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.

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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.

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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.

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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 [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.