Gorka's warm baritone and keen songwriting have helped him build a growing
army of fans over the past 15 years. Now he's got a new disc, After
Yesterday (Red House Records), and a new life, and the guy's pretty
happy. WW spoke with the man Rolling Stone called "the preeminent male
singer-songwriter of the New Folk Movement."
WW: You've got one of the best single-guy lines ever written in "Thoughtless
Behavior": "I spread my seed like a farm boy." You've just had a son.
How's that changed things?
John Gorka: It's been really good and offers a whole new way of looking
at things. I lived the carefree life for a long time, to the point that
unless I took more responsibility I couldn't\ go much deeper. The songs
on After Yesterday show part of something bigger and more important
than myself. It's kind of sobering or grounding. I've got a little bit
more connection to my parents and people in general now, like I'm part
of something bigger than just myself. I don't feel like an outsider
Is Bocephus Mahatma Sinatra Gorka the boy's real name?
No. No, that
was a joke in the notes for the new disc. I don't think he would've
appreciated if I really named him that. But he does look like Charles
Bronson when he cries.
Another big change for you has been leaving Windham Hill this past year
and returning to Red House Records.
Yeah, Windham Hill wasn't the place it was when I joined up [in 1990].
The people who brought me in had all gone--either left or were fired--and
it was a different place than when I started, one I didn't want to be
part of anymore. It became a power thing; they wanted me to listen to
what they said, and I couldn't and shouldn't have. I'd done my first
disc with Red House, and I've been friends with Bob Feldman at Red House
all through the Windham Hill years. We look at music the same way--making
a good record first, then worrying about the marketing later, not the
other way around.
Do you set out to write particular types of songs--topical
songs like "Do You Understand My Joy?" or character-study songs like
They seem to come on their own. The topical songs aren't always necessary
for the record, but they seem to address a bigger picture that's really
outside my own little life. It offers a balanced picture. The character
songs, those come about in odd ways. "Zuly"--that one I wrote from a
sign in Anchorage that talked about the Good Friday Earthquake. And
I thought, "What if Jesus was reborn at that time? He would've been
the same age now as when he kicked the bucket back then." Then I met
this woman at a Burger King at the Salt Lake City airport--saw her name
on her badge and I really liked the name, "Zuly." There's a song.
From an outside perspective, the contemporary folkcommunity has always
seemed like a tight group of friends.
I think that's because a lot of us came up when there was nothing to
come up to. We were doing it 'cause that's what we wanted to do--write
songs. It was more about music than selling certain numbers of records
or becoming stars. We played the same places and shared war stories.
I think it's different now, more competitive and harder to break in.
There are more musicians and it's harder to stand out. The success people
before them have had shows what's possible, so they want to be like
this person without going through the process. The process was all we
had back then. It was always about playing live and word of mouth. I
think it's going back to that now since record companies aren't signing
acoustic folk performers, so the record's not the thing as much. They
seem to like to market singer-songwriter women as a solo unit though,
but they lump the boys all into a bunch.
You're big in Europe--Italy especially. With its
attention to lyrics, I always imagine contemporary folk music to be
a very American thing.
Yeah, but if you connect with a song on an emotional level as a singer,
people will still feel it whether they understand the lyrics or not.
They can still be moved by it without understanding the words. I don't
know whether it's the sound of the voice or the rhythm of the lyrics
What are your future plans?
I'd like my next record to be a straight acoustic record--real stripped
down. But the songs will dictate what the sound will be like. I've mostly
been working on this tour. I've been pulling out a Sinatra song--"In
the Wee Small Hours of the Morning"--if I can get the keyboards at the
place. The show's a mixture of things from all my discs plus some things
from some compilations I've played on this past year, a Kate Wolf tune
and "The Water Is Wide" from the Pete Seeger record. I'm really anxious
to be touring, really looking forward to it.
Was there a time you weren't anxious?
Well I've always been anxious, too anxious! Anxiety anxious. But I've
gotten more comfortable with touring over the past five years.
Stupid question: What'd you major in in college?
Philosophy and history.
So you're working in your field?
Oh yeah, definitely. It was all planned.