Ari Picker is as genuine and unfailingly heartfelt as his music would have you believe. His folk orchestra project Lost in the Trees is winsome and soft, but imbued with wrenching emotion and cathartic release. Picker composes symphonic ballads out of pure necessity, to deal with the tragedies of his past -- the twin sisters who died before he was born, his abusive father and the divorce of his parents, his mother's mental illness and battle with breast cancer. Yet his speech is peppered with an easy laugh, betraying his sweet nature. His voice evokes a brogue-less Damien Rice and his immaculate compositions at times recall Owen Pallett. His first release on Anti Records was All Alone in an Empty House. It's lyrically sorrowful but intensely beautiful, a syrup of Ipecac for your emotions if you will. Picker studies film scoring at Berklee College of Music, and tells us he's in between semesters, wrapping up a record, and then heading to the Midwest for shows next week with his 6 piece band in tow; at the Hangar 9 in Carbondale and of course, our own LouFest on August 28.
Diana Benanti: Where are you and what do you see?
Ari Picker: I'm in a meadow. In North Carolina, I see grass and trees and some birds and a Porta Potty. [laughs]
Are you searching for inspiration in this meadow or what?
No, the studio that I'm working at is right here, there's a meadow outside of it. I'm working on the new record right now, we're wrapping it up. We're actually mixing it tomorrow.
What can you tell you about the new album?
Songs. I can't tell you yet, it has to be sort of a surprise. It's a continuation of what I was interested in previously; how classical music has evolved. I've been listening to more modern music. I think this record is an extension of the last one. I don't want to say too much, I'll demystify it and disappoint someone. [laughs] I was listening to a lot of early baroque music while I was making last record, and a little bit of romantic music, so that's like Vivaldi, Beethoven, Chopin. This time I'm listening to more Bartok, Shostakovich, stuff like that. I think the harmonic structure of that kind of music is just a lot more dark and golden sounding.
Say you have a fan that isn't into classical music, what would you tell them to seek out?
Like, where to start? I don't know, I think I would tell them to listen to some film music first. Like Bernard Herrmann, or something like that, that might get them interested in going backwards a little bit.
Can you share what some of your favorite soundtracks are?
I really like The Burbs, with Tom Hanks. [laughs] That soundtrack is amazing. I don't know if anyone will remember it, but that one, and I like a lot of Bernard Hermann stuff, so that's like all the Alfred Hitchcock movies. And then I like the Wes Anderson soundtracks, there's not a lot of original music but I do like how he mashes up classical music as well as songwriters. I think The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack is a really seamless sounding record, there's tons of great stuff on there, he's got classical; I know Ravel is on there, you've got Paul Simon on there. I like that stuff, that was a big influence on me, or at least it was when it came out...it still is.
He just has such a way of giving you a sense of place, and the music that you hear in his films never really sounds the same again after you see it in that context.
Yeah, yeah that's true.
Have you finished your degree at Berklee?
I still have one more semester. I'm in between semesters right now, I finish mixing the record and then I go straight back to class. And then this little run up to you guys. So it's a pretty busy time. If I sound discombobulated that's why.
Since you're at a music college, are you surrounded by people who are in bands, or do you get any flak for being featured on NPR?
Berklee is kind of a bubble, they're pretty good about jazz and world music, but as far as indie music or pop music, they're horrible at that stuff. I see like, I don't know if anybody has recognized me or knows what I do. They're in their own world.
How and where did you write this album?
A lot of recording in North Carolina, I just kind of bring a mic with me wherever I go and work stuff out. There's stuff that was recorded in my bedroom to stuff that was recorded in a giant studio with a full string section. A lot of different sounds, and a lot of different quality of sounds, so we'll see what it sounds like when it's all put together... It's always pretty piecemeal, there's what sounds like a full band here and there. I was writing it as we were recording it, which, has good and bad things about it. Do you find yourself with writer's block ever?
Yeah, I had serious writers block before I started this record. It just kind of came together a year ago. It's hard to have somebody expect me to write a record, I've never had to write under any sort of pressure before. I just want it to be good. Mostly for me, I feel like I'm my biggest critic, so if I can make myself happy...I am very proud of what I've done so far. I'm in this spooky transition where everything that's been recorded all started getting mixed together...you start getting a vibe about what it's all going to be like. I always get a little nervous around this time.
Do you have an coping mechanisms when you're under the gun like that? I forgive myself [laughs]. I don't know. You just keep showing up, and sometimes it's really frustrating, but if you keep showing up, little pieces and little bits of things start piling up and you're like, wow this is a really intricate, interesting thing. Sometimes it just happens all at once and you're really surprised, and those are sometimes the best kind of songs or piece or whatever. Or you just slog them out and hate every minute of it. It's just like writing a paper or anything creative, it's like you can spend all day and if what you've written isn't any good, it's not like digging a ditch you know, at the end of the day you feel like you have to go back to the drawing board. That kind of stuff is difficult, I do envy people who have physical labor jobs, or routine jobs, I wouldn't mind doing jobs like that. I really want to work at a fitness center. And a brewery. Or maybe both. The more you work out, the more beer you can drink [laughs]. Now that I've given you a whole bunch of...oh, I'm sure this interview is going to be great.
It says on your Facebook page that "growing old and fear of death" are some of your influences. Can you expound on that at all?
I guess they're both very mystical things. You don't understand them. Gosh, I wrote that on there a long time ago, I don't know what I was thinking. No one knows what happens when we die, it makes you think all sorts of things. This is some valid information -- this album is all about my mom passing so when the door between life and death is opened for the first time in your life, you know, surreal experience, you kind of have to cope with it through making art. For me, I don't have any sort of religion that I can fall back on, so you make art on that kind of stuff and it's inspiring and relieving and you grow from it.
If the afterlife had a sound, which one of your songs would it be?
I like that. I think this new record kind of all has that sound. You'll have to wait and hear it.
For people who may not be familiar, can you describe the ultimate goal of Project Symphony?
It's a two-tiered mission I guess at this point. Originally it was to help young composers produce their work, commission them, help them write it with money, find places to play it and then through ticket sales of that concert, give the money to someone else to create some self-sustaining cycle of new music. So I wrote a symphony and had it premiered and we raised some money for it and we still have that money, we just gotta find another composer to help continue the cycle. That aspect has been put on hold since the whole band thing happened. The next part is us going into schools and talking about what we do and playing with students. We've done that quite a bit and it's always fun. It's just cool to get to know kids that age, and what they're listening to and what their experience with music is, and exchanging those experiences is really fun. And then we play for all their peers and stuff like that, it always works out pretty well.
Had you heard about LouFest before getting booked to play the festival?
No I hadn't, sorry.
It's okay! It's a new festival, the inaugural year was just last year.
Oh wow, it went well then, you're having another one.
Have you checked out the line-up for LouFest at all?
I haven't actually. Are the Flaming Lips playing, are they on there?
No, it's The Roots, TV on the Radio, Cat Power, Deerhunter, The Hold Steady, Surfer Blood...
Jeez, why are you talking to me?! You should be talking to all those people. I've always wanted to see TV on the Radio, I've never gotten the chance to see them. I never get to go out and see the bigger shows. We've just started playing these festivals, they're awesome, we have so much fun at these things. Sometimes too much fun.