The art of writing a setlist
Not content with making us write songs, you then force us choose which ones to play and in what order to play them.
How To Perform a Setlist
If the setlist feels magic, follow the setlist. If you feel magic elsewhere, ignore the setlist and follow the magic. If you can’t find the magic, follow the setlist. If you can’t find the setlist, follow the magic. If you can’t find the setlist or the magic, just keep playing because you never know what might happen next.
Setlists are the secret foundation of a gig.1
Hidden in plain sight they are the director and the plot, constantly making or breaking the mood. You’ve probably not given them much thought, but your favourite artists have. We’ve spent hours, days, years in front of the bloody things. We could bore you senseless with our little setlist idiosyncrasies. In fact, that’s a good idea, I’ll do that now.
Last week at the Green Note I was still tapping away at my notes app moments before playing. Roxanne, Sarah and Hannah looked on with the silent understanding of those who know2. The gig went really well.
And yet I know there’s a setlist out there that would have made it better. The whole thing can feel like 4 dimensional chess within a dizzying, shifting multiverse. This week I’m going to draw you deep into the vortex.
OK OK. Why the fuss?
Audiences think setlists are mostly about which songs get played and which don’t.
Artists think setlists are mostly about which order of songs might create the magic.
Somewhat pretentiously, you could say that all performers are DJs. The boogie must be established and then maintained. One wrong turn and the jig is up. You know that feeling at a gig when you suddenly remember you’ve run out of Mesa Sunrise? Sure it’s important to buy more Mesa Sunrise, a top priority, but if the artist had only written a better setlist it’d probably be blissfully out of your mind until long after the show. Maybe even until the next morning at breakfast.
Conversely, a good setlist feels effortlessly captivating. You’re not thinking forward to the next song or back at the last, but absolutely present. It is the road that rises to meet you. The dance partner who always knows where to move together next.
Some of the setlist nonsense I often think about
In no particular order. Haha.
For me, the first song or two is the most important. If I set myself up in the right way, half the job is done.
Moods, emotions or themes. Sometimes they play nicely together to create a journey, sometimes they clash. Many times I’ve looked at the next song on the list and thought “ugggh no that feels all wrong.” If so I’ll change things up. Almost always I regret it if I don’t.
Key signatures. Two songs back to back in the same key can feel samey, or can keep you in a zone when the zone feels good. A new key can kick on from the previous song, like a good Westlife barstool key change. Different intervals between keys do this differently.
A balance of older and newer songs, and their grouping or otherwise.
For me, a balance of lap-tap guitar songs and regular guitar songs.
Some songs naturally fall in and out of favour, like mistresses.
Grouping songs with the same guitar tunings, just for the sake of practicality. Though in fairness I’m mostly in one tuning these days.
Fast songs and slow songs
If or when to establish the idea of people singing along, with levels of complexity that can adapt to the moment, and backup plans.
The support act, if there is one. There’s a good argument that you should stick to your plan whatever came before. Fair enough. But you also build up an intuition about these things. Sometimes I’ll change things up to be in contrast.
Some of my songs secretly use the same melodies or chord structures. I’ve been waiting for the day when people work this out, but so far they haven’t, at least to my face. I tend to keep the offending songs apart in an attempt to postpone this day of reckoning as far into the future as possible, hopefully until after my death.
Sometimes I like giving people what I think they want. Sometimes I get stubborn and like to play whatever will please me.
All the while many ancient habits influence my setlists in ways I’m not especially conscious of. For example I usually like to end on a mellow thoughtful note, not a big triumphant one. Not really sure why.
Optional Bonus Amateur Philosophy
Someone knows what’s going on here even if it’s just a piece of paper.
Ultimately, none of this really matters if you play with passion and commitment. Play whatever song you like, play them in reverse order, eat dessert first, whatever. Just play, it’ll be enthralling and brilliant because you are enthralling and brilliant.
Alas most of us can’t rely on being a blazing bright flare of wonder every single minute of every single gig. Those who can are probably richer than me and have it all decided months in advance so the fireworks go off right as they appear on the back of the animatronic elephant in the final chorus.
I am a small solo human, sometimes fragile. Performing is a weird thing to do. A setlist is grounding, comforting, useful when at any moment an imperceptible feeling or thought can derail me, blow me off the tightrope3. Incidentally, isn't that part of what makes live performance so interesting?
Setlists are just a massive guess. A slightly educated guess at what will create the magic.
What are your thoughts on setlists?
If you could write my setlist, what would be on it?
Or would you rather be surprised?
Tell me interesting things and stories in the comments.
Nick wrote to me recently about fan communities.
He had the idea of arranging a meet-up event before a show he’s going to. I love that! We may be few, but Nick maybe you’re not be the only one into that? Some people just want the music part, but others like meeting new people or having a chat beforehand.
If you might be into that, post the gig you’re going to in the comments. If there’s some interest I’ll also do an open thread email about it. And if anything gets planned let me know so I can list the details in these emails. I’ll also drop by to say hi on the night if I can.
Wednesday 29th March 2023 - Windermere Old Laundry Theatre. Tickets.
Thursday 30th March 2023 - Manchester The Castle. Tickets.
Saturday 1st April 2023 - Isle of Bute Butesong Festival. Tickets.
Sunday 2nd April 2023 - Nottingham, Running Horse. Tickets.
Wednesday 19th April 2023 - Suffolk Riverside Theatre. Tickets.
Sunday 23rd April 2023 - Winchester Railway Inn. Tickets.
Friday 28th April 2023 - Leamington Spa Temperance. Tickets.
Sunday 21st May 2023 - Bristol Louisiana. Tickets.
Friday 22nd September 2023 - Lintrathen Lodge at Lochside Wee Bear Cafe. Tickets.
Saturday 23rd September 2023 - Dundee Masonic Hall. Tickets.
Saturday 7th October 2023 - Purley On Thames St Mary’s Church. Tickets.
View all confirmed dates on a map here: https://share.jakemorley.com/livemap
Until next time my friends…
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From the distance we hear the barely-stifled guffaws of various musicians who have, on many many occasions, stood by the side of the stage mere seconds before we play absolutely begging me for a setlist. Any setlist. “In future Jake, can we pleeease decide a setlist in advance?”
Or perhaps those who pity
This all reminds me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy when Arthur Dent accidentally learns how to fly:
“There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. ... Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties.”
The trick is to be distracted, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it's going to hurt if you fail to miss it.”