Basque artist Elena Setién shapes the ethereal into immediate on the stunningly pristine songs of Unfamiliar Minds. Her command of melody and resolute voice are complemented by lush arrangements that surround the listener in a world of intimate beauty. Setién is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, collaborator and improviser, having worked with artists like Mary Lattimore and Steve Gunn as well as composing for film and television. On Unfamiliar Minds, Setién reflects on isolation, confusion and harnesses uncertainty with optimism on ten ghostly wonders that capture ineffable feelings in radiant detail.
After completing her Basque language album Mirande in collaboration with composer Xabier Erikizia (released on Forbidden Colors in October of 2020), Setién began composing Unfamiliar Minds during the height of lockdown, starting with songs she had begun in pre-pandemic times. As days turned to months Setién grew disconnected from the incomplete pieces made in a different reality. The paralyzing tension of those disorienting early months eventually gave way to new inspiration. Romantic poetry by Emily Dickinson served as a refuge and a springboard for Setién to ground herself in writing new songs in English. She drew inspiration from conversations with composers Gyan and Terry Riley as well as her collaboration with Xabier Erkizia for the Basque television series Altsasu. Erkizia and Setién extended their remote collaborations beyond the series as the two began focusing on their own reconfigured sense of mood and perspective after a year of so much pain and drastic change.
As our environments became smaller and smaller, details within became more significant: we experienced more fully the beauty of birds, the smells from the kitchen and the joy in even the smallest taste of companionship. Setien replicated this phenomenon beautifully in her writing and the resulting songs are at once personal, lush, and elegantly detailed. Dulcet keyboards, otherworldly strings and rippling electronics echo and reverberate in enchanting cascades that become environments unto themselves. Setién’s direct, resonant voice brings a striking intimacy to the celestial arrangements from the crackle of her whisper to the weightless glide of her lilt. The unadorned guitar of title track “Unfamiliar Minds” is gradually swallowed by rising towers of tender strings and alien undulations as Setién contemplates the world anew with “Recreation will not be our creed / We will be the new beginners / Of a futuristic language everyone can speak.” “Situation”’s flourishing electronics spring from steady piano in a devastating ode to loss. On “I Dwell In Possibility” and “In This Short Life,” Setién casts oceanic swells and buoyant twinkling organ around Emily Dickinson’s poetry, given new meaning in the album’s framework.
Elena Setién’s chameleonic songcraft effortlessly bends songs into immersive realms. Her music illuminates the fragilities and ephemeral nature of life with exceptional poise. Unfamiliar Minds is a palatial guide through trial and exaltation, a meditation on disquiet and hope for uncovering what lies ahead.