Spring's not what it seems for plaintive Horse Feathers
It would be a stretch to call Horse Feathers a rock band. The Portland, Oregon–based quartet doesn’t employ a drummer, and it doesn’t use any electric instruments. Centred on the songwriting of singer-guitarist Justin Ringle and boasting the talents of violinist Nathan Crockett, cellist Catherine Odell, and multi-instrumentalist Sam Cooper, Horse Feathers is hard to pin down. Its sound swings between elegant chamber folk and banjo-burnished backwoods fare, and its best songs—like the damn-near-perfect “Belly of June”—are a seamless fusion of both.
When you consider, though, that the group is signed to the Kill Rock Stars label and recently released a version of Nirvana’s “Drain You”, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Horse Feathers has as many fans in the skinny-jeans crowd as it does among the Birkenstock set.
“We ride a really interesting and fine line between both,” says Ringle, reached on tour in Virginia. “This year, actually, we’ve played a lot more folk festivals. In that type of situation, we feel really loud and eccentric-sounding in comparison to a lot of traditional stuff. And when we play an indie-rock festival, we’re, like, absurdly quiet and traditional-sounding. We have all kinds of people that come to our shows. It always kind of blows my mind. We have all-ages shows sometimes, where a lot of teenagers are interested in the music, and they’re standing next to a couple that’s in their late 40s or early 50s.”
A listen to its third LP, Thistled Spring, makes it clear what appeals to the teens and quinquagenarians who turn up at Horse Feathers gigs. Ringle’s vocals are lilting and plaintive, and they’re woven into songs of intimate beauty. The frontman says the album was written in the season of its title, and it evokes that time of year, but not in any obvious way. You might expect a meditation on spring to focus on its promise of new beginnings and its shaking off of wintry stasis. Ringle has a different take on things, and that’s where the thistles come in. “Bit by the spring/Hurt by the thing/Plagued by the memories that it brings,” he sings on the album’s title track.
“I think it’s an interesting time of year,” Ringle says. “Springtime to me feels very pent-up. You’re so ready for winter to be over, and you desperately want summer to come, but you’re not there. It’s the in-between season that’s the worst, you know what I mean?”
Living in the Pacific Northwest since 2004 has given the Idaho-born musician a new perspective on the changing seasons. “There’s not a whole hell of a lot of difference in Portland between the winter and spring, in a lot of ways,” Ringle notes. “It’s kind of a mono-season. There’s that slightest little glimmer of change, and things that are blossoming. It might be five degrees warmer, and you might get, like, five minutes of sunshine a day. It’s almost like a kind of purgatory there. It’s not like a big opening up, like ”˜Wow, we’re about to break into summer.’ It’s just more rain, and everything looks just slightly different.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?