'Pretty Little Liars' music: Singer-songwriter Chris Arena gives an inside look

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For singer-songwriter Chris Arena, everything changed the night that he heard Alexi Murdoch’s “Orange Sky” on The O.C. In that moment, he decided to walk away from a life filled with touring and paying bars to perform so that he could get a chance to really be heard. Realizing what great television music moments could be, he decided to focus on cinematic music.

“[The O.C.] broke so many good acts,” Arena said. “It almost set the tone for, I feel like, the Grey’s Anatomys and the Dawson’s Creeks; those shows really paved the way for this whole movement of new artists focusing on cinematic music. I just picked a point and focused.”

More specifically, he picked ABC Family’s hit show Pretty Little Liars. “My brother [and] his girlfriend – they’re a little younger than I am – he and his girlfriend and all her friends, they’re obsessed with the show. They would talk about it and geek out on it. I just thought that was a good target. I wasn’t really familiar with the show that much, and I started watching it, and I kind of secretly developed a really strong liking for the show, and I thought it was interesting. It worked out really nicely because they needed a lot of music that dealt with heartbreak and singer-songwriter acoustics. It was a nice match.”

So with that idea in mind, Arena started writing. “I started to write songs based on some of the scenes I’d been watching, and to put it in a polite way, I kind of harassed this one editor at Pretty Little Liars and sent him maybe 10 or 15 fully produced songs,” Arena said. “The first eight or nine didn’t get a response, and then he finally picked up on one, and he said, ‘We’re gonna try it out.’ And they used a 17-second clip of a song called “Babyfish.” They had a lot of people that got on board with the music, and they invited me to the editing bay, and one thing led to another. It worked out pretty well, actually. It was a very organic, natural process in that sense.”

Now, Arena has had six songs featured on Pretty Little Liars, as well as another on the now-canceled spinoff Ravenswood. So how does the process work? Well for starters, Arena is given months to brainstorm, write, and produce his music. For example, he was brought to the studio back in August to watch the Caleb and Hanna breakup scene, which would later air in the show’s Jan. 7 winter premiere.

“Basically they’ll show me the raw footage so you’ll see like the director saying ‘cut’ and then you’ll see the producer come over and put makeup on Ashley Benson’s face. Because the editors have five or six different camera points, they’re not really sure what they’re going to use, and what was interesting was, when they started to interject the music, it helped them shape the scene because it was a focal point in the sense [in that] it was pulling a lot of the emotion out. I had an idea for a song and I brought the rough, and the editors put it in their software and they load it up, and they put the music on and they started to pick and choose from different camera angles. It’s very trial [and] error.”

But things aren’t always so quick and easy. Arena’s situation is a rare one in Hollywood. Instead of the Pretty Little Liars music supervisor watching a scene and searching for the perfect song to go along with it, Arena’s getting in on the ground floor and writing specifically for an on-screen moment. And that means he has to come prepared with a number of options for the editors. “It’s almost like playing a game,” Arena said. “You go in there with a whole arsenal of material. They’re almost like little vignettes. Sometimes I’ll just have a chorus and a lyric or maybe just a guitar riff, just something really simple, and they’ll say, ‘That’s an interesting idea, why don’t you develop that more?’ And sometimes I’ll go in there and I’ll have a song that I haven’t looked at or touched in years and they’ll just put it in. It’s the weirdest thing.”

And as a singer-songwriter, the show can also serve as a platform for his work … but not always. “When they use a song, what I usually do is I release it myself on iTunes, and I try to release it like a couple days before and start getting people aware of the song and the show. It’s a very finicky process because you’re not really sure who’s going to pick up on it because it really depends on the placement of the song —  if it’s a featured vocal, or if it’s a background vocal. I’ve had some songs, they’re very forefront and the sales from iTunes show that, but there are other ones where the music is strictly background, and I’ve sold honestly like three or four copies of it.”

But Arena isn’t focusing on iTunes sales. For now, his head is still in the cinematic game. Overall, Arena compares the process to being a composer, but instead of creating theatrical music, he’s creating singer-songwriter music. “I’m like an independent contractor, like a composer who doesn’t really compose in a traditional sense,” Arena said.

And with filming on Pretty Little Liars‘ season 5 just around the corner, he’s already back to work. On March 26, he will turn around five more potential songs for the future enjoyment of Little Liars everywhere.

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