A few years ago, Ari Picker, a writer, composer and the band leader of the North Carolina collective Lost in the Trees, was inadvertently forced to draw inspiration from tragedy.
While releasing the band’s orchestrally informed (Picker is a classically trained composer) folk/pop debut, 2009‘s All Alone in an Empty House, he lost his mother after she took her own life. Instead of wallowing in despair and shutting down, Picker decided to make the experience a transformative one. With his mother’s picture resting above where he wrote, Picker composed the band’s sophomore record, A Church That Fits Our Needs, as a tribute.
Steering clear of a heartachingly sad and depressing affair, Picker infused the record with enough upbeat pop flourishes and throwback cinematic touches to ensure that it was far more celebration than doom and gloom.
I recently spoke with the incredibly sanguine composer from his home in Carrboro, N.C. His band will make a stop at UCSD’s Loft space on Tuesday night.
Scott McDonald: Thanks for making the time. I know you guys are busy.
Ari Picker: Yeah, we’re heading off to Europe for two shows [laughs] before we come back to do South By Southwest.
SM: That would be crazy if it wasn’t to do the ATP (All Tomorrow’s Parties) Festival at the personal request of Jeff Mangum.
AP: You’re right. I love Neutral Milk Hotel, and they’re a huge influence for me, especially on the lyrical side of things.
SM: It’s a lot of messing around, but at least it seems like things are going very well for you guys.
AP: It’s certainly hard to contextualize it sometimes. But we have a lot of energy to keep doing it because I think the momentum’s been moving forward. The snowball has been getting bigger each time around.
SM: And deservedly so.
AP: Well, thanks. ANTI- has given us a fair shake at getting it out there in the way that we want to do it, and hopefully people respond. I think it’s good.
SM: There’s such a juxtaposition between the solemn nature of the genesis of the record and the music contained within it. Has the process been a cathartic one?
AP: I think the most healthy part for me is putting the grieving energy into the songwriting itself. The biggest release for me was when the songs began to form. The details might be somewhere else as you record the songs and think about how the orchestration and the recording sounds. But the most powerful part of it all was sitting down and starting the songs with those initial raw emotions. Then you release the record, promote it and play it out live, and it becomes a totally different world. They’re obviously connected, but in a lot of ways, they’re not. I don’t necessarily start at emotional step one, so to speak, every night when I play the songs live. It’s really about getting through the songs and not messing them up.
SM: The inspiration point here is such a unique one, and it’s interesting to me how much of a transformative nature it may have. You seem to have taken a more New Orleans celebratory approach, but you’re still drawing from such a significant life event. Moving forward, it should be interesting to see how they work within your catalog.
AP: I think the New Orleans approach is right on. Dealing with loss and grieving are very important to me, and when I started writing the record, I really wanted it to be more of a celebration honoring my mom, and I wanted to build a beautiful monument to her through music with intangible feelings. I did not want it to become drama drowned in tragedy -- or to exploit the tragedy of it through drama. And in a situation like that, I think it’s really easy to become angry, to blame or feel like the person is weak or failed. I just don’t want to remember her like that at all. So, celebratory is spot-on. But like I said, touring the record and promoting the record is such a different world. The purpose of writing the record is not to promote it, but I want to do that as well. I’m in a band, and I want it to be successful, have fun and be able to play these songs live. Art and commerce are like oil and water sometimes, but this narrative has allowed me to say what I wanted to say about it all. I’m not sure how these songs will fit in later, but I do look forward to expanding on many different things. We’ll see what happens.
SM: How have outside reactions been?
AP: People have come up to me and talked about similar situations, and how it’s helped them. And that has been really cool. While I have seen this as unique to me, it’s a universal thing as well. When someone connects to it on a level that provides them some support, or if they just want to be gloomy for a while, all of it is OK.
SM: Where does your fine art fit into the music making?
AP: I do like drawing, and I did the art for one of the Lost in the Trees records. I’m very involved in the layout and design and I’d like to really expand on the multimedia side of things.
SM: How do you feel about terms like "orchestral pop” or “chamber pop?”
AP: [Laughs] I don’t know. It’s funny, I get all kinds of different things. I heard “orchestral folk” recently, and it bugs me sometimes. If any label sticks for too long, it’ll start to bug me. And I certainly don’t think this record is a folk record. The last record was coming from a more folk-inspired place, so hopefully with this one, that’ll disappear. I tried to throw the folk thing out the window and incorporate the arrangements more into the songs. But more than anything, I just try to make artful music that’s beautiful.
SM: You’ve had quite a range of live setups. What does it look like on this tour?
AP: There’s six of us this time. I just sing and play guitar mostly. That’s about all I can handle [laughs]. Then we have French horn, keyboards, tuba, bass, two string players and a lot of the normal band setups. We were in limbo for awhile there. Are we a performing-arts kind of thing? Are we a pop band? Should we be playing museums and art spaces or clubs? We just didn’t know where we fit in.
SM: What changed?
AP: When we started working with our booking agent, we found ourselves more on the club circuit and listening to a lot more current music. And that was a big influence on me. Seeing a lot more modern bands play every night helped me to push the music in a certain direction. It’s a little more bombastic and translates a little stronger in the club setting. Our last record was more acoustic and didn’t always work as well in that environment.
SM: Where does Lost in the Trees go from here?
AP: Well, we’ll be on tour for the next few months. It’s all band time. Being on the road, promoting and playing the record is pretty much what the next year looks like for me. But I do want this record to be played by larger ensembles at some point. I am working on an orchestra book for a tour like that, and I have a few larger orchestral works that I wouldn’t mind having the time to sit down and work on [laughs]. And I do have a degree in film music, so I wouldn’t mind doing some scoring, and perhaps, filmmaking in the future as well. But we’ll see. I think I’ll just take it one thing at a time.