Warming up with Horse Feathers' Thistled Spring

Following the seasons with this Portland, Ore. band


Lewiston is about as far from William Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County as you can get. Nonetheless, Lewiston-native Justin Ringle's lyrics have provoked countless comparisons to the Southern Gothic writer. But if you set aside his rigid, church-pew imagery--"Like a finch on Saturday, sin with wings / Give your tongue to God, on Sunday sing"--and dour allusions to death--"Them bones they move, they talk / Their bones, they bleed they rot"--Ringle's chamber indie-folk project Horse Feathers feels far more at home in the Northwest than the Deep South.

"I've always wanted to be responsive to the sense of place in music, in the mood, and try to let it be a subconscious thing," said Ringle. "Having lived in Idaho most of my life, I don't see how I could--even if I wanted to deliberately--separate that element from the music."

Though Lewiston wasn't the most fertile soil for a budding young artist, Ringle grew up with a lot of free time to fuss around on the guitar--his primary songwriting tool.

"There wasn't a lot of cultural outlets, and I'd say that was one of the biggest things influencing me--the type of alone time that I had and focusing so much on a creative endeavor," said Ringle. "A lot of my contemporaries at the time were taking their four-wheel-drive vehicles to lakes and driving on muddy roads ... I didn't really relate to that. Instead, I played guitar and wrote songs."

And something in the mountainous Northern Idaho landscape seeped in. As Ringle wrapped up his time at the University of Idaho and grew tired of playing in traditional guitar/drums/bass rock bands, he began to explore more acoustic, roots-based folk music.

"There's a weird power in using traditional music because it immediately evokes a sense of nostalgia which can have a tremendous subjective effect on whoever listens to the song," said Ringle. "It's not necessarily my story in the song. People relate to those musical elements in their particular ways that makes them think about and allows them to attach the song to their experiences in some way."

With some of his first album, Words Are Dead (2006), already written, Ringle moved to Portland, Ore. Broke and unemployed, he spent months polishing the album, eventually hooking up with multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick to accentuate his Bon Iver-eqsue mumbled vocals with subtle swirls of viola, violin, banjo, mandolin, cello and piano.

"I could've never done [Words Are Dead] in Idaho, just because the musicians are just so few and far between and it's just not the same type of community," said Ringle. "That kind of opened my mind to different kinds of instrumentation in music ... Now I have a whole cast of characters playing with me that add all kinds of different instrumentation and textures. It's quite a bit more evolved now than when I first started."

Though Words Are Dead established Horse Feathers as an up-and-coming indie-folk force--NPR opined: "Often recalling the rustic delicacy of Iron and Wine--if it were soaked in strings and robbed of some of its stark clarity--Horse Feathers' music radiates homey intimacy"--the band didn't gain wider acclaim until their second release, 2008's House With No Home. With the addition of Heather Broderick's lovely vocal harmonies and cello, the album took on a chillier, more haunting air.

>Horse Feathers' most recent, slightly less somber, release Thistled Spring brought yet another line-up change, with Nathan Crockett taking over violin, viola, saw and vocals; Catherine Odell on cello and vocals; and Sam Cooper on banjo, mandolin, piano, violin, accordion, percussion and vocals.

This fuller, lush instrumentation is nowhere more stirring than on the album's title track. The song's first few notes bring a swell of quartet strings that dissolves into a simple piano melody framing Ringle's tragically hushed lyrics: "An old love of mine to wed the worst man she finds / A blossom that's bloomed / in a house that's a tomb / trapped in the rhododendron fumes / Bit by the spring / Hurt by the thing / Plagued by the memories that it brings."

Even on the album's more seemingly upbeat tracks like the banjo-laden "Belly of June," Ringle's lyrics still add a contrasting depth to the instrumental glee: "In a June, that up and bloomed / and quickly died / Between the two and under the sun / It's a war that's always fought and is never won."

"People oftentimes treat music as a mood elevator or one that is a depressant ... the lyrics match those moods," explained Ringle. "In a way, isn't that kind of boring; kind of simplistic? There's a whole other range of emotion that I would say is a lot more of a gray area."

And that gray area is an apt metaphor for Thistled Spring. Though the album undoubtedly marks a puddly thaw from the wintery House With No Home and the starkly bitter Words Are Dead, Ringle is still thankfully a long way from penning syrupy summer love songs.

"Spring is definitely a weird season because it can be kind of a type of purgatory ... there's a lot of welled-up emotion that you have coming out of the winter and being cooped up and stationary and inside and being forced to live as an introvert for a while ... everybody's so desperately hoping for the summer to start."