It's good to have a fallback. You know, something that might make you a little money, or a lot of money, when everything goes to hell.
Justin Ringle had a fallback. But his fallback probably looks more like a dream job to most. Ringle, the songwriter and front man for whispery Portland folk act Horse Feathers, came to the Rose City in 2004 after wrapping up college in Moscow, Idaho, and wanted to start a career as a graphic designer. But there was a problem and one that Ringle realized soon after landing in the city.
"I came to find out that if there's one type of professional that there's more of than musicians in Portland, it's graphic designers," says Ringle.
Ringle had played in bands throughout high school and college, but by the time he graduated he was essentially fed up with gigging and part of him felt like he'd outgrown his musical ambitions. But it would still be a hobby, he figured - until he found himself unemployed in Portland with enough time on his hands to write an album's worth of material.
"I used to joke with my professor in college before I graduated that when I moved to Portland, it would be more likely that I'd get a job as a musician, and it kinda came true," says Ringle, calling in during a mid-May afternoon drive across Nebraska en route to Denver where the band was set to play that night.
Horse Feathers is coming to Bend on Tuesday to play the debut of the PDXchange series at the Tower - making it the first time Ringle has been here, despite the fact that he grew up in Lewiston, Idaho, and now lives just three hours away. This show at the Tower will provide another first for Ringle, as it's the first time he'll be adding orchestral elements to Horse Feathers by way of a collaboration with Central Oregon Symphony members.
While he didn't get noticed as a graphic designer, Portlanders were listening to the acoustic tunes Ringle was playing at open mics. Many of those songs would appear on Horse Feathers' 2006 debut, Words are Dead, an album that made the band one of the first in a rash of hushed folk acts that began popping up around the Northwest in the past decade. For Ringle, it was strange to see the media swarm around acts like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver in 2008, saying they were a "new sound" - because Ringle had been making a similar style of music for years, even if he's not sure why subdued folk acts (his own band included) are so appealing to younger audiences.
"I think that people who are about the same age as I am are trying to grab onto a retrospective sound," says Ringle, "But now, I feel like [the folk vibe] has gotten way more novel and way bigger."
Horse Feathers has benefited from the interest in quieter sounds in the indie world over the past few years and now, with the release of their third full-length disc, Thistled Spring, the band's notoriety has continued to grow with recent exposure on NPR and inclusion on the bills of some of the country's more notable festivals. One of the lineups Horse Feathers can be found on is the legendary Newport Folk Festival, which this year includes a far more youthful list of acts, including The Low Anthem, The Avett Brothers and Blitzen Trapper. Those three bands are Ringle's peers and they often draw comparisons (not always to Ringle's delight) to his songwriting style. But Ringle isn't necessarily interested in studying his contemporaries.
"Going [to a folk festival] as a listener, I want to hear all the old guys," says Ringle, "The big-name indie rock stuff is cool, but I wouldn't go to a festival like that to see those bands. I think it's ironic, because the reason I'm there is because I'm part of that whole scope."
Ringle laughs upon making this observation. He's obviously thought about this before and does, after all, realize that he is one of those artists who people talk about enough to land them on the elite festival lineups - even if that might not have been his intention when he finished college.