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.


  1. This is interesting. I am really glad that you always know what you are doing when you write music. Things do not seem to be accidental for you, or at least, when they are, you know why they work for you, and so many musicians are missing this simple idea of doing things with a *reason*. Incidentally, I love Sentenced so much. They do break my heart, but I can never give them up.

  2. This is a test. If you get notified of this commend, maybe it will show you what e-mail is associated with this blog.