Horse Play

1448 MusicLead horse-feathers-john-clarkJustin Ringle’s band Horse Feathers gets downright upbeat on new album

Northern Idaho is not exactly a cultural hotbed. For Justin Ringle, growing up there offered two options: get into four-wheeling, trucks and hunting, or come up with some other way to spend his time. The singer-songwriter behind the band Horse Feathers chose the latter.

“Music was kind of an outlet,” he says. “A rebellion against the redneck cowboy shit that went on in my hometown. I learned a lot growing up there about being very introverted and insular, and getting focused on that.”

Eventually, Ringle moved to Portland, Oregon, taking his music and introspective tendencies with him. At this point, he considers himself a full-blown Oregonian.

As Horse Feathers, Ringle has released five albums and created a nice niche for himself in the space where string-driven, chamber-inspired indie rock meets folk music. The band’s new album, So It is With Us, while still full of strings and introspective lyrics, is more rocking than past offerings, with bass, drums and a few songs that sound downright upbeat.

“I’d previously been so focused on string arrangements, which is really time-consuming and cerebral,” explains Ringle. “Working with the rhythm section and creating a different backdrop to all the songs was so refreshing and exciting.”

The first time the band played the new rhythm-driven sound live, the audience response was immediate.

“We came off stage, everybody looked at each other and we were like,  ‘Let’s do this,’” Ringle says. “It was a different type of enthusiasm … that felt so markedly different from what I’d been doing for eight years previously. All of a sudden we were getting energy back.”

In what is quickly becoming a requirement for sensitive indie-folk bands, So It is With Us was recorded in a barn in rural Oregon. Ringle says this is even too cliche for him, and that he didn’t want to mention the barn in the press materials for the album. For him, recording in the barn was a matter of isolation, convenience and economics. It allowed them to get away from distractions for the recording of the album, plus they could sleep in the barn—and record in it for free.

“We didn’t do it to put in our one-sheet,” he says, “it’s just kind of what happened. It was great.”

Once released, the album made the Billboard charts, despite selling fewer albums than the band had ever sold during a debut week. But illegal downloads still prove problematic for artists trying to make a living from their recordings. For the 2012 album Cynic’s New Year, there were 20,000 illegal downloads in the first week.

Ringle finds this change in the music industry frustrating and disconcerting. So much, in fact, that he contemplated whether he wanted to be a part of it. After touring Cynic’s New Year, he came home exhausted and full of questions. He took a break to reevaluate things.

“The music industry had become such a moving target. I didn’t understand how I fit into it anymore,” he says. “I would [write songs] compulsively whether or not it was my job. But because it is my job, it was difficult to find some kind of understanding with that relationship. Money and art are kind of weird bedfellows.”

The break proved therapeutic for Ringle, and he emerged from it with a renewed focus on live performances, propelled by the band’s new, more energetic sound.

“The record is an important thing,” he says, “but I knew that the only thing we could control was the quality of the show that we put on every night, so I focused on that a little more. I’ve always thought of myself more of a recording artist than a performer, but I started thinking of them at least on equal footing.”

Horse Feathers will perform at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 4 at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $15/adv, $18/door. 423-1338. PHOTO: Portland’s Horse Feathers performs Thursday, Dec. 4 at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz.  JOHN CLARK

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