Horse Feathers relishes interpretation

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      It’s more of a lament than a rallying cry, but as topical songs go, they don’t come much better than “Fit Against the Country”. The track is one of the highlights of Cynic’s New Year, the fourth and latest album by Portland, Oregon–based indie-folk outfit Horse Feathers. Over the band’s signature blend of soft-rolling acoustic guitar and lilting strings, frontman Justin Ringle sings of the plight of the working poor: “Every night we all go to a house we’ll never own/Every night we are tired, we’ve been worked to the bone/Nearly every day, we earn a lower wage.”

      With its theme of economic disparity, “Fit Against the Country” is, sadly, timeless. To picture it being sung around a Great Depression–era work-camp fire is just as easy as imagining the Occupy movement adopting it as an anthem.

      Reached at his home in the Rose City, Ringle notes that the tune in question was not intended as a polemic, but rather as an honest expression of the feelings inspired by visits to his old home town of Lewiston, Idaho. “I come from a seriously predominantly middle-class town,” the songwriter says. “My dad worked at a paper mill and my mom’s a nurse, and my reality growing up…that’s kind of what I was hearkening back to, to a degree. I live in Portland, Oregon, which is an absolute bubble. It feels like Europe compared to the rest of the country. It’s so much more progressive. But then I go home to Idaho, and it’s not that. I see a community that I grew up in that is struggling.

      “I’m coming at it from an emotional standpoint, but of course that’s going to draw a line in the sand,” he continues. “People could take it as a political statement, but I’m not going to outwardly say that I’m revealing my politics utterly in that tune or anything.”

      A certain amount of ambiguity is key to Ringle’s craft. His lyrics often tread into the darker corners of the human experience, which isn’t surprising for someone who has cited novelist Cormac McCarthy as an inspiration. Horse Feathers’ music, on the other hand, is not designed to drive home the songs’ themes in any obvious way. It invariably unfolds gently, and Ringle’s singing often drops to a lullaby-soft murmur.

      “I actually enjoy that contrast,” he says. “I could just write music that’s entirely in minor keys all the time, but I feel like that’s too simple. I don’t think that that is necessarily the truest expression of a lot of the feelings that are in the music, which oftentimes can be kind of grey—like the feeling of waking up one day and realizing that you’re not a kid anymore. It doesn’t need the saddest dirge to represent that, because it’s also got a couple of rays of sunshine in that feeling, too.”

      In other words, Ringle has no interest in telling listeners how they’re supposed to respond to his work.

      “At the end of the day, it’s not my job to decide how it’s interpreted,” he insists. “I just work on making it. Once I hand the record in, it no longer belongs to me. So, however somebody feels from it, that’s their own experience with the music. If they like it, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s fine too. It’s a funny job.”

      Horse Feathers plays the Biltmore on Thursday (April 19).