Yasmin Williams is a fingerstyle guitar virtuoso for our times. Whether she is playing her favored six-string acoustic or a twenty-one-string kora, not a whiff of the library yellows her coursing, songful compositions or her formative influences, which include hip-hop, pop, smooth jazz, and the Guitar Hero video game franchise, her gateway into the real thing as a child in Virginia.
Though she can work wonders in the standard mode, Williams wields a free expressive hand, often playing in alternate tunings with the guitar on her lap, or with a kalimba affixed beside the bridge, or with djembe accompaniment. She was also the lead subject of a 2021 New York Times feature about the growing diversity among fingerstyle guitarists, a field that has been dominated by white men since the heyday of John Fahey in the sixties.
These novelties are striking, but they melt away with the first notes of Urban Driftwood, Williams’s second album, which came out this year on the feminist label Spinster. Williams, who studied music theory and composition at New York University, choreographs the unshowy intricacy of her technique into hummable tunes and taut rhythms that reminded Pitchfork of the “pensive and bittersweet” moods of Mary Lattimore and William Tyler. Prompting Vintage Guitar Magazine to call Williams the boldest acoustic innovator since Michael Hedges, Urban Driftwood is a “challenge to widespread preconceptions about the music made by young Black people or acoustic guitarists,” The Washington Post said. “It’s Williams’s achievement that she makes that challenge sound so calming and beautiful.”