Bandmates come and go. It’s just a fact of the music business, according to Justin Ringle, who’s been fronting the Portland, Oregon-based indie folk outfit Horse Feathers since 2004. Most break-ups are under the radar—just musicians going about their professional lives, rather than the splashy teeth-gnashing feuds the media eats up.
“I used to hate it,” Ringle told C-VILLE Weekly in a recent phone interview. “I thought it was a major problem. Now I have embraced it. Having the rotational thing, where people are coming and going, has actually been the most consistent thing in the group.”
Most, but not all, of Horse Feathers’ break-ups have been amicable, Ringle said. Peter Broderick, the violinist who joined up in 2005, left to pursue a better paying gig in Europe in 2008. Broderick’s sister Heather, Horse Feathers’ first cellist, did the same months later. Ringle said he knows he’ll outlast everyone else in his band, or else it wouldn’t be his band.
“Right now I have two of my best friends on tour with me,” he said. “When I have straight up hired people to go on tour, that is a different feeling. We have a bit more of a family vibe going on. We’re enjoying it.”
Having been on the road with strangers, friends, and everything in between over the past decade, Ringle is celebrating Horse Feathers’ 10th year as a band with an anniversary tour that launched on March 21. The tour includes a stop in Charlottesville on April 14, a date Ringle said he’s looking forward to (although that may be entirely because of his abiding love for Christian’s Pizza).
Joining Ringle when he takes the stage at the Southern Café and Music Hall will be longtime violinist Nathan Crockett, cellist Lauren Vidal, percussionist Dustin Dybvig, and multi-instrumentalist Brad Parsons. It’s a group that Ringle said brings a special set of skills to the stage, and it’s helped him “change what I want to get out of music.” Where he was once close-minded about how the songs on his records were arranged, he now recognizes that different players have different strengths and weaknesses and tries to account for them.
Ringle said he’s currently going through a musical transformation, the second of his career. When he got into music as a youth “full of piss and vinegar,” he was drawn to straight up rock ‘n’ roll, screeching electric guitars, and pounding drums. But when he moved to Portland in ’04 to develop himself as a professional singer-songwriter, he found he wanted to pursue a different sound, something more easygoing, something more meaningful.
“When I was about 21, it was weird, the loud stuff just didn’t interest me anymore,” he said. “I got more into songwriting and switched over to acoustic guitar. Ten years later, I’m still focusing on songwriting.”
Ringle said his passion for folk lyrics developed during his years growing up in a small town in Idaho. He’s naturally drawn to agrarian imagery and working class struggles, because that’s what he knows. When he breathes, “Every night, we all go to a house we’ll never own/Every night, we are tired from being worked to the bone” on 2012’s Cynic’s New Year, he said he can see scenes from his youth in his mind’s eye.
“When you have those things in your memory, you can come up with the details,” he said. “Writing lyrics is really difficult. The goal is to do something honest. If you have experience in some capacity, that’s how you breathe life into it and give it a heartbeat, and it becomes something beyond words and music.”
The latest transformation for Ringle is slightly back toward his roots. He’s added a drummer and bass player to his studio sound, shifting his tunes into the folk rock arena and giving the sound more volume and structure. The album he plans to release this fall will be a “different animal” from what he’s been doing, he said.
Still, when Horse Feathers graces the Southern with songs it’s working on for the (untitled) next record, the sound will lack the distortion or aggressiveness that would mark a full move into hard rock.
“I love the folk palette, the sound and style,” Ringle said. “When you start to go down that path, it’s hard not to be influenced and indebted to it.”
In addition to the current anniversary tour, Horse Feathers has reissued the three albums it produced on the Kill Rock Stars label, along with several unreleased tracks, as a four-cassette box set to celebrate the band’s longevity. Hearing the collection has given Ringle a chance to reflect on the music he’s made over the years. “Listening to material spanning almost 10 years, just hearing the changes and the different approaches and different players, is pretty exciting,” he said.
The one constant on each of the records has been Ringle’s unmistakable voice, which he said has been compared to more musicians than he can count. Whoever’s popular at the time a review is written typically gets the nod, be it Cat Power, Fleet Foxes, or Bon Iver. But the comparison that’s stood the test of time is probably the most curious —Ringle’s fairly deep, matter-of-fact speaking voice somehow transforms into a dead ringer for Tracy Chapman when he opens his mouth to sing. “I like that comparison because it is such a weird one for this white bearded guy from the Northwest,” he said. “I don’t know how the hell it happens.”