Ari Picker's thin frame, red hair and broad smile don't suggest a penchant for weighty symphonies. Nor do his asides about NASCAR and the Bojangles chicken-and-biscuits chain.
The Lost in the Trees frontman recently phoned Boise Weekly from a FedEx Office in North Carolina, where he was backing up tracks from the band's most recent album, A Church That Fits Our Needs.
"It's been done for a while now. I'm just making sure that the files are backed up for the re-master 20 years from now," he laughed.
But joking aside, with all the press the young band has garnered--its presence at SXSW, a recent tour in the United Kingdom and a contract with Anti-Records--Lost in the Trees is well on its way.
It's a journey that began in the Tar Heel State in Picker's youth.
"I was writing songs in high school and picking at arrangements," said Picker. "I was kind of getting my head around the technique of arrangements. They were equally as important as the songwriting to me."
Picker left home to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, waving goodbye to the "liberal oasis" of Chapel Hill in the otherwise conservative state of North Carolina. Though he originally studied film scoring, he fell in love with composing.
"Berklee feels like Guitar Center Music College," he said. "It's kind of corporate. But there are a ton of hidden gems and professors there. One of my composition professors was one of [Dmitri] Shostakovich's last pupils."
At Berklee, Picker found his passion for music by listening to the last century's great classical composers. In the halls of school, he also found the collaborators who would fill out his hallowed arrangements.
"Lost in the Trees used to be kind of a revolving door of whoever could play and come to practice; our cast of characters would change every show. As we started touring, with the demand for that, the revolving cast of characters of 30 people slowly dwindled to six," Picker said.
The talent he pulled together is more trained for a philharmonic than a rock club: Mark Daumen provides tuba; Yan Westerlund plays drums; Jenavieve Varga plays violin, Drew Anagnost plays cello; and Emma Nadeau provides French horn, accordion and vocals. Picker channels their talent into arrangements compiled on his Macbook. It's a meticulous process.
"It's not like I'm just cranking out classical composition; I certainly struggle with it. It's a lot of growing pains in writing," he said. "I guess I do know a lot about it, but I consider myself an amateur."
Lost in the Trees' songs can be a little tricky. Tracks like "All Alone in an Empty House" begin sweetly, with Picker singing, "I spent my whole life on you / and I built you this gorgeous house." But soon, the song plunges into darkness: "To put up with your bitched mouth / and I've thrown all my dreams right out."
"At the beginning of that song, there's a lot of heartbreak and horror. It's a very violent, ferocious song," said Jerry Stifelman, a friend of Picker who directed a music video for the band. "But with Ari's singing, you don't always get the sense that he's singing about something dark."
For the band's latest album, Picker draws on his very personal life experiences. His mother battled cancer, lost her unborn twins, dealt with an abusive husband and suffered through depression before taking her own life. The lyrics on A Church That Fits Our Needs focus on Picker's mother's revolving storyline of heartbreak.
"It's hard when the story is personal," said Picker. "You don't want to cheapen it or tell it the wrong way, which sometimes happens. You want to represent the music the best you can."
Much of Picker's upbringing was colored by his relationship with his mother. Her picture, a shock of wiry red hair prominently showing the link to her son, adorns the new album. But on the phone, Picker didn't directly mention his mother.
"There's certainly sort of a domestic, personal record that drives what I write about," he said. "I think that was the main catalyst for making the record."
A Church That Fits our Needs is a gem because of how expertly Picker blends the mournful with the uplifting. "I heard you weeping through the walls," he sings on "Red," accompanied by heartening harp chords, violins and the haunting, operatic vocals of Nadeau.
"That song is very much about the whole record. ... Ari talks about creating a space for his mother to exist the way she couldn't in life," said Stifelman. "It's not just about loss, but also rebirth."
Stifelman directed a music video for "Red" that is tied thematically to the subject matter.
"There's a Martin Scorsese quote that says, 'It's the job of the artist to make other people care about their profession.' Ari has this gift of singing about things that are very personal and making the audience have an emotional reaction."
Though Picker is a classically trained musician, he said songwriting comes from something inside him, rather than his education.
"You don't really need to go to school for songwriting," he said. "It seems bizarre to me; it seems so alien to me. If you want to write jingles, maybe you go to school for that."
On stage, Picker hopes he can represent the emotion he puts into writing his songs. If the audience feels the lyrics, he's says he's done his job.
"If everything happens right, you go up there and it feels natural," he said. "And you're being yourself and having fun, that's what comes across the most in a live show."