by Robert Winship
Horse Feathers handles folk composition delicately, channeling Portland’s rich musical history into gentle string arrangements and piano flourishes and anchored by the weary-warble of Justin Ringle’s vocals. Having just released their fourth full-length album Cynic’s New Year (the third on Kill Rock Stars), Horse Feathers will perform at the Black Cat on Friday, May 11. We caught up with Justin, the founder and chief songwriter of the band to discuss the new record, politics in music and where he draws inspiration.
Well, first of all, congratulations on Cynics New Year. It’s a fantastic album.
Oh thank you very much.
And I wanted to ask, how long had you been working on the album prior to the release? What was the timeline for recording that and that whole concept?
You know, I started writing the material for it right at the beginning of 2011. So, all in all, I’d say it was like about a year. I didn’t work on it…I didn’t get a start really working on it until August, was when we really started to record for it. And then we kind of worked on it pretty solidly with a few gaps until December, so that was kind of the outline of the whole process of it.
That’s a pretty quick turnaround time for recording an album.
Yeah, yeah kind of. You know when I was…the thing was when I was touring in between a lot, I did like a European tour and a tour in…we did like a run in the midwest that summer and then, like a bunch of one-offs. So it was kind of tough to get, you know, put my nose to the grindstone on it. And like I said, we didn’t really get going until like August.
What brought on the title for the album, Cynic’s New Year?
Um, you know, I don’t know. To me it reads as like, kind of a cautionary tale to myself, I guess, to some degree. 2011 was little bit of a…was kind of rough, not just for me personally, but a lot of people I knew. It just seemed like there were a lot of dynamic changes happening and maybe even, I don’t know, the world at large. It’s just, everything just felt off. And I was kind of struggling through the whole process to try to keep my head above water in some kind of optimistic sense. I came up with the title really, really early. And it kind of just stuck with me. I don’t know what it was really, because it had a ring to it. But I ended up finding that it kind of pertained to the battle I was having personally through the whole year, trying to write the record. Of trying to not just be resigned to seeming like just ‘Oh, this is gonna happen’ or everyday is pretty basically the same day, I’m just like wading through it, or going through the steps of anything. And, I don’t know. It just ended up, I found that I was gravitating toward all these subjects in songwriting that…just two different themes I found: observing and then kind of reflecting these different problems that I’ve seen people around me who are close to me, struggling with different things and it just kind of all summed it up. Sorry, that was a long answer.
No, not at all. So, I had read a couple people and talked to a couple people who felt like it was almost a political term, in light of the election year. Is there any leanings on a political idea there? Or no?
I want to say yes, but I’m gonna say no (laughs). I mean, it’s not like a political album at all, but some of those things it’s just like, obviously, there’s a lot of political things going on right now, and I think it’s hard to not be affected by a lot of the state that we’re in right now in terms of as far as what’s happening, I think there’s insecurity and I definitely feel that and I think that that, almost in a non-intentional way, I think got reflected in a lot of the music. And of course, I did make the decision, like some of the lyrics and thematically to paint a little bit more of a detailed picture about that, but in general I wouldn’t say that it was politically motivated. No.
Do you feel that musicians have a role to speak up politically? With the Occupy Wall Street, there’s a big solidarity among, especially sort of punk and singer-songwriter, everybody from Jeff Mangum to Ian MacKaye were there, do you feel like musicians should have a role in speaking about politics? How do you feel about that?
Yes, I think so. I definitely think so. I guess it just depends. I feel like there’s almost two roads with it. You can be overtly political and raise a flag for whatever cause you’re having and have that be…that’s the major component of the art or the art of songwriting or your music, or whatever. And then on the other hand too, you can also respond personally and that’s kind of more of where, I feel like, I’m coming from. I was just basing things off of observations and experiences I’ve seen and I’m not trying to push any type of agenda necessarily, but I’m just trying to just express myself in terms of what I’ve witnessed and experienced. That always comes out in music, one way or another. But, I guess, in short, is it the job of musicians to be politically active? I don’t think it’s…No, I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s part of the job description, but I think that musicians are always going to respond to their environment and what we’re going through each day. And I think, in that sense, 2011 particularly, I felt was really dynamic in somewhat of a negative sense. And back to the album title, I think that’s where I was coming from with it. I was just kind of, almost in a therapeutic way, just trying to get some of these things off my chest, you know.
Right. But that you’re impression of those things could translate to someone feeling political pressure. Just feeling the weight of the world.
Yeah, I mean, I definitely have a lot of political…I have a definite political bent, for sure, but, me personally, I don’t feel comfortable standing up on a soapbox and saying yes, this is how it should be, or whatever, especially with this record. I think that the best political commentary in music is usually somewhat more of a sleight of hand and a little bit metaphorical because if it’s too overtly political, I feel like that’s too simple. It’s easy to write a song and include a laundry list of your political alignment, or describe your political alignment and circumstances and events specifically, but I think the much harder task is trying to package it in a way that’s more metaphorical, so people can figure it out for themselves a little bit and have it mean something to them because it has to be subjective in some way, otherwise people won’t own it themselves. I don’t know, that sounds really obtuse, but I look at it like the best political songs I’ve ever heard, and it’s kind of an obvious one, but, like Bob Dylan had an amazing capacity to somehow wrap up really specific and intense political concepts into metaphor and you know, someday maybe I’ll be able to do something like that successfully. (laughs) That’s a tall order.
But what you’re saying is the point: if it has to be a little bit obtuse, a little bit vague in order for people to feel a part of it.
Yeah, I think if you outline it such in a way that’s so specific, I think it dulls the point of the whole thing because it becomes so circumstantial to a here-and-now type feeling. Unless there’s a metaphorical element to it or is vague or like a reflection of some kind of feeling, then I feel like if it’s not that way you’re doing yourself a disservice because it becomes just a rallying cry that’s only going to make sense for whatever topic it is that it immediately at hand. You know what I mean? It’s like naming a song ‘99%’ and when the whole movement has done its thing and it’s over, it becomes a song that’s so one dimensional.
And very dated.
Yeah, and I guess that’s the specific point I’m trying to make is that can be really patronizing in a way. You know what I mean, to have it be spelled out that much. So, yeah, I guess that would be my stance on it (laughs).
It sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot.
Yeah, I bet you everybody who writes songs…I think it’s a common thing. Most of the songwriters I know…I’m sure everybody feels inspired to say something political, but I always feel like it’s very hard. I think it’s very hard…it’s a challenging thing. And to do it right, or, more appropriately, to not do it incorrectly or poorly. I’ve definitely, I’ve thought about it for a while. It’s kind of scary. There’s only one song on the record that I felt like was very…you could interpret…there’s a few other lines, but there’s one I feel like has a more…could be construed as a political bent to it. But for me, the thing was, it was just an observation of going back to my hometown. It’s just that simple. It doesn’t have to do with anything that was happening in current events or news or politics, it was just me revisiting my hometown and seeing the state of them and writing a song about it and there is some timeliness with that right now.
So when you go back home to write, what do you do to gather inspiration? I guess, more specifically, do you listen to music to gather inspiration: Bob Dylan or otherwise?
Not often during a writing process. That really scares the hell out of me because I find that no matter what I do, subconsciously, it’s going to imprint itself in something. So, I always feel like you are what you eat in that sense. And if you’re listening to a lot of music, I always feel like I better be pretty damn sure I am really behind because it’s going to get in there in some way. But, no, I actually read a lot of poetry more than anything when I’m working on a record. Not necessarily for thematic inspiration, but I just find that it gets the gears turning for words, more than anything and just the aestheticism of it, of words in poetry and the rhythm of it really helps me when I’m writing songs a lot. And this one, I read a lot of James Wright and another poet Robinson Jeffers and a little bit of like Dylan Thomas and stuff like that. I kind of just do a little routine where I just read that stuff a lot, like daily and just try to absorb some of the intricacies of the language and I find that that helps me alot in terms of formulating words and sharpening what I want to say with the songs. But listening to music scares me a lot of times, when I’m working on a record because it feels like it’s gonna come out.
Right, even if subconsciously. Is there any music that you’re listening to now that you’re on tour or anybody you like at the moment?
Um, well, let me see. I was listening to a bunch of stuff last night. I listen to a lot of old stuff. Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of Tim Hardin, who’s an old folk singer, originally from Oregon, actually and I’ve been listening to a folk singer from England named John Martyn. And a little bit of Bill Withers, which is a new thing for me, which is funny. And yeah, that’s about it. I’m actually a bad music fan these days. I find that whatever time I have to listen to music, is usually, instead, occupied with playing it, in general. It’s an unfortunate consequence of recording and touring all of the time. I’ve found that my ability to be a fan is then compromised.
Are there any other musical styles that you want to explore?
Yeah, you know, I’m getting there. I kinda feel like I have been finding that I’ve been wanting to expand into some different directions, especially in my listening diet, in terms of stuff I’m listening to, which is really the first step into exploring other stuff. I’ve been really entrenched and enamored in acoustic-based music for, I don’t know, six or seven or eight years straight and I’m just now feeling like I’ve said a lot of things I want to say musically and even lyrically in that sense, or in that style. Yeah, I have been wanting to kind of step out into some different things, but at the same time, I don’t know what they are. I just feel like I’m definitely gravitating toward some different sounds and stuff like that. That’s always an exciting thing, I think. You know, I don’t know where it’s going to end up or what’s gonna come out. I usually never know until I get done touring on a record and have the time to sit down and get to work again with writing new music. And that’s usually when that kind of evolution really starts, you know.
Right. So, in performing and playing live you know, I don’t know, what has your experience been with crowds and venues? How have people responded to new material and your performance as a whole?
Um, well, it’s weird. Because I don’t feel like…I’ve been around the block a few times now and this is my fourth record and it’s funny I think we have people that come to our shows that want to see specific songs songs from specific records. And what happens usually is when we play live right after a record comes out, like right now, a lot of times people haven’t had the time to digest new material. So, we’re playing a lot of the new material, that feels like it’s kind of…it’s so fresh that people haven’t had enough time to absorb it. And usually what happens is like on the second tour, when we come back through is when people are than really, have had the time to sit with the music and are eagerly awaiting certain songs, you know, but it’s just always a…it’s just a little bit of a cycle. So, you know, we get a lot of great response from a lot of the older material because people know it, you know, but it just takes a little bit of time.
This is kind of a tech, maybe not a technical question, but do you do encores?
Um, yeah, yeah we do a lot of nights, we end up doing encores.
Just wondering. After seeing a lot of shows where people are sort of half-assedly calling out another band. Which is to to speak anything of those bands merits, but it becomes such a standard thing, it almost doesn’t feel special anymore.
Oh, I agree. I kind of, frankly, I don’t really like the concept of it. Don’t print that though (laughs). I mean I think it’s kind of silly in a way. There’s an expectation to the point where I’ve gotten caught enough times with my pants down, where it’s like we play a whole set and we kind of did everything we know and then the next thing you know, and this was early on, but it was like, you know, ‘Oh, they want an encore!’ Well, we’re kind of done, I don’t know what else to play. So, it’s gotten to the point where I just have to make sure, with the band it’s like, well guys we’re gonna keep these two in the hole tonight, just in case. So it’s almost pre-conceived in a sense, which always makes me feel kind of weird, but I don’t want to get caught in the position where we don’t know what to do.
You have to plan.
Well, I just have one last question and it’s a pretty basic one, but do you have anybody you’d really like to either write songs with or maybe just a dream collaboration for a one-off split or something?
Oh wow, shoot.
You can have more than one answer.
Wow, well, wow. I don’t know. Well, I’ll tell you somebody who I’ve always enjoyed is and who I think is criminally underappreciated is Eric Bachmann, who’s done like, his band is Crooked Fingers and he does a solo thing. And that guy has been around for a long time and I think that he is just an excellent songwriter and I would pretty much…I would flip out to even do some shows with that guys or even work on something would be amazing. I think that he’s really good. But there’s a number of people. On the spot, it’s tough.
Yeah, well cool. That’s it, thanks so much for talking to us. Really, really, really love the new record and we’re excited to see you come out to the Black Cat, which is a really solid venue for you guys.
Yeah, I’m excited to. I like playing in DC.