Yasmin Williams: “I wanted to imagine things getting better”

Released in January, Yasmin Williams’ mesmerising album Urban Driftwood respected the old traditions of folk music but simultaneously made fresh currency out of them. Stephen Deusner meets Williams in Nashville to map the course of her incredible year since – and her plans for 2022. “I’m pretty optimistic about the future,” she says. “At least, way more than I was a year ago…”

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It’s a chilly September night in Nashville and Yasmin Williams is sitting alone on stage at 6th & Peabody – an outdoor venue attached to a touristy moonshine bar and a gourmet hot dog stand. Behind her is a giant banner for AmericanaFest, the annual roots music gathering. There are a handful of people seated at picnic tables and Adirondack chairs arrayed around the stage, all them watching closely as she rips through one guitar instrumental after another, most of them taken from her second full-length album, Urban Driftwood. When she plays, she plays with her whole body – which is why she’s quickly risen through the ranks of the solo guitar scene. She drums on the wood with her fist and elbow. She plucks and taps on the frets, her fingers moving in a blur.

“I’m gonna play a slow one because my fingers are yelling at me,” the Virginia-born guitarist tells the crowd midway through her set. She’s just ripped through a rollicking version of “High Five” on her acoustic guitar and this next song, “I Wonder (Songs For Michael)”, will provide something like a break. Before she launches its pensive, pastoral central theme, she gives her listeners some homework. “I’ll have y’all guess what it’s about when I’m done playing.” With the bustle of drunk non-locals next door as a backdrop and with the distant woo-hooing of a bachelorette party commandeering a pedal pub in the distance, Williams strums, picks, taps, slaps at the strings of her guitar. Even on a slower, quieter song like “I Wonder”, her playing is dizzying to watch. In the middle of the song, she flips the guitar over into her lap and plays it like a keyboard, dragging her fingers along the neck to slur the notes. She slaps one final chord, which fades into the night.

What is the song about? Someone shouts, “Travelling with a good companion!” Williams laughs, her dreads shaking around her face. “Cool. Kinda on track,” she says, then explains: “It’s about politics really. It’s me reflecting on the political stuff that was going on in 2020 and all the social justice movements that were happening. It’s me just thinking that people should chill out and come together through music.”

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Williams wrote the song during a year that was, to say the least, difficult, but “I Wonder” has become a talisman of a much better, more promising time. (To show how open she is to others’ interpretations, however, she added the parenthetical dedication after a family member said the song reminded her of a recently deceased cousin. “I thought he should have something to remind people he was here.”)

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