Upon hearing that Lost in the Trees’ A Church That Fits Our Needs was inspired by the suicide of lead singer and songwriter Ari Picker’s mother, Karen, my heart instantly broke. In the dozens of listens since then, the palpable sorrow hasn’t lessened, but it has been dwarfed by the even more palpable love for Picker’s mother that comes through in these songs. “Don’t you ever dare say she was weak-hearted,” Picker sings in “Icy River,” a song that contains the couplet “I burned her body in the furnace / Till all that’s left was her glory.” Picker’s mother had a lot of glory. She was an artist, a single mother, a cancer survivor, and even survived the death of her first children, a pair of twins born prematurely.
Ari Picker certainly has glory of his own to spare. In addition to the obvious warmth he exudes both on his records and in conversation, he possesses rare musical ability which was honed at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. A Church That Fits Our Needs is the band’s second album.
The Rumpus: When I first heard the album title, I was thinking about how churches hold weddings and funerals and baptisms and all of these different phases of life. I could imagine someone saying that a church or an idea of God is big enough to fit all of our needs. That’s how I interpreted the title. How did you interpret it when you came up with it?
Ari Picker: Sometimes I explain this better than others. The purpose of the record was to celebrate my mom and give her a space to exist in, a light for her to exist in that she didn’t quite have the opportunity to exist in in life. So I feel like that might be the church, and then the purpose of celebrating her and empowering her as the need. You think of a church as a really safe place or a place that you can experience great things in. I’m not really a church-going guy. I assume that’s what a church should do, or that’s my hope for what it does.
Rumpus: I noticed when you sing about her, you use the word ‘gold’ a lot. Is there a specific meaning behind that?
Picker: It comes from a few different places. Ultimately, when you’re talking about something abstract like the afterlife or somebody’s soul–I’m not the best poet–using colors to represent abstract things like heaven or somebody’s soul or death or a thing you can’t quantify in your head. Just putting colors to represent those things felt right. My mom was a painter, so I associate a lot of color with her.
Rumpus: Does any of the imagery on the album come from her artwork?
Picker: Maybe not specifically. Certainly the environment in which she created art–her paints and supplies and the room where she painted and her ability to make normal things very beautiful. It’s more the atmosphere than the specific painting.
Rumpus: I read that you were listening to a lot of Shostakovich and Bartok and other modern composers who were speaking to you while you were writing this record. What about those composers spoke to you?
Picker: It was mostly the sound of their music. Parts of it are very jarring and very intense, yet it can resolve into something more beautiful at the same time. It has an otherworldly quality to it and has a modern sound. I thought that kind of music would work well in writing something like this. I just happened to be there musically in that moment in time as well. Shostakovich and Bartok and Stravinsky just have that quality that I was looking for.
Rumpus: In the press release for this album, you said that in addition to celebrating your mother, this record was holding a place for all the things that she didn’t get to be. What things did she not get to be that you’re trying to articulate?
Picker: There was a lot of tragedy in her life, and that kind of overshadowed a lot of the more beautiful things about her, like the art that she was able to create. Just the way she handled herself through her suffering was very courageous, and raising me as a single mother, all these very powerful things about her that I felt like were overshadowed by her suicide or by the cancer she had or, in general, being a very lonely person and constantly reaching out to people and maybe scaring them away because she was so intense and had a lot of baggage she needed to deal with. So I felt like people, herself included, always lingered in the tragedy rather than celebrating and empowering the things that were really strong about her. I really wanted the record to be that, or at least to feel that way. You can come away with a beautiful feeling versus anything that’s gloomy or has a lot of pity in it.
Rumpus: I read about the twins that she gave birth to that didn’t make it, and I heard you reference the twins in some of the songs. It almost seems like, in the songs, you’re trying to take on the pain of her loss of them.
Picker: Her twins–my sisters–did die. This was before I was born. They’ve just always been around. I see them witnessing her story and my story and still being connected to it in some sort of angelic, (laughs) bizarre way. So I bring them in just to remember them and to have them as witnesses to the whole thing, and it gives me a little bit of outside perspective on the whole thing. My mom would always say ‘the twins’ souls are in you’ and I was always offended by that in some weird way.
Rumpus: Going back to the music for a few more questions, was this your first time producing?
Picker: I’ve produced all my records, so this wasn’t.
Rumpus: Do you find it difficult to separate the musician side from the production side?
Picker: I know what I want it to sound like, and I have a hard time finding people to work with that can kind of get inside my head with the music, and I’ve also been very protective with the music, so it’s been difficult for anybody to come on board. As well as the music coming from a specific place–it is hard for people to just jump in. I got pretty close to how I want the record to sound. I’m not a musical engineer, so I sacrifice a little bit of the recording quality from the technical aspects to capture the vibe that I want. The new record I’m working on is much more open to other people’s input, so I am looking for a much different sound.
Rumpus: I know your membership of the band was evolving a lot as you were making this record. Has it changed since you released the album?
Picker: Our drummers are constantly switching in and out, unfortunately. We’ve had, like, eight drummers. But the rest of the band is pretty stable. I’m mostly writing by myself, and then they come in, and we figure out how to play the music. I’m currently hoping they get more involved in the writing stages, but that hasn’t happened.
Rumpus: I was really interested in Emma [Nadeau]‘s part on the record, especially in a song like ‘Red,’ where she doesn’t sing any words but yet her voice is so key to the song.
Picker: I love her voice. I like her voice more than I like my voice. She has a very angelic voice. I’m going to continue that trend. Maybe my voice will slowly start disappearing from the records and other people’s voices will take that place. I put her on the record as much as I can.