Guitarist Yasmin Williams makes music without lyrics but not without meaning

How does a musical artist develop a unique style? There’s talent, hard work and also inspiration. At the age of 26, guitarist Yasmin Williams is combining those key ingredients to create a sound that's wholly her own. Special correspondent Tom Casciato has the story for our arts and culture series, "CANVAS."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, how does a musical artist develop a unique style? Well, there's talent and hard work, and also inspiration.

    At the age of 26, guitarist Yasmin Williams is combining those key ingredients to create a sound all her own.

    Special correspondent Tom Casciato has this story for our arts and culture series canvas.

  • Tom Casciato:

    At first listen, Yasmin Williams might seem just another great acoustic guitar picker. But keep your ears and eyes open, and you'll find that her approach is all her own.

    From The New York Times to "Rolling Stone," from music sites Pitchfork to Paste, she's been hailed as what The Washington Post called a new kind of guitar hero. Maybe it's the piano-like hammer on the guitar strings, or maybe it's the microphone picking up her tap shoes. Maybe it's the video of her riding a train through Baltimore during a pandemic. Or maybe it is her offhand stage presence.

  • Yasmin Williams, Musician:

    So like, OK, did that song sound happy or sad to you guys? Happy? Yes. No, I was like, miserable when I wrote it, like completely broken.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Whatever the case, as Yasmin Williams' musical biography shows, you don't become a new kind of guitar hero by following an ordinary path.

  • Yasmin Williams:

    In my head, if someone were to look at me, they probably wouldn't expect me to make solo acoustic guitar music.

  • Tom Casciato:

    She was born to Northern Virginia parents who played young Yasmin the sounds of R&B, hip-hop, smooth jazz, and the '70s brand of Washington, D.C., funk called go-go, none of which drove her toward early admiration for the acoustic guitar.

  • Yasmin Williams:

    I thought it was the lamest instrument. I thought it was super corny. I thought singer/songwriters played it, and they played four chords and sang about their dog or whatever, and that was it.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Yasmin Williams:

    I didn't really think it could do anything substantial.

  • Tom Casciato:

    But, beyond that, she had no models for the kind of solo acoustic guitar music she's now known for, a genre so often represented by white male players.

  • Yasmin Williams:

    I definitely still wish that I had someone to look up to who was doing what I'm doing now, just to kind of be a guiding light, someone I can point to and be like, that's really cool. I can do that.

  • Tom Casciato:

    As for guitar music, her first love was heavy metal, first encountered in, well, the video game "Guitar Hero."

  • Yasmin Williams:

    "Guitar Hero" is an experience. So, you have a guitar-shaped controller and it has five buttons that are different colors, and you have to push the corresponding colored button that shows up on the screen.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Like this fellow does in this YouTube demo.

  • Man:

    Red, yellow, blue tap. Red, yellow, blue tap. Orange tap.

  • Yasmin Williams:

    You had to tap really quickly. And I got good at that and I beat the game. Once I got my real guitar, I wanted to, like, transfer the tapping skills onto a real guitar. And that's obviously a big part of my playing.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Tapping on the guitar neck is just one of the percussive elements she employs to create a unique style.

  • Yasmin Williams:

    So, for those who don't know, this is called a kalimba. And do you all know Earth, Wind and Fire?

  • Tom Casciato:

    You have mentioned Earth, Wind and Fire as an influence.

  • Yasmin Williams:

    Yes, they are my favorite band.

    I first heard a kalimba from them. Maurice White played a very long kalimba solo. And I was a kid, I — maybe 4 or 5. And I remember hearing like the tone of his kalimba and just wondering, like, what is that? It is not a saxophone, it is not a guitar, it is not drums. What is that?

  • Tom Casciato:

    The kalimba is a Southern African instrument with a wooden soundboard and steel keys. It's an unlikely accessory taped to the body of an acoustic guitar. But it makes sense once she's explained it.

    Others of her inspirations are a bit harder to explain. One is Jimi Hendrix. You know him. The other is the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown. What do sounds like this have to do with her music?

    Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Brown.

  • Yasmin Williams:

    Yes.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Hard to hear that.

  • Yasmin Williams:

    Yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Yasmin Williams:

    Yes, you're not really going to hear much Chuck Brown. You're not going to hear many go-go beats in my music.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Yasmin Williams:

    But I mean more I'm influenced by how a musician carries themselves or expresses themselves in their music.

    For example, Chuck Brown, a go-go legend, is an influence on me, because he basically changed the musical landscape of an entire region, Washington, D.C., by himself.

    The same thing with Jimi Hendrix. He played the guitar masterfully. No one knew what he was doing. No one knew how he was doing it. He didn't really care what critics had to say in terms of him playing — quote, unquote — "wrong." He played what he wanted to play.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Yasmin Williams makes music without lyrics, but not without meaning. Her latest album is called "Urban Driftwood."

  • Yasmin Williams:

    Urban, meaning me. I come from an urban background. My family comes from an urban background. And that is really important to me.

    Driftwood, I feel like the Black community was treated like driftwood as such. Lots of people love our culture and love what we do, but they don't particularly treat us with the respect that we deserve a lot of the time, considering how significant our influence has been for centuries.

    And driftwood is, a lot of the times, seen as trash or something that's not really needed, even though it houses tons of marine life, it is very beautiful.

  • Tom Casciato:

    You say that, when you were young, you didn't see somebody who looked like you playing solo acoustic guitar.

    Do you ever think about how somebody now, who's a kid, is going to see Yasmin Williams and say, she looks like me?

  • Yasmin Williams:

    Oh. That's enough to make me cry.

    I mean, I hope that happens. That'll be incredible.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Yasmin Williams:

    That's just like…

  • Tom Casciato:

    You know, people are now watching…

  • Yasmin Williams:

    Give me a second. I'm actually crying.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Tom Casciato:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tom Casciato.

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