Mysterious, talented, and “lyrically-lax” Justin Ringle of Portland’s Horse Feathers talks to Andrew Frank about his music, his inspirations, and how (if not why) the words “just feel right.”
Portland’s Horse Feathers work with small conflicts. Their songs—elaborate compositions borne out of simple folk tunes—draw close attention to space, to unheard tensions, with precisely formed arrangements for violin, cello, guitar, banjo, and the occasional saw. The result is a kind of abstraction or inversion of a traditional folk aesthetic, a textured, fluid reinvestigation of a time-tested approach to song-craft.
Band-leader Justin Ringle, whose near-whispered vocals tend to emerge in the quiet spaces in the band’s songs, writes timeless, evocative bits of narrative, brief and tense visions into damaged lives, where memory is “a clothed youthful dream, undressed by fragile broken seams,” where characters live under a “dark, dirty sun.” Oppositions like these—between dark and light, between the beauty of natural spaces and the painful resonances beneath them—are at the center of much of his work. They are tiny clashes, minute ruptures, deftly formed and cloaked in pastoral imagery.
Playing with Southern Gothic literary tropes, Ringle conjures a world of haunted, lonely individuals, trapped between lives, among tragedies mentioned distantly, always alienated in some form or another. I talked with him about those sweeping arrangements, the place of fiction in song, and the purgatory of Portland’s springtime.
Andrew Frank: Could you begin by talking a bit about how the songs take form—the band is often referred to as your project, but the string parts seem to take a very prominent place in the arrangements. How do you interact with the other members of the band?
Justin Ringle: Well, every song has a different evolution, but, in general, I begin writing the songs alone, and usually have a pretty good idea of where I want to start with the strings before I bring it to the group. I’ll then often bounce my ideas off the violin player and see what he initially reacts with, using my melody as the base over which he can begin harmonizing, and then we’ll begin to build up the rhythm and articulations of his part so that it matches some kind of rhythm in the melody or the guitar part. Once that’s played out and accommodated in the arrangement of the song, then often times the cello is brought in to form an additional harmony. So that’s kind of the general map of how it goes but, as I said, sometimes it’s different. Sometimes I’ve sat down with everyone and built up string parts together.
I really enjoy strings in my music; we don’t have a dedicated full-time drummer, and part of the reason for that is to allow the string parts to be really prominent. The violinists and cellist tend to serve a lot of different roles in filling out the compositions. I think, often times, string arrangements don’t really hold any weight—they’re only there to add extra texture—whereas, I treat the cellist, in some ways, in the same type of role that a bass player would take on in a rock band.
AF: Did you always envision having your songs take on arrangements like these?
JR: No, it’s been an evolution. I had written most of the songs on the first record [Horse Feathers] before I met the violinist, named Peter Broderick, I went on to collaborate with, and he added his parts to what I’d already written. I had been looking for a violin player, but, in some ways, it wasn’t until I actually began playing with him that I started to understand the capacity for strings to work in my music; ever since then it’s been building. As I’ve been become more familiar with the capabilities of arranging strings into my songs, the way I think about songwriting has changed.
AF: The new album is entitled “Thistled Spring”—seasons, and natural imagery in general, appear very frequently in your lyrics. What is about seasons, and, in particular, the changes between them, that you find so appealing?
JR: I came to the theme in a subconscious way, I think. I moved to a new house in the beginning of 2009 and I started to write the songs that became the new record at that time, and a lot of that composition happened in the springtime. It was only afterward, when I was trying to make sense of the material that I’d written, that I felt that it had a different tone or mood than I had previously worked in—it didn’t feel like music I had made before. I had begun to be a little more backwards-looking in my approach, and it just seemed that, subconsciously, I was responding to a lot of changes, not only to events in my personal life, but also very literally in terms of the location that I lived in, and the seasons. So I began to really look into that idea, and I really found that the material signified a change for me personally from my last record.
In a backwards-looking way, that record [House With No Home] seemed really indicative of wintertime, and, the new music I was writing definitely embodied a progression from that feeling. So I just began to think about the concept of Spring. In Portland, for instance, our springtime is interesting because it still feels very much like winter until June—it rains, it has the same type of gray everyday, but there’s little moments where it’s sunny. Spring, as a season, is almost like a weird type of purgatory (laughter), because you’re really looking forward to the summertime and there’s this very hopeful feeling, and yet you’re constantly confronted with the fact that it’s not there yet. So there’s just a weird negative underlying element to it (laughter).
Anyways, I’m just kind of rambling .… There’s a lot of different things about the concept that are really interesting to me, and I felt like the season was an interesting topic to kind of place characters in, as well as moods, and in which to articulate these little places that I’ve created in my mind. Natural imagery, in general, just seemed like a rich topic to attach to this music.
AF: You often refer to specific people or places in your songs. Do you see the music as being set in any particular time and place?
JR: Yeah, I mean some things are very location oriented. There’s one song on the record called “Vernonia Blues.” Vernonia is a town in Oregon, going out towards the coast, near Astoria, and the song is about a specific place and a feeling associated with that place. I guess, typically, what I do is take experiences that I have, or emotions, or an idea, or a place, and then try and fictionalize it and create a degree of separation between me and it, and generally try and make it a little more impressionistic.
I tend to feel that in really literal songwriting—if it were just all about me, for example—there’s some element that becomes effectively closed off to the listener, and that’s a quality I dislike. When you create something a little more impressionistic or open-ended, it allows people to maybe place themselves a little more into what is there. I think I’ve gotten increasingly interested in that quality over each record—the idea that I’m inspired by a particular place, but I’m not going to tell you about my story precisely. What results is more of an interpretation.
AF: It also seems to me that many of your lyrics show a very close attention to sound—they seem to interact very specifically with the melodies that you work with, and there’s never a misplaced syllable. Could you talk about the tension between sound and meaning in your writing?
JR: Sure. It’s probably because I’m kind of what you’d call a lyrically-lax person. I work on the melodies for a long time before I get to the lyrics. There might be a couple of lines or a full verse that I’m attached to meaning-wise, but usually the words are effectively slaves to the melody. Ultimately, I only use words that I feel are working in terms of how they’re reinforcing the melody. I do pay attention to sound and rhyme scheme to a degree, but more in a poetic approach than in a purely lyrical approach, in which I’d be trying to hammer the point of a song home. It’s not necessarily that I want some concrete meaning; I want the words to have some aesthetic element to them in their sound.
AF: Are there particularly literary influences that you continually return to?
JR: Yeah, for this particular record I was really, really into this one particular poet from Ohio named James Wright. I can’t say why, but his approach to poetry refreshed me, and I really just loved his manner of description, as well the topics he tends to address. He became a real inspiration, both in terms of word choice and in his manipulation of natural imagery, which he uses to articulate a great deal of different things, different complex situations and emotions. I’ve also always been a fan of Southern Gothic writing—not necessarily in terms of the specific writing style, but of the interest in the grotesque and the particular topics addressed—and of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy in particular.
AF: You described your lyrics both as impressionistic and as ‘slaves’ to the music—can you talk a little more about the aesthetic relationship between music and lyrics in your songs?
JR: To me something’s being said through the music regardless if there are words there or not; there’s a mood that’s going to be evoked by a piece regardless. I think often times it’s really interesting to have the music, in a way, forcing a possible meaning or emotion or some kind of visceral response and the words almost acting as an outer shell, like frosting on the cake (laughter). The words are then, in a sense, on the outside, guiding the listener into a specific direction, but I think ultimately it’s the feeling or mood that’s being evoked by the music that has the most weight—it’s hard to describe, but the words are kind of guiding, but not creating a specific path to some meaning. They give the illusion that—or, kind of as you’re saying, hinting—at some particular meaning.
Often times, I know what those songs mean to me—I’ve written them because something happened and it inspired me to write the song, and the feeling that I’m responding to is not the thing in my life—I’m not writing literally about the thing in my life that happened, that made me feel that way; the music itself is an expression of that. I write the music and have that feeling, and then I later write the lyrics and—I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. It just feels right.
Thistled Spring is out now from Kill Rock Stars.