Here's a little song you can all join in with
it's very simple and I hope it's new
Make your own words up if you want to
Any old words that you think will do, --Dave Mason From the album "Traffic"
Everyone thinks they're a songwriter, says popular songwriter/street performer Bob Devlin, who performs live at 18th and M Streets "when the weather is fair." He simultaneously sings, strums a guitar, plays a harmonica, beats a drum, blows horns nd whistles, and fends off birds flying overhead ("That's why I wear the hat").
More daring than most area songwriters, Devlin, 35, who has no formal training in reading and writing music, supports a wife and two children on his songs, which seem to simply tumble out.
Song writing, however, is not as easy as Devlin makes it look: The Bethesda native has been practicing and performing for 17 years.
He and other area songwriters -- who last year formed a Washington-based songwriting association -- agree that the simplicity of a good, listenable song is deceptive, And if you want to publish, it's that much harder.
My best songs usually come fullblown with the lyrics and melody fitting together," says Devlin. "But it doesn't always happen that way."
In addition to his streetcorner appearances, Devlin performs at private parties ($500), and has three albums out (for which he receives 25 cents per sale), with sales now at about 9,000. His record, "Are You My Mother?" (Potluck Records) was rated one of the top 15 for children by the American Library Association.
But what if the muses don't strike?
First, claims Devlin, you have to decide if you're a melody person or a lyricist.
"I'm a melody man myself. The melody dictates the type of words I use. The music might have a gentle flow, so you don't want to have a lot of staccato words in it -- it calls for a soft vowel sound.
"Then there are the people who borrow a tune and then write the lyrics. Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan were famous for doing that. They'd take an old gospel or a folk tune, and then they'd structure the lyrics to that tune."
The flip side is tailoring a melody to fit the lyrics.
"It's like a puzzle piece that fits," says Devlin. "When the lyrics are such that they could stand alone as poetry, and then you fit it to the music, you've got a masterpiece."
And where do you go once the puzzle is together?
Try it out on as many people as possible, recommends WMAL-AM broadcast personlity John Lyon, who started writing songs four years ago. "Sing your song to your kids, sing it to your friends."
"If you perform a song 10 times," adds Devlin, "you can tell if it's a bomb or not."
"More and more places are opening up in the Washington area -- open mikes and coffee houses -- for people to try out their stuff on a live audience," says Lyon. "And if you're not a performer, you can find people who are performers, but not writers, who are willing to try other people's music through organizations like the Songwriters Association of Washington."
Once you think you've got a hit, you have to make a demonstration tape ("demo") and start pitching it to the publishers, advises Thom Wegner, 30, a producer ("Bear Productions"), songwriter and graduate of the Berkeley School of Music, Cambridge, Mass. You can either go to a studio to make your demo ($200 to $300), or you can make the tape yourself. The important thing, stresses Wegner, is to get a good, clean presentation of your music.
Entertainment lawyer/sing/songwriter John Simson, 31, made his first demo in the bathroom.
"It was when I was 20 years old and trying to figure out whether to drop out of college and become a rock 'n' roll star. I'd make my demo tapes by singing in the bathroom because the reverberations were good and I couldn't afford anything else."
Where do you send your tapes?
Aside from going the traditional rout of sending out to the publishing houses listed in Songwriter's Handbook , Simson suggests getting the names of managers and publishers of records you personally like. "The names are printed right on the albums. Just go to the record store and find the albums that you like or that most closely resemble your style, and start from there."
One way of getting a song published that is often overlooked is sending it directly to a specific performing artist," says Lyon. "If you wrote a song and it was in the style of a song, say, Carly Simon would sing, then send it to her."
"The whole thing is persistence," summarizes singer/songwriter Roy MacDonald. A former computer programmer, MacDonald, 37, has produced his own album and performs at the Imperial 400 in Alexandria five nights a week. "Music is such a personal taste item. If the person listening to your tape isn't in the mood for your type of music on that particular day, you're out of luck."
Entertainment lawyer Simson says the "mechanical fee" paid to a songwriter for each song on a purchased album has just been raised from 2 3/4 cents to 4 cents. "You make money practically every time your song is played. Songwriters create a pension for themselves, and sometimes, even for their children."
To Devlin, though he's making it financially -- "We're doing very well" -- the rewards are more spiritual.
"My goal," he insists, "is to plunge as deeply into life as possible. To me, my songs are an outpouring of my spirit, my soul, where I was at. The decision to write songs was motivated by nothing more than the need to express myself."