Horse Feathers’ Justin Ringle on how unemployment, gloomy weather and Gothic lit minimized his sound
We all know Portland is overrun with them. You know the crowd I’m talking about: the over-educated, rarely employed, too-cool youth on the cusp of computer culture and an artistic aesthetic. There’s no doubt about it, there are just too many graphic designers in Oregon.
“I came to find out when you move to Portland, Ore., it’s kind of a shocking realization that if there’s any creative field then there is a surplus of unemployed people,” explains Horse Feathers’ frontman Justin Ringle. “There are more graphic designers in Portland than there are musicians, almost, so it was kind of a rough transition. I couldn’t find a job in that field, so, low and behold, I end up touring around in a van most of the year.”
For Idaho-raised Ringle, moving to Portland is what started it all. It’s a theme of geography that comes up throughout the story of Horse Feathers—the slow-boiled folksy foursome returning to The Crepe Place on Thursday, Dec. 16. Though nowadays the songs of the string-heavy, pensive multi-instrumental group seem to flow from Ringle with a soothing effortlessness, it’s a fascinating process by which he came to this point.
After graduating from the University of Idaho with a bachelor of fine arts in studio arts and an emphasis on graphic design, Ringle initially stayed close to home with steady work. However, not only did Portland’s dearth of employment force him to examine alternative life avenues, but it really was the impetus to move away from traditional indie rock to the acoustic-based organic balladry of Horse Feathers.
“I think I just got bored, and I was just kind of frustrated with the dynamics of a rock band,” Ringle says. “I just got tired of the loudness, and playing with a drummer all the time, and just the overall feel of it. It just felt like as I played in rock bands I stripped it down more and more over time, and then I kind of had a break from it when I moved to Portland—and financially I didn’t have the capacity to play in a rock band.”
It’s a chain-reaction which links the Idaho graphic designer with the Horse Feathers frontman. Between being unemployed, having more free time and a chance to reexamine his musical proclivities, Ringle began composing songs in his bedroom on an acoustic guitar, dealing with music in its base form rather than with all the complications of a band dynamic. Then came the open mic nights at local clubs, which brought a far more positive reaction than the songwriter ever expected.
“It was kind of a proving ground in that I was kind of shocked that people were interested in the music at all,” remembers Ringle. “It kind of was the genesis of everything, because briefly after that I started to record my first demos and actually gave playing music more serious thought.”
And not only did the move to Portland present opportunities to take music more seriously and have songs heard by a wider audience, but images of the city started to creep in to the music itself. Horse Feathers’ two albums, 2008’s House With No Home and this year’s Thistled Spring can be thought of in terms of seasons—House With No Home regarded as the winter album, while Thistled Spring, well, you get the idea.
“Portland definitely has its own character and mood, and I think a lot of that is maybe prescribed by weather,” Ringle surmises. “From the months November through June it’s pretty easy to become kind of a hermit and be a little more reflective, and I think that kind of mentality has definitely found its way into the music.”
Admittedly, Thistled Spring was a more concerted, conscious attempt at creating a record which reflected a specific season with geography in mind, but that’s not to say it was a contrived process. Rather, like the rest of Ringle’s output, he was simply writing what he knew and drawing upon Portland for inspiration. Even moving to a new neighborhood in the same city provided a chance for reprieve.
“I think the lifestyle change opened my eyes to a lot of different things, and it also coincidentally happened to me in spring,” Ringle says. “I didn’t write House With No Home in mind with it being a very wintery record, it [just] came out that way. And part of the reason why on the new record I even affixed the ‘spring’ part to it, is it was only in retrospect I realized how much of a wintery record House With No Home was.”
Another big influence on Ringle are the works of Southern Gothic writers—Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, for instance. Much like Southern Gothic literature, critics have noticed the presence of the grotesque in Ringle’s work, a charge which he doesn’t deny but likewise he isn’t trying to plagiarize. In fact, Ringle believes that even his predilection for grotesque literature is related to the same geographical influence which seems to guide just about every other part of his musical career.
“I’ve always been fond of all their writing, there’s a certain type of seriousness to the tone of that whole thing,” he explains. “I do like the kind of mood and the kind of seriousness that those authors evoke. In a weird way I find that the Pacific Northwest has its own mysteriousness and spookiness, and I just try to channel that a little bit.”
It remains to be seen where the future of Horse Feathers and Justin Ringle will lead. Who knows, maybe it’s time for him to find a new locale or hipster hub. Music’s a fickle business, so maybe that bachelor of fine arts will come in handy, after all. But whatever happens with the future of Ringle’s music, here’s betting it follows the seasons.
Horse Feathers plays at 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 16, at The Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10 in advance. For more information, call 429-6994.
Photo Credit: Tarina Westlund