Justin Ringle, who plays music under the name Horse Feathers, started over with his fourth and latest album, "Cynic's New Year," released earlier this year on Kill Rock Stars.
Fellow Feathers, Heather and Peter Broderick, had left the group in pursuit of other musical adventures.
"I kind of started from ground zero in a sense, knowing I would do this one with a lot of session people, people just coming in to play with me on this project," said the Idaho-born Ringle, from his Portland, Ore., home.
That house is where Ringle recorded "Cynic's New Year," with help from his longtime producer, Skyler Norwood.
"There is a big music community here, a laundry list of instrumentation and people we wanted to work with, and we honestly just called them and went to work, and came up with different things.
"I knew the direction I wanted to go, and we shaped these intricate arrangements with people over several months. It was a really cool process and very different from how we made our other records."
Ringle has since added musicians Nathan Crockett, Dustin Dybvig, Lauren Vidal and Angie Kuzma to Horse Feathers' touring show. They will play an al fresco show at the Ogden Nature Center on Thursday, Aug. 9.
The process of acquiring musicians for "Cynic's New Year" often involved taking a walk around town, said Ringle.
"It would be like, we'd see someone in the neighborhood, and say, 'Hey, Scott, why don't you come over and play some clarinet?' And he'd be there in the afternoon. It was cool building the thing like that."
The album includes 11 musicians, playing a variety of instruments including French horns, pianos, bells, upright basses and banjos.
"With each record, and the longer you play, you learns things and get better," said Ringle. "My last (CD) was 'Thistled Spring,' and I worked very closely with the string players on that. It was very precise -- almost anal, overattentive. This one is looser, but I carried over a lot of the knowledge I learned about arranging on that last one. I didn't find it as difficult on this album, even though there is more stuff to work with."
Ringle said he learned to arrange by doing, rather than training.
"My first instrument was trumpet," he said. "I played in band for years, jazz band and stuff, and so I have just enough knowledge of theory to get myself in trouble. It is just an artistic thing I try and feel out. I try to do it in a human way. I am not a sheet music person. I will often sing parts to players, and say, 'Why not start with this?' And then they come in with their ideas, that element of collaboration."
He and Norwood also made creative use of their homespun studio space.
"We used the studio as a tool in and of itself," said Ringle. "Maybe two-thirds of the arrangements we tracked live, in a very human way. Then we added more of a broad sound on top. Then I sat down with my engineer/producer and sifted through the documentation of these little sessions we'd had with people."
The writing life
In his early days, Ringle used to work very hard to play his songs exactly as he recorded them.
"Over the last couple years, I've kind of relaxed with that. Once you get to the thousandth repetition, it gets hard to still be invested in it. I am much happier artistically now. I don't want to put a song on a record and let that be its death, make it into a museum piece."
While most reviews have noted the lushness of the record, some have also noted its darker side. Much of the material deals with struggles of one kind or another.
Part of that is timing. For Ringle and his friends, and perhaps for the country as a whole, 2011 was not easy. Ringle believes he reacted to that in his writing.
"There wasn't a lot of joy in 2011. In the community I know, a lot of my friends are getting divorced, losing their jobs -- all that stuff. It's kind of the pressure point that started the album. I was just reacting to a lot of stuff over the course of that year."
He notes the album's songs also offer hope for better days.
"It is a therapeutic thing," Ringle said. "People sometimes think, 'He must be really miserable.' But I am not, and part of the reason I am not, maybe, is that I can push this bad stuff out as music. That is one thing music really does for me."