In drawing comic books, there is a little-known and oft-maligned job known as an “inker.” While the penciller sketches out the original images in pencil, the inker uses black ink to refine the images, sharpening lines, adding shadows and clarifying the focus.
Now comic books and folk music don’t tend to have much to do with each other, but in the case of Horse Feathers’ Justin Ringle and Peter Broderick, penciller and inker might be the best analogy to describe the relationship between the two.
While Ringle’s reedy, melancholy tenor and finger-picked guitar paint in broad strokes on the duo’s first release, Words Are Dead, it’s the multi-instrumentalist Broderick who brings the whole picture into focus.
”Some of the songs on this record I’d already been playing and Peter kind of rearranged them,” Ringle said. “Sometimes I would write whole songs and we would just tweak them a little bit. Peter would figure out additional accompaniment, mostly in the studio.”
”[Justin] would come with a basic idea and we would figure out how to put it all together,” Broderick added.
The union between the two began a little over a year ago, after Broderick heard a demo of two of Ringle’s songs recorded by Ringle’s friend, Kevin O’Connor (of Talkdemonic, and Lucky Madison Records). Ringle, who had moved to Portland from Idaho a year before, had been playing a few modest shows by himself, already under the moniker Horse Feathers, when O’Connor, a friend and former bandmate from college, encouraged him to begin taking his music more seriously.
”I couldn’t get a job and I was just playing music in my room and being lazy mostly. For, like, four or five months. I wasn’t doing anything, really,” Ringle said. “[Kevin] was kind of the one who was like, ‘You should go out and be more ambitious with this.'”
Broderick tracked Ringle down through the awesome power of the internet, and a collaboration was born.
The knock against inkers, as humorously pointed out in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, is that they’re really just glorified tracers. The job, of course, is more complicated than that, but Broderick also seems comfortable in his supporting role to Ringle’s songwriting. The pair seems to be keenly aware of the roles they play, the counterbalance they provide each other.
”We have kind of different places we come from,” Ringle said.
”I don’t think that Justin listens to very much music,” said Broderick, a self-professed obsessive and often-fickle music geek. “I think he is influenced less by other musicians than by experiences that he has.”
”I don’t really write lyrics down. I don’t, like, write lyrics and then write a song. I’ll just sing for a long time, and then I’ll put it together and make associations,” Ringle said. “The mood is more important to me than the words. I think some of the lyrics, aside from the music, aren’t that evocative.”
On tracks like “Finch on Saturday and Honest Doubters,” it’s Broderick’s vast instrumental tool kit, which includes, violin, cello, mandolin, banjo and even musical saw, that really draws out the emotional timbre and sense of immediacy hidden in the shadows of Ringle’s songwriting. But he also knows when to step back and let Ringle’s ethereal tenor and the bare, brooding imagery of his lyrics shine on tracks like “Blood on the Snow” or “Walking & Running.”
”I’m really interested in arrangements and sounds. Mostly I’m trying to listen to what would fit best,” Broderick said. Finding the right instrumentation isn’t an exact science. “Sometimes it’s like, OK, we have seven violin songs, let’s try something else,” he said.
”In our live set now I’m doing violin, banjo, mandolin and saw, and a little bit of percussion,” Broderick said. “I find that a lot of instruments are really similar; like, there are things that you strum – guitars, mandolins and banjos – and then percussion stuff is just hitting things.”
Perhaps Broderick’s comfort comes from the fact that it’s just one of many, many musical projects he is wrapped up in at the moment.
”I have a hard time focusing on what I like about music the best,” Broderick said. “Sometimes I will write a song on the guitar with words, and sometimes I like focusing on more instrumental music.”
When the pair met with me on Sunday, Broderick had just returned from a two-week tour with Loch Lomond, a Portland rock outfit headed by songwriter Ritchie Young, with whom Broderick and Ringle often play.
Along with Horse Feathers and Loch Lomond, Broderick also plays with Laura Gibson, Norfolk & Western, and Nick Jaina, and still finds time to compose solo work as well.
For both Ringle and Broderick, Horse Feathers is just one expression of a larger musical community to which they both belong, and in which the lines between groups are often blurred, if they exist at all.
”I think the community thing has definitely been a big topic of discussion. We have so many members that are shared and all of us have been switching around,” Ringle said. “We’re playing a show in Astoria this weekend that’s like, Loch Lomond, Laura Gibson, John Weinland, and Horse Feathers. The personnel changes between those bands are pretty crazy.”
”It’s like the same band with a different songwriter,” Broderick added.
With all their commitments, it’s amazing that they find time for Horse Feathers at all, a problem that may become highlighted by the success of the Words, which became record label Lucky Madison’s second best-selling record ever in just one week after it’s release on Sept. 26.
”We’ve been getting offered a lot of shows. I don’t even think we have the capacity to play a lot of them just because of scheduling and stuff,” Ringle said.
The duo is making plans for a major tour some time early next year, but if you don’t want to wait you can catch them next week at the official release party for Words Are Dead, at Holocene on Oct. 19.