ONE OF LAST YEAR'S loveliest local releases was Words Are Dead by Portland's Horse Feathers. The band—guitarist and singer Justin Ringle and multi-instrumentalist Peter Brod-erick—craft hauntingly beau-tiful songs that evoke a long history of folk music while managing to evade any obvious touchstones. Or, as Ringle characterized it, Horse Feathers' music might sound old, but the band isn't writing from a revivalist standpoint. So if the acoustic instrumentation and stark, unadorned production lends the songs on Words Are Dead a vaguely traditional feel, unconventional structures and sweeping textures elevate them well beyond predictable genre exercises. That's due in large part to the instrumental flourishes that Broderick brings to Ringle's songs. From the tear-jerking strings on "Like Lavender" to the delicate piano on the album's untitled instrumental, Broderick's dazzling playing transforms the songs into truly affecting compositions.
I caught up with Ringle to talk to him about the album, the band's PLUG Independent Music Award nomination and whether or not words really are dead.
MERCURY: How has the reception to the record been?
JUSTIN RINGLE: For our first record, it's been really good. I really couldn't ask for more. I wrote a lot of this record in my room, thinking I wasn't going to play these songs for anybody. So, in that sense, the reception has been unbelievable. We've lucked out with a lot of things. Our label has been really supportive of this release. The record was reviewed on Pitchfork recently. We got nominated for a PLUG Award for Americana Record of the Year. It's some stiff competition, though.
Who are you up against?
It's more like, "Who aren't we up against?" Neko Case, Will Oldham, Calexico. Band of Horses is in the category. We're easily the smallest band. When we were first nominated, I was jok-ing that if all the people who attended Neko Case's last two shows vote, we're sunk.
When I listen to the record, I hear a lot of folk influence, but it's hardly standard singer/songwriter fare.
I suppose the way Peter and I are working together is more like a band. I kind of approach the music as a singer/songwriter, but I've played in bands since I was 15. I've kind of stepped away from that and started making music by myself. But when you think of the typical singer/songwriter situation, the vocals dominate the record. There's not a lot of room for textural pieces. Instrumental mood isn't as important. With us, there are songs where the instrumentation is as important as the vocals. Also, in the singer/songwriter genre, there's an emphasis on storytelling. I don't think we're necessarily telling stories as much as we are setting a mood.
The record definitely emphasizes the mood and music over the lyrics, but why the title? Are words really dead?
Peter and I were intrigued by the idea of how music has the potential to be so visceral and emotive. It can communicate without telling a story. We were more interested in creating moods without being a slave to the story and word. I'm singing all the time and people tell me they can't hear the lyrics. I'm not a huge enunciator, so I understand why they can't hear them. But the whole idea is to communicate emotion through the singing. Words are second to that.