Two weeks ago, the little Chapel Hill folk orchestra Lost in the Trees played the von der Heyden Pavilion at Duke University. The space—a high-ceilinged glass atrium adjoining the Perkins Library—struck a balance between a cathedral and a Starbucks. The audience curled into armchairs with homework in hands, seemingly more ready for story time than a rock concert. There was no stage, just a space in front that had been cleared of seats and tables.
Once the band sound checked its violin, cellos, guitars and keyboards, the seven members gathered in front of the drum kit. Arms around one another, they chatted warmly for a few minutes. The moment was an informal one, without ritual—no prayers, no mantras, no secret handshakes. It was less like a band warming up than a clutch of friends simply sharing a moment, an expression of the same closeness that is one of this band's greatest strengths.
"We're like a family," says violinist Jenavieve Varga, two days earlier, sitting on the front stoop of French horn player and back-up singer Emma Nadeau's home. The scene corroborates the claim: All seven members are here, snacking on tortilla chips with hummus and salsa. Emma's 2-year-old daughter, Madeline, throws orange leaves, vying for everyone's attention. The conversation is easy and pleasant, tangents and chuckles prevalent. Right now, they appear as happy as any family might hope to be. But it wasn't always this way, especially for Ari Picker, the band's founder and frontman.
Picker sits in the middle of everyone, beaming. He began Lost in the Trees as a bedroom project while attending Boston's Berklee College of Music in 2002, playing out with whatever area musicians he could cobble together. For more than five years, Lost in the Trees was a revolving cast of players, its membership often reaching into the mid-teens. Now the band is mostly stable and steadily seven, a tight group that executes its songs with care and precision. Picker is the leader, LITT's only songwriter and the architect behind its grandiose orchestration. Whenever possible, though, he steers the conversation away from himself. He redirects questions toward his bandmates, more interested in their ideas than his own. He's high on the collective nature of the proceedings; after all, this might be the most stable family Picker's ever had.
"My parents separated when I was like 2 years old," Picker, 29, recalls. "I've lived in apartments ever since."
The singer's unhappy past is no secret. It pervades All Alone in an Empty House, the 2008 record the band reworked and rereleased this year on ANTI- Records, the big-time independent label that includes Tom Waits, Neko Case and Mavis Staples. On the album, Picker turns his adolescence—a dark saga steered by an emotionally abusive father and a mentally troubled mother—into searing episodes. Recollections of conversations and glimpses of intimate imagery combine over the stacked textures of a beautiful orchestra and heartache-fueled folk music. The two stylistic poles tug at each other, pushing into the other's territory, blurring into a cathartic whole. It's a fitting backdrop for a narrative that's rich with moral ambiguity and poetic sorrow.
"When you write a song that reflects on certain things that were really intense or had control over you in the past, you put it on a different plane, an objective plane," Picker says. "Then you have power over it versus it having power over you."
The title All Alone in an Empty House refers to Picker's first house, the place in Pittsboro his parents called home after he was born. Their relationship was already in tatters. About a year before he was born, his mother gave birth to premature twin daughters. The infants died shortly afterward; the aftermath frayed feelings on both sides.
On the album's opener and title track, Picker re-enacts arguments between his parents from when he was only 2. Gliding in softly with accordion, easy fingerpicked guitar and the sound of a rocking chair, the song steadily escalates into a tempest with windswept strings and tuba.
"I've spent my whole life on you," Picker sings, mimicking his dad and simmering with disdain, "and built you this gorgeous house to put up with your bitched mouth." Later he channels his mother, murmuring, "You touched the baby; you must be crazy" before screaming out, "How I hate your soul!" Picker won't incriminate his father. Rather, Picker protects him and omits exact details, only admitting that he was violent and that the marriage collapsed as a result. The haunting dialogue makes room for the frustrations of both parties without condemning either.
"I have really vivid memories of when all this was happening," says Picker, sitting in a well-lit burger joint in Chapel Hill. "It was all these powerful images and a powerful situation. It was very sad, and it felt really good to write about. It kind of just came together and became what it is."
After his parents split, Picker spent most of his time with his mother. A painter, she could never bring herself to forgive his father for what he'd done, though she was forced to make nice by social service workers and therapists who insisted Picker needed his father in his life. Picker tackles this pain in "Fireplace," an appropriately incendiary tune with a scorching guitar riff that's fanned by gusting strings. "If I can't heal my heart, forgive me," he pleads, embodying his mother's pain.
Her struggles grew as Picker did. When he was in fourth grade, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The prognosis was poor, so doctors attacked her illness with experimental medicines and surgeries. She sent Picker away during the more grueling points of her recovery, driving herself to the hospital and dealing with the suffering alone. She survived, but the aftermath of the cancer compounded her emotional instability, pushing her into darker mood swings. She unloaded on her son during these times, sharing her insecurities and sometimes threatening to kill herself.
"If your mother has bad wiring, you know, hearing your mother cry down the hallway when she falls asleep as you're a child—hearing somebody that's supposed to create stability in your life, I think that would fuck up anybody," he says.
"My mom's asking where I hid her knives/ Well, what do you want them for?" Picker sings on "We Burn the Leaves," one of two new tunes added to the rerelease. The song provides an aching glimpse of Picker's interactions with his mother at her lowest points. "But the answer's in her eyes/ I don't want her to hurt anymore."
She took her own life about a year ago, after leaving Picker's wedding. He reasons that posing in pictures with his father and going through the day was just too much for her, but he can't be sure. When he speaks of her, his typically bright eyes narrow and darken. Picker's often eager to amuse those around him, but recalling these details is hard. Songs like "We Burn the Leaves" allow him to come to terms with his mother's life and death, to cut through that grief. He fixates on their journey together, and that gives him room to move forward. For Picker, that's the point of this record. It's the best way he's found to deal with it all.
"I think after writing the record and living with it for a while, I think it did a lot for me," he says. "It just made me understand it better—and even the parts that I didn't understand, I understood why I didn't understand them. I improved my brain."
Lost in the Trees has been playing these songs for more than two years, but their performances haven't become tired. If anything, they're strengthened. As the band digs deeper into these songs, the stories become more a part of them, too. That night at Duke, it was no longer Picker tearing through memories backed by a mélange of ramshackle support. This outfit now rips through these numbers with dramatic fervor. With every song he attacked with passionate bravado, the string players' flaring bows mirrored the emotional ebb and flow.
The high drama of the classical elements is a sharp contrast to the shocking intimacy of Picker at the mic. He looks down, whispering with an airy croon, conjuring details and gathering symbols. Then the tension boils over, and he howls. In these moments, it's hard to tell if he's singing as himself or one of the other players in the story. When he shouts lines like "If I screamed at you, and you shook your fists at God," it's hard not to see him as vehemently lodging his complaint with the heavens.
"Every person has felt something like what these lyrics are saying, but it doesn't feel justified," Varga said. "You don't feel right saying it or thinking it, but Ari brings that right to the forefront, which is why it's so striking."
It's also striking because Lost in the Trees doesn't bring up these memories for shock value. These songs aren't designed to dwell on the past. Picker has rendered his memory into art as a means of forward motion. "Song for Leah and Chloe" embodies this perspective. It's named for Picker's twin sisters, and it's the most straightforward folk piece on the record. The harrowing strings let their fire and brimstone go, playing instead as soft accompaniment and giving Picker a moment of peaceful reflection.
"Pain's made me who I am," he sings. "But I don't want your pity please. I've learned more than I could share. I healed my heart on a walk in the dark." It's a powerful moment. Picker could cower under the life he has had. Instead, he stands tall, turning his past into art that he hopes might help others.
"I think I'm just one of those people who admire other artists who have put this kind of stuff on their sleeve," he says. "I feel like if I'm going to make art then I need to say something through my art. This is something I should say."