Of the new Lost in the Trees album, group leader Ari Picker says: "The ugly parts are uglier, and the pretty parts are prettier" than the band's past music. Those extreme textures, and the emotions that go along with them, are woven into A Church That Fits Our Needs, which will be released on March 20.
The North Carolina-based ensemble plays a lushly orchestrated blend of folk-pop and chamber music, largely a product of Picker's love of pop melody and conservatory training, a background he shares with his shifting collective of musicians. This approach allows the material to swing from deeply sad to nearly transcendent—no more so than on its latest work, a rich and moving evocation of loss and transformation, inspired in part by the 2009 death of Picker's artist mother.
A Church That Fits Our Needs is the second "national" album by Lost in the Trees, says Picker, a 30-year-old singer, songwriter and composer who is the primary architect of Lost in the Trees. It follows the band's pivotal 2010 album, All Alone in an Empty House.
But Picker acknowledged in a recent interview that his band released an earlier, self-titled recording on North Carolina's indie label Trekky Records. It was a "small and obscure affair, and I guess that is technically our first album. But at that point, we were really just selling it out of the trunk of our car, so to speak."
In fact, Lost in the Trees originally released All Alone in an Empty House on Trekky before it was picked up by the boutique label ANTI- Records, the same company that will release A Church That Fits Our Needs.
The night before the album hits the streets, Lost in the Trees will play at Plush, along with Seattle-based opening act Poor Moon.
It's easy to be blown away by the intricate arrangements on A Church That Fits Our Needs, and Picker says he found himself flexing his orchestral muscles more on this recording than in the past—especially in contrast with the more-intimate sound of the last Lost in the Trees work.
"All Alone in an Empty House was originally intended to be a very spare record. The orchestral elements were fused with songwriting elements ... and I'd intended to just write the most simple, full songs and have the orchestral elements hover around them. For Empty House, I was just getting introduced to a lot of classical music, and Joni Mitchell and stuff like that, and on this one, I was pushing myself more into modern classical realms, using dissonance, polyrhythms and different textures.
"With the new record, the arrangements are much more entrenched in the songs. I was just continually challenging myself, seeing how I could make it bigger."
In the new music of Lost in the Trees, one can hear a narrative unfolding, in a very cinematic way. But you can also hear in it the bold songwriting of Broadway and the theatrical art-rock of early David Bowie.
Says Picker: "I'm glad it comes across as something that has some continuity to it. I'm very attracted to the scope and sweep of orchestral music; as much as I like a good, concise pop song, I can't really write them."
He cites Phil Spector, Igor Stravinsky and the film scores of Bernard Herrmann as some of his more obvious inspirations when it comes to arranging. Others have compared Lost in the Trees songs to Radiohead, Neil Young, Bon Iver and the Beatles' "A Day in the Life."
You'd think it might take a lot of musicians to fill out Picker's orchestrations, and maybe it did at one point, but the band is down to a lean, efficient touring machine. "We have a core of six of us now. It was at one point up to 14, and about 30 musicians have cycled through the group over the years."
Picker grew up in Chapel Hill under the thrall of pop radio, but when he entered music school, he discovered not only classical music, but also the work of Electric Light Orchestra and the Beach Boys. His horizons expanded.
He says he never really planned on a career in music. It just naturally grew.
"I don't know if I ever really decided to pursue a career path in music. For a long time, it was just going through the motions, and then it became real somehow," he says. "Lady luck just pushed us in this direction while I was trying to write the best songs I could."
Picker adds that when ANTI- Records picked up All Alone in an Empty House, it was a turning point. "If they hadn't done that, we would never have been here now."
Re-creating the expansive sound of Lost in the Trees' records onstage is always a challenge, Picker says.
"There's a lot of acoustic instrumentation in what we do, and sometimes, that's hard to mic on stage. Although it's not our preference, because of the sound quality, we sometimes end up having to put DI (a direct-injection box) into a violin to artificially re-create the sound onstage," he says. "It's all just part of playing live. We have a lot more obstacles than some other bands."
Playing live means that Lost in the Trees is obligated to bring its music to the people, rather than vice versa. Picker says his band has played twice before in Tucson. On this tour, "We'll be gone for a month and a half for the first round, and probably then later again in the summer if we do well."
He doesn't hate touring, but it's not his favorite thing, either. He seems to view it as a necessary evil—just part of the job.
"Touring is really unhealthy. I prefer to get up at the same time every day, and sleep in the same bed every night, and wake up in the same town every day, and just be normal. For a tour, you just kind of have to throw yourself out there and hope it goes well. We have to view it as doing a job, going to work every day, and the slight inconvenience is a temporary condition."