“It’s kind of like a dream,” says Ari Picker, reflecting on his collage-like approach to lyricism. “You don’t know what the hell it’s about it, but it definitely has an emotional impact.”
It’s also an apt description of Past Life, the third LP he’s recorded with an ever-shifting line-up as Lost in the Trees. Across 38 minimal minutes, ethereal pianos and airy woodwinds slither over stark drum loops and bass riffs, as Picker’s wounded tenor parses out images of night-swimming angels and eerie shadows and disappearing ghosts and bleeding hearts.
To those fans bewitched by the band’s first two albums, this description might not seem like a creative overhaul: On their critical break-out, 2012’s A Church That Fits Our Needs, the North Carolinians conjured that same kind of inexplicable dreaminess, as Picker grappled with his mother’s suicide over lush, grandiose orchestrations. But even if Past Life elicits the same kind of visceral gut response (equal parts weeping and star-gazing) from its listeners, it approaches that style of epic catharsis in a brand new way. Instead of diving head-first into his own internal misery, as he did on Church, Picker aimed to “reach out and grab something” with this album, “to get ahold of something external.”
“It all started with me going into this museum at UNC University,” Picker says of the LP’s initial spark. “I was just looking for somewhere to start. It wasn’t very big, but they had a cool little modern art exhibit, and I just went into it with some headphones, listening to some Philip Glass, and I just sat down in front of these paintings and wrote a few poems.”
Through that external process, he developed the basic foundation for Past Life—a broad story about “two souls and this relationship, jumping from one life to the next together.” It’s a concept album in theory, but it registers on a primal, emotional level rather than as a narrative. Past Life was created as a cut-and-paste poetic collage, with a interwoven sense of time—on some tracks, the two souls chase each other through the ether and elsewhere “yearn for each other through a mirror.”
On paper, it sounds like intellectual fluff, but these are Picker’s most arresting and immediate songs to date. Inspired by Phillip Glass’ minimalist compositions (and even the focused sonic presence of Peter Gabriel’s So), Picker teamed up with producer Nicolas Vernhes (Deerhunter, Dirty Projectors) with the goal of stripping away the musical excess of his previous work.
“We got on a bit of a minimalism kick,” Picker says, noting the album’s loop-heavy production and lack of orchestrations. “We talked about how much we could tear away—exposing the essence of the song instead of filling the picture up with too much information. I was definitely attracted to that since the last records were very dense. I think that was at the core of all the decisions we were making. With fewer elements, those few elements could be bigger and take up more of the sonic picture. And also have more detail—the kick drum can have a lot more detail if a whole orchestra isn’t piled on top.”
And so we have the title track, with its rattling guitar riff and feathery vocal harmonies, or the chiming electro-rock pulses of “Rites,” or the Talk Talk-esque chamber-jazz of “Glass Harp.” Ten quietly beautiful melodies slip in, leave their mark and disappear like ghosts—all but three achieving that goal in under four minutes.
It takes courage for a songwriter to shrink their sonic world—but it also takes a clear vision. For Past Life, Picker trimmed back the line-up from a sextet to a quartet, despite the personal consequences.
“When your feelings change or when you change…for me, when I recognize that’s happening, I understand what needs to be done,” he says. “Obviously there’s an emotional part of it, as well. The personnel of the band up to this point has been great friends and very hard-working. So that’s difficult, but ultimately, you can’t force anything.”
“And I guess, yeah, everybody is a victim of my muse, including myself sometimes,” he continues with a laugh. “I changed, and my music changed, and that informed what the line-up needed to be. For me to do the band and go on tour and dedicate my life to it, to be a good leader, I have to be creatively inspired. If I feel like I’m suffocated, it’s not fair to anybody because I’ll become a bad leader.”
Past Life came together quickly, written in bursts during the tour for Church and debuted on-stage last year before being re-shaped in the studio. It’s an unconventional approach to making an album, but it allowed Picker and company (including longtime keyboardist/singer Emma Nadeau and guitarist Joah Tunnell) to refine their arrangements.
“I think it started with just learning from making the past records,” Picker says. “I think that informed me. I grew up listening to artists that were constantly morphing into different things with each album. I guess when I finish anything, I’m constantly having a backlash reaction to it.”
So instead of tinkering away endlessly with these songs, struggling to reconcile his “creative brain and editing brain,” as Picker puts it, he moved forward into the unknown—and that’s the place Picker feels most inspired.
“I have a spiritual side to me that’s not really fulfilled in any other way than music,” he says. “Or I use music to approach that kind of stuff. For me, music functions the same way as church might for somebody. I sit down and have these external, internal, ethereal, intangible, infinite feelings, and I try to address those things because that’s the place where I do that in life. It is abstract, and there is kind of a holy element to it. It doesn’t always make sense, but I try to find lyrics that my body needs to feel at this moment.”