I have a few AKG condenser mics, various effects plugins (Valhalla is a great one), and other recording hardware. I also have some electric guitar amp simulators (Neural DSP Technologies plugins are great) and some VSTs I use for film scoring, mocking up scores for my own music, or when I’m contributing to another person’s music and not playing guitar (Spitfire Audio instrument libraries mainly). I also have a few guitar pedals, which are chosen to strengthen my acoustic guitar’s live sound.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
In college I made something I call a MIDI drum glove, which was a wearable musical instrument. I attached piezo mics to a glove that I could then use to trigger MIDI notes (in this case, the MIDI notes triggered drum kit sounds). So, each finger on the glove triggered its own sound; the palm triggered a kick drum, the index finger triggered a snare, the middle finger triggered a hi-hat, etc.
This was interesting to develop since it merged software and hardware together; I had to write the code to trigger the glove sounds and also construct the hardware to make the glove playable and comfortable so that I could use it and play guitar at the same time.
This is probably the only thing that actively changed my mindset on what was possible with my music; the convergence of acoustic and electronic instruments is still interesting to me.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Collaborating hasn’t always been important to me and my musical process, but now that I’m meeting so many brilliant musicians, I feel the need to collaborate more. I think collaboration will be an important element to my future musical output.
I don’t have a preferred method for collaborating since any method has its strengths and weaknesses; however, jamming is still the most fun. I also enjoy collaborating on other people’s music and like to see how my style fits in. Sometimes this means that I don’t play guitar at all, but other instruments like synths.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I don’t usually have a fixed schedule and, instead, like to play music when I feel like it. I enjoy the spontaneity of picking up my guitar or whatever instrument and seeing what happens. I’m always listening to or thinking about music anyway so I find that this allows me to not have to play guitar all day to come up with musical ideas or be inspired.
I don’t try to separate music from my life because it isn’t possible - that would be like trying to separate breathing from my daily life (laughs); the result would be catastrophic. Also, to me, there’s plenty of music in seemingly mundane things, like car horns in traffic or the beep of a microwave, so I guess music and all aspects of my life tend to blur together.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
My second album, Urban Driftwood, was a breakthrough for me and my career.
I started working on finishing the album during the pandemic and wrote most of the songs on the record in 2020. It’s a special record to me in that it ties together a lot of influences of mine, such as musical influences - West African griots, go-go music grooves, the piedmont blues of Elizabeth Cotten or Algia Mae Hinton, the solo guitar tunes I’d been listening to at the time, along with my own style.
It was a personal breakthrough in that, after its release, I began to focus on my being an African-American female solo guitarist and what that means for me and my career and how I can use this along with my own musical influences to bring a new voice to the solo guitar canon.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I’m not sure what the ideal state of mind for being creative is. I feel like as long as I’m not too stressed with other aspects of my life, music flows freely. Even when I am stressed, music is the thing that typically de-stresses me. For me to be most productive, I need time to focus only on music and not be distracted by other things.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
In a more literal context, music therapy does wonders for all sorts of folks. However, in a more abstract context, music can bring emotions out of you that you aren’t even aware are there at all.
I can’t say I’ve ever been hurt by music, but it has unlocked emotions within me that I was unaware of and perhaps not ready to experience at the time.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I think it’s fine to be influenced by cultures that aren’t specific to you, as long as you respect the culture and give credit to your influences. Cultural exchange requires respect of the culture that is being exchanged and giving explicit credit to the originators of that culture.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I think our senses are all connected and some people, such as synesthetes, have stronger connections between senses.
For me, I’m not sure music influences my senses in a noticeable way; however, music definitely affects my overall mood.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My approach now is to embrace the happenings of society, whether that’s socially, politically, etc and leave space for me to be inspired by whatever is happening around me and create music about it whether I want to or not. I don’t think artists have a rigid responsibility to make their art a political or social commentary; however, it’s always good if that happens, and I try to do that in my own music.
For example, with my album Urban Driftwood, it was about a lot of various things, but my own reactions to the political climate of 2020 in the US was a rather large inspiration for the album in general.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I don’t think music can express anything about life and death that words or other artforms cannot.
I think of music as an educational tool to help us through everyday life. For example, a polyrhythm is the simultaneous use of two or more contrasting rhythms in a meter. So, imagine 6 beats on top of 4 beats. You can think of the 4 beats as the foundation of the rhythm while the 6 beats are the supplementary, or conflicting, rhythm. This rhythmic conflict can be compared to daily life. Throughout a polyrhythm, the beats don’t always match up, which can symbolize the struggles or conflicts we have in life. When the two rhythms do eventually come together in the polyrhythm, this can symbolize the good or serendipitous moments in life.
If we can understand the concept of a polyrhythm, for example, and learn how to play one in music, maybe this knowledge can transfer to everyday life and help us learn how to get through life without letting the conflicts, or the 6 beats, overwhelm or foundation, or the 4 beats. We learn to embrace the good with the bad.
To me, this lesson is more important than thinking about music in terms of what it may express about life or death that words potentially cannot.