Lost In The Trees: Still Reborn


Recovering from emotional catharsis, Ari Picker reinvents Lost In The Trees

Ari Picker felt exhausted and burned out by Lost In The Trees’ A Church That Fits Our Needs. The 2012 album memorialized Picker’s mother, artist Karen Shelton who committed suicide in 2008, and it tested his composition skills, since he wanted to stretch the orchestral elements that had been part of the band’s previous album, All Alone In An Empty House, and include much of what he learned while earning his Berklee degree in film scoring and composition. The project was deeply personal and deeply ambitious.

“I was just thinking about it so hard,” says Picker, “and trying to include all these different techniques that I had learned, but not making it sound forced; wanting it to have these jagged moments, but still for it to be beautiful. And then, you know, the whole narrative of the thing—it was exhausting. It’s a miracle that it got done.”

But it did get done. It made many critics’ 2012 top-10 lists (including the top spot for the Wall Street Journal), and it led the North Carolina band to appear at New York’s Lincoln Center for the American Songbook Series. But the tour that preceded that show was fraught with challenges: Rock clubs weren’t the ideal venues for the band’s delicate dynamics and string arrangements for cellos and violins. After all that, Picker questioned his desire to make another album.

But he has made another. Past Life (Anti-) jettisons many of Church’s identifying markers: It’s abstract and impressionistic rather than overtly personal, and it’s minimalist rather than maximalist. It relies more on electric guitars and synthesizers than on string sections, and when the strings are attached, they come more often in isolated lines than in elaborate counterpoint and harmonies. And, aside from vocalist and keyboard player Emma Nadeau and bassist Mark Daumen, it’s a new band, with the three string players replaced by drummer Kyle Keegan and electric guitarist Joah Tunnell. It’s a step away from Church’s elaborate classical orchestrations.

“I had taken that sound as far as I could with the last record,” says Picker. “It had evolved and then peaked with the last record. I needed to do something a little more simple and spontaneous, and just something not quite as heavy as the last two records had been. The heaviness of the whole project kind of wiped me out. I kind of rebounded from that by shaking up the rules or what my process was. Instead of writing a whole bunch of counterpoint and orchestral arrangements, I decided to play a synthesizer and see what happens. That’s kind of where it came from.”

His new process began with creating little loops on a synthesizer and then working with fragments of lyrics and melodies to build a song. He calls the method liberating. “Those restrictions and those spaces allowed me to surprise myself a lot,” he says. “The process let me reach out and grab ideas, rather than chasing some feeling that I had inside me.”

The album ranges from choral opener “Excos” and the earthy electric guitar riffs of the title track to the shifting orchestration of the beautiful “Glass Harp” and the piano loops of “Wake” and the ghostly “Lady In White.”

“Because there is less of it, then the things that are there can be bigger,” says Picker. “This music is more informed by going on tour and seeing other bands and listening to a little bit more current music, where the other albums are more isolated as far as their influences; or I was in a bubble, so to speak, either in music school or listening to a lot of ancient music, classical music or something like that. I listen to all sorts of different kinds of music, and I never meant Lost In The Trees to be one thing or the other; it just so happens that the last few records have had a sound, and now we’re shifting to another. I admire a lot of artists who kind of reinvent themselves as they go on. It’s boring to do the same thing over and over.”

To that end, the new band road-tested the songs before recording them, and Picker brought in an outside producer for the first time for a Lost In The Trees album. Nicolas Vernhes, who has worked with Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective and Deerhunter, helped strip away elements (“Glass Harp,” one of the album’s most orchestrated songs, was even more so in earlier incarnations). Picker also wanted to step away from the center of the lyrics. Past Life avoids an overarching narrative, especially one fraught with autobiographical elements, although themes and motifs unify the album.

“It’s definitely a romantic record—I wanted it to have some love in it,” he says. “It seems to me—and I discovered this as I was writing it—that the narrative became about two different souls or entities or things that were shaping each other through different lives in this adventurous, romantic way. It didn’t become much more concrete than that.”

Picker hasn’t abandoned the interest in orchestral arrangements that he’s had since falling in love with Pet Sounds and Smile as a youth. But for now he wants to keep that separate from Lost In The Trees. He’s writing a symphony and a chamber piece for a concert-hall performance.

“It’s much different than showing up for band practice,” he says. “You’re thinking about harmony and voice leading and orchestration and the timbre and voices of different instruments. It’s like putting something under the microscope.”

Still, fans of A Church That Fits Our Needs need not be wary of Past Life, unless they were just in it for the strings. The album still contains the subtle emotions and thoughtful atmosphere of past Lost In The Trees LPs, with Picker’s delicate tenor voice at the emotional center. But it allows for more space, clarity and immediacy. The changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, as Picker, somewhat reluctantly, admits.

“It is funny,” he says. “You think you’re doing something really drastic and different, and you step back and it’s still me, I guess. It’s not as much of a change as I thought it was going to be.”

—Steve Klinge