Analogue Music | Horse Feathers made one of their best records while…

Horse Feathers

By Scott Elingburg

Justin Ringle just released the best, most confident-sounding record of his career.

Under his moniker, Horse Feathers, Ringle and company worked the songs for their latest album, Appreciation, into the sort of lo-fi folk rock that owes just as much to Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson as it does Van Morrison or Bob Dylan.

But it didn’t come easily. Ringle, who released the first Horse Feathers album in 2006 (the presciently-titled, Words Are Dead) works hard navigating the shifting landscape of modern music. It’s a landscape where an album—nine or ten incredible songs that work together—isn’t always considered a viable product. It’s also a landscape where there are no easy answers and every working musician is scrambling for a solution.

Ringle’s solution, so far, has been to continue touring, producing, and writing timeless songs with arguably the best group of musicians he’s recorded with. We spoke with Ringle about a month ago as the latest tour for Appreciation began in Vancouver.

Analogue: There’s a step forward in the playing, the sound. Was there a moment when you realized the record was sounding a bit different?

Justin: I think it was kind of a conscious effort from the very beginning to change the sound, take the handcuffs off in a weird way. Just making a decision to let everything be different and know that it’s going to be that way. The writing process didn’t feel wildly different but the process of the collaboration—the rhythm section, the strings—those seem more deliberate in a way. The songs are the same for me. We recorded in mostly in Kentucky in different studios, so there was a lot of fresh perspectives and opportunities and methods on this [record].

How did you end up in Kentucky?

It was a fairly organic choice. I played with people from Lexington, KY. I was living in Asheville and I had an opportunity to do a tour and had these longtime friends in Lexington. From there we just started working together and one thing lead to another. And I was working with a band called River Whyless and I recorded in a studio in Louisville and liked it, wanted to go back and record. All roads lead to Kentucky is how it ended up.

Sounds like your process as a songwriter didn’t change but the collaborative aspect drove it. Would you say that’s fair?

Yeah, mostly accurate. The process of me writing is always evolving but its still me versus time in a room with guitars developing ideas I want to throw out at the band. Then we hash it out. I have the idea of what I want the song to be but its never completely finished. I usually know what the verse/chorus/melodies and words I’m working with are and I’m giving them a few colors to start with. It was really fortuitous with this band; really awesome to work that way with them.

I was going to say that the record sounds professional but not stale. That makes it sound vibrant.

I think a lot of that was from the mixing, too. In the past I’ve mixed records with the engineer but on this record we had Duane Lundy from Shangrila Studios mix it. A lot of the decision in audio-realm happens at that juncture. And that helped the record really have a different personality. There’s some character to it that I think everyone in the band ended up enjoying it.

Where did the album title Appreciation come from?

I kind of created this parameter that I wanted to have a one-word title. I’ve always been fond of the Bob Dylan record Desire, a word that encompassed so many things where you could listen to the record. You can hear that title in everything; it falls underneath the umbrella of that title. And my partner and I, we were camping—and this part isn’t quite as cool (Laughs)—I was talking about real estate and she started talking about appreciation, like something that gains value over time. And I thought, “That’s such an interesting word.” And there are angles to it, too. And the songs neatly fall underneath it in the many meanings of it.

When you think about format, there was criteria and some structure or outline. The ‘album’ was consumed in a particular way—which is the beauty of vinyl, in a way. The experience is so shaped. Listeners have to physically flip a record and you know you’re dealing with an entry point and an exit point twice. You can think about that as an artist and it creates the frame around the picture in a way. With digital music, it’s completely exploded...

Is it a feeling of you feeling that appreciation and wanting to give back? Or is it more like a contentedness?

It’s a feeling of contentedness. I think it is also that concept of things getting better with time. There’s that theme to it. Or value added over time. It’s something I felt a lot with this last record. Trying to make some moves to figure out how to make the record.

I was repeatedly getting told by the Universe/people that there was no room for me in the industry anymore. I had been around and made all these records but it didn’t really matter. It was kind of depressing but it felt like I was making this music that had some kind of vitality to it and was relevant. But then, at the same time, people were saying, “There’s no room for you in the industry. You should maybe make a covers record.” It was very odd—I’ve never had such a hard time as I did in the lead-up to this record.

Horse Feathers - Appreciation
Horse Feathers - Appreciation

So, when we last spoke, you told us there were a couple times when you felt like you didn’t want to make music anymore because of the way things were changing. Has some of that passed? Or do you still feel that way?

I don’t know. It’s so crazy. I guess from my vantage point of being in this business for twelve years or so, the dramatic shifts, not only in how music is consumed but how its promoted, have been enormous and seismic. It’s been a tough business and now it’s even crazier. I don’t know an artist that isn’t constantly in the throes of a battle of what the long-term plan is. There’s not much security in [the business]. It’s never been fair but the landscape is crazy these days. For instance, there can be a band that comes out of nowhere and puts out one single and out of nowhere they have 2.5 million listeners on Spotify. Or you can be hammering out and playing great shows and it just feels like you just threw a penny into the ocean and you’re expecting waves. It’s hard to break through these days.

What’s the biggest shift you’ve witnessed in music or touring?

Wow, that’s a big question. I suppose the biggest thing I would say is how this shift—and this is going to make me sound like a total dinosaur—the shift from the importance of physical media to digital. It was a palpable feeling. I started off and physical sales when I first signed [to a label] were a huge talking point from the label. It was all about moving units and physical sales. It was so focused on math. It’s hard to describe because as soon as it switched to streaming, all of that was out the window, and no one knows what the recipe is. Things were grounded in physical sales.

The industry feels incredibly abstract. Especially in the way things are marketed. There are a lot of different ways to do it but no one has any answers. It’s a lot to take in.

I’ve never figured out how to "consume" streaming music either.

It’s so tough because, when you think about format, there was criteria and some structure or outline. The ‘album’ was consumed in a particular way—which is the beauty of vinyl, in a way. The experience is so shaped. Listeners have to physically flip a record and you know you’re dealing with an entry point and an exit point twice. You can think about that as an artist and it creates the frame around the picture in a way. With digital music, it’s completely exploded and it forces you to, a) hold people’s attention longer than five seconds at all times with all your songs, and, b) it’s all based on singles.

The album [format] has been exploded into all these little pieces and it doesn’t celebrate depth. So you’re losing out on a couple dimensions that are things that, as an artist, you’re working on honing. It’s gone from, “Oh, I’m trying to make this album as a statement,” to trying to make a 2:45-length song that can capture everyone’s attention. The platforms these days they celebrate EDM, pop music, and hip-hop because they work flawlessly within that framework. But anytime you have any lyrical music or any type of attentive listening, the platform isn’t great for it—in terms of mainstream exposure, of course.

I had a similar conversation earlier today when I said something about having a CD player since the majority of my collection is on CD. But a co-worker said he only owns 2 or 3 CDs because he just streams everything. Which is hard for me because I don’t know how to wedge myself into that world. And maybe I sound like a dinosaur, but I know you’re not alone in your thinking.

I mean, I use Spotify a lot and I enjoy it. But I don’t love it. It’s just very convenient.

I thought the album cover, the design looked very much like a throwback to the an old Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard record. Or another record from the 70s. Did you have any influences this time around that affected the music or the design of the record?

Me and everyone in this group are such huge fans of older music—60s and 70s music. I joked that the rhythm section turned me on to mid-70s Dylan like Street Legal. I think that encapsulates some of our listening habits in the van. I mostly like to listen to older music and that colored that whole record. And then also being very influenced and inspired by those designs I wanted something that had a timeless quality. Almost like something you could find in the record bins and it could have been there for 30 years. A simple and classic look like old country records.

I reference Astral Weeks as a big [influence], musically and for the look of the record. The record doesn’t sound like it, but Astral Weeks is kind of a touchstone for me. I knew that I wanted it to be photographic and I wanted it to look old. And to have this classic look to it. Something simple.