TAS In Session: Lost In The Trees
Certain albums are meant to be most fully appreciated in the solitude and icy silence of winter. Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago and Sigur Rós Takk come quickly to mind, as does the achingly handsome debut from North Carolina orchestral folk rockers Lost in the Trees, the brutally beautiful All Alone in An Empty House.
Although not a concept album, the songs, all written by frontman Ari Picker, are thorny, familial laments of a child's keen observation of his parents' tormented marriage. Although the lyrics are layered with anguish and recriminations, songs like "For Leah and Chloe," dedicated to Picker's deceased sisters, are illuminated by lightning forks of hope whilst other, tougher perspectives are gently set against a wash of acoustic guitars, howling and hushed vocals and classical arrangements, linking one not-quite-linear thought to the next. Released on Trekky Records back in 2008, the unusual album was re-released this year on Anti- Records after being reworked and re-recorded with the assistance of producer Scott Solter (Superchunk, The Mountain Goats).
Picker's artistic and personal resilience is formidable; his parents' stormy, violent relationship and his mother's emotional struggles and recent suicide might seem too much for most people, let alone touring musicians, to bear, but Picker has managed to find solace in his songs, grainy photographs of hazy recollections.
Earlier this fall Picker arrived at The Alternate Side's studio accompanied by his touring manager wife and his Lost In The Trees bandmates and friends - Emma Nadeau (piano, french horn, accordion), Drew Anagnost (cello), Leah Gibson (cello), Jenavieve Varga (violin), T.J. Maiani (drums) and Mark Daumen (tuba) - and played what he deemed the band's "soft rock set," explaining "we've been on tour for a while."
Lost in the Trees, who recently toured with Junip, will be back on the road early in 2011, kicking off a winter tour on January 7 at New York's Joe's Pub.
Kara Manning: There’s always that old hook of an album being born in someone’s bedroom, but Ari, this album, which is almost two years old, really did begin in your bedroom, didn't it?
Ari Picker: Yeah, we recorded it pretty much in different bedrooms and living rooms and built the album in the studio and when Anti- Records asked to release it, we went back in the studio and reworked it for an international debut.
Kara: Trekky Records originally released All Alone in an Empty House back in 2008. How different is that version from this one? In fact, the original is apparently a collector’s item, yes?
Ari: We actually have thousands of them in our apartment (laughs). We built the album in the studio and then when the touring band got together, the performances became a little more confident so the new version is more confident and the songs are extended, there’s new songs and everything sounds better.
Kara: Plus you worked with producer Scott Solter who worked with Spoon and The Mountain Goats. Did Anti- hook you up with him or was he someone you wanted to work with?
Ari: I didn’t know him but some friends of ours from Trekky Records who went down and recorded with a band called Midtown Dickens. They worked with him and really liked him and [Scott’s] worked with a lot of artists who we admire and he’s a town away. So it just seemed to make sense.
Kara: What did you want to correct the most on this version?
Ari: I just think more confidence in the performances. We redid all of the acoustic guitar and we used a lot of strings, redid them, did a lot of vocals so that everything’s new. I’ve got a handicap in that I want to go back and fix everything because I don’t get it right on the first try every time.
Kara: But I assume you can also do that live? A lot of these songs must be shifting and changing as you’re touring?
Ari: Yeah, though we’ve been doing these songs for a while so they might have settled at this point. I don’t know. You learn so much from a song when you play it live every single night.
Kara: So what have you learned about the title track, “All Alone in an Empty House?” over the last couple of years?
Ari: The string arrangement that was originally on the album was just improvised. We just brought someone in and I said to her, “Just play this line,” and she played it. We cut and pasted it around and it fit. But after playing it live, I had to notate it out and format it for the strings section and that’s how we recorded it on this [new] version of the song. You learn stuff about the arrangements; also, the attitude of the song solidifies it a little. The lyrics didn’t change on any of the songs, well, maybe they did once. On one song, which I’ll play later, I said, “Love makes me the man I am,” but I wanted Emma to sing it with me, so I said, “Love makes me who I am.” That way we could sing it together without Emma calling herself a man (laughs).
Kara: When I first heard this record, not knowing not that much about you, it reminded me a bit, not just in the sound, but in the mood, texture and ruthless self-examination, of Bon Iver’s album For Emma, Forever Ago. You’ve been quite honest that lyrically, this album came from growing up in a difficult situation with your parents. Was writing this record cathartic?
Ari: I guess I was dealing with relationships in my present life and just noticing how my relationship with my parents and their relationship with each other, and how that was affected by their relationship with their parents, in that endless cycle that we all go through. How that affected my present-day relationships and I began to look backwards and examining it.
Kara: Were you frank with your parents about what you were writing?
Ari: I don’t think I talked to them about it. I had a pretty good relationship with both my mom and my dad, but they had a horrible relationship with each other; just no communication at all for many reasons so I think part of the reason of writing this record was creating communication, even if it was in an artistic dimension.
Kara: It’s as if you’re speaking all of the unspoken words on this album and bridging the gap, as children often do, between parents who don’t get along. Given that you’ve gone to such a deep place on this first album, how are you addressing the second?
Ari: The album certainly takes not unfamiliar scenarios; I’m certainly not unique in my situation. But we tried to put it on an objective plane and create a hopeful ending for it and heal through the writing process. I don’t want people to think that it’s all gloom and doom. But as far as the progression of that, the themes that this album has certainly has evolved since the album was written so I’ll touch on that. Kind of a continuation of the story (laughs).
Kara: How far are you on the next album?
Ari: There’s a skeleton of the the whole thing and it’s just a matter of going and demoing it, then putting the songs out live and hopefully going to record it at the beginning of next year. Of course there’s a lot of political stuff that also has to line up for that to happen, but hopefully it does.
Kara: Are you hoping to go back in the studio with Scott?
Ari: Yeah, he’s great. I have this romantic vision of how I want to do the next album and I don’t really see it being in a studio, but that’s obviously hard if you’re recording.
Kara: What’s the romantic vision?
Ari: I just want everything to be done in a way that’s exciting and has a story, but that doesn’t mean it will sound good. So if we go and record the drums in a middle of a field, that could sound horrible, but it would be really fun (laughs).
Kara: All of these musicians surrounding you today are from the Chapel Hill, North Carolina area, but how did you recruit everyone? I read something about flyers being tacked up on walls.
Ari: That’s Drew’s story. I hung up a bunch of flyers in the [University of North Carolina] music department building with my phone number and Drew saw it first and really wanted to do it so he went around and tore all of the other posters down so no one else could get one. But Leah came anyway (laughs). I grew up as a teenager with Emma’s husband, who I’ve played in bands with, and Mark and I met on tour back in 2000. I met T.J. through Trekky Records and his brother was in a hip hop group and Genevieve and I went to Berklee together.
Kara: And you’re married to your tour manager.
Ari: Yes, my wife is awesome!
Kara: Is it true to say that, while not a concept record, there’s a journey you take in this record, each story leads into the other?
Ari: Yeah, but it’s not linear. There is a linear story there, but it doesn’t appear that way on the record. I was going to have it be more literal, but then I threw all of the songs up in the air and they fell in a certain order that worked and it wasn’t linear. You get a history, then suddenly you’re healed, and then you’re thinking backwards.
Kara: T There are many artists right now, like Efterklang and Owen Pallett, who have found that marriage between classical and pop that you've found. You went to the Berklee School of Music, but didn’t go in there knowing that much about classical music, did you?
Ari: There was a lot of catching up to do. I went to school for film music, but always admired the orchestral texture that you find in songs like “Eleanor Rigby” or the Beach Boys. The most current source of that is film music; I’d always go buy a soundtrack for new orchestral music. That led me to the Berklee College of Music and they start you with a foundation in classical music. So I started from the beginning.
Kara: What film scores or composers do you love?
Ari: I think I was listening to a lot of Danny Elfman and that led me to Bernard Herrmann, and I kept going backwards until the Renaissance period. A lot of Romantic music solved the same problems that film composers had because they were doing operas and plays.
Kara: What’s your favorite film scores?
Ari: It’s not an original soundtrack, but one that really influenced me was The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack which mashes up Paul Simon and Ravel and the Velvet Underground. As far as what might have affected our sound, just in having songs mashed with orchestral piece, that was a big one. I also really liked the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack a lot and Bernard Herrmann is amazing.
Kara: There are two orchestral sketches on this album, but I imagine as someone still learning, those were difficult to write? Or what was the sensibility of writing a score much different than writing a song?
Ari: It is. I was doing it as I was learning it and it was very overwhelming being able to write in that style without being raised in it. There’s so many similarities between folk, pop and classical music, the forms are similar, but I wouldn’t think to pick two or three notes and then develop them and change keys as many times as I can and as smoothly as I can as you might do in the development of a sonata. I went to a "History of Music" [course] which was a survey of everything so we learned a couple of the big pieces from the major composers and I fell in love with Handel’s Largo (Ombra mai fu), which I thought was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard and it’s probably played at wedding all of the time, but I’d never heard it before. And Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique and all of the early Beethoven we were listening to. It became kind of a religious experience for me because I’d go to class like someone would go to church or temple. I would get the same awe-inspiring feelings and then I’d run to the piano room and try to do something I’d never done before. Maybe too much coffee, but I got really excited.
Kara: What was your instrument of choice growing up? Did you take music lessons?
Ari: I didn’t have music lessons at all. In middle school I played the flute in the middle school marching band which is a horrible idea for a boy in any small redneck town in North Carolina.
Kara: Did you get beaten up with your flute?
Ari: With my own flute? (laughs). No, I remember doing the Christmas parades and marching down main street in small town Pittsville, North Carolina playing “Jingle Bells” on repeat, marching into the sun, my hands freezing and thinking, “I hate my life.” (laughs).
Kara: So where do you make the leap from that awful story to Berklee?
Ari: I guess I was listening to mainstream radio like most high school kids and then you start expanding from there, picking up the guitar, and trying to figure out what kind of songwriter you want to be. That was a really difficult process because I was listening to, I think, Collective Soul in the early 90s and then I started listening to Pink Floyd and then you find your own voice somewhere along the way, like finding that orchestral texture through pop music. That led me here.
Kara: “For Leah and Chloe,” is an absolutely beautiful song at the very end of the record, illuminated with hope. The entire album is devoted to Leah and Chloe, your sisters, but they’re no longer here - can you explain the back story?
Ari: I didn’t even know I had sisters until I was a pre-teen and my mom said that I’d had twin sisters who had died right before I was born. As far as the hope thing goes, I feel that it’s something you’d smile upon, the healing process of the whole story, as if [Leah and Chloe] were observing the whole situation. That’s what the dedication is. Maybe it’s them dedicating it to us.