Timelessness is a rare bird in music. A particular era or sonic aesthetic can easily peg an artist or band to a passing fad. Or worse, the music comes off as pandering to critical praise or a cultural moment. Over eighteen years and six albums, Astoria-based Horse Feathers has built a body of work that does not betray such conceits. The music exists on a certain plane – not without its influences, but distinct. And there’s an honest-to-goodness feeling behind it that makes it impervious to the passing days.
Anchored by singer/songwriter Justin Ringle’s tender vocals and adorned with elemental ensemble work, Horse Feathers’ spin on traditional folk and Americana spans barn dance to backyard reverie, airy ballads to full-blooded country jigs. A song like “Finch on Saturday” – off their 2006 debut Words Are Dead – is suffused with strings and sounds nearly weightless. Whereas “Without Applause,” from 2018’s Appreciation, is a rollicking stomp with a driving locomotive rhythm. Ringle’s music has evolved, shifting with new lineups and self-awareness.
“The ensembles that I played with over the years changed,” Ringle tells BandWagon. “People had different strengths and that would influence the accompaniment. But in some cases it would be like a more grand decision to switch over to having a rhythm section. Some of it too was just that you paint yourself into a corner artistically over time, so you have to change what you’re doing a little bit. Not like a commercial sensibility or anything like that, but just more to enjoy it.”
Idaho-born Ringle launched Horse Feathers shortly after moving to the Pacific Northwest at a time he says “all the cliches from Portlandia were being developed.” Rent was cheap and you just needed a shitty job to keep your creative aspirations afloat.
“It was really less preposterous for me to try to become a professional musician than it was to get a job in graphic design at the time,” he said. Though dispelling any romantic notion, Ringle points out, “There was really high unemployment in Portland and it was just kind of tough going. Everything was really close to the bone.”
Horse Feathers – an antiquated term for “bullshit” – sprang from songs honed in this bleak, yet inspired backdrop. Ringle took the songs to open mics and eventually laid down a demo. He linked up with multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick to record the first album, puting it out through a local label. That record – Words Are Dead – got on NPR’s radar and the band’s warm, rustic folk found a wider audience.
“That kind of launched us into the next step of getting signed by Kill Rock Stars and putting out the next record in 2008,” Ringle recalled. “I did a number of recordings with a bunch of different Portland-based musicians up until about 2015.”
During that span, Horse Feathers released three records including So It Is With Us (2014), recorded in an Oregon barn. Appreciation, his last full length, was made with musicians in Kentucky, but he’s circled back Northwest to settle down in Astoria. Each album has probed the darkness and light, taking new approaches to instrumentation, with Ringle’s clear, relaxed delivery as a comforting throughline.
Now, back out on tour for the first time since the spring of 2020, Horse Feathers is revisiting the orchestral sounds of the first few records – coinciding with a reissue of their second album House With No Home. Among the present members are Ringle’s wife Halli Anderson and Nathan Crocket, both playing violin, along with multi-instrumentalist Kati Clayborn and upright bassist Luke Ydstie. Ringle is excited about the prospect of touring again.
“The thing that revitalizes me more and more is just the movement and change of scenery, kind of going out and touching base with the rest of the country again,” he reflected, “I always find that to be mentally refreshing.”
Horse Feathers has been through Colorado many times. Ringle talked of past visits defined by spirited receptions, altitude sickness, an Elephant Revival acid trip gone awry, and having a once little-known Gregory Allen Isakov open for them at the Hi-Dive in Denver. He emphasized how Colorado feels like a kind of music capitol.
“People are just a little more stoked to see live music. You definitely know when you’re playing shows in Colorado, there’s just a different feeling,” Ringle said. “I’ve always looked forward to it – but for years and years and years, it was always on the way home. It felt like we always played Colorado after we’d done the rest of the entire country and we were usually worked.”
The band plays a handful of Colorado shows at the front end of this tour, including stops in Pueblo, Fort Collins, Denver and Manitou Springs. Ringle hopes he can manage the altitude alright, “coming from Astoria – like, elevation zero.” As for Horse Feathers’ next move, he says he’s just taking it day by day.
“I’m pretty far down the road, you know. I’m married now and we’re talking about having kids. You have to make moves with that in mind,” Ringle said. “I’m just kind of letting it ride right now, trying to shake the rest off and get the sea legs back.”
Time will tell if Ringle feels the pull to put more music out into the world, but Horse Feathers’ sound is and will remain out of time.