Cynically speaking

Justin Ringle ponders life with Horse Feathers

Justin Ringle (center) and his band of horses.

Justin Ringle (center) and his band of horses.

Photo By John Clark

Horse Feathers will perform Sunday, June 3, 8 p.m., at Origami Lounge. Death Songs, Envelope Peasant & the Scientific Orchestra and Emma & Nolan open.
Cost: $10
Origami Lounge
708 Cherry St.

A lot has been made of Justin Ringle’s disposition over the years. I guess it makes a bit of sense—over the course of four full-lengths, Ringle and his shape-shifting project Horse Feathers have made music that comes off like a perpetually gray afternoon. Even the title of the Portland, Ore. singer/songwriter’s latest LP, Cynic’s New Year, could be interpreted as coming from a guy who’s simply thrown up his hands.

But Ringle isn’t a downer—in fact, he’s quite the opposite. And, although our conversation was tonally almost like one of his songs, at the end of the day he’s just a regular guy in his early 30s sorting through life.

Cynic’s New Year continues the songwriter’s penchant for moody, and occasionally somber, folk. The title stems from events of the past two years, as Ringle watched family members grow sick and friends go through divorce and came to the realization that he’s not a kid anymore.

“Some people write songs, some write books, some work out—there’s a million ways to deal with these situations,” Ringle says. “I’d rather have this shit exist in a song than in my head dragging me down.”

Lyrically Ringle creates a sense of melodrama that can be traced to poets like Flannery O’Connor and James Wright, and delivers his words in a solemn tone that rarely slips out of its hushed range. The music that soundtracks his tales generally strikes much sunnier notes, ranging from straightforward folk to relatively lush chamber pop. Songs like “Where I’ll Be” and “Bird on a Leash” are filled with layered string arrangements that contrast with the songs’ overall simplicity.

The recording of Cynic’s New Year was a change for Ringle. While there have been several incarnations of Horse Feathers in the past, this time around Ringle and producer Skyler Norwood (who worked on Horse Feathers’ previous records) simply brought in different musicians to work on the songs. In the end, 11 Portland musicians came to Ringle’s home studio to provide the array of string, piano and horn parts—most of whhich had already been written and arranged by Ringle.

The approach worked well for Ringle, who admits that the idea of maintaining a regular band is not easy—for him or for the musicians.

“It’s a lot easier than having a set band,” he explains. “In my experience it becomes a bit of an ego battle. Being the main songwriter makes it more challenging. I don’t want to just be a guy with a guitar, but I’m not into jamming out songs with a band, either.”

Ringle is already considering using the same process for the next record. In the meantime, he and his road band have been making their way across the country. While it’s a far simpler set-up than the dozen musicians who played on the record, Ringle is finding that they’ve still been able to recreate some of the more complex arrangements, while also pushing things sonically.

“I feel like we are rocking more than I did in the first five years,” Ringle says with a bit of sarcasm. “But for as much as we’re rocking, we’re still a folk band—rocking for our fans is still pretty vanilla.”

Ringle is also at a point in his career where he cares less about people’s perceptions of Horse Feathers. Even as he shuffles through all of life’s big questions, there’s one thing he is sure about.

“I’m making music that I find satisfying, even if others don’t like it,” he says, adding, “I understand at this point that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”