Lost In The Trees craft a living monument
By Topher Manilla
Lost in the Trees’ Ari Picker pays tribute to his late mother with the band’s devastating and beautiful new LP
How much personal pain and real-life tragedy can be laid bare in pop music without over-sharing? And if there is in fact a line, is crossing it where the therapeutic part begins for the artist? Or for the listener seeking a particular kind of solace?
Lost in the Trees’ Ari Picker has never been one to shy away from putting his painful past into his songs. The group’s sophomore release, All Alone in an Empty House, was speckled with dark memories of his family and youth, juxtaposed with lilting, near-joyous compositions. During the summer before that album’s re-release on the mammoth indie imprint Anti-, Picker’s mother took her own life. Now, her life and death, and Picker’s hopes for her afterlife, have become the focus of Lost in the Trees’ follow-up, A Church That Fits Our Needs. And no emotionally heartbreaking stone is left unturned. The death of Picker’s infant twin sisters years ago and his mother’s cremation are both here. As one might expect, the music is darker and more sweeping, with weightier atmospherics than its predecessor.
But on the phone, just days before Lost in the Trees is set to fly to the UK to play in the Jeff Mangum-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, Picker, 30, is downright jovial. That’s quite contrary to the misanthrope for which I had battened my hatches.
“My fear is the story will be perceived wrong,” Picker says of being transparent with the album’s truths in the marketing and during interviews. “I came at it from an angle to honor her life, to build a monument for her. (She’s) the reason I make art. She used art to raise me. There is certainly anger, but ultimately this has been healthy.”
Picker’s mother was an artist whose depression resulted from a history of personal tragedies and medical hardships, and it’s her pensive, piercing stare that adorns the cover of the album. She’s the one who often brought art into the family’s quotidian life. She would often decorate their house in interesting ways, once spray-painting the fallen leaves vibrant gold and bringing them into their large farmhouse in Bynum, N.C.
“She always made ordinary things beautiful,” Picker says.
Like Midlake’s Trials of Van Occupanther, Joanna Newsom’s Ys or maybe even Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, the lyrical themes are cloaked in a language of subtle, recurring personal signifiers. Like those records, too, the music rises and falls, twists and snakes, crests and breaks, across the record. Picker’s referencing more modern Russian composers like Stravinsky in his arrangements matching them with the insistent, organic-meets-mechanic percussion of Radiohead. And his oft-falsetto tenor takes each of these minor-key torch songs up into the heavens. In other words, Picker’s not writing for the passive listener.
Picker’s memories of his mother — her garden, the golden leaves, her art — fed into his visions of her afterlife. The real and the imagined make the palette with which he chose to paint the album. Gold, red, villain, armor, garden, the ocean/sea — all of these motifs pop up continually, though it’s sometimes unclear who the narrator is and to whom they are speaking. “There’s less of an arc. It’s non-linear,” Picker explains.
“I kept imagining her floating 20 feet above the earth in golden armor — but not like Lord of the Rings armor,” Picker says. “And, it sounds strange to say, but just imagining her enjoying the universe – the way she couldn’t in her life.”
But for all the grandiosity, the shattering emotional touchstones of the record are often very simple. The strings that accompany “Golden Eyelids” swing wide and rise like the ones that lift Dorothy away in The Wizard of Oz‘s famous Cyclone sequence. They’re touching but also crushing, as evocative as any lyric in the song. And the phrase “Because she breathed/I breathe” encased in the acoustic strummer “The Dead Bird Is Beautiful,” may be as much resolve as anyone can find in a mother’s suicide.
Picker began writing the record almost immediately after her death in 2009, working at a desk below the photo of his mother that serves as the cover image. But after all the time spent pondering death, he doesn’t think the writing experience has given him any more insight into the great beyond than any other anxious human being.
“You can think about it in a creative way. It’s how I handled it, and I still don’t understand death anymore than anyone,” he says. “Death is still just as abstract and mysterious.”
Recorded in bedrooms and out-buildings by Picker in Chapel Hill, A Church was mixed by Rob Schnapf, known for his work with Elliot Smith and as one of the minds behind Beck’s early 90s’ slacker-anthem, “Loser.”
“I’ve always been so focused on arrangement, but not so focused on performance and atmosphere,” says Picker, who studied composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “For this one, the atmosphere had to be just right. Because I was feeling such an intense thing, I created a very narrow path for myself. I was so concerned with the atmosphere and vibe of the record that I cycled through several mixers before Rob.”
With Schnapf’s involvement, it’s difficult not to hear a bit of Smith’s uncomfortably-close songwriting at play here, or maybe even make connections from Smith’s self-inflicted tragedy to Picker’s mother. But the latter connection would not only be a stretch, it would also miss the point. Ultimately, A Church That Fits Our Needs is the kind of document we all want to create for our lost loves and friends. It’s unselfish with its immense and mysterious pain. An equally unselfish, painstaking care has also been put into creating the labyrinth of atmosphere, storytelling and arrangement to cradle these difficult emotions. And both are devastating – and devastatingly beautiful.