VERSED: The ASCAP Podcast / Ep. 24 - Yasmin Williams and the 2021 Newport Folk Festival

July 22, 2021



VERSED is a bi-weekly podcast illuminating the heart and soul of music. Featuring in-depth interviews with songwriters and composers, plus tips and insights to help you navigate your music career. Brought to you by ASCAP, home of the world's greatest music creators.



In celebration of the return of live music, we talk to the talented Yasmin Williams, a virtuoso composer and musician who has been praised by The New York Times as “one of the country’s most imaginative young solo guitarists." She is set to make her debut at this year’s Newport Folk Festival, where she will join fellow ASCAP members performing, including Beck, Grace Potter, Bonny Light Horseman, Kevin Morby, Vagabon and many others. Williams shares her feelings about joining the Newport tradition, her journey to mastering the guitar, pushing herself to learn new instruments and her experimental approach to recording her gorgeous, acclaimed new album, Urban Driftwood. We also check in with Jay Sweet, Executive Producer of the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, about why Newport has endured as one of the oldest and most meaningful music festivals, why supporting music education is more important than ever and the joy he feels in evolving the legacy of an organization whose mission makes an impact far beyond the stage. PLUS: some Sound Advice about how pressure and deadlines can be a good thing when creating music, excerpted from our recent ASCAP Experience session with film/TV composers Segun Akinola, Ruth Barrett and Isobel Waller-Bridge. 

+The Newport Folk Festival takes place July 23 through July 28. Tickets are sold out.

In 2015 ASCAP Foundation President Paul Williams and Newport Jazz Festival Founder George Wein launched a partnership to benefit emerging jazz musicians by presenting performances each year by one of the recipients of the ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award on the Festival's Storyville stage. Performances by the 2020 and the 2021 award winners will be featured as part of the Newport Festivals Foundation virtual Newport Sessions series later this year. For now, you can check out recent performances and tutorials by other great ASCAP members such as Adrianne Lenker, Ben Harper, Grace Kelly, Gregory Porter, Branford Marsalis, Phoebe Bridgers & Courtney Barnett and more.

+RSVP for the ASCAP Experience // Watch the full What They Don’t Teach You in Music School session

Yasmin Williams


Yasmin Williams sits on her leather couch, her guitar stretched across her lap horizontally with its strings turned to the sky. She taps on the fretboard with her left hand as her right hand plucks a kalimba placed on the guitar’s body. Her feet, clad in tap shoes, keep rhythm on a mic’d wooden board placed under her. Even with all limbs in play, it’s mind boggling that the melodic and percussive sounds that emerge are made by just one musician, playing in real time. With her ambidextrous and pedidextrous, multi-instrumental techniques of her own making and influences ranging from video games to West African griots subverting the predominantly white male canon of fingerstyle guitar, Yasmin Williams is truly a guitarist for the new century. So too is her stunning sophomore release, Urban Driftwood, an album for and of these times. Though the record is instrumental, its songs follow a narrative arc of 2020, illustrating both a personal journey and a national reckoning, through Williams’s evocative, lyrical compositions.

A native of northern Virginia, Williams, now 24, began playing electric guitar in 8th grade, after she beat the video game Guitar Hero 2 on expert level. Initially inspired by Jimi Hendrix and other shredders she was familiar with through the game, she quickly moved on to acoustic guitar, finding that it allowed her to combine fingerstyle techniques with the lap-tapping she had developed through Guitar Hero, as well as perform as a solo artist. By 10th grade, she had released an EP of songs of her own composition. Deriving no lineage from “American primitive” and rejecting the problematic connotations of the term, Williams’s influences include the smooth jazz and R&B she listened to growing up, Hendrix and Nirvana, go-go and hip-hop. Her love for the band Earth, Wind and Fire prompted her to incorporate the kalimba into her songwriting, and more recently, she’s drawn inspiration from other Black women guitarists such as Elizabeth Cotten, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Algia Mae Hinton. On Urban Driftwood, Williams references the music of West African griots through the inclusion of kora (which she recently learned) and by featuring the hand drumming of 150th generation djeli of the Kouyate family, Amadou Kouyate, on the title track.

Since its release in January 2021, Urban Driftwood has been praised by numerous publications such as Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, NPR Music, No Depression, Paste Magazine and many others. Williams will be touring in support of Urban Driftwood throughout 2021.

Visit Yasmin online at // Follow her on Instagram, Twitter & Facebook 

Jay Sweet


Jay Sweet is the Executive Director of Newport Festivals Foundation, a 501(c)(3), fostering the legacy and expanding the impact of its Newport Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival through educational initiatives. NFF celebrates innovation while preserving the deep traditions inherent in jazz and folk music. During his tenure, the Newport Folk Festival has won five Pollstar awards for Music Festival of the Year and has regained its stature as one of the country's premiere music events.

A frequent keynote speaker at music conferences around the country including SXSW, Pollstar, Billboard, CMJ, Harvard, Berklee College of Music, as well as several of NPR’s syndicated programs such as “The Connection,” “On Point” and “All Songs Considered,” Jay also served as the Editor-at-Large for the acclaimed music and film magazine PASTE, nominated for the 2008 and 2009 National Magazine Award for General Excellence, where he wrote numerous features and cover stories on The Roots, The Flaming Lips, Radiohead, My Morning Jacket and film director Wes Anderson.

In his spare time, Jay has also managed to write and sell two major motion picture scripts as well as start a social benefits company called Humans for Oceans, which raises awareness to help save our oceans through an actions reward program.

Follow Jay on Twitter // Follow the Newport Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival on Instagram

Sarah Finegold


Sarah Finegold is a writer and music fan currently working in the Marketing department at ASCAP. After graduating from Cornell University in 2015 with a BA in English and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies – with a minor in Film Studies just to shake things up – Sarah moved to New York City and shortly found her home at ASCAP. When she isn’t indulging her love of travel, she loves going to the movies and Broadway musicals, hanging out with her perfect rescue dog Buffy and becoming overly invested while playing board games and D&D. 

VERSED Episode Archive