For a decade (encompassing five well-received albums), Horse Feathers was known for delicately gorgeous acoustic folk songs, often dressed up with orchestral arrangements and anchored by frontman Justin Ringle’s cerebral lyrics. But on 2014’s So It Is with Us, the Portland-born institution started prudently exploring new sounds, tempos, and textures.
That exploration blooms in full on the band’s new record Appreciation, released earlier this month via Kill Rock Stars, which finds Ringle, longtime violinist Nathan Crockett, and a new rhythm section—multi-instrumentalist J. Tom Hnatow and drummer Robby Cosenza, both Lexington, Kentucky-based session musicians—ripping through country-rockers, stirring soul jams, ’70s-inspired pop, and gentle Southern boogie. These aren’t necessarily twang-punk scorchers, but they also aren’t reflective of the old Horse Feathers.
“In the past, I was always so afraid of going into these areas that perhaps could be really polarizing to our fan base,” Ringle says. “I got to this point where I was like, ‘I think I’ve scratched [the folk] itch. I’ve satisfied it.’ I could’ve continued to wear a deeper rut into that path, but I was like, ‘I gotta do something different.’”
Ringle’s musical restlessness wasn’t the only impetus for growth. In fact, a perfect storm of change seemed to descend on Horse Feathers. First, Portland started to transform from the mid-2000s nirvana that welcomed Ringle into a post-Portlandia caricature.
“This place that I love got unceremoniously overrun and a culture that I knew and a community that I knew just disappeared,” he says. “I felt like I wasn’t at home in the place that was my home.”
So Ringle relocated to Astoria, and soon after moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where he produced a record for the band River Whyless and soaked up the South’s ample supply of bluegrass, roots, and soul music. Around the same time, Ringle was adjusting to the realities of streaming platforms and the ephemeral nature of music these days.
“For years, the sequence was important,” he says. “Then all of a sudden, you’re in an industry where it doesn’t matter anymore. As an artist, that becomes an identity crisis.”
Finally, Ringle found himself questioning his place in the contemporary music scene. His strength—acoustic folk music—no longer felt timely: “I’m a white guy playing guitar,” he says. “It’s not an under-represented demographic in the music world. I’m aware of it. I’m not crying about it, I’m just saying that this isn’t really my time. I feel like there’s other... voices out there, that this is their time.”
In other words, the universe gave Ringle an opportunity to do something new. He didn’t just recognize that, he embraced it.
“For a long time it was like, ‘Sure, I like Nick Drake a lot. I like Pentangle.’ But at the same time, I really like Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones, too,” he says. “I just wanted to put out an offering that had more dimensions.”
Same goes for the live Horse Feathers experience. After 13 years of playing some of Portland’s prettiest shows, Ringle has brought change to the stage as well.
“It’s got movement now,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not a ‘sit down and drink tea’ affair anymore.”