Song Setlist as Microcosm: Faroe Islands
As I prepare a setlist (a list of songs) for a solo show I’ll be playing at WOMAD in South Africa, next week, I’ve been thinking about setlists and getting ready for shows where you have an hour, max, to tell the world all about yourself in pithy fashion for folks who have never ever met you. How to do this with authenticity, and integrity? And which songs to leave out and which ones to leave in? And then I found this handwritten setlist, from an impromptu show I played at a venue called Maggie’s, on the island of Nølsoy, in the Faroe Islands in July, and realized that this setlist in essence represents much of my lived experience with music, language and the world over the last twenty five years.
I started the set with a classic Merle Haggard song, “Silver Wings,” that has now become a sort of musical fingerprint for me. I play it with my honky tonk band, Merlettes, with my Diné country band on Navajo Nation, Native Country, I teach it to students in the country music ensemble I co-facilitate, and I play it in my solo sets, as I did in this one.
To me, this song is the epitome of a good, sad, country ballad: it amply features instruments that “cry,” like the pedal steel and the fiddle, it allows lots of space for “cry breaks,” and other expressive articulatory sounds, in the vocal part, and it lends itself to stunningly beautiful and rich vocal harmonies. And, thematically, it’s about heartache, nostalgia, and loss. What could be more country, in the best sense of this meaning?
I then played “Lucinda,” an original song about a pickup truck I loved and lost. Lucinda was my primary mode of transportation for the many years I lived on the Navajo Nation, including when I worked as a sheepherder for the Tom family, the subject of another recent blog post. This truck was so sutured to my own identity as a rancher, non-Native resident of the Navajo Nation, and ethnographer, I almost didn’t know how to move on with my life once she was brought to the junkyard after someone ran into her at a red light.
“Six Seconds,” on the other hand, I wrote with Swedish songwriter, Maria Blom, inspired by the life of a female bullrider and written from a sassy and unconventional perspective challenging gender norms and expectations. When I lived on the island of Sardinia (Italy) as a Fulbright scholar in 2019-2020, I got to translate this song into a variant of the Sardinian language, with guitarist extraordinaire, Ignazio Cadeddu, and recorded on the album, House on Swallow Street.
“These Cobblestone Streets” was written from the perspective of culture shock, when I first moved to Sardinia; I was grumpy, I was out of sorts, and I was trying to find my way in a place I loved but in a bureaucratic system which I found maddeningly frustrating. I think both of these things come through in the recording of the song I did in the house I lived in in Sardinia, with the help of engineer Fabio Demontis.
(you’ll notice optional songs listed in parentheses-for this performance, I skipped this one and played it toward the end of the set, when I felt a little more confident, instead).
“Inez” is another song from my time living on Navajo Nation, but from a much earlier phase. I was seventeen, and working as an intern/seasonal ranger at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. My supervisor, a Diné women then in her forties, was named Inez, and the song tells a (partial) story of her life, as she had shared parts with me over the course of that summer.
“Terra po’ Approdare,” ‘A Place to Land,’ is a cowrite I did with my Sardinian language teacher, Franzisca Manca. I wrote it in response to a prompt and a question she had asked me about the house I was living in in the village; I wrote it in Italian, and then she helped me to translate it into Sardinian and taught me how to pronounce the words using the pronunciation of her village, Santu Lussurgiu. In the chorus, I say I don’t feel alone in a big, six story house I rented from a local family because every stone in that house has a story and I feel I am a part of that extended, intergenerational story.
The performance of “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” is a cover of a Charley Pride song, one of the first African American singers to become a superstar in country music circles and one of my country music heroes. “Maison Dancer,” is a joyful celebration of French Louisiana life, southern Bayou culture, and my sense of connection I feel and felt on the day I wrote it, Sonya Heller. It is still a song that gives me tremendous joy to perform.
I ended the set with two very different songs, one in Norwegian, for the many Norwegian speakers in the room at that show, a language I learned to speak when I lived in western Norway and attended the University of Bergen, and one in English and Spanish, and a song I’d just finished a week before while walking the “camino de santiago,” called “Life at 3 miles an hour.” The Norwegian song, Fyrtårnet 'Lighthouse' seeks to emulate the types of songs I sung with my father growing up, achingly beautiful Norwegian folksongs from the Norwegian Singing Book, the Norske Sangboka. “Life at Three Miles an Hour,” on the other hand, reflects on what it’s like to literally live your life at a pace of three miles an hour, walking 15-20 miles a day with a big backpack and a ukulele on your back.
In order for the songs to stay in the set, the songs need to feel authentic to me, and I need to continue to feel a sense of connection to those songs. If I don’t, I don’t feel like I can offer a connective performance to my audience, and I rotate them off the setlist. And I no longer see much of a separation between my “real” life and the songs I sing on stage; they are integrated, and they are one and the same.
If you are reading this and you are a songwriter, how do you decide your setlists when you perform, and what stays and what goes? And how do you know when a song has resonated with a room?