Ethan Setiawan Submitted photo

As regular readers of these columns know, I really like chatting with new-to-me artists and when one comes along that’s Maine-based, well, that’s just icing on the cake. Such is the case with this week’s featured performer: Ethan Setiawan, who is releasing a new album soon that takes his instrument of choice, the mandolin, to unexpected places, musically speaking. I was contacted by his publicist about the show and was sent a link to this new album “Gambit.” Once I listened to it, I was wanted to see if this young musician was up for a conversation. He was, and when he called I got right into what I had heard on that link.

Q: I’ve got to admit that listening to “Gambit” brought back so many memories of my working with the Windham Hill Records artists, especially Darol Anger and Mike Marshall.
Setiawan: Right, totally.

Q: When I saw that Darol had produced it, that immediately grabbed my attention, and I’m sure I heard him performing on the tracks, as well.
Setiawan: Yeah, he’s on the whole record. We did it at the studio here in western Maine, the Great North Sound Society, and he was in the control room with a microphone playing on it, pressing “record,” and producing the project; yeah, it was great.

Q: Now the show that’s coming up at One Longfellow Square, is it a CD-release party?
Setiawan: It is, yeah, and Darol’s on the gig along with a bunch of other Portland and Boston folks.

Q: Oh, so this is going to be a full-band show. How many of them were involved with the new album?
Setiawan: Actually, just Darol and myself, the others are great players all, but I wasn’t able to get the original band, so to speak.

Q: I recognized quite a few of the names listed there, so I’m sure they have commitments of their own, performance-wise.
Setiawan: Yeah, exactly.


Q: So have you played at One Longfellow Square before?
Setiawan: Yeah, I’m kind of a newer addition to the Portland, Maine, scene, but my band, Corner House, played there last year. You probably know the mandolin player, Joe K. Walsh out of Portland?

Q: I’m familiar with the name, but I’ve never met him.
Setiawan: Well, he put together sort of a review of the whole scene last spring, which is actually happening again this year that I’ll be at. But, yeah, I’ve been on that stage a couple of times, and what a great resource it is to have for musicians in the community at large there in southern Maine.

Q: It’s such an intimate venue, as well, and there’s not a bad seat in the house.
Setiawan: Yeah, absolutely!

Q: How far afield do you get when you tour?
Setiawan: I’m not putting a whole lot of energy into touring this project. I’m just putting the record out and doing a couple of shows like that Longfellow show. But I just got back from about three weeks on the West Coast with my band, Corner House. I get all around New England with that project and various others as the need arises.

Q: Now, just out of curiosity, where are you calling from, a booth in the Midwest, perchance?
Setiawan: (Chuckle) I’m calling from Cornish, Maine. I live here in Cornish. I kind of say I’m based in Portland because nobody knows where Cornish is.

Q: So how long have you and the mandolin been making music together?
Setiawan: I started playing mandolin when I was 13, almost 13 years ago, you do the math (chuckle), and before that I played cello. But I was interested in playing something with frets, something maybe that had a pick, although I’ve tried banjo, ukulele and mountain dulcimer. I’ve played a couple of things in my early teens there, but the mandolin is kind of the one that stuck, for whatever reason.


Q: It has got a wonderful, delicate sound, but it still can make you sit up and take notice, if you know what I mean.
Setiawan: Yeah, totally! There’s a wide range of emotion and character that one can get through the mandolin.

Q: What number album is “Gambit” in your discography?
Setiawan: I would say it’s sort of my second solo record. I’ve put out a little EP of tunes a long time ago, and I’ve put out a live record of a bunch of tunes from my first record. “Gambit” is the second studio record that I’ve done under my own name.

Q: Now that hasn’t come out yet, right?
Setiawan: No, it comes out kind of immediately after the release weekend gigs, the release date is March 31.

Q: So asking you about what kind of response you’ve been getting is a moot point, then.
Setiawan: (Laughter) You’re right, thus far it’s a little hard to say.

Q: But like I said earlier, it really brings back those Windham Hill days in a rush, and that’s always a nice thing to revisit.
Setiawan: Yeah, I love that stuff, and I love working and playing with Darol, of course, and I kind of had this batch of tunes that it made sense to work with him on.

Q: Does it take you a long time to get your music written? are you writing constantly, I suppose I could ask.
Setiawan: I try to make a practice out of it, but I would say that I try to sit down and write something once or twice a week. And it kind of goes in spurts. There are some months, or periods of months, where I’m writing a lot, where every time I sit down to play it just ends up being a writing session.


Q: How about the tunes on your soon-to-be released album?
Setiawan: The tunes on “Gambit” span a pretty wide number of years. I think the earliest thing on there is from 2017, and I tracked the record in 2020. I was writing pretty much right up to the recording session.

Q: And what is your assessment of “Gambit” as a finished project?
Setiawan: After recording it and getting the sequence together that makes sense to me, I’m really loving how everything has coalesced for this record.

Q: Now, is there anything, Ethan that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Setiawan: Umm, yeah, come out to Longfellow, come see a show. And for the mandolinists out there, I’ve printed books for all the tunes in “Gambit,” so I have books that have just regular notations and then mandolin-specific notation for all the tunes. Folks can pick up a CD or a record. I printed vinyl for the first time. I’ve never printed my music on vinyl before, so I’ve got that for this record, so I’m really excited about that.

Lucky Clark, a 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award winner, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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