Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Interview: Justin Ringle of Horse Feathers

Thistled Spring by Horse Feathers is an album that I just haven't been able to file away since I got my hands on it last year. It's been sticking with me, and is one that is hard to not keep revisiting. One day last December when I was listening to the album, I decided to check out the band's site and realized I just missed their last performance in New York.

Feeling bummed that I missed such a recent opportunity to see the band, I took a chance and reached out to see if Mr. Ringle would available for an interview. Although not a substitute in any way for an opportunity to catch the band live, I am overjoyed to share this conversation with you in hopes of spreading the word about this very talented artist and his work.

Mr. Justin Ringle is the singer/ songwriter who is behind the music of Horse Feathers, and he has produced quite an impressive catalog of work leading up to Thistled Spring, including 2008's House With No Home and 2006's Words Are Dead.

Can you describe your songwriting process?

Justin Ringle: Usually, I am constantly working on ideas and fragments of songs. Somewhere in the range of around 8-10 things going at once. I work on them everyday until something naturally pops out, be it a melody, lyric, or chorus, and then the song will have its basic skeleton.

At that point, I typically will sit down with an accompanist and see how they respond to the tune. From there,  I usually get a sense of how to arrange the rest of the song with the other players and decide on what instrumentation will work best. In the middle of this whole process, I also work on the lyrics and themes of songs, but I almost never finalize them until I am tracking the song.

How did the writing of Thistled Spring differ from your previous albums?

JR: I wrote the majority of the songs in the springtime of 2009, after moving into a new place, in a new neighborhood, in Portland. I really felt that my life had changed a lot and suddenly the music was feeling different as well.

I was also playing with a new cast of people who had different styles and strengths. So by summertime of 2009 I was going over all this music I was working on and realized that there was this little theme going on mostly with the mood of the music. That inspired me into investigating how I found these new songs, which led me to the fact that I'd written them all in the Spring, and that maybe I should dig into that idea a little more.

At that point I started really working on shaping the lyrics to reinforce the mood that I felt was in the music. So in all, it was uniquely different from previous efforts, which had really relied on assembling clusters of songs written over much longer periods of time.

What was your inspiration for the instrumentation of Thistled Spring, as opposed to your previous work?

JR: Two things really. I started to listen to a little more classical music, more specifically Aaron Copland, and was really awed by all of his arrangements that were so dramatic and bold. I really wanted to try to push our arrangements into a little bit of that territory. Then the second thing was that I love the banjo ad really wanted to fit it into that classical universe and find a place for it that gave it a bigger role . 

Can you describe your recording process of the new album?

JR: The studio became a much bigger part of the creative process. We didn't finalize the arrangements until the day we tracked them in the studio. It was also challenging to write the record because it was the first time I had ever been recording with a pretty solid touring schedule simultaneously.

I was working on arrangement ideas and lyrics on the road for the first time and then coming home from a tour and jumping into the studio. So that certainly felt different from the other records where the songs were pretty finished and had been for a while before recording them. We tracked a lot of the record live which was a totally different approach for me, where the previous records had been built up in a multi-tracked way, I really wanted this one to be a little more human.

Looking back on your albums, how would you describe the trajectory from Words Are Dead to House With No Home to Thistled Spring?

JR: I think I learned new things from the process of making each record that then got applied to the next one. That in a lot of ways, is purely from a musical and technical standpoint, but the other side of it is that I see each one as a kind of journal entry or snapshot of my life at that time.

I don't ever listen to the records when I'm done with them so when I do hear a track here or there, I always remember where I was, when I wrote that song, and what my life was like at that EXACT time. So in a way that has been kind of a haunting thing because I don't think the emotional spot I was in writing the first two records was very healthy, and not something I want to revisit. That wouldn't be genuine anyway.

As a musician, and for better or worse, I think the music you make undoubtedly reflects your life one way or another, and I can see that symptom very accurately in the records I've made so far.

What sets each album apart for you?

JR: Words are Dead was just really painful to write and make. The music was more like therapy for me in a way at that point and I was just making it for the sake of that. I didn't know or expect to be touring or signed or making any money or anything. It was really pure that way.

House With No Home was also tough to make because everything was going seemingly OK and I had just signed to Kill Rock Stars, but the accompanists who I had been playing with up and moved to Europe. First,  Peter Broderick, then later his sister Heather. It put me in a hell of a spot and it definitely influenced the mood of that record.

For me, Thistled Spring was the first one I really enjoyed making beginning to end. That's kind of how I remember each in a nutshell.

What connects them?

JR: I think that they are all similar to one another in the respect that each one is kind of a complete musical thought. I always felt all three are way better at being something you listen to beginning to end, rather than listening to the single songs individually. I also think that there is obviously a seasonal feel with Thistled Spring but likewise with House With no Home which is very wintry in comparison. People always tell me that they love listening to Words are Dead in the fall so there's that too. Unfortunately I don't know if I have a summer album in me though. . .

Who are your biggest influences?

JR: Lately James Wright, Cormac McCarthy, Andrew Wyeth, Kurt Cobain, Aaron Copland, Graham Nash, Mark Hollis.

What have you been listening to lately?

JR: The Rolling Stones which have recently clicked for me having been in the Beatles camp for quite a while. Mark Hollis's solo record.

Will you be touring before the next album is released?

JR: Yeah I am sure we will be going out some this year but not as extensively as we did in 2010.

Any early impressions, and or initial thoughts of what the direction of your next album will take? Do have any specific goals set for the next album?

JR: I am working on this right now. I can't say for sure but I would like to make an album with an even more live feel to it. But we'll see.

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