Albums about lost loved ones, whether it's the Arcade Fire grandiloquently mourning their grandparents on Funeral or Michael Stipe somberly eulogizing his parents on R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People, all possess a contradiction at their core. On the one hand, death is universal, and every listener has or will experience that loss at some point in their lives. On the other hand, the loss in question is entirely specific to the artist, such that only a handful of fans — if even that many — will have any personal stake in that particular loss.
Loss rock is, therefore, a risky subgenre: An artist risks alienating fans if he's too specific or sounding saccharine if he's too general. Ari Picker discovered these hazards while writing songs for A Church That Fits Our Needs, the third full-length from his North Carolina indie orchestra Lost in the Trees. The songs were inspired by the 2009 suicide of his mother. "I think my situation is certainly not unique," he says. "It's a universal thing, but I felt like it was so close to me that perhaps I could portray it in a unique and powerful way."
In fact, it's the uniqueness of Church — a sprawling, densely orchestrated record full of symphonic swells and lyrics that verge on magical realism — that lends the music its considerable power: Picker may be memorializing his mother, but he is not exactly sharing his pain. The album is guarded, labyrinthine, prickly — daringly private instead of openly public. The church of the title, it would seem, will fit only Picker and his mother and no one else. He allows us to witness his family grief but keeps us at a respectable distance.
This is not the first time Picker has written about the "domestic environment," as he calls it. Lost in the Trees' previous album, All Alone in an Empty House, addressed his early family life, obliquely recounting his parents' fraying relationship and his place between them. "I wasn't intending to do that again, but when my mom passed, I immediately knew that I needed to write about it," Picker explains. "It wasn't a romantic undertaking, though, like I'm struck with grief and everything just pours out of me. It was a very meticulous, painful, tooth-pulling process of finding the right melodies and textures and lyrics that would encapsulate everything I was feeling."
Picker constructed a personal and peculiar mythology for A Church That Fits Our Needs, mingling 20th-century classical composition with elusive imagery about churches in the woods, dead birds, mystical twins, and golden armor. The real mingles with the fantastical, half fairy tale and half autobiography. "It's a balancing act," he says. "I didn't want to be too on the nose with the lyrics, but it needed to be very simple at the same time. I really didn't know how to express the complexity of all the emotions, the angry parts and the sad parts and the celebratory parts. I had to figure out how to blend those all together so that it's not too heavy-handed and it's not too theatrical."
After writing the songs, recording them with the seven-member Lost in the Trees, and releasing the album via Anti- Records, Picker now must discuss the subject matter with journalists and fans who never met his mother. Perhaps more dauntingly, he has to sing about her every night onstage. He has learned to keep the creative and the promotional aspects of his job separate, and while his performances are certainly emotional, they are rarely overwhelming. "You're not starting over at emotional square one every time you sing the songs," he explains. "Touring, it's really easy to lose context of a lot of things — particularly why the songs were written. You have plenty of time to overanalyze things, and they lose some of their context."
Perhaps more difficult is re-creating the florid orchestrations of A Church That Fits Our Needs. Picker, who studied composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston, admits the band is still trying to devise the best way to replicate that dense sound onstage. "What's beautiful about a stringed instrument is the air around it," he says. "When you plug in a violin and you plug in an acoustic guitar and pump them through a club system, it's going to sound like shit. We have so many people onstage, but the sound can be so damn small. We're working to fill it out with keyboard and electric guitar, trying to get where we can be a wall of sound onstage."
That long, careful process has already informed the songs Picker is writing for Lost in the Trees' next record, which he says will be more modern sounding and groove oriented. It will not, however, be about his mother. "I don't want to be the guy who always writes about his mom or something like that," he says, "so the next record may be more about documenting exterior things instead of interior conversations. I'm just trying to keep writing and moving forward."
Lost in the Trees with Daytona
The Hi-Tone Café
Wednesday, June 20th
9 p.m.; $10