Loss is one of the most well-worn themes when it comes to music — the working out of that empty feeling through lyrics and notes. Although a familiar trope, there are many, many ways to portray loss — as a whisper, a dirge or a celebration. Lost In The Trees’ Ari Picker chose the latter, fashioning a soaring cathedral of an album in honor of his mother — the debut of which recently propelled the band to the number-one spot on the MTV Music Meter.
A Church That Fits Our Needs (which dropped March 20) is Picker and Co.’s second album, and was written as a kind of memorial to his artist mother Karen Shelton, who took her own life in the summer of 2009. Shelton’s picture makes up the album’s cover, and its palpitatingly lovely tracks — embroidered with the golden thread that is Picker’s voice — house her memory.
The record is a followup to Picker’s debut disc as frontman of Lost In The Trees, All Alone In An Empty House, a similarly emotional album dealing with Picker’s family and the turmoil he witnessed between his parents growing up.
The O Music Blog caught up with Picker on the road to find out more about his new album, what it’s like to pour your heart out with every song and what’s on the horizon for the Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based band. Spoiler: Joy could be making its way into his next body of work.
So you’re out with your second album as Lost In The Trees. I hear you were in some bands before that. Were they pretty different?
[We played] kind of poppy, uber poppy songs. I’ve grown pretty far away from it at this point. But, yeah, I’ve always played — always tried to write songs and play music. Some of the more experimental songwriting just took place with me in my bedroom with a four-track, and I would be in bands and we would play pop rock songs about girls or something like that.
Getting older, you want to keep playing music and you become mature and want to do something more artful. So I started backlashing against the pop for the sake of pop kind of thing and trying to write something that was more interesting and meaningful and progressive. I kind of delved into film music and gospel music and tried to make that a part of what I was doing.
Do you remember what your first song was like?
I don’t think it was very good [laughs]. I think what I was drawn to were more sad kinds of songs — it felt good to listen to sad music, I think. So I think my original songs were kind of sad, mixed with sound collages and weird, quirky things like that — mashing up windchimes on the porch with field recordings that I would take around town. But when I was writing with friends and other people I would be more into pop and Weezer and things like that. We tried to do power pop things and it kind of got a little dweeby. I don’t know, I don’t even like talking about it [laughs].
You say you were a Weezer fan, but you’re obviously into classical music. Were you always influenced by that genre?
Not really. I listened to a lot of Pink Floyd. Atom Heart Mother was a big record for me — that’s kind of rock classical. The Beach Boys, the Beatles — any time I heard that orchestral texture I got kind of excited about it. That’s kind of where I was as a kid. As I got older I got more interested in film music — I went to college to study film music. So I started working my way backwards through the gigantic world of orchestral classical music. That’s when my arrangements started including those elements. I think that’s really beautiful and I wanted to incorporate it as best I could. I wasn’t raised with it, so there’s a lot of growing pains to try to incorporate that stuff. So it’s been five or six years since I started listening to that kind of music and trying to work with it.
So you’re one of the few bands I’ve talked to who has stayed in their hometown. Do you take a lot of inspiration from Chapel Hill?
Yeah, I don’t know. I guess it does [have an impact]. The whole folk element that the last record has — I don’t necessary think that the new record is very folky, but some people do I guess. But I think that just comes from being in North Carolina and hearing all the bluegrass music and folk music — that kind of trickled in there, I guess. But I don’t know. You grow up somewhere and there’s all those kinds of feelings surrounding that location — I just never had any interest in moving away. I’m kind of a homebody, I guess.
Do you still live in the exact same town?
No, I grew up in a small little town. I don’t live there anymore. There were like 180 people there. But then there’s the college town just a few miles up the road, so I moved to Chapel Hill. The music scene there is great and there’s a lot of pretty cultural people. There’s a lot of stuff going on. The band is there, too, and all my friends. They’re a huge part of the project.
Is the band’s lineup completely solidified now?
The people in the band have mostly been in the band since the beginning. The band used to be a lot bigger and had this kind of revolving cast on the outer edges, but the core of the band been very stable.
So how has it been having to do so many interviews about this album? Is it weird, since it’s so personal?
I guess sometimes. Sometimes I’m kind of in the head space for it, and sometimes I’ll have woken up on tour after playing a show at one in the morning. Then I’m on the phone and they’re asking me personal questions and I’m like, ‘I’m not even awake yet.’ I don’t know. I guess I knew what I was getting into, so I try to be as graceful as I can. You know, making a record and the whole universe surrounding that is much different than promoting a record and playing live shows. I just made the record that I needed to make and hope that I can be as graceful as I can in the promo side of things.
Is there anything that you’re tired of being asked?
[laughs] Do you want to ask me something? Are you scared?
No, I’m just curious. It seems like you have to answer the same questions over and over; I always wonder what bands just don’t want to talk about anymore.
I don’t know. I think for me the worst interviews are like, ‘So you’re in a band… Tell me about it.’ For me, it’s always the whole personal aspect of the story. My biggest fear is cheapening the story or people thinking that I’m exploiting the story. But that’s not the case. I’m trying to come at it from a really positive angle versus doom and gloom. That’s where I’m coming from with it. I think so far everything that I’ve read has come from a more celebratory angle, and that’s what I was going for. I’m glad people are stepping forth with that versus– I guess there’s tragedy in the story and I get that that would be easy to run with. But people have been patient and listened to the story.
So people are recognizing that it’s a tribute to your mom. It seems like you’ve always been honoring her. I was doing some research online and came across an Early Show segment where you won her a makeover…
Yeah, that was a really bizarre experience [laughs]. I don’t know [laughs]. You just had to write a letter. It’s weird, because it [the suicide] happened a half a year later — the whole thing was somewhat bizarre. I haven’t watched that thing. I know it’s out there. It kind of weirds me out a little bit.
You put things on the Internet and they never go away.
I know, it’s bizarre. You can play a show that doesn’t go as well as you hoped, and it’s trapped forever on the Internet. Every interview or radio show you do.
Yeah, I also think there’s another Ari Picker out there. Which is kind of confusing. He plays bass…
Yeah, I think my dad friended him on Facebook before he friended me.
So are you guys working on anything new?
I guess I write at home mostly. This record kind of took everything I possibly had. So I’m on a little bit of writing break. But there’s a few directions and vibes — kind of intangible, abstract things that are kind of getting my attention. I don’t know, maybe I should try to write a happier record, or something more upbeat. The past two records have been very — the whole domestic story. I don’t think I need to write about that anymore.
Image courtesy of Facebook, Lost In The Trees