A Church That Fits Our Needs explores the tragic life of frontman’s mother
The most unspeakable tragedies can catalyse some of the richest music. Such is certainly true of the new album by Lost in the Trees, a North Carolina folk/instrumental band captained by singer/songwriter Ari Picker. The cover for A Church That Fits Our Needs is a photo of a forlorn looking woman—Picker’s mother Karen, who committed suicide in 2009 soon after leaving his wedding. The album, out now on Anti-Records, is Karen’s story through her son’s eyes.
Karen’s life was stamped with a series of calamities: losing her twin daughters at birth, being diagnosed with breast cancer (as well as depression), and her grim death. Picker sings about his mother, to his mother, and as his mother, fully inhabiting her story and in essence making a defence to anyone who might call her “weakhearted.”
“It was a very scary topic to jump into,” he says, “and I wanted to honour her and who she was, and encapsulate that in a certain kind of music, a certain kind of lyrics. I was really daunted by it. It wasn’t like she died and there was this huge outpour of songs. It was a very meticulous, painful process of writing something that really captured all those complicated emotions, and putting my mother in this otherworldly place, and portraying her as an angel and thinking about the afterlife.”
The lyrics may be wrapped in mythic and metaphoric language, but they are still raw and courageously confessional. On the gentle, string-borne “Icy River”, Picker sings: “Icy river, put your arms around my mother. I burned her body in a furnace, till all that’s left was her glory.”
Picker says the experience of writing these deeply personal songs, many of them in her voice, was cathartic. “She was a very emotionally intense person,” he says, “and I think I built an emotional wall against her. That protected me, but it also covered up a lot of beautiful qualities that I didn’t fully recognize when she was alive. When she died, and I let myself open up to who she was and I chose to write the record in a way that celebrated her, it tore that wall down. I was able to appreciate her more.”
“The dead bird is beautiful,” he sings on the song of the same title. “We found her at peace. She has my eyes, she has my eyes. The golden glow that glowed all night. Don’t you say she was weak. I’ll carry her. Because she breathed I breathe.”
Lost in the Trees’ first album, All Alone in an Empty House, was likewise an introspective exploration of Picker’s unhappy childhood. He cites songwriters like Roger Waters, Joni Mitchell, and Jeff Mangum for encouraging his boldness to bare his soul in the lyrics he writes.
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m putting too much of myself out there, and sometimes I get embarrassed,” he admits. “But then half of it’s kind of an armour. You’re writing these songs to gain some perspective, and almost protect yourself from it—or learn how to use the energy from it in a productive way, a healthy way.”
Before forming Lost in the Trees Picker studied film music composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and there is a clear influence of cellular film scoring in the orchestral tapestries he weaves around the folk/pop songs. Referencing composers Bernard Herrmann and Danny Elfman, his string arrangements add both a darkness and hypnotic elegance to the songs, which themselves range from jagged and surreal to downright catchy.
“I think classical and film music are very beautiful,” he says. “I’m a songwriter first, so combining those elements was something that I set out to do. It’s a balancing act, of trying to seamlessly connect those two dots.”
Picker’s vocals add an interesting instrument to the band’s diverse ensemble (which includes a French horn, cello, violin, and tuba), as he intones words in a boyish falsetto and unorthodox pronunciation. “I don’t really understand my voice,” he confesses. “So maybe I’m deliberately modifying it because I’m afraid of it. It’s hard for me. I don’t really like my voice. When we first started on this record, I was literally distorting my vocals. Everybody around me was like, ‘Why are you doing that?’”
His voice, though—vulnerable and slightly broken—is just the right vessel for these lyrics about a boy crying out to his mother, and crying out as her surrogate, her intercessor. A Church That Fits Our Needs is a poetic celebration and mourning of a woman most of us never knew, but now do.Tagged in: A Church That Fits Our Needs, Lost in the Trees, music
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