Ari Picker deliberately shed the acclaimed nuances of his previous album in order to uncover fresh ones for his new release.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
It’s February in Chapel Hill, N.C., and traffic has seized amidst a brutal winter storm. Ari Picker, the leader of the elegant and emotional art-pop outfit Lost in the Trees, answers his phone while trying to navigate the treacherous roads, begging his interviewer to try him in an hour. When the reporter reaches him again, he’s rustling up some firewood, having made it safely to the country home he shares with his wife and her parents — but just barely: A school bus nearly skidded into him on the icy roads, not long before he narrowly avoided sliding into another vehicle. After catching his breath, Picker is ready to talk.
He describes his snowy drive with the same matter-of-fact tone with which he discusses Past Life (Anti-), Lost in the Trees’ game-changing third LP. In both cases, his tone is a bit surprising. On the new album, Picker and his bandmates recast the swirling strings and earnest acoustics that framed its expected orchestral folk — solidified on 2008’s All Alone in an Empty House and expanded on 2012’s A Church That Fits Our Needs — draping the composer’s hypnotic melodies and airy croon with subtle psychedelics, sly electric guitars, and processed beats.
There’s nothing “orchestral” or “folk” about it, but Picker doesn’t seem nervous about alienating his fans. Like driving home in the snow, shifting the band’s sound was something he simply had to do. And, despite the dramatic changes, Past Life was definitely the least daunting record for Picker to make. Lost in the Trees old material excavates memories of his life with his mother, an artist who battled depression and breast cancer and ultimately succumbed to the strain of her trying life. She took her own life in 2009 after returning home from Ari’s wedding.
One of Picker’s previous songs depicts a terrible argument between his mother and estranged father. Another wrings uplifting poetry from his journey to the Haw River to scatter her ashes. Writing these songs was a powerful experience, but it’s one that he’s glad to have behind him. Past Life finds him moving on to less personal subjects.
“That whole thing was just really heavy,” Picker explains. “I certainly didn’t want to be at the center for the project and explore certain areas of my life again. I feel like I’ve done that enough.”
He’d also had enough of blending his pop and orchestral impulses. Having played with Chapel Hill’s sorely underrated The Never before he ventured to Boston’s Berklee College of Music for classical training, Picker has distinct tastes and talents for each style. Coming into Past Life, he says he considered making an album of chamber music, perhaps under his own name instead of the Lost in the Trees moniker. But he was lured by the simpler and more direct charms of playing rock songs with his friends.
“I just wanted to feel like what it was like being in a band,” he says. “It felt like such an ensemble in the past. I guess they’re different things, ensembles and bands. It just felt good to get in a room and play music that was more oriented toward the instruments that we were playing, instruments suited for a rock club.”
For Past Life, Picker revamped both the band’s lineup and its aesthetic, though neither choice was particularly deliberate — not initially, at least. He’s quick to express his affection for the group’s past members, but he says he realized that he’d pushed that vision as far as he could. He could either move on, or risk running Lost in the Trees into a potentially lethal rut.
Keen to limit the meticulousness that gripped him while making his previous two albums, he would spend the first part of his day demoing, improvising vocal melodies as he went. When his time there was done, he would return home to edit, bereft of recording equipment. Unable to nitpick, his compositions grew organically, building on hypnotic drum loops and minimal instrumentation. With songs written, he changed his pattern once more, assembling a five-piece rock lineup and taking them on a short tour before they entered the studio, the first time he’d worked out songs live before putting them to tape.
“It was interesting,” Picker says. “We kind of worked up to this more rock version of the record, and then we went in and the beats were more of a fusion of live playing and sampling drums and recording the drum kit as if it were a beat machine. It was great to learn how to play the record one way and then record it a totally different way.”
Past Life is simultaneously Lost in the Trees’ tightest and most open-sounding affair. The rhythms ratchet with almost mechanical precision, as keys and guitars find cyclical formations of their own. These lattices leave room for harmonic richness, often brought on by the eerie beauty of Emma Nadeau’s operatic backing vocals, as immediate a signifier of Lost in the Trees’ sound as any string instrument ever was.
It’s Nadeau’s softly billowing sighs that open the album on “Exocs,” deftly diffusing a sharp piano melody. Horns gust through soon thereafter, followed by blankets of astringent synthesizer. But the most striking moment comes when the music all but drops out; Nadeau’s plaintive singing joins Picker, who delivers the chorus with little more than a whisper — “And all I ever want/ Is your heart.”
Like all of Lost in the Trees’ best moments, “Exocs” is fragile but fierce, with desperation giving way to strength and resolve. Past Life goes in many thrilling directions: “Daunting Friend” swells with booming vocals and shimmering guitars that recall the softer side of U2’s Achtung Baby. The closing “Upstairs” glides along with a crisp riff and skittering drums, recalling some of Beck’s more unguarded moments.
But whatever new tricks it tries, Past Life never loses its sense of brittle but unyielding passion. For everything that’s changed for Lost in the Trees, the important things remain the same.
“For me, lyrics and writing songs is a bit of an opportunity for me to feel like I’m connecting to something spiritual,” Picker offers. “I don’t really go to church, so when I start writing lyrics, it’s normally finding images that point to questions that I have in life; not that I’m answering them. I’m just interacting with them.”
Lost In The Trees kicked off the second leg of their tour this week in Asheville. Tour dates below.
4/15 Asheville, NC – The Mothlight
4/16 Nashville, TN – High Watt *
4/18 Chicago, IL – Schubas *
4/21 Madison, WI – Frequency *
4/22 Minneapolis, MN – 7th Street Entry *
4/23 Omaha, NE – Slowdown *
4/24 St Louis, MO – Old Rock House *
4/25 Hot Springs, AR – Low Key Arts
4/26 Dallas, TX – Three Links
4/27 Austin, TX – Holy Mountain
4/29 Houston, TX – Fitzgerald’s
4/30 New Orleans, LA – Gasa Gasa
5/1 Atlanta, GA – The Earl
5/2 Winston-Salem, NC – Krankies
5/6 Miami, FL – The Fillmore ~
5/7 Orlando, FL – Beacham Theater ~
5/8 Ponte Vedra, FL – Ponte Vedra Concert Hall ~
* with All Tiny Creatures
# with Icy Demons
~ with The Head and the Heart