Acoustic Guitarist & Composer
Alright, folks. Put away everything you thought you knew about acoustic guitars and get ready to have your mind expanded by our October Teafluencer, Yasmin Williams. We’ve got lap tapping, guitars made of wood with holes made by mollusks, harp guitars, tap shoes and a whole lot more that goes into making up this talented artist’s unique performances. From her Guitar Hero 2 inspiration as a girl to a performance at The Ryman Auditorium, we think the sky's the limit for this 25-year-old artist. Good thing she keeps tea at the ready to fuel all this talent!
Harney: Tell us a little about you. Where are you from, educational background, where you live, family, etc.
Yasmin: Hey y’all! I’m Yasmin, a 25-year-old guitarist and composer. I’m from northern Virginia and am currently based there (specifically in Alexandria, VA), along with most of my immediate family. I went to high school in Woodbridge, VA and was in a performing arts program. I got my Bachelor’s degree in Music Theory and Composition from New York University.
Harney: How did you get interested in playing guitar? How old were you?
Yasmin: When I was around 11 years old, I got interested in playing guitar after I beat the video game Guitar Hero 2 on expert level! I played the game almost every day after school, and I was 12 when I got my first electric guitar. Prior to this, I played clarinet in my school’s band and sang in my school’s choir.
Harney: Why did you choose to make acoustic guitar your focus?
Yasmin: After playing electric guitar for around two years, I learned how to play “Blackbird” by The Beatles. That was the first fingerstyle guitar song I learned and after learning it, I realized how much I enjoyed playing fingerstyle guitar rather than the hard-rock style I was playing on electric guitar. I also started writing my own songs a lot once I started playing acoustic guitar, which is what I really wanted to do. Acoustic guitar opened up a new world for me in terms of composing my own tunes and developing my musical voice. It was also just more fun for me at the time since I was getting tired of playing covers and wanted to try something new on guitar.
Harney: Do you play any other instruments?
Yasmin: Yes! I played clarinet for around 13 years, starting in 4th grade and playing until I finished college. I stopped playing to focus on guitar and other instruments, but I do want to pick it back up at some point. I also play the kora, kalimba, some hand and frame drums, and a bit of the banjo and the piano. I love learning how to play new instruments!
Harney: Let’s talk about the harp guitar -- it’s really cool! What drew you to that instrument, and how difficult is it to play?
Yasmin: Yeah, the harp guitar is a very neat instrument. I first saw one at the 2020 Winter NAMM Show (National Association of Music Merchants), a large music conference that showcases new music technologies, instruments, gear, etc. every year. I played a harp guitar at NAMM and immediately ordered one when I returned home. My harp guitar is a parlor size guitar, so it’s smaller and more manageable to play. It’s made by Timberline Guitars, who are one of maybe two companies that make stock harp guitars. I really enjoy playing it, as the extra bass strings add a new dimension to the guitar in general and give me more options. I recently put out a new single on Amazon Music featuring the harp guitar, called Virga.
Harney: We’re fascinated by how you play your guitar on your lap. How did you develop that style?
Yasmin: I developed this lap-tapping style myself! Although there are some other guitarists who play in this style, I wasn’t aware of this when I was coming up with it when I was around 15 years old. I actually got the idea to lap tap from playing Guitar Hero 2. The game requires you to tap buttons on a controller, and I really liked the tapping motion required to play the game. I wanted to figure out how to incorporate that in my own guitar playing, and I eventually discovered lap tapping helps me do that the best. It also allows me to do more with the guitar in terms of adding percussive elements to my songs, using various tools to achieve different sounds, and just being more fun in general!
Harney: You have several instruments on stage with you when you perform, and you incorporate some interesting tools like cello bows, tap shoes and a kalimba into your performances. What can someone expect from a typical Yasmin Williams performance?
Yasmin: This can vary depending on whether I have to fly out to a show or whether I can drive there. If I have to fly, I’ll bring just one guitar with me, my two kalimbas, tap shoes and the other tools I use. I usually play all original songs in my shows (except for maybe one cover), and you can expect some lap tapping, foot stomping, cello bowing, hammering and other fun things. For shows I can drive to, I usually bring two or three guitars (my main guitar, my harp guitar and my 12-string Gryphon) to give myself more options. Sometimes I even bring my kora to play!
Harney: When asked by a concertgoer what your guitar was made of, you replied “spalted tamarind -- it’s actually a fungus.” Please, tell us more! (And something tells us you’d like our tea made with chaga mushrooms!)
Yasmin: My guitar is basically made out of an assortment of driftwoods. The back and sides are made out of spalted tamarind; spalted wood is just any wood that has started to rot or decay from a fungus. That’s why it looks so cool! The top of my guitar is made out of Teredo Holed Sitka Spruce, which is wood that mollusks burrowed into several years ago and created small holes in. So, the holes in my guitar top are natural! My guitar also features other woods like Bloodwood, Ebony and Mahogany. I like to call my guitar “functional art.” It was made by Eric Weigeshoff of Skytop Guitars. Definitely check out his work if you love handmade, high-quality acoustic guitars!
Harney: You’ve gotten a lot of media attention for such a young performer, with write-ups in such notable publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, NPR Music and more, as well as appearances on several radio and TV shows. Guitar World Magazine named you one of the best acoustic guitarists in the world right now. We know this may be hard for you to answer yourself, but what do you think has made your music stand out so much, other than the fact that it is unique and beautiful?
Yasmin: I think my music stands out because it’s calming to listen to yet complex enough to hold a listener’s interest. You can listen to my music in multiple settings/situations: from working or studying at home to hosting a dinner party with friends to actively listening while hiking or whatever! I take a lot of time and care with my music, and I think that comes through in the songs on both of my albums, especially my second album Urban Driftwood. I also use the music I grew up with, such as hip hop, R&B, etc., to create more compelling tunes, which isn’t too common in the guitar world.
Harney: You also played this year in the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. How was that experience? What’s your favorite place you’ve played so far, and why?
Yasmin: Playing at the Ryman was incredible! I opened for the band Watchhouse (formerly known as Mandolin Orange). The sound in that room is second to none, and the crowd was electric and amazing. I definitely want to play there again. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite place I’ve played so far, since I’ve played at many great venues and festivals, especially this year; however, one of my favorites so far is Newport Folk Festival. That festival is quite legendary, and it was an honor for me to even play there, much less receive such a warm reception after my set AND get to play in Allison Russell’s headline set with so many legends on the stage. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and one I’ll always be immensely thankful for.
Harney: Congratulations on the success of your first album, Unwind, and on the release of your second album, Urban Driftwood. What was the inspiration for this album?
Yasmin: Thank you! I drew inspiration from a lot of different events, places, etc., but the main inspiration was the year 2020 and everything that happened, from the start of the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter Movement and other social justice protests to all of my shows getting canceled last year, among other things. The album is also about me processing what it means for me specifically to be a black musician playing in a mostly white genre and how I can use this to create an album that can add something new to the guitar world. The pandemic and social justice movements forced me to sit down and analyze what I really wanted out of my career, and Urban Driftwood is the product of these ruminations.
Harney: What artists and music have been your major influences?
Yasmin: As a kid, I was influenced by Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix, but more so for their willingness to be bold and adventurous in their music without caring about what other people thought of them than their actual music. Really, I tried to not have many influences because I didn’t want to mimic or copy anyone; I wanted to do my own thing and create my own voice. I had a rather insular approach to teaching myself guitar, and I knew that what I was playing and creating was from myself and not from an “influence” or “musical hero.” I also just didn’t really care about learning other people’s songs much. Nowadays, I’m inspired by a few musicians, particularly Elizabeth Cotten. Again, she’s more inspiring to me because of her unorthodox playing style and life in general, although I also really do love her songs and have learned quite a few of them.
Harney: What advice do you have for aspiring musicians or artists?
Yasmin: Be yourself. Try not to have “idols.” Do not change yourself or sacrifice your creative integrity for anything, even if this means the road to success may be longer and more cumbersome. Focus on what you want to create and put out into the world and have fun doing it.
Harney: What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to doing or achieving?
Yasmin: Lots of touring is happening now and will continue to happen, which I’m very excited for! I am also scoring a film, working on new music, collaborating on other people’s records, and drinking lots of tea. I hope to release a new record in the next couple years or sooner and I’m very excited about the future!
Harney: So, it appears you are a tea fan! What role does tea play in your life? Do you have any rituals that involve tea?
Yasmin: I am a huge tea fan! I have a tea nook in my apartment that I’m especially proud of. It houses lots of various types/brands of tea, mainly Harney & Sons teas. I try to drink a cup or two every morning. It helps me start my day with the right mindset and gives me something simple to look forward to every morning. I can be slow to get out of bed, and drinking some tea really helps with this. I also love drinking tea while working on music in the morning. When I’m on the road touring, I try to pick up tea from the hotel or a local cafe. I also sometimes bring my own tea and supplies if I have enough luggage space!
Harney: Do you have any favorite flavors or types of Harney & Sons tea, or anything on your list you’ve been keen to try?
Yasmin: African Antlers! Kenya Milima! Organic Peppermint! Earl Grey! Literally all of the iced tea flavors! I have lots of favorite Harney & Sons teas. I love a good black tea, and y’all have plenty of them. I’m keen on trying some white teas like the Chinese Silver Needle or the Ceylon Vintage Silver Tips teas!Wow, right? There’s so much more to learn about Yasmin, beginning with hearing her music and seeing her play. You can get to know Yasmin’s music at her website, on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. We can’t wait to see what she does next! Thank you, Yasmin, for sharing your music with us and the world. All photography was provided by Yasmin.