It is the delicate nature of Justin Ringle’s voice that creates space for the music of his music collective, Horse Feathers, whose fingerpicked guitars, building tracks and potent material has drawn comparisons to Nick Drake and Fleet Foxes.
We caught up with Ringle to discuss his latest album, the baroque-pop-filled Cynic’s New Year, which was released last month through Kill Rock Stars. Ringle brought us up to speed on the album’s themes, the set of collaborators featured on the album and Portland’s influence on his music.
Paste: The album feels more reflective than cynical. Where does the album title Cynic’s New Year come from?
Justin Ringle: Last year, when I was writing this record, was kind of a really weird year. There were a lot of changes in my personal life and in a lot of people I knew. That year felt really insecure and I was reflecting on these things in my life and coming into the songs like that. I came up with that title very early. To me, it read like a cautionary tale, it was not necessarily a place I wanted to be. A “cynic’s new year” is kind of like no day is different than the last. You’re not afraid of anything that’s going to happen but you’re not excited either, you’re just perfectly in the middle, almost like a vacuum of this attitude. I fell in that spot. I was ho-hum, in-between. It’s a place where I didn’t want it to be and in the songs I guess it counts for some of the things lyrically, just fears and different themes regarding that kind of idea. It sounds a little harsher than the record sounds in a way.
Paste: I would agree. There are themes of reflection. In “Where I’ll Be” the lyric rings, “it’s not a lack of will but a lack of time,” it appears mortality is really observed throughout the album. Are you speaking from a personal fear of death or is it a sort of musing on life?
Ringle: I’ve been touring and putting out records now for what seems like a pretty good amount of time. I’ve been doing this a while. The last record I toured quite a bit, more than I had before, and during it I came to this realization that when it all stopped, I was not in my twenties anymore. I’m not a kid anymore. I’m a full-fledged, grown-ass man. Period.
There are no illusions about this being some childhood fantasy or anything of that nature. This is happening right now. I think it’s something for a lot of people that when you cross that line in the sand it’s like, “wow, I’m not an immortal 25-year-old anymore.” When I get hung over, I get hung over for two days. It makes you feel like this is a little more fragile than I previously thought. In some ways, it changed my reflection. It made me feel like there wasn’t a lot of permanence to things anymore. There is nothing you can do about getting older. It’s just the natural consequence of the whole thing. That kind of perspective is what informed these ideas. I wanted to share a little bit more in the music than I had before in a couple records. I felt like I needed to express myself more in the music for nothing else but for myself. If people like that and they enjoy it, then that’s great.
Paste: “Bird on a Leash” has that feeling to it. Where did the lyrics for that come from?
Ringle: Funnily enough, that’s the one that felt a little more like an extrapolation and a combination of several people I’ve known. I just combined them into one thing in “Bird On A Leash.” It came from a few different observations and I’ve acquired from five young women I know. In that particular tune there is this idea of a bizarre domestic situation and just being held back from being fully functional people. For some reason or another, I’m attracted to that.
Paste: Your lyrics are so poetically changed. In the past you’ve attributed Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy and James Wright. Who else have you found inspiration from?
Ringle: For this record, I wasn’t as into the O’Connor and McCarthy as I was in previous albums, but I always like the richness and the language they use and the writing style. I love that gothic element of things where it’s almost like creating some kind of mood with language that is supernatural. It’s beyond real and that’s always interested me.
This record I read a little more of Dylan Thomas who I was familiar with but hadn’t dug into that much. I would say that was a second influence, but I really like this poet James Wright primarily for the aesthetic quality of words and the way both Thomas and Wright… well I can’t explain it any more other than I’m just attracted to it. I love words being beautiful in their own regard—it doesn’t even matter the context necessarily. Individual words having weight in the way they sound is what I aspire to do more of with lyrics. There’s always a high success and failure rate with that but I keep trying because I believe there is a lot of potential with that. I just think it’s cool.
Paste: You brought in 11 collaborators for Cynic’s New Year. Did you initially know this was what you wanted or was it an evolution, a layering effect?
Ringle: There was a practical element to it on one level but it was also the wish list thing too. On the practical I wanted to work with more people and I needed to because I had band members rotating in and I knew I wasn’t going to be recording with the same people I had on my previous record except for Nathan Crockett. He’s been playing violin with me for three or four years now. He’s my main go to guy when I collaborate on arrangements. I count on him to build up the string work.
There’s obviously a lot of players in Portland who’d I’d wanted to work with that I’d known and I decided to record this record at home because I have a small studio in my house. By doing that, it enabled us to work with everyone because we were in the center of the city. We started to have a lot of fun with it and then came this evolution. I was writing the songs and getting the base of the instrumentation and then we’d call a number of these people and do sessions with them over a period of three months. We would put people on their heels. They’d come in, we’d show them a song, get them to do a lot of parts and then later narrow in and choose the best stuff. It was really fun and eye opening to play with that many people and have more instrumentation than what I can work with beyond what Nate and I can play. To get a French horn player in there, a clarinet player, guest vocals… it was refreshing to work that way.
Paste: It seems like Portland has had a lot of influence on your music.
Ringle: The most profound influence is definitely the geographic location for sure. I’m originally from Idaho and I moved to Portland. I go to Seattle a lot and just really enjoy the Northwest. For me, when I’m conjuring an image of a place, it’s always from there. It’s always from what I know best. It’s just a really natural inclination to do that and it shows in the music.
And in regard to all the people being there, I’d say that Portland does have a unique musical community in that capacity. It’s a city-state comprised of subcultural immigrants from everywhere in the country. Everybody goes there to do something they want to do. Especially now, it’s more intense now in the last few years. It’s like, I want to play music and only ride my bike and pursue these very idealistic goals for a lifestyle and that produces a pretty interesting energy when you’re talking about the arts. It’s just ridiculous how many people there are involved in arts. In a mainstream sense, people are very aware of that with the TV show, and it’s like that. I figure while I’m there it’s worth it to tap into.
Paste: Tell me about your direction on the music video “Where I’ll Be.” Why did you choose the animation route and colorless palate?
Ringle: It was actually a long process because I had come up with the album cover idea pretty early in the beginning. It’s funny, I was documenting everybody that was playing on the record, taking their pictures all the way through the recording process. Then I built this model out of the pictures and some different imagery in my house and my roommate who is a photographer helped me with photographing it.
We brought out the aesthetic through that so he then made the video. The video is playing off the album art, which is monochromatic in a way. I know he was responding to the lyrics in it but he was also trying to be really sensitive to how breathy that song is. The video isn’t flashy, it’s soothing. It has more space to it. The decision to do animation was based on the practicality that there was someone who could do animation that was close by who also wanted to do the video but also, our other videos haven’t been animated. We’ve always gone the route where they show the band playing and I just wanted to do something different.
Paste: It’s interesting, as technology is progressing, people have their own studios and equipment in their homes, artists seem to bring in their friends with these prolific talents. And then you get your best friends making your music video.
Ringle: Behind the scenes I think a lot of things are made that way. Your community you’re involved with is really your original touchstone. I like it happening that way. It’s really a nice, organic method.
Paste: You’re in the middle of a two-month tour. How’s it been? I saw on Twitter you guys had a little mishap in Seattle.
Ringle: Oh, it actually wasn’t our fault, it didn’t have anything to do with us. The venue was a new, opening venue and I guess there was some kind of issue with the permit, I don’t know the specifics of it, so they had to cancel it but we’re going back there to play in June. Luckily it was in Seattle so it’ll be easy for us to go back. But with the tour we did a bunch of dates in the Northwest last week, which felt like we were warming up, still being in home territory and all. So now we’re in the Midwest for a while and it feels like the tour is really happening. It should be good tour.