halfway through this interview with veteran singer-songwriter
John Gorka, a clear image started to emerge. For centuries holiness
has been kept behind the walls of monasteries where the monksí
primary vocation is to hold the world outside in prayer through
direct communication with the divine. Thereís a sense, when talking
with Gorka, that heís a kind of singer-songwriting monk on the
loose out in the world. His monastery is deep within him and his
relationship to his music. He covers himself in song with his
warm voice, lyrics that flow out with clarity and craft, and a
sensibility of the holiness of this process we call songwriting.
But, thereís nothing religious about his music or his life unless
religion is interpreted as a life of devotion. He calls what he
experiences mystery rather than spirituality because he doesnít
know where it came from or where it is going. He only knows that
it moves through him and as he surrenders to it, the birth of
the song happens. He nurtures it unforced from the pressure of
having to be a ďhitĒ or make it for an audience for the purpose
of a profit. Rather, the song is cared for, listened to, allowed
to take its own direction. The result of this process for Gorka
is a 25-year body of work that comforts, engages, and breathes
with a life made from the gentle love of a song.
I first heard about you when you were on Windham Hill. You also had
some airplay on VH1. I remember being surprised that there was a singer-songwriter
on this soft jazz-new age label. John
I was on rotation on VH1 and the country music channel, CMT, at the
time. My first record was on Red House Records. That was 1987. Then,
I was signed to Windham hill in í90 and I did five albums with them.
Why did they go in the direction of singer-songwriters? John
Roy Ackerman began to want to get back into singer-songwriters after
the success of Tracy Chapman. I liked the distribution support from
the company. They had also signed Patty Larkin. There was an entire
singer-songwriter wing on the label, then called High Street.
How did you first get into music? John
I wanted to be a banjo player. I was in a bluegrass band in college
called the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band.
Can you recall what made you fall in love with the banjo? John
It was really Flatt & Scruggs and hearing them on ďThe Beverly Hillbillies.Ē
That has been a watershed moment for many banjo players. John
Earl Scruggs was amazing. I had the opportunity to see him and say hello
when we played on the same bill at the Newport Folk Festival in 2011.
That was a thrill. I stood to the side of the stage with Pete Seeger
watching Earl and his band play. It was a glorious moment to be there
with my two banjo heroes. The first concert I ever saw was in Asbury
Park, the Earl Scruggs Review in 1973.
How did you get started writing songs from learning the banjo? John
Six months after I learned the banjo, my brother showed me some guitar
chords. That was when I found I wanted to write songs. I originally
wanted to be a writer during high school.
It seems many songwriters either come up through the musical path or
the literary one. Who influenced you as a writer? John
It mostly came from the reading Iíd done in high school, writers like
Thomas Wolfe. I found that the parallels of words and music was fulfilling
for me. Music became the best way for me to express myself in words.
There were things I could express with words and music that could only
be released in that way. It was the most complete form.
How did you discover your songwriterís voice?
I began writing songs in high school but I became more serious
in college. Music was always for fun. It was an outlet, not work
in a toiling way. In college I started hanging around Godfrey
Daniels (a coffee house in eastern Pennsylvania) and had the chance
to open for Jack Hardy. That was June of í79. He was the first
person Iíd met who wrote songs on a schedule. I knew novelists
would write like that. Like a chapter a day kind of thing. But,
I never considered a songwriter doing that. Jack said if you work
on a schedule, instead of waiting for the song or the inspiration,
you improve faster. So, I started to try that. I gave myself a
deadline of one song a month. Soon I had more songs than months
so I increased it to two songs a month.
Did this become like a practice, like meditation or yoga? John
Yeah. I found I had my best ideas waking up in the morning or
going to sleep at night. It seemed like the songs would begin
to materialize then through a word, phrase, a chord or chord pattern.
In the morning the idea would present itself to me.
meeting with Jack Hardy was really influential for you then.
John Gorka I
gained a lot of influences and help through Godfreyís; I was opening
for people like Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Eric Andersen.
From that I was invited to be a part of the folk music scene. Jack encouraged
me to enter songs in competitions. I won in at Kerrville Folk Festival
in Texas for my song ďBranching Out,Ē which eventually was on my first
Was that when your first album started to form? John
Yeah, I began working on it toward the end of í85. In the studio I made
it three times before I was happy with it.
It seems like in your story, even though you gained success after the
first album, especially in 1990 with Windham Hill, commercial success
was not your goal really. Can you speak to that? John
I figured I was not going to be in the mainstream. Some songs I was
writing could be embraced by a large number of people, but others were
not going to be mainstream. I wanted to go as far as I could with the
music I was discovering. When I write I try to get the music out as
I sense the song. The way it wants to come into the world. I only need
to get out of the way. If I have too certain an idea of what the song
is about, Iíll stunt its growth.
Is there a process to this? John
Thereís no one way to write a song. Sometimes itís a feeling. It may
be a chord or a pattern Iíve played a million times, but then it strikes
an emotional response in me. I just have to be open to it. Some songs
Iíll neglect. I may set it down after a while. Then, Iíll return to
it in a month. By that time, itís as if the song has its own independence.
Itís not dependent on me. I return to it like someone who has never
The song has a life of its own. John
Beck said each song was a sovereign nation with its own laws, its own
life. Sometimes itís a matter of getting the first line, then that gives
me juice for the next line and the next. After a time Iíll ask, ďwhere
do we go from here?Ē Where do you want to go? .
Do you think thereís spirituality in all of this? John
I grew up Catholic. I donít know if that helped or hurt! [laughs]
As far as organized religion goes, Iím kind of a lost sheep. I
know thereís so much more beyond what we know. I am humbled by
my lack of knowledge. Iím humbled by my sense of the spiritual
side; itís so much larger than me. I think maybe for me, itís
not so much spirituality as it is mystery. I donít know where
the song has come from and I donít know where itís going all of
the time. Itís like Iím receiving wireless messages.
I enjoyed the story on your website about your meeting with Cisco
Houston and Woody Guthrie. John
That was inspired while I was playing a Woody Guthrie night in
Philadelphia. I think it was around 2009. It was inspired when
I was playing the Central Valley. The promoter drove me through
town and drove past a club where he said Woody had once played.
The place was still there. It was the time period when Woody was
doing the radio shows in Los Angles. Somehow, it seemed like it
was in the realm of the possible to meet them, like that could
I was disappointed to find it wasnít true! [both laugh] John
Woody was so great. His appeal has crossed generations and musical genres.
Tell me about the Red Horse project with Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson.
Iíd done live shows with Lucy for years. Since probably 1984.
Weíre on Red House. It was Elizaís idea to do some shows. It was
Lucyís husbandís idea to do a record. It was a lot of fun and
a lot of work. We didnít know how weíd sound singing together
until we went to work on the record. It turned out that even though
our voices were different we had a nice blend between us. So far
weíve done a lot of shows with more to come.
Is anything new happening? John
Iíve been working on a new record. Iíve got about 14 songs recorded
to listen to. I like to write more songs than I need and then
record more songs than will fit onto a normal record. Itís good
to listen to the songs to see how they fit together. I start with
the song with strong guitar and vocal. I live with them for a
while. Then, I return to them as if I was someone else to see
how the life of the song is coming along. Then, I may add instruments
Youíre still writing and recording for the album. John
Yeah, I like to go in to record once a week. I like to have a little
pressure. Some pressure is good, but not enough to stunt the song. So,
I record one day or a group of days.
It sounds a lot like the way you write your songs. JG: Yeah. Each project
has its own way of coming about. It becomes what it wants to.
Is there an emerging theme on this album? John
Yes. Mortality and a longing for spring. I want it to come out in the
dead of winter, just to remind the listener of the coming spring.
So thereís a sign of your Catholicism showing up. Winter Advent and
waiting for Christmas? John
Yeah, I hadnít thought of that. Of course, Iím careful when I record
so the release may overshoot winter, which is okay. Also, I never know
which songs are going to be the strongest ones when I record. Some songs
take to recording better than others. Thatís where I miss Bob Feldman,
founder of Red House Records. He had great judgment about which songs
worked the best in the studio. Iíve been fortunate to have a good label
to work with.
A lot of artists are going it alone without a label. John
Thereís still a place for new artists on the smaller labels. The hardest
thing is trying to get known in the digital age. There are so many people
coming up who are great. When I was first on Red House, my first record
didnít sell. Going to Windham Hill helped me to develop a touring base.
I had exposure. Once youíve become known, itís easier. And the label
then takes care of resources and distribution.
Thank you for your time, John. I look forward to seeing you in Southern
Thank you. Itís been a pleasure.
John Gorka in performance on Saturday, February 16, 2013 7:30pm,
at AMSD Concerts, 4650 Mansfield St., Normal Heights.
He is also appearing at McCabe's Guitar Store in Santa Monica
on February 15th. 2013.
here for the article "John Gorka's
story: Woody, Cisco and Me" in No Depression (December 2007) Click
here for a review of "The Bright side of Down"in No
Depression (San Francisco Web-magazine, 2014)