A Church that Fits Our Needs, the new album by Chapel Hill's Lost in the Trees, bears one of the most striking covers in recent memory: It's a young woman in her late 20s, maybe early 30s. Shocks of frizzy brown hair shoot from her scalp to her shoulders. She wears a rumpled blue cardigan and stonewashed jeans.
The image itself is badly dilapidated, the surface pocked by scratches and divots. The look accentuates the expression on the woman's face—her mouth is parted slightly, her blue eyes piercing just past the camera. She seems simultaneously alarmed and peaceful. The duality somehow makes the image feel real, as if it's not a picture, as if it's actually off the page and in front of your face.
The woman is Karen Shelton, the mother of Lost in the Trees frontman Ari Picker. He had no idea the photo existed until she died. Upon returning home from Picker's wedding almost three years ago, Shelton took her own life. A Church that Fits Our Needs is his coping strategy.
On a sunny February day in Carrboro, the same vivid blue eyes stare through the window of a corner's cozy coffee shop. Ari Picker is unmistakably his mother's son. Today he is digging deep to provide context for his new record, a musical monument to his departed parent more than two years in the making. A vehicle for both grief and rationalization, it defends the passionate artist who inspired Picker to follow his own artistic ambitions.
A slide of the image on the cover of A Church that Fits Our Needs was recovered from Shelton's apartment by one of Picker's friends. The task of clearing out his mother's home was too much for him to bear; upon finding the slide, the friend enlarged the picture and presented it to Picker as a gift. As soon as he saw the image, he knew he would look no further for the album's art. The picture hung above his desk as he wrote many of the album's lyrics.
"Even on the slide, you can see the degradation. The slide cracking looks like this old oil painting cracking," Picker explains. "I like that picture because it's half super-powerful ... and half super-vulnerable and meek. If you look really closely, you see she has this big fever blister on her mouth. I really liked that kind of humanity and angelic quality."
Like its cover, A Church maintains an impressive balance, both thematically and musically. Its predecessor—2007's All Alone in an Empty House—trimmed potent folk with orchestral garland, bolstering traditionally fashioned ballads with a gauze of strings and horns. The music on A Church is far more complicated: Picker is now a Berklee-educated composer (he finished his degree last year, like the professional basketball player who returns to college to complete his education) with a symphony under his belt. Shifting his classical focus from Beethoven and Bach to Stravinsky and Bartók, he melds modern influences with the artier strains of recent indie rock, a la Grizzly Bear and Radiohead. The record's palette changes continuously, with slabs of distorted guitar giving way to orchestral swirls, darkly dissonant noise clashing with triumphant melodies.
Those stylistic dualities mirror the life of the troubled, talented subject. Shelton's time was a litany of tragedies. Her relationship with Picker's father was emotionally abusive, largely because of the death of her twin daughters, who were born prematurely before Ari. She survived breast cancer but was left without hair and with scars that damaged her self-esteem. She lived alone for the rest of her life. These hardships frame the narrative of All Alone, a shockingly vivid song cycle that doesn't compromise the harrowing details.
In the years since that release, Lost in the Trees' membership has slimmed from the low teens to a tight, talented six. The smaller numbers have not only made the band's execution more precise but also led to an approach that keeps each member busier. That's made it easier for the band to bear the devastating emotion of Picker's songs. In the group's early incarnations, singer and French horn player Emma Nadeau was left waiting for minutes at a time between harmonies and brass parts, which left her listening closely to Picker as he related his tales of woe to crowds of strangers.
With the new configuration, she also plays keyboards: "It's given us less opportunity to weep on stage about the lyrics, which I definitely did with All Alone in an Empty House," she says of the smaller lineup.
All Alone was reissued with new songs on the large label Anti- Records after Shelton's death, but only one of those tunes was written with her suicide in mind. This leaves A Church the monumental task of condensing her life and the effects of her death into one hour of music. Picker takes a less literal approach here; the facts are present, but they're reshaped so as to provide more an emotionally driven collage than a traditional narrative. Colors signify feelings and work as symbols. Red represents both happiness and the idea of heaven. Picker's lyrics often shift perspectives, letting the listener tease out who is speaking. By refusing to simplify his tragic inspiration, Picker mixes grief with celebration, lauding his mother's strength while dealing candidly with the reality of her suicide.
Picker wants people to remember the great things about his mother, or to know that she's more than a sad story. She was an accomplished artist who ran the art gallery Sizl and was a founding force in Carrboro and Chapel Hill's 2nd Friday ArtWalk.
"What influenced me most was her ability to just take ordinary things and make them really gorgeous," Picker says. He remembers the farmhouse in Bynum they called home after she and his father divorced. He lived there from the age of 6 until he left for college. "We had a crappy old farmhouse that was nasty. She was a single mom and moves into this farmhouse and is painting the walls and making interesting things out of things found in the yard, just being creative and crafty. Some of the images from the 'Red' music video, the leaves painted gold—she would do stuff like that, spray painting leaves gold and making decorations out of them and making a really beautiful atmosphere to grow up in."
Each song on A Church is rooted in a concrete element of the story. "This Dead Bird Is Beautiful" is a tragic but defiantly pretty ballad, building from guitar and trembling voice to a swell of ominous strings and enchanting female vocals. Picker equates his mother to a dead bird on the ground, emphasizing the way both are misunderstood. When the police called him on the way home from his wedding, they consoled him by telling him that when they found her, his mother was like a dead bird, her body beautiful, seemingly at peace. "Don't you say she was weak," Picker commands. "Because she breathed, I breathe."
On "Icy River," Picker speaks of her funeral—not the public one, but the private service where he carried her ashes to the Haw River that ran by his childhood house. "Icy river, wrap your arms around my mother," he sings with quiet clarity over softly flowing strings and guitar. "I burned her body in the furnace/ Until all that was left was her glory." When Picker subsequently sings "I don't care what happens to my art," he's quoting his mother's suicide note. His mother left much of what he thinks is her best work outside in a shed, where it disintegrated into mere debris.
Such sadness is not the take away here, however. Picker deals with the darkness to move beyond it. Far from religious, Picker used the writing process to fashion an idea of the heaven his mother deserved. This vision is never clearer than on "Golden Eyelids," when lilting strings and far-off chanting allows his words to soar: "As a color she'll rise/ From the water/ A golden light/ Wanders with the birds."
"By the end of it, it was very concrete. It was a vision in my head," he says, describing his idea of her afterlife. "I would just see her. It was just a very comforting image. It felt right for me. It felt like a good ending for her—just how I wanted to remember, how I wanted other people to remember."
On the lyric sheet for the vinyl edition of A Church that Fits Our Needs, there's a second picture of Picker's mother. It's faded to the background and every bit as beaten up as the cover. She wears white and looks toward the sky, like an angel in a Renaissance painting. The music treats her much the same, dealing with her darkness but basking in her light, faithfully insisting that she has gone to a better place.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Own blood."