In 2012, Ari Picker was standing on stage in front of a nearly sold-out room of strangers when he decided it was finally time to stop talking about his mother's suicide.
He'd spent the three years since her death grieving by writing and recording an album, A Church That Fits Our Needs, about her for his band, the symphonic folk act Lost in the Trees. But that album was the third release on which he'd explored his mother's life. All Alone in an Empty House, Lost in the Trees' first full-length released a year before his mother's death, had also detailed her perilous life, as had the group's debut EP, Time Taunts Me. For more than five years, Picker had dutifully answered the media's questions about the fraught subject matter and played those songs for new people on tour many nights each week. And for the popular storytelling series The Monti on that May night at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, just blocks from where his mother had owned an art gallery, he'd agreed to talk about her life and the end of it.
At first, the tale seemed bittersweet but funny: Picker's mom, Karen Shelton, had survived the death of two newborn twin daughters, breast cancer and an abusive relationship to raise her son, Ari, mostly by herself. In 2005, when he was 23 and away at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, CBS promoted a morning-show special called "The Week of Wishes"; children were to write in and ask that their parents be given something special, and the best pleas of the bunch would get their wish on air. Since losing both of her breasts and her hair to cancer, Shelton had fretted over her own body image. Her volcano of red curls had diminished into a closely cropped cut that sat flatly atop her head. She wanted a makeover, and she wanted her son to ask them for it. But the contest was exploitative, he had thought, so he wouldn't write the letter. So she wrote it instead, not telling him.
"As you can imagine," Picker told the crowd, "I was very surprised when my letter for 'The Week of Wishes' was selected."
The audience roared at that admission and most every subsequent revelation within Picker's 12-minute story. People whooped and clapped, and Picker chuckled at his punch lines. But after about 10 minutes, the topic suddenly shifted, and so did the narrator's mood. He began to explain that his mom killed herself in 2009, on the night of his wedding. Had he been given a second chance, he would have written the letter much differently than she had: She had portrayed herself as the victim. He would have recast her as the hero.
Onstage, his voice began to crack, and tears started to swell. Each pained line felt like another momentous obstacle. The full house stared ahead.
As dramatic as the moment was, Picker had a surprising epiphany.
"I just realized, 'Why am I doing this? I do not need to be up here anymore,'" Picker remembers, sitting at home almost two years later. "I'd spent the past few years talking about such personal stuff in a public way. At that point, I said, 'No more.'"
Picker couldn't quite keep his vow: Lost in the Trees spent nearly another year touring behind A Church That Fits Our Needs, the album that details his mother's death in elliptical but candid language. They even played those songs during a high-profile concert at the Lincoln Center in New York and backed by a miniature orchestra at Duke University, settings that gave Picker's confessions some of their biggest audiences and most audacious treatments yet.
Picker knew these shows would represent the end of Lost in the Trees as people had come to know it. There would soon be fewer members, no more songs about mom and much more collaboration. They would start acting like this was a band, not the Ari Picker soul-baring parade. He no longer wanted to feel the weight of the entire project at once.
All of that comes to pass on the new Past Life, the third Lost in the Trees album and the first to forgo lyrical and musical grandiloquence for an efficient sort of rock band vitality. It is the most spartan Lost in the Trees record to date and also the most important: It unconditionally proves that, even in the absence of personal crisis, Picker can be a captivating, dramatic bandleader, deserving of the big record deal and the critical kudos that previous albums have earned Lost in the Trees.
When he nearly broke down onstage at The Monti in 2012, he didn't know if that was true.
"After writing A Church That Fits Our Needs, I knew there was no fucking way I could do that again. But if I can't do that, then who am I?" he says, nervously pinching the rolled right sleeve of his blue Oxford shirt. "I had spent Time Taunts Me and Empty House developing this aesthetic and this process, maybe too much so. If I didn't have that, what did I have?"
Ari Picker is not simply the musical son of a dead mother, of course. This August will mark the fifth anniversary not only of her death but also of his marriage to Gini Bell. They began dating nearly a decade ago; soon after meeting her, he quit his previous band, The Never, in the middle of a tour simply so he could move to Carrboro and be near her. They live together now in her parents' house, a cozy ranch in a subdivision between Carrboro and Pittsboro, with a rescued gray tabby named Claude Debussy.
On one wall, there's a faded survey of the woods near Saxapahaw, where Picker, 32, and Bell, 26, are just beginning construction on a home they're building with hay bales on a 10-acre plot given to the couple as a gift by his godparents. He's already built a tiny cabin on the land by himself, and he hopes to become a better carpenter when they finally move onto the land. He wants to become a self-sufficient auto mechanic, too, if only to repair the band's tour van. He cherishes his role as a husband, admitting that without Bell's emotional and financial support, he likely would have quit trying to turn music into a full-time job long ago.
But for many years, Lost in the Trees and its emotional baggage did seem to be the sum of Picker. During a previous relationship, his girlfriend had convinced him that The Never would only go nowhere, that their pop-rock wasn't going to change anyone's life. Did he want to be 40 and playing the same simple songs? Picker had applied to UNC-Chapel Hill after high school and been denied, but thanks to his partner's disdain, he applied to Berklee and moved to Boston, where he started Lost in the Trees as an expression of both the classical education he was receiving and the pop music past he'd been living.
"If I'm going to do music at all, it has to be the most purposeful thing I can do," he recalls telling himself. "And that's why Lost in the Trees has always been so intense. I didn't want to do this unless I was saying something truly unique and I'm making a sound that only I can make. I didn't want to just go out there and write songs."
Lost in the Trees is Picker's project, but it's also a band—with as many as 14 members, and as few as five. But Picker's first three releases under that name were his own very difficult progeny. Not only would he write the songs, but he'd use his Berklee training to arrange them, scripting every single note that the dozen-member menagerie of cellos and French horns, drums and keyboards would eventually record. The process was arduous and exhausting, especially for A Church That Fits Our Needs, where every lyric and melody dredged up the best and worst of Picker's 28 years with his mother. When he was working on that material, he says, it felt as if he had pulled fast "creative blinders" to the rest of the world. He was shut off from everyone, a despondent musician using the past to pull his way back into the present.
"OK, I've got the song. Now, I'll write all these string lines. It was all me, alone with an acoustic guitar, notating everything," he explains. Off stage, Picker is considered and halting, his speech full of pregnant pauses and diffident drops in volume, as though he were always trying to analyze the validity of what he has to say. The second-guessing involved in his speech suggests the intense labor that goes into his orchestration.
"The process didn't leave a lot of room for spontaneity," he continues. "It was hyper-focused, very internal. By the time I finished recording it, I was just over it."
At the time, Picker didn't know if he'd ever make another Lost in the Trees album. Combined with the thematic weight, the individualistic process of making these albums seemed like too much to repeat. But toward the end of the yearlong tour behind A Church That Fits Our Needs, he decided he didn't have to maintain the patterns of his past: He could involve other bandmates. He could write about things aside from his dead mother or troubled past. He could step outside of his own intimate, rather inflexible frame and redefine Lost in the Trees.
So he'd piece together ideas on the road and solicit thoughts from other members. Back in North Carolina, he'd go to a local studio and record as many of them as he could, revisiting and revising them at home. "Excos," Past Life's glittering opener, builds on a piano loop written by Emma Nadeau, the multi-instrumentalist who has become Lost in the Trees' de facto other anchor. One of the first things Picker had said about the next album, Nadeau remembers, is that he wanted to start constructing it from repeated melodies or rhythms. The piano line that underpins "Excos" is part of a much bigger piece she'd written, but that's the moment that struck Picker.
"He says his direction, we talk about it, and we go for it. I remember him starting to say that he was done with this, and that he was singing these songs that didn't have the meaning they did. Ari was shedding the old material," she says. "The new process was perfect for me. I aspire to write songs, but I'm not a songwriter."
The group rehearsed his sketches, with each member writing or at least reshaping their own parts. They even toured and tested them before recording them—a common thing for most rock bands, but an alien approach for Lost in the Trees. And instead of wrestling with his worries for lyrics, Picker simply sat in Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum one afternoon, stared at paintings, and put his responses on paper.
"I didn't want to take full responsibility for this record," Picker says, suddenly doubling over with laughter as though the admission were a newfound truth. "We were just excited to be a band, to play the instruments that are generally played in a club—guitars, drum, bass and keys. At first, they said, 'We've just been doing what you told us to do for five years. We don't know what to play.' It took some work."
Shifts in artistic process make for convenient narrative hooks—a storyline for artists, critics and fans alike to hold, bonus material that provides context for the work itself. But for Picker, a drastic change in approach wasn't an easy storyline or a way to update his band's sound; it was essential if Lost in the Trees were to continue at all. Writing about his family life for half a decade and leading a massive ensemble around the world to share those songs had left him emotionally drained. These very intimate pieces had simply hardened into drudgery: "All that stuff is dealt with during the process of writing. I don't go onstage and feel," he says.
The 10 songs of Past Life still radiate with textures that push past the vocabulary of most rock bands—rich choral lines and waves of noise and strings, keyboards and rhythms that undulate across the songs. And lyrically, these three-to-four-minute tunes aren't devoid of despair or death. But Nadeau's operatic air now spills into the otherwise restrained spaces, a human accent occupying the expanses where the strings used to sit. Lost in the Trees reward with gorgeous performances, as they always have, but these songs simply demand less of the listener to get to the core. This record has clear singles, cuts that don't make you follow Picker to his mother's riverside funeral.
"I feel like I cheated somehow with this. It was so fun and easy to do," he says. "And getting here from where I was with the last record—I don't even recognize it."
The modified approach proved so satisfying that Picker now talks about removing himself entirely from his music. On stage, leading his band, Picker seems confident enough, pivoting between guitar and keyboards and percussion as necessary, a composer-performer who expertly slides his voice into the appropriate spaces of the music he built to carry it. But playing these songs live remains his least favorite part of making music. He's dealt with stage fright and a general lack of confidence in his voice for years.
"I have a hard time getting onstage. It's not that I can't be onstage and have a good time," he says on the eve of a tour that, at least for the next three months, will start and stop in two-week bursts. "But I can't really control my voice, and I can't control which Ari gets up there. The Ari that gets up there could just go into a really dark, morbid place, and be sweating the whole show."
Watching other people perform what he's written might be his new paragon for self-expression. To date, he has composed a symphony that's been delivered by a volunteer orchestra that included members of the North Carolina Symphony. And with Nadeau last year, he scored two area plays—intensely involved experiences that, ultimately, he was able to sit back and take in.
He's currently completing a song cycle of Rainer Maria Rilke poetry, sung by someone else and backed by a jazz quartet. He compares the work to the graceful, tidal pieces of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and the ecstatic triumphs of jazz explorer Alice Coltrane. And in his little home studio, a recording console sits across two sawhorses. That's where he tinkers with a new hip-hop project that combines big, bouncing bass and samples from the 1989 Tom Hanks film The 'Burbs and its accompanying soundtrack. Yelling over the beat, he explains that he hopes to find people to rap with the finished productions. The link between these seemingly disparate projects—and, these days, even Lost in the Trees—is that Picker gets to split the burden with someone else.
"I don't feel like just because I write songs I need to sing them," Picker says. "I feel like the musical world is totally wide and open to me now. I didn't think I would ever get to that place again."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Empty nest."