Lightheart



Adventures

052: Becoming a freelance TTRPG composer with Devin Nelson

 

Today’s guest is Devin Nelson, a very talented composer, musician, and game designer. We talk about how Devin quit their full-time job to pursue a career in music, composing podcasts for Actual Plays and other podcasts, game design, and about Devin’s band, Gloomy June which just went on tour. Devin is super cool, so I know y’all will love this episode.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you.

Time Stamps

  • 00:00:00 Introduction & Updates
  • 00:02:41 Devin Introduction: how Devin got into music and gaming
  • 00:19:42 Being in a band
  • 00:22:54 Recovering from burnout
  • 00:25:26 How Devin prepared to quit their fulltime job
  • 00:28:28 Diving into freelance ttrpg composition
  • 00:32:30 Becoming a freelance ttrpg composer
  • 00:32:30 Collaborating on compositions
  • 00:35:48 Equipment
  • 00:37:15 The struggle to find clients
  • 00:39:35 What has been the most challenging part?
  • 00:40:46 What has been the most rewarding part?
  • 00:41:55 Devin’s indie games
  • 00:46:57 Upcoming projects
  • 00:48:05 Where can people find you?
  • 00:49:00 Wrap-up

Find Devin at:

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Transcript

Courtney:

Hello & Welcome to Episode 52 of Roll Play Grow, the podcast for tabletop entrepreneurs, creators, and fans. I am Courtney Stover of Lightheart Adventures, and in this podcast, we talk to the creators behind the brands in the tabletop roleplay gaming space about who they are and how they are turning their passion for gaming into a career. 

 

Today’s guest is Devin Nelson, a very talented composer, musician, and game designer. We talk about how Devin quit their full-time job to pursue a career in music, composing podcasts for Actual Plays and other podcasts, game design, and about Devin’s band, Gloomy June which just went on tour. In fact, if you’re listening to this episode on the day it dropped, Brenton and I are going to go see Gloomy June tonight since they’ll be in Seattle! I plan to snag some videos and/or photos for a fun behind the scenes for this episode. I’m sure there will be something on Twitter, but I’ll also save some of the good stuff for Patreon. Devin is super cool, so I know y’all will love this episode.



If this is your first time tuning in to Roll Play Grow, hello! This podcast is a part of Lightheart Adventures, which is a small company I co-founded with my husband. We also do blogs, one-shots, and maps that you’ll find over on our website, lightheartadventures.com. This podcast updates weekly on Fridays, and I get to chat with so many amazing folks across a wide spectrum of industries within the TTRPG scene, so be sure to subscribe to Roll Play Grow on your favorite podcast player. I’ve got some absolutely AMAZING guests coming up, and you will not want to miss them!

 

Lastly, another way you can help support the show is by checking out our affiliates like the creator behind the most delicious and nerdy tea, Friday Afternoon Tea. Friday makes some truly amazing blends inspired by so many different books, movies, shows, and more. Before we hit up Devin’s show tonight, we’re actually swinging by Friday’s because I have a LOT of tea to stock up on. I’m legitimately obsessed with her tea. To learn more about Friday Afternoon Tea and our other affiliates, go to lightheartadventures.com/ourfavoritetrinkets where you’ll also see a coupon code to get 10% off her tea and a whole bunch of other cool ttrpg products.

 

That is all for now, so please sit back and enjoy this conversation with Devin.

 

Courtney: 

I am now joined today by musician, composer, and game designer, Devin Nelson. Hello, Devin. How are you today?

Devin: 

I’m doing okay. Bit tired. I had a, I had a gig last night, so my energy is a little off, but I played a performance with my band Even though we’re going to be mainly talking about gaming and such today, I’m in a band called Gloomy June, which is like a kind of high energy. Indie pop punk emo kind of, I don’t know, it’s a lot of things. And we got to open up for a really cool band that was touring from Spain called Cardenio. And it was great show sold out, very energetic crowd. And I put a lot of energy into it. So husk of my, full form today.

Courtney: 

Well, I mean, thank you for agreeing to a Saturday morning interview, right after a gig.

Devin: 

That’s fine. It’s you know, that’s the lifestyle

Courtney: 

Right. Fair enough. I mean, okay. Yeah. So we’re definitely going to talk about gaming for a bit of today, but I am definitely going to want to know all of the stories about your band and how you got involved with that. But let’s start off

Devin: 

There’s definitely Venn diagrams involved.

Courtney: 

Oh my God. Perfect. I will need a copy of those so I can put them in the show notes and it’ll be great. To kick things off. Can you just tell us a bit about who you are, where you’re from, you know, how you got into music, how you got into gaming and we’ll just go from there.

Devin: 

Oh, wow. That’s a lot, but yeah.

Courtney: 

Yeah. Just tell me your whole life story. It’s fine.

Devin: 

Yeah. Okay. My name is Devin. I am a freelance composer. I’m a gigging musician; I’m a songwriter, and I’m also a tabletop content creator. And I’ve kind of figured out how to combine some of those things, though, you know, they are kind of disparate hobbies.

Courtney: 

Yeah. Well, how did you get into gaming?

Devin: 

So I started my life as an only child. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I acquired step-sisters, but I was also, you know, the, the typical, like quote unquote, like gifted kid that needs a lot of stimulus and is bored by everything that is in school. And Parents got me video games to entertain me. So I got into gaming through the medium of video games as a kid. But I am autistic and it became a special interest for me, but I have a weird thing with special interests where like sometimes I will start engaging with the thing, but then I’ll want to know how the thing is made and make the thing myself. But also I never really had a special interest for computers. So like I never really had any interest in coding or building video games. So what I would do is I would draw lots of pictures of like characters and like maps. Things like that. And I would like design my own video games as a kid, but like on pieces of paper which is, looking back on it now, clearly the first step in becoming a tabletop designer. 

Yeah. I also got into music kind of around the same time. My dad bought me a guitar when I was very young. Because he himself was a musician in a touring band and stuff in the eighties. Both, my parents were really big fans of music. So like I had a lot of exposure to lots of different artists growing up. I gravitated towards that. Especially as an adolescent, it seemed like a cool thing to do, to learn how to play guitar. Especially cause I was socially awkward and you know, you need, you need some kind of thing to, to make you stand out when you’re a teenager. And for me it was, it was guitar and also obviously guitar became a special interest for me as well. Oh, you asked me about getting into gaming though. And I started going on a tangent.

Courtney: 

Oh, please. Don’t apologize. Cause we were going to get to both topics anyway, so…

Devin: 

i, I eventually figured out how to combine them, but that’s later in the story. I didn’t really get into tabletop games properly for a really long time because I didn’t really know other people that were into Growing up, I guess I got a little bit more into the music scene as my like thing in high school. And I would like go to DIY punk shows and I started my own punk band and I got really into that that sort of scene and lifestyle. And none of those people were very nerdy or at least were like outwardly nerdy to the point where they would introduce me to things like tabletop games. I was always aware of dungeons and dragons and stuff like that. But because of like, you know, how the media used to portray that type of thing, it didn’t seem like it was the thing for me. Obviously because I didn’t have experience with it and I didn’t really know what tabletop gaming could actually like, be like and how it fit in perfectly with the weird shit I did as a kid. So it wasn’t until college that I got into that. But in high school, I, you know, I started a band. I played a lot of shows and that became one of my like biggest interests. And I’ve never stopped doing that. I’ve like been in a band since I was 14, not the same band, but like I’ve never like, not been a performing musician that is just always been a big thing for me. And, you know, performance kind of also leads into the tabletop thing because there’s like an improv element and doing a thing in front of others, element. Music isn’t as social as, as tabletop games, but there is sort of that, you know, feedback loop sometimes between a performer and somebody watching a performance. And obviously today, now you have like the whole, you know, actual play medium. So there literally is performers that are, you know, tabletop creators. 

But yeah, it wasn’t until I was in college. Also completely tangentially, I was studying science in college. I got into chemistry in college because I didn’t feel like following music was a viable option. Especially, cause I never really studied music theory or anything like that. I was completely self-taught. So I felt like that wasn’t a world for me. Cause I couldn’t read like music on a, staff or whatever. And I didn’t really play piano and didn’t really understand music theory. It was all kind of more intuitive to me. But I was in science; I was studying chemistry and the chemistry lab that I was working in was the room over from the physics club room where the, like people from the physics department would hang out and boy were there some nerds there. And one of my physics buddies got a bunch of people together to play some D&D 3.5. And it was fun because my first experience playing D&D was in a physics laboratory, like after hours. It was like, you know, 8:00 PM. And he was like part of the physics department. So he had like a key to the labs. So we were, I don’t think we were supposed to be there, but we were in a physics lab with a bunch of beer and like pizza and stuff like that. And he taught me how to play a D&D. And that was really fun experience. And it like really got me addicted to the hobby, but to bring this back around to my origin story of being autistic and wanting to, you know, pull things apart and figure out how they work, I instantly instantly was like, no, I don’t really actually want to learn how to play D&D I want to design my own thing. 

So for some reason, my initial thrust into the tabletop gaming world was no, I’m just going to make my own tabletop game. And I started designing one. It, I, I never released it and I don’t like it. And it was just that like first weird thing that I did that got me into the hobby as a whole. But I did run my weird game for a couple of friends. So basically I played like two games as a player, and then I became the forever DM of all of my like friend groups, because I was the one that was like putting all this work into learning systems and building systems and stuff like that. I didn’t get into it even, or I didn’t get into it deeper until like I was able to meet more people that were into it because I had a limited amount of friends that were interested in that kind of thing. Actually had trouble finding people that were into it. Cause like this was like a little bit before it became such a wide spread hobby. So I like started off by going to the local stores that sell tabletop games. I ended up meeting some people there and I found some more friends in my local area, but still wasn’t satisfied. So then I ended up I wanted to like find more, more content to listen to of things about tabletop games. And that’s when I discovered actual play podcasts. And I became a particularly big fan of the podcast Friends at the Table. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that one. It’s really fantastic actual play podcast that uses like all kinds of different systems and has a really like cool, diverse cast. And I ended up meeting a lot more people in the tabletop scene through fandom of that podcast. 

So I like joined their community discord server and met a ton of people there and then joined several offshoot discord servers. And now I’m the host of one of those. And in the last like three years since I got into that fandom, I’m suddenly like, Super deep in to the tabletop scene. And that inspired me to start writing my own games again. And this was all the while I was still a, a performing musician and another quick tangent: so I was studying science in college and I ended up getting a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in chemistry. And I didn’t really enjoy that life. I was always excited by how things work, how the universe is put together and like explaining all the bits and pieces of the universe. I was always really into like Carl Sagan and like pop science people, but it turned out like doing science. I didn’t really enjoy. I didn’t really like sitting in a laboratory, like pressing a button on a computer while like a sample does something. And I don’t know. I also have ADHD and just like sitting in a laboratory, doing a repetitive task was like, certainly not for me. So I was like, oh, well, how could I combine talking with science with also my like, you know, desire to perform and be in front of a crowd. 

So then I got into teaching and I became a high school science teacher for about six years. And I wouldn’t say I’m a misanthrope, but I’m definitely like a little bit anti-social and it takes me a lot of energy to engage socially. So being in a position where I was like talking to hundreds of people a day and being asked questions constantly, it just like was a lifestyle that really wore me down, especially teaching during the pandemic kind of finally broke me. And I was like, man, I don’t want to do this. I don’t know what else to do, but I have all these weird disparate interests that don’t pay money, like, you know, gaming and music. But I was so miserable in my job that I decided that, you know, I’m going to save up some money and I would take some time off working, you know, traditionally. And I’m going to try to like, you know, get my, my dreams going, get some of my like hobbies and turn them into things that maybe I can make money off of and become a freelancer. And that has been my journey the last year. 

So that brings me to the, finally to the, the Venn diagram of my music hobby and my, my tabletop hobby: is speaking again of the podcast Friends at the Table, one of the cast members of that show is also a musician and a composer. And they compose lots of original music for the show. And I was like, oh, I never realized that tabletop could have a score that there could be like, an improv scene in a tabletop game that then you compose a piece underneath then to give it even more weight and giving a podcast show, like a theme song and like, realizing that the medium of tabletop could also be akin to things like TV shows and movies where music is used to enhance the experience. I was like, oh, that that’s, that’s really cool. So like through some of the, the, the friends I met in that fandom community, I got some people together and I wanted to just make an actual play and kind of see how it goes just to sort of an experiment and it ended up being extremely fun and I ended up being extremely proud of the story we made. 

We used the game Fall of Magic by Ross Kalman. It’s a, it’s a really unique, cool game it’s based off of a scroll. So like the physical game has a literal, like a screen-printed scroll that has like map on it that you like slowly uncurl. So you start on one side of the scroll and as the scroll unrolls, you like traveled to different locations and they’ll have like improv prompts on them and you basically, it’s like a narrative storytelling game and your characters like improv scenes based off of like the location prompt, like a, just a vague little picture of the place that you’re at. 

There’s some like flowery text on it that is meant to inspire what the scene that you’re going to make is about. But it’s like, it’s vague and can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. So even though there’s the set map that, that the game is based off of the way the story can go like a million different places, depending on you know, who the characters are and what their motivations and stuff are. But the basic idea of the game is that magic is dying and there’s this character called the migas. Who’s this like last magician, this last wizard. And they want to figure out what’s going on. So they get a retinue of people to travel with them, to like the end of the world, to like figure out what’s going on with magic and all of the characters play as that retinue to this wizard. And the wizard is sort of like a shared character that everybody also gets to embody in certain scenes. But we ended up telling this really like deep, emotional story that I was like really attached to. And this seemed like the perfect moment to like try my hand at, you know, making a score for it. 

So I started like, writing songs that were like inspired by this, this game that I made. And even though this was sort of like a test to like, see what making like an actual play was like, I ended up producing and editing it and turning it into an actual podcast and releasing it. And I’ve been wanting to get into to, to more like producing my own podcasts, but I just haven’t had the time and energy for it. Cause it’s really difficult. Yeah, the, the, the, the podcast ended up being called Flight of Magic, and I wrote an original score for it and it’s, yeah, it’s up online. If you, if you look for it, I’m really proud of it. But since then, I’ve been trying to work as a freelancer, especially cause I, I finally quit my job as a high school teacher. And I’ve been trying to figure out ways that I can combine all of the things that I love. And one of those things has been, you know, composing music for actual play podcasts. I’ve done a couple so far. I was a guest on a podcast called Left Foot Forward, which is a Wanderhome actual podcast. 

The premise of that podcast is that it’s this, this one host named Daisy. Shout out to Daisy. They’re really cool. And they get a guest on a different guest on every week, and it’s like a new person that their, their character meets on their travels. And when I, I first joined or when I, when I was a guest on that show, it was like the third, I was the third guest. And for the first two episodes they were using. I think it was like a remix of like an Animal Crossing song or something like that as the intro theme. So I was like, yo, like I could, I could write you something. So I made them a intro and outro theme. And I don’t know, I get a little bit extra sometimes. My character was a sad hyena guy. And he had a ukulele and I like wrote a little flick focused. That I, I showed up to the day of the recording with the song already written and I played it for Daisy and then they were like, whoa. And that ended up making it into the episode as well. 

And you know, I’ve been trying to do stuff like that ever since. I recently composed more of like a dark kind of like industrial theme song for like like a Mecca actual play podcast. Another group of my friends has been making a an actual play like anthology thing where we play a ton of different games. And we have a couple of musicians on the cast, so we’ve been sort of collaborating on music. That one’s not out yet, but that one’s gonna be called Patrick Anthology. So I have a theme for that as well. And yeah, basically like, you know, open for commissions right now. I’ve been making a lot of music this year and finally been making music for, for money for people, which is exciting,

Courtney: 

Yes,

Devin: 

Turning it into at least a side hustle at this point. I want to make it my main hustle.

Courtney: 

Yeah. What a cool story. And I mean, it’s really interesting how you’ve been able to follow these different passions over the years and, you know, even with the science. It’s so interesting that, you know, you were really enjoying music. You were really enjoying gaming and then there was something about it that still interested you enough to get a master’s degree.

Devin: 

Societal pressure.

Courtney: 

Fair enough.

Devin: 

I like, I like science. I like, you know, nerdy shit.

Courtney: 

No, I, I understand the like, well, I guess I should probably study something that’ll help me get a quote real job because I was a theater and chorus girl. So I double majored so that I could get that quote, real job.

Devin: 

I couldn’t even find a real job in science though. So it was like, it was all for not, I guess being a high school teacher is a quote unquote real job, but it doesn’t pay very well for the amount of work entails and the amount of emotional labor entails.

Courtney: 

Oh my God. I know. I admire anyone that becomes a teacher, whether that is for six months or, you know, career wise. I just did like afterschool theater teaching for a while. And even that was exhausting and I only had them for like two hours.

Devin: 

So I did get to play tabletop games with some of the kids at the high school that I worked at,

Courtney: 

nice. Did you start like a D&D club or something?

Devin: 

Not an official one. It was just like a group of nerds that like showed up in my classroom after school and we played a couple of types of tabletop games.

Courtney: 

There’s one part of your story that I don’t think really came up too much. When did the band start, like, tell me about your band.

Devin: 

Oh, okay. Yeah, like I said, I’ve pretty much been in bands since I was 14. That has always been one of my biggest interests. I, I was in theater too in middle school, so I’ve always like liked. On a stage and doing stuff. I I’m like socially awkward and like, I have difficulty like talking to somebody one-on-one in person, but like I can get on a stage in front of 300 people and feel fine. So I’ve always like, had that sense of wanting to, you know, perform for other people. I was in sort of like punk and hardcore bands when I was in high school. I started a ProgRock band in college. I joined a progress band in college. I was just like, you know, trying to find the vibe that fit for me. And I got really into songwriting. So then I ended up finding a singer that I met in college. And we became sort of a songwriting duo. And then we ended up, you know, finding people to play in a band with us. And we formed a band called the Y Axes, which was like, sort of the proto version of the band I’m in now. And, you know, we played a lot of shows, did a couple of tours over the years. And then pandemic happened and kind of shows, went on hiatus for awhile. And our drummer. And we got a new drummer and we’re like, oh, let’s, let’s just like, make a new thing out of this and let’s write a bunch of new songs. And then just this year, we’ve kind of like unveiled our new project. Which I, I think I said earlier is called Gloomy June. And we’re kind of re we rebranded ourselves in our becoming like a touring act. In fact, we’re going on tour in two weeks. We’re doing a whole west coast run and then in July, Or June and July, we’re like going out to Texas. We’re randomly playing a like emo music festival in Montreal next month. And then another similar like emo music festival in Florida in October. We’re going all over the place this year. You know, a lot of us are like quitting our jobs and we’re like trying to, trying to follow the dream.

Courtney: 

Yeah.

Devin: 

It’s extremely stressful, but like, I don’t know. I’m glad to finally be like on track to like, do the things that I love full time.

Courtney: 

So just selfishly, are you going to be in Washington at all on this west coast tour?

Devin: 

We’ve been in Washington a bunch of times. We’ve always had a really good time there, no shade to, to, to Oregon, but we always had way more fun than Washington.

Courtney: 

I mean that’s fair. I was just in Oregon for about three and a half years before moving here. So it was pretty, but I was, I liked it more for the nature then for anything else.

Devin: 

Let’s see. Yeah, we’re in Bellingham on May 12th. Seattle on May 13th.

Courtney: 

Just gonna make a note to talk to you about that more after the recording.

Devin: 

Yeah. We have like a tour poster up on our Twitter, which is GloomyJuneCA

Courtney: 

Awesome.

Courtney: 

So you stopped teaching about a year ago, you said. Okay. So it’s been a year of trying to be a freelancer and be in the band and going on tour.

Devin: 

To be fair about half of that year was just trying to recover from burnout.

Courtney: 

Hey, you know, that is important. That is super important.

Devin: 

Yeah. I had really bad burnout.

Courtney: 

Well, I mean, that is always, actually an interesting topic too, because I feel like there’s so much advice out there that very rarely works for the individual person on, oh, how do I recover from burnout?

Devin: 

Yeah.

Courtney: 

Tell me a little bit about that. Was there anything that did help you? Is it just a matter of like needing to just not do anything for a long time?

Devin: 

Part of that, like, yeah. I, I just wanted to like, not be in that environment anymore and not have those responsibilities and expectations because I just couldn’t like keep up with them anymore and stay sane, and stable. So in like the six months that I was kind of recovering from that, yeah. I was just like, you know, diving into my hobbies. I was working out. What of my special interests which is kind of a weird one is walking. I really like going on walks and I’ll like, listen to music and podcasts and just kind of like zone out and just kinda like move my body and stuff like that. That’s been really good for my physical or mental health. Yeah. And just like, you know, I guess part of the difficulty in the recovering from burnout process was also sort of the, the inner debate of like, am I doing the right thing? I, yes, I saved up a little bit of money to try to like, you know, not do anything for a little bit, but like, is this the right decision for my career? Is this the right decision for me as somebody who needs to like pay rent and, you know, survive in capitalist society? So I dunno, there, there was a lot of difficulty to that process, but the more I reflected on how I felt before I quit my job, the more I was like, yes, this is what I need to be doing. I need to be doing nothing at the moment. And in doing nothing, I was like, sort of starting to build the scaffolding for what I would try to then make money off of. And like, I haven’t fully got out of education. Anybody who’s a freelancer probably knows that you probably have at least three hustles. And I’m a freelance science tutor at the moment. As one of my ways for making rent, because you know, creative work, isn’t dependable.

Courtney: 

Yeah. Well, that does kind of lead me into my next question on, obviously you don’t have to go into specific numbers or anything, but I’m just curious about how you did prepare for stepping away from the full-time job to try and go freelance, because I know a lot of people are like, oh, I would love to just give up my job and become a creator, but I have to pay rent. So yeah, like what were the ways that you prepared for that leap?

Devin: 

Learning how to be poor. And I learned how to be poor by setting most of my paycheck aside to my savings account. So I could have something to live off of later, and that was good because that got me accustomed to a lifestyle where I was spending as little money as possible on things that were, you know, absolute necessities. So by the time that I was actually poor and didn’t have an income source, I already knew how to live. And you know, there’s no shame in getting, applying for like government aid programs and stuff like that. Like EBT and things like that have been good to help me, you know, buy groceries despite not having a super dependable income source. And just like figuring out what skills you have, even if they’re not necessarily the skills that you want to be using, but like, you know, finding all of the little ways that you can make money. Like one of the other things I do, that’s like completely unrelated to everything else that we’ve talked about is I help people move. Me and the bass player in my band are both pretty strong and we carry lots of amps and stuff like that, and we have a van that we tour in. And he uses that van for like cargo jobs, like moving furniture and things like that. And that has been also another one of my sources of income. So yes, I am a freelancer in a creative space, but you know, two thirds of the freelance work, I actually do some unrelated. And I think that’s the reality for a lot of people that do creative freelance work.

Courtney: 

Yeah, definitely.

Devin: 

And I haven’t talked very much about it, but I also have been writing tabletop games, but you know, that’s not a very stable source of income either.

Courtney: 

I mean, not yet, but I think that honestly, it’s really nice to have kind of those random gig jobs that you can schedule around what you’re actually wanting to do and wanting to build. And I mean, that’s kinda what I was doing with my husband for the last couple of years too. And sure, he just landed a dream job, but the last like three years it’s been, you know, he was doing dog-walking and yard work while focusing on like the blog and writing stories and getting like one shots and stuff out there. So it is pretty normal, I think, when you’re trying to go full-time into what you actually like. But, I mean, thank you for sharing all of this. Like, it’s really cool to get your perspective on how you’ve been able to step away from a job that you were not enjoying and embrace what it is that you want to do.

Devin: 

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it, but. I had too much impact on me physically and emotionally and mentally. And sometimes you just need to get the fuck out.

Courtney: 

Yes. I feel that very strongly. I would love to talk a little bit about your composition journey and processes and just learn a little bit more about that in particular. So I know that you’ve basically grown up with a guitar in hand and got into composing music, but I know you said that you were all self-taught, so I would just like to know a bit more about that journey.

Devin: 

Yeah. When I was young, I listened to a lot of music, and I started off by trying to learn songs that I liked. And actually this goes way back earlier. So before I even played guitar in elementary school, I don’t know if, how common this is in like other places, but in the elementary school I went to here in California in like fourth grade, they made us all pick an instrument for some reason. There’s sort of like compulsory music education that one year. And I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I don’t know, I’m kind of, this is kind of a weird, smug thing to say, but I’m very iconiclastic. And I saw everybody picking like trumpets and violins and stuff like that. So I decided to pick like the instrument that nobody was picking, which was trombone. And that, that ended up being the perfect instrument for me because it like really unlocked something in my brain. And also unlocked my desire to avoid music theory, because I realized with a trombone, the only thing you really need to know is that when your hand is close to your face, it’s high. And when your hand is far away from your face, it’s low. So I was able to like figure out as a small child that I actually had the ability to play by ear. So like, I didn’t really learn the music notation in elementary school, and I just kind of improv it. I just like we were playing the song. I was like, oh, that’s the note we’re on now. Okay. Then I moved my, my hand to that note and that kind of unlocked something in me that I had this like, you know, intuition for music. And that was kind of when I started to get more into wanting to play guitar. Yeah. Then once I started playing guitar, I wanted to like learn songs that I liked. So I started like playing along the songs and looking up guitar tabs online and got really frustrated with looking at guitar tabs online because most of them are wrong. And then I like, you know, just trained my ear more and more so that I didn’t need them. To the point where in high school I would be like hanging out with my friends after school. And then I would just like put on a record and start playing along to it and just like start being a fucking weirdo while they were trying to hang out with me. But, you know, I ended up getting like pretty good at guitar through that through just like playing along to every record that I owned. And I started writing my own music then in high school as well. Like I said, I formed a band and I’ve been writing songs ever since. In terms of like explaining my process, honestly, even though I’ve been doing this for a really long time, like it it’s kind of a black box. I’m definitely somebody who goes off of inspiration. Sometimes I need like a prompts to get me going and sometimes like, I’ll just be like walking down the street and like a melody will just appear in my head. So, like, I don’t have a lot of advice for how to write songs because they just happened to me basically. But usually I can like figure something out if like I have a vibe that I’m shooting for, especially if like, you know, if I’m composing for like a project or something like that, I need to know what the vibe needs to be. But then how I, how I get from deciding what the vibe needs to be. And then what the completed project is, is a little bit of an enigma. I just know that it works.

Courtney: 

Fair enough. I know it’s always fun when I’m asking a creative person. Well, how do you do this thing? And you’re like, I mean, I just, I don’t know. I do it. It just happens?

Devin: 

Yeah. I mean, that’s not everybody. I’ve met people that are like, yep. I write a song. Like I wake up every day and I write like lyrics, or I like make it a point to like write a new chord progression every day or something like that. I’m like, wow. That’s interesting. That’s not how I look at it at all. I just follow the vibes when they’re there.

Courtney: 

Yeah. So what about when you are collaborating with someone, you know, for example, on the actual play podcasts that you’ve been composing for, or any kind of commission, how does that affect your process?

Devin: 

Oh, you mean like making music with other people?

Courtney: 

Yeah.

Devin: 

Ah, I find that to actually be particularly challenging. Like I have a lot of fun collaborating with people when I’m playing tabletop games and I find that really easy to like, you know, go back and forth about ideas. But since I do have such a particular music process, I do find collaborating on music to be kind of difficult. I tend to be that like weirdo visionary in the band that composes the majority of the songs, and I can be a little bit of a control freak. So like working with a team of musicians actually has been a, sort of a new challenge for me, not one that I’m like frustrated by, but like something that I’m still learning how to do properly. Cause I don’t know. I, I tend to have a lot of ideas and want a follow through with those ideas. And sometimes people can’t keep up with me in terms of like the sheer volume of ideas that I’m churning out. And sometimes I need to like, step the fuck back, let other people have a say. So it’s something that I’m working on.

Courtney: 

So what about when it’s someone that just says, Hey, you know, I want a new intro for my podcast.

Devin: 

Oh, that’s easy.

Courtney: 

I guess how would you guide that conversation?

Devin: 

Usually I’ll ask for like vibe references which can be kind of challenging sometimes when the person I’m talking to is not a musician. Because some people, sometimes people don’t have the vocabulary to explain what they want. So it’ll end up being a little bit of a back and forth of like, comparing reference pieces of like, oh, well I want something that sounds like this. And I’m like, oh, do you like this aspect of it? Do you like this aspect of it? And like trying to whittle down what somebody wants. But then sometimes people would just be like, yeah, I just like wanted to have this kind of vibe and then they won’t have any other notes. And I’ll just make something that I think fits. And you know, both processes seem to work.

Courtney: 

Yeah. Do you have any specific techniques for if someone really is like, ah, I mean, I wanted like, something with a lot of energy and like, that was all that they gave you.

Devin: 

Hmm, I guess one of the questions I tend to ask then also is about like instrumentation. Like what instruments do you want to hear? Like, do you think, something with the energy. Does that translate to like loud percussion? Does that translate to musical dynamic? Like how much the volume changes or how many like instruments get added to the composition as it proceeds? I like try to translate the music part to them to try to like figure out what that exactly means. And sometimes that ends up yep. Like I said, becoming a conversation back and forth of like, figuring out like what this person likes and what, what energetic composition means to them. But often they’ll also not really have anything, particularly in mind, like they’ll just want something energetic and then I’ll make something that I think is energetic and hope that they like it.

Courtney: 

Yeah.

Devin: 

I mean, I haven’t really had any situations where, like I brought somebody, I’ll usually bring a draft. I won’t do all of the work before I know that they like it. But I haven’t had any be like, no, this is wrong.

Courtney: 

Well, that’s great. What equipment are you using for the composition?

Devin: 

Like I said, I’m primarily a guitarist. So I obviously use a lot of guitar in my compositions. I played bass and those were my main two, like analog instruments. And then I just have a ton of digital instruments. So I use a program called logic, which is what’s called a digital audio workspace. It’s like a, a program where you can like, you know, edit tracks and add effects to them and mix them. And. Do all the like sound production stuff on them. And I have just lots of like synthesizers and downloaded sounds and stuff like that. One of the particular songs that I’m really proud of from that actual play that I, I made that I was talking about earlier: birds were a big theme in the story. So I I wanted to make a song that had a bird singing in it. So I went and downloaded a bunch of like bird calls. And I discovered that the best spurred singer is the morning dove. And I listened to the, the, the, the morning dev call. And then I wrote like a chord progression that like fit the notes that it was singing. I did have the Auto-Tune the bird a little bit to like, make it sound like an actual melody in the song. Yeah, there’s a song on that soundtrack called Scanes. That is a a morning dove singing the melody and then me composing a whole composition around the birds, melody. And that was really fun when you make.

Courtney: 

Yeah.

Devin: 

So sometimes I do weird stuff like that. Sometimes it’s just, you know, pretty guitar. Sometimes it’s scary synthesizers. You know, it depends on the vibe I’m going for.

Courtney: 

Makes sense. So I know that you said that you really only could have just recently been able to start ing up like actual paid gigs, but what strategies have you been using to find those?

Devin: 

Not good ones. I’ve always found as a, a artist and creator that networking is the hardest part. I mean, I try to get involved as many projects as I can and try to make friends with people on those projects and just kind of hope that I’m on people’s radar. I’ve been using Twitter a lot. Twitter seems to be one of the main places creatives network. And also sometimes I just rely on having friends that are good at that kind of thing that can like recommend me to people. And that’s how I ended up here. Previous guest, Mary shout, shout out to Mary told me about this. They’re like, oh, this sounds perfect for you. I was like, oh great. And then I hit you up.

Courtney: 

Yeah, I had a lot of fun with Mary and so it was nice to see that recommendation from them.

Devin: 

Yeah, the the podcast I mentioned earlier, the anthology podcast I’m making that with her.

Courtney: 

Nice. Yeah. I mean, I, it’s definitely challenging to get yourself out there and especially when. Like, I don’t know, as a creative person, it’s like, I’d rather just be creating things. I don’t want to have to put all the effort into trying to find the business. Like, can you just I’m cool. Find me.

Devin: 

But like, there’s also the conundrum of okay, am I making this creative thing for me? And then if I am like, oh, it’s just going to be towards a bigger release. There’s like the pressure of like, am I just making art for making art sake? Or am I making art to like put out into the world to share with people? Because if I want to share my art, that involves networking, no matter what, or am I trying to like, you know, make art quote unquote? am I trying to like dictate the type of art that I make, because it’s like, you know, being made for a project or something like that. There’s always the conundrum of like, why am I making this? What is it? What is it for?

Courtney: 

Yeah, capitalism.

Devin: 

It is rotted all of our brains.

Courtney: 

Oh God. Yeah. Well, so I know it’s been quite a big year for you and just all of these changes and stepping away from the career that you had and starting this new one. So just, when you look back over all of this, What would you say has been particularly challenging or hard about making this transition?

Devin: 

I mean, yeah, I kind of, I already mentioned is the, like the networking part, like making sure that I’m getting a steady amount of work that justifies my decision to become a freelancer because like, you know, it, it seems like the pattern of how it works for most people that become creative freelancers is that you really need to like struggle to get those first few jobs. And then like the more jobs you do, the more you’re on people’s radars and then the more those jobs exist. And I’m still in that process of like establishing myself. And that’s been really hard. Cause like, I don’t know. I, I am really confident in what I do, but like getting my product in front of people seems to be the challenging part because places like Twitter or just an endless stream of people and opinion and informations and content, and like it’s hard to be seen amongst all of that.

Courtney: 

Well, let’s flip it around then. What incentive would you say has been some of the most rewarding parts of this transition?

Devin: 

Trying new things. Spending more time on, on things that I enjoy, like learning new skills. Becoming composed, like even though I’ve been writing music, like most of my life, like I’ve had to learn a lot of like audio production stuff. I made music for a video game for the first time, that was kind of a, a new thing, kind of a new challenge, that was fun. And. Yeah. It’s just like having the time and energy to try new things. Like I said before, I published a tabletop game. That was like a new experience for me. When I first started getting into tabletop stuff, I like wrote my own shitty game. But didn’t really come back to that idea for a while. And then I realized that, oh, like I still have that part of my brain active. Like I, I can make that another, you know, hustle that I do not, I mean, it keeps saying hustle, like, like I said, capitalism has rotted my brain, but it, it, it is something that I enjoy doing. And now that I have more time and energy for it, like I can, I can devote that time and energy. So yeah, just having space and energy to do more creative things has been my favorite part about it so far.

Courtney: 

Gosh, I know I’ve been so focused on all the music stuff that haven’t even really asked you all that much about the game that you’ve published. So, yeah. Tell me more about that.

Devin: 

So I have one game out right now. I’m currently writing a second one. The first game was actually inspired by the podcast that I made with Mary. We played this excellent game of I’m Sorry. Did You Yay Street Magic? by Caro Ascerc ion, which is like a really great like city building game. And we ended up making this city of weird wizards and with this weird wizard college. And I just loved the idea of wizard college, especially divorced from the bad wizard college that we want to talk about. Or wizard school that we won’t talk about. And I got really into the idea of making a game about wizard students. It’s the thing that I’ve recently learned this week that has been I mean, maybe something has been a lesson learned is when we were on that, that podcast, we are came up with the idea of like wizard dueling as a sport. And just like my improv brain decided to call it spell jamming. And I didn’t realize that that was a thing already. I guess it was like a, like a tabletop supplement from the eighties of like a D&D thing or something like that. Like, my brain just invented that word. I didn’t know it was already an established thing, but like that’s what I based my game off of. So my game is called spell jammers with a Z. I didn’t know that Spelljammer was a thing already hate to create something that already exists, even though you’d never saw the thing that existed. Yeah, it’s like a, it’s like a rules light kind of based off of John Harper’s games like Blades in the Dark, cause like it has a dice pool system. And you go on little self-contained what I call group projects in the game. That the idea is that you and a couple of your wizard friends at wizard school need to do a group project for one of your eccentric wizard professors. And then you like roll up what that project is on a couple random tables. And the unique mechanic in the game is that everything can become a success if you’re willing to lean into hubris. I like the idea of like hubris being, the one thing that all wizards have in common: the desire to, you know, control everything around you to gain power from every possible source seems to be a a trope with wizards. So, so the idea is that like only a six on a d6 is a success, but you can, like, if you rolled like a three, you could take your hubris. Three points to make it into a six. And as your hubris clock starts to fill, then like you start to have like magical mishaps that start to change both your body and your existence and your experience. And those start to get worse and worse. The more you lean into your hubris.

Courtney: 

That sounds super fun.

Devin: 

It is. It’s been really fun and I’ve gotten to like run it on a couple of streams and stuff too, which has been a blast.

Courtney: 

Yeah.

Devin: 

The game I’m currently working on: I’ve always been fascinated with like devils and demonology and like weird biblical shit. So the game I’m writing now is about what if the Bible was a space opera? it’s tentatively titled Mourning Star with morning with like a U and the premise is that the player characters are what I’ve called advocates. They’re ambassadors to the court of Lucifer. So you basically play like devil space ambassadors–

Courtney: 

Oh, my God.

Devin: 

and like you and your system is basically trying to like, hold on as the forces of Heaven basically, you know, colonize all of known space.

Courtney: 

That’s amazing. That sounds like it will be a blast.

Devin: 

It’s going to be blasphemous though. So if you have issues with that, then I wouldn’t recommend it.

Courtney: 

You know, I would, I would kind of think so just with that high level look at it. How far along in the development process are you?

Devin: 

That’s complicated. I’m also learning that like, so the, my first game was like kind of a light thing. It’s like 18 pages long. It’s like pretty simple to pick up and learn. So now I’m trying to write like something more complex with more like interlocking systems and it’s going to be a much bigger game. I guess the iterative process of that has made it, you know, a challenge, like keeping all of the things in my head and like how they relate to each other. I came up with an initial dice resolution mechanic that I wanted for the game. And then I like thought about like, oh, what, what all the different playbooks or classes be? And then I started writing, moves for them and trying to figure out how they interact with the dice mechanics. And then I was like, oh, I don’t know about the dice mechanics. So then I went back and started rewriting them and then I’m going to have to rewrite the moves. So I’m like in this like endless feedback loop at the moment. I do have the core mechanic figured out. I have a lot of the like character creation, mechanics figured out. I have a lot of the, world exploration and like story of progression mechanics kind of figured out, but it’s like a matter of just making sure it all locks in to itself, you know? Like all of the systems play nicely with each other. I have a lot written down, but I don’t know how close it is to having a, a playable thing. I haven’t playtested it yet.

Courtney: 

Well, I mean, it sounds like it’ll be a pretty cool game, and I definitely look forward to seeing updates about it. Well, you might’ve already answered this question literally with this game that you’re working on. And the fact that you’re about to go on tour, but is there anything else coming up that we haven’t talked about yet that you are excited about?

Devin: 

Yeah, I mean, not, not related to my gaming hobbies, but my band is we just released a new single earlier this week. It’s called Always Gonna Let You Down, which is; we jokingly referred to as the evil twin of Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up.

Courtney: 

Uh-huh.

Devin: 

I’m really proud of that one and we have an EP coming out sometime next month. So check out my band, Gloomy June. Check us out on tour if you’re in any of the cities that we’re playing. We have a tour poster on our Twitter. Yeah, I’m to be doing a lot of music stuff this summer. And also I guess I’ll use that as a chance to, you know, plug myself as a composer. I’m looking for work because going on tour means that I need to stop most of my current hustles to pay rent. I’m currently like trying to save as much money as possible so that I can still have a home when I come back from tour. But I would love some more work, especially work that I could do on my computer, in the tour van. So you need some, if you need some cool music, I got you.

Courtney: 

Well, if people want to find you and really just check out your music, your bands, everything, where should they go?

Devin: 

I’m at Devindecibel on Twitter. I have most of my links to my stuff there, but I have sort of a portfolio website, which is DevinNelsonmusic.com. I have a bunch of samples of my work there. You can follow my games at Devindecibel.Itch. You can buy my music at devindecibel.Bandcamp.com. You can buy my band’s music at gloomyjune.Bandcamp.com. And you can follow us on Spotify and title and apple music or whatever you listen to music on.

Courtney: 

Perfect. Yeah, I will have it links to all of those in the show notes. Devin. Thank you so much for coming on today. This has been really cool. Like you have such an amazing story and I’m really excited to see how you and your band grow.

Devin: 

Thanks. Thanks for having me.

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