- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The problem for Mary Sue Twohy was never her musical ability. No, she simply started out on the wrong instruments.

In high school, she played French horn, trumpet and tenor sax (“We always had an instrument on loan,” she says), studied improvisational jazz soloing and later tried out for the Notre Dame Marching Band. She sang in choirs, too, but her voice was not quite dazzling.

Ten years later, Miss Twohy (pronounced “two-hee”) has gone from living rooms to cross-country tours, earning accolades and starting her own music publicity company. She plays Sunday at 49 West in Annapolis.

So how did Miss Twohy go from music-dabbler to acclaimed songwriter? The answer is simple: She heard a song and bought a guitar.

“I heard this one song called ‘Autumn Night,’ ” she says from her home in Takoma Park. “I was just so inspired. I wished I could do that.”

The Mark Geissler song convinced her to buy a guitar (it was much cheaper than a French horn) and give songwriting a try. “I had to go out on my own and really truly find my own way,” she says.

Miss Twohy even found her voice had grown and changed in her mid-20s into the smooth, polished instrument it is now. She moved to the District and took a job with Greenpeace, while only feeling brave enough to share her songs with her friends. Now that she teaches songwriting workshops, Miss Twohy has discovered many artists follow the same path she did.

“The first stage is sitting on the couch playing for a bunch of friends,” she says, which works until the friends have heard the same songs 20 times.

She made her friends promise to come see her play and began delving into the open mike scene, gaining confidence and the ability to play outside her living room.

During this time, she kept taking little steps toward becoming a full-time musician. She made a short tape of her songs — producing only 100 copies — and distributed it. She wrote a press release for herself and began sending out her material, hoping to get paid gigs.

Along the way, she picked up tips that she now gladly passes on to newer songwriters.

“Get a Web site and get that up and going,” she says. “It’s better to be findable.”

Her first album, “Training Butterflies,” came out in 1998. At the time, the idea of touring the East Coast seemed far-fetched. But before long she was touring in two new East Coast states each year.

“I laid out that goal and then I would find basically that for the next five years that’s what I did,” Miss Twohy says. “I’m a big fan of taking small steps every year.”

She found herself with a steady slate of concerts lined up each year. Her second album, “The Risk Involved,” came out in 2001. With its release came professional recognition, as she was nominated for several folk and songwriting awards from the Washington Area Music Association.

Having found the ability to make a living from music, Miss Twohy decided to start working with the next generation of up-and-coming musicians.

She teaches a workshop called “Making Your Dreams at Night Become a Reality By Day” and also hosted open mike nights until her workload made doing so impossible.

“I wanted to give back to the community and share what I learned and help people who are really trying to get it together,” she says.

A little over a year ago, she started BTM Communications, a national music publicity company.

Despite the pull of her new business, Miss Twohy still makes songwriting and performing a priority. As a homebody, she doesn’t like long tours, preferring instead to create “mini-tours” that keep her home more frequently.

“My touring gets better and better every year,” she says. “There are people who can handle being out there for 150 to 200 dates a year, but that’s not me.”

More and more, fans are asking for her next album — tentatively titled “Joy and Judgment” — which she’s in the midst of preparing . Having played often in the D.C. area, Miss Twohy is scheduling more gigs outside the region. That way, the shows she does play here are even more special.

“I do plan to play here on a regular basis, maybe one to three times a year,” she says. “I want people to know that when I’m playing, it’s a big deal to come.”

• • •

Many musicians are perfectionists, but not many put the kind of effort John Vanderslice does into his solo albums. His latest, “Cellar Door,” took 420 hours to record, an enormous sum when the end result is winnowed down to just 42 minutes.

On top of that, it’s his fourth album of original material in four years — meaning those 420 hours are not stretched over a span of years, but months.

Mr. Vanderslice’s devotion to older recording equipment and song lyrics that sometimes read like stream-of-consciousness poetry have earned him a rabid fan base. Find a spot next to those fans and see what the fuss is about when he plays tonight at the Black Cat in the District.

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