Monday, February 21, 2011

The Secret Life of "Funhouse Mirror"

Songwriting and Arranging Example: Borrowing from Other Artists

     I have a confession. When I first started writing "Funhouse Mirror", I thought it was destined to be mediocre. A filler song. Boy, was I wrong.

     It turned out to be one of the best songs I ever wrote, and a real transitional piece in my writing. Before I cranked out this riff-driven recollection, I had a hard time writing anything that wasn't some kind of ballad or power ballad.

     But then came "Funhouse Mirror" in all its glory.  Like my previous writing, it was introspective and vulnerable - yet I had started growing a backbone, and it showed. This song was confrontational. It was declaratory. It was... HARD ROCK.

Here's the demo that I did myself in Garageband:


     So just how did this mega-distorted, almost metal song come to be? Last year I had to do a project for a MIDI class (which was HELL for me because I came in knowing about 5% of what everyone else seemed to already know) and I had to use my OWN music. During that time, I was in one of those I'm-so-sick-of-EVERYTHING-I've-already-written things, so I decided to try writing new stuff rather than just arranging and recording previous pieces. It just so happened I had been recalling a melodic/lyrical idea that I came up with in high school. It was one line - "I saw you through a funhouse mirror"- to the same melody that the part is in today.

     So, with this line going through my head over and over, I began to construct the song's Chorus. My intuition told me it had to be the third line, because it's the point of the song and 3 is the magic number where people are wired (yes, really) to put more weight on what they're hearing*. Then I came up with the "You're not what I thought" and eventually constructed the whole basic Chorus melody and most of the lyrics ("I know what I saw" was originally "You're not what I thought", just like the third line, and "wanted you to stay" had a "da da da" placeholder for a while). It is a remarkably rare occasion that I write anything in the order you hear it in.
     Having completed the melody, lyrics and chords of the Chorus a couple weeks later (and a sketch of a verse which was quickly disposed of and redone), I decided to start recording my humble singer/songwriter demo. I opened Garageband, set the metronome to 100, plugged in my headphones and sang the Chorus with no accompaniment other than the aural image in my head to guide me. Then I plugged in my electric guitar, looked at the chords on my sloppy lead sheet and the whole freaking riff just came out as it is now - syncopation on every other "and of 4" (to emphasize important verbs in the lyric, "wanted, seemed, saw"), and the seemingly trivial but actually highly critical "3 +a  4 +a" metal/all downpicking gallop accent. ** I think it was a couple of days later when I figured out where I got it from:

Side note: I highly recommend the entire album The Cold White Light by Sentenced (if you like/can stand their guitar tone. It got to me after a while).  It's heartbreaking but beautiful. This is the band that really got me interested in Silence vs. Activity and strategic breaks in the arrangements.

     This accent in its exact spots in the Chorus of "Funhouse Mirror" is so important to making the song sound right. Not only does it kill monotony, but it informs the listener (listeners process this stuff intuitively) that the song is reloading into the next lyrical thought.  It makes the listener hear "Wanted you to..." and "You're not what I..." as the ends, not the beginnings, of each line of the Chorus. I have heard and played the Chorus without a reloading accent during these parts, and it always feels too long. But with the accent, it feels amazing. That said, this particular song is dependent on its arrangement far more than any of my past songs were.

     I realize, now that I'm more musically aware, that I probably should have had the drums enhance what the guitar is doing on this accent just like Sentenced did. There are some things about this song that would undoubtedly benefit from a very skilled arranger, but the overall idea is here and it works. It just needs augmentation of what I was originally trying to convey, and for the parts to be translated into what real-life instruments would do.  I'm also thinking it could benefit from a Pre-Chorus that propels the song forward (the current one holds it back), but I really like the impact of the Chorus riff when it comes in; it hits like a giant wave after the silence. It would be interesting to see if there is a way to have both.

     "Funhouse Mirror" will always have a special place in my heart for being the first song that I sketched out an entire arrangement for, and for being representative of so many of my influences as an artist - the quiet verses and loud choruses of the 90's, the disappointment of the speaker that is so common to Avril and other angst-queens, the little touch of metal when the chorus reloads at the end of each lyrical thought, and the introspection I learned to love from artists like John Lennon and even Katy Rose. It's also the first time I was secure in knowing I was not destined to be an Avril clone. I'll write another post dedicated entirely to the origin of the lyrics as soon as I can.

- Jill <3

*Depending on the song, 4 can sometimes be the magic number. I'll get into this in a future post.
**The all-downpicking gallop accent is kind of blurry in this demo, I know. Blame my guitar playing.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Song Element Hierarchy (According to Jill)

Songwriting Method/Songwriting Elements

     So, in light of a comment from one of my Conservatory buddies, I've realized I need to edit this post because some things weren't clear.

     What I am doing here is laying out my song element hierarchy.  If you're a songwriter or composer, yours may differ from mine (which is fine). All in all, I really feel that having set priorities is crucial to being a convincing, decisive songwriter.

     The following is a list of what goes into a song, organized according to what serves what in my writing. Starting with the top, you'll see that according to my hierarchy, Form serves Character, Melody & Lyrics serve Form and Character, and so on.

1) Character(s)
I took a creative writing class once, and my teacher shared with us some publication by some author that boasted the importance of building strong characters. The main point of the article was that if your character is strong, the plot will unfold on its own. To this day, I have extended that principle to my songwriting, and it's been working out really, really well.  
Strong characters are the great divider in the pop music world. A strong, multi-dimensional character is what separates a song that feels "real" and "true to life" from a song of the same style and proportions that should, logically, be strong, but feels overwhelmingly generic. You all know what I'm talking about - the type of song that's often written by pros for a guaranteed quick hit, but that no one ever listens to a year later because the song lacks a certain "je ne sais quoi". I can guarantee that the missing "intangible" in almost all of these situations is a deep, resonating character. The character is the song's core, so don't neglect yours!

      I have placed Character on top of Form because the Form should serve the Character.  However, I do think form is more important than Character, which is why I initially listed it first (before I edited this post). A strong Character, as I said, is the difference between a mediocre song and an unforgettable song. Form, however, determines whether a song stands or whether it simply confuses and alienates the listener.

2) Form
Form is the skeleton that holds the song together. Without it, everything - no matter how wonderful - falls like a poorly-built wall. This is why I often lay out the song's structure-to-be at the onset of composition. And I'm not just talking about the relationship in bar count between the verses and choruses; I'm also talking about micro proportions and ensuring that space is inserted correctly, and that melodies have the right variation points.

3) Melody (in all its components, including rhythm of the melody) & Lyrics
Only when Form and Character are in good standing can I have any faith in the Melody & Lyrics of a song. I've lumped them both into the same category because to me, they are one being. At times I'll look at them separately while composing, but they are still One, and both Melody & Lyrics carry the same weight when I am writing a song. Melody & Lyrics are the inner monologue of the character. The personality (as I mentioned above) is the core, and Melody & Lyrics are the air that the character breathes to survive.

4) Harmony (Chords) & Accompaniment
I originally listed rhythm here (before I edited the post), but what I really meant was rhythm section (drums, guitar strumming patterns, groove).  And it's not just them; guitar leads and chords are also elements I expect to serve my Melody & Lyrics.
Harmony & Accompaniment can really make or break a song. They exist to serve and to ground the Melody & Lyrics. Harmony and overall Accompaniment are the environment's response to the character as conveyed by his/her inner monologue (vocal line). They react to and reinforce what the character is feeling.

     These are my priorities that guide me as a songwriter. For others there will be stark differences. For example, in heavy metal, instruments that are merely accompaniment in my songs will carry much more weight. And that's fine and central to the genre. But as for me, I'm never going to write a vocal melody to serve a guitar riff or drum beat. Hip-hop is another example of a style that would contradict my hierarchy. Beats are just as central to hip-hop as are melody and lyrics, if not more. So, as long as we're clear that I'm not up on a soapbox telling everyone that this is the only way, but that this is simply what works for me and the type of song I write, what is your songwriting hierarchy? If you're not a songwriter, what elements are most important to you as a listener?

- Jill <3

So, What is the "Secret Life of Songs"?

Every song has a story - where it came from, what it means, who or what inspired it. A lot goes on behind the scenes before a song gets to your ear. In "Secret Life of Songs", I'm giving you a free backstage pass and taking you behind the curtain for a look at how I write, how I borrow from other artists that inspire me, observations on aesthetic trends in pop, the great task of recording and my unswayable quest to "get my name out there" and share my music with the world.

I hope to hear from you all.

Much love,

- Jill <3