ON THE ACCIDENTALLY inspirational folk hymn "So Long" from Horse Feathers' new album Cynic's New Year, bandleader and songwriter Justin Ringle focuses on two poignant themes—the evolution of perspective about one's own aging, and its ultimate necessity. In one broad stroke, the song evokes workaday fondness for youthful idealism in the typically gloomy guise Ringle's become known for, all wrapped up in pretty violin, sparse banjo, and his gruff crooning: "So long to a life care free/It's passing by with each year or three... Beauty and loss/They are one and the same."
Ringle's dark lyrics/bright music dynamic is still alive and well on Horse Feathers' brilliant new LP, although its construction became less an outlet for Ringle's singular creative vision and more a collaborative recording process. For Cynic's New Year, Ringle once again tapped producer Skyler Norwood, audio architect for each of Horse Feathers' prior albums, to help flesh out yet another unique approach to this particular record. Instead of always going to Norwood's Miracle Lake Studios—30 minutes outside of Portland—they'd also make good use of the centrality of Ringle's attic studio space in Southeast Portland, bringing in any player available and willing to help. The result is a dazzling menagerie of bright acoustic guitars, drums, French horn, piano, bells, upright bass, and banjo from the capable hands of 11 different musicians.
"It was awesome because we could just call people," explains Ringle. "I could show [Norwood] a song I wanted to work on and we'd kind of plan it out. We'd rehearse it a little bit, call some people, have them come over, practice for an hour or two to get everybody on board, and then just start tracking."
The new method, says Ringle, was both a fresh way to capture the spirit of his wanderlusty Americana milieu, and an almost successful attempt to cede the reins on how the album would materialize.
"It allowed me to give a lot of freedom to them, but also not show my hand as being a total anal-retentive control-freak asshole," admits Ringle. "I definitely really had a specific vision of ultimately what I wanted it to sound like."
Thematically, Cynic's New Year illumines a more exposed narrator. Ringle's rustic confessions ("Summer for Capricorns"), workingman's laments ("Fit Against the Country"), and rambler's folk ("Where I'll Be") all find him more at ease in allowing snippets from his personal life into the music.
"I was very afraid of that when I first started," says Ringle. "I didn't really know I was going to be reliving the emotional impetus to a song every single night for months on end. Now I guess I'm a little bit thicker-skinned with it."
That thick skin seems a pretty necessary armor for Ringle's lyrical mirror, having all but abandoned any optimistic sheen to that side of his songwriting. Don't expect that to change anytime soon.
"Happy songs aren't stupid, but happy lyrics in general are just really cloying and banal," Ringle says. "I totally listen to music like that a lot. For better or worse, I just cannot bring myself to make music like that. I wouldn't be able to do it naturally anyway."