Road to 'Church' a Painful One for Lost in the Trees
Austin's public radio station provides a platform for select artists during the music festival, presenting four hourlong sets each day between Wednesday and Saturday. It's great for exposure, but it also means rising early -- ridiculously early -- for bands like Lost in the Trees, which kicked off the series at 7 a.m. on March 14.
"There were a few croaks in there," Lost in the Trees founder, songwriter singer and guitarist Ari Picker told Billboard after finishing their early morning set at the Four Seasons hotel.
As he does after so many of his answers, Picker punctuated his comment with a bit of an uncomfortable chuckle likely attributable to the jet lag -- they had just flown in from London where they performed on the 12th -- and the early hour. Add to that the fact that they had to prepare for at least another five performances in three days, it was no wonder Picker appeared a bit awed by the situation.
Lost in the Trees, a sextet based in North Carolina, was in Austin to promote their second album for the Anti- label, "A Church That Fits Our Needs," which will be released March 20. It's a significant step from their first Anti- disc yet is a clear progression as Picker aims to unite the simplicity of folk music with orchestrations inspired by classical music, the sort of music he studied at Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts.
Further enhancing the new album is its subject matter: Picker has created a song cycle based on his mother's death in 2009. His mother, Karen Shelton, a visual artist who ran a gallery, took her own life after years of battling with cancer. The album took two years to complete.
"There were certainly frustrating parts -- the narrative part was something I wanted to get right," Picker says, wearing only a gray T-shirt, jeans and a Homeslice Pizza ball cap in the chilly morning. "It was painful to push myself, but it was cathartic. I just felt i had to be doing it, I had to write it."
Picker says the first song he wrote for the album was "Icy River," a song that opens with a simple finger-picked guitar part and then blossoms with the introduction of strings. Lyrically the most direct song on the album, he sings:
"Put your arms around my mother
I burned her body in the furnace
Till all that was left was her glory
Don't you ever dare
Think she was weak hearted
She led me to the woods
Where our church was started
Like a ribbon of silver
I poured her body in the river
I don't care what happens to my art
Left in a pile behind the shed to rot
And I put you in my painting every single time."
"This album is certainly less linear than the first album ('All Alone in an Empty House')," he says. "That was more memories and figuring out how the past was affecting my future. This is more expressionistic, talking about the afterlife and death, things your brain can't process that well. One moment your creating a landscape and in the next phrase, you're relying on a memory.
"This record is different because when we were touring we were listening to more bands like Grizzly Bear, Blonde Redhead and Radiohead plus more modern classical like Shostakovich and Stravinsky. It led me to make (on our record) the beautiful parts more beautiful and the ugly parts uglier."
"A Church That Fits Our Needs" is Picker's second homage to his mother. The first occurred when she was alive and CBS News' "Early Show" did a "Week of Wishes" feature on her based on a letter he had written to the producers in the hopes they would help with, firstly, a makeover. They provided the makeover as well art supplies and a showing of her work.
At the time of the CBS piece Picker had returned home to the Chapel Hill, N.C., area to work on Lost in the Trees, which began as an informal ensemble after the returned to North Carolina in 2008. He says about 35 people have been in the band -- "I was charting out the parts and handing them out to whoever wanted to play. Now with Anti- involved, it's more finite and the band can be more of a congealed thing. That was important to me."
The sextet of Picker, Andrew Anagnost (cello), Emma Nadeau (French horn, trumpet, piano, harp and bells), Jenavieve Varga (violin), Leah Gibson (cello) and Mark Daumen (tuba, bass, piano, harp and bells) heads to San Diego to begin a tour on March 20 that will hit 23 North American cities and wrap April 20 in Carrboro, N.C. Like all of their tours to date, it's a combination of rock clubs and venues more likely to present contemporary folk (the Cedar Cultural center in Minneapolis) or classical music (Museum of Fine Arts in Boston).
"We've adjusted to playing clubs, Picker says, getting into details about amplifying acoustic instruments and trying to retain the beauty of their sound while shaving sufficient volume to be heard.
In the rock club scenario, too, Picker is aware that set lists have strike a balance of the old and the new and the uptempo music on the new album will have a different role in the live space than on the record. He says it has been suggested that they play the album in sequence and he thinks he'd like to try it once, but notes "sometimes it's good if you break up the linear, it makes it more artful."