A VISIT WITH JOHN GORKA
interview with Otto Bost
December 1997
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On December 28, 1997, John Gorka visited the studios of WDIY-FM, and recorded an interview with Otto Bost, which was broadcast the following night on Otto's weekly radio program, "Acoustic Eclectic." John had just concluded a two-and-a-half month break from performing (his longest break in eleven years), and had opened his tour the night before at Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem, PA. What follows is a transcript of the interview.

The broadcast began with John's performance of "CHRISTMAS BELLS".

Otto: You're listening to "Acoustic Eclectic," on WDIY. My name is Otto Bost, and my guest in the studio this evening is the man named "songwriter of the year" by the Kerrville Music Foundation, mister John Gorka. Hi, John. Welcome to WDIY.
John: Thank you. It's nice to be here. It's good to be back home.

Otto: You've had a long-time association with the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, and yet you sing about being from New Jersey, and you actually live in Minnesota.
John: That's right.

Otto: How do you put those puzzle pieces together?
John: Well, I was born and raised in New Jersey. I grew up in Colonia, New Jersey, and moved to Bethlehem to go to school in 1976. I went to Moravian College, there on the north side. And I started playing at the coffeehouses in the school right away, the very first day, even. They had freshman orientation . . . they had a freshman orientation coffeehouse that I played at, and I met some of the other people who played there at that same show. Then there was another guy in the audience who, uh I was playing banjo, and this other guy was playing mandolin, and the guy in the audience was a guitar player, and he knew hundreds of songs. His name was Doug Anderson, and we together with Russ Rentler, the mandolin player, we formed a band called the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band. It was kind of a bluegrass band, but not a real formal, traditional one.

Otto: Wasn't Richard Shindell in that band?

John: Yeah, he came, he came later. He was, I think, a year or so a year, maybe two years younger than the rest of us, and so he came in a little bit later, and he became the lead guitar player.

Otto: Small world.
John: Yeah. It's really funny. He's doing really well. He's got three really good records. He's getting out there.

Otto: So, now you're living in Minnesota.
John: Yeah.

Otto: Been there for, what, a couple of years now?
John: Uh, I guess, uh, I'm trying to think is it two years now? Or one year? No, I guess it is two years, 'cause I got married last year. We had a baby this past October. So, yeah . . .

Otto: That's wonderful. What's the baby's name?
John: His name's Joseph.

Otto: Is he doing all sorts of interesting things these days, or what?
John: He hasn't been doing too much recording or anything, or playing guitar. Mostly been playing harmonica. Which is good, 'cause he doesn't have any teeth. Works out well.

Otto: Going through all the right bodily functions at the right times?
John: Seems to be the case. Kinda seems to be all my wife and I talk about, his bodily functions.

Otto: (laughs) You've been doing a song . . . you did a song at Godfrey's the other night, about impending fatherhood.
John: Yeah.

Otto: Tell me about that.
John: It's, uh I was out in Northern California, kind of on the one of my, uh I'm not sure, let's see . . . I think it was in the springtime, last spring. My wife had been pregnant a few months at that point, and I was kind of anticipating what the new life would be like. I mean, my life, as well as the baby. And I was driving down the central valley, California, driving south from Chico, and passing through all these farm fields and orchards, and I passed by this one farmhouse that had some cypress trees growing along side it. Just the image of these cypress trees, and the idea of having a family, somehow came together in my head, and I was moved by the image, because the cypress trees can be planted close together, 'cause they're they tend to grow more vertical than horizontally. Um, so I turned that into a song. I'll play that for you. Same key as the last one.

John performs "CYPRESS TREES"

Otto: Wonderful. Wonderful new stuff from John Gorka. That's called "Cypress Trees."
John: Yeah. It's, uh this is, uh coming back and playing at Godfrey's . . . I just played at Godfrey's. It was the first time playing since the baby came, and so it's about two and a half months that I, uh I've had off. It was a little scary getting started playing again, but, uh but it was fun, and it was the best place to do that. Getting back into performing at Godfrey's.

Otto: Yeah, it's a lot like playing at home, I would guess.
John: Yeah, yeah.

Otto: Your latest album was called Between Five and Seven, and I guess since that album's come out, you've begun to show up on a few compilation CDs, and stuff like that . . .
John: Yeah, I've been doing some of those things. I've been kind of obsessed the last couple of years with a home recording kind of idea, and I've been doing some of that, some of those compilation things, at home. And that's what I'd like to persue more. But there's also one coming up, I guess a Kate Wolf compilation that Nina Gerber, who played with Kate, is producing. I did a song, I recorded that near Seattle, I guess, in October, just before coming back home for paternity leave.

Otto: And I heard that you recorded one of my favorite traditional songs, for a Pete Seeger compilation.
John: Yeah, yeah. That's one I did at home, in the living room. That's a song called "The Water is Wide." That's one of my favorite songs, too, and it's uh let's see if I can play it for you. Its, uh Pete wrote a verse for it, which is why it's part of the Pete Seeger collection. Plus, he did that he's always done that song. I remember I opened for him once, in Easton, at the State Theatre. I think it was 84, and I remember him playing that, kind of backstage, and hearing him play that beautiful guitar part he plays. Um, I don't play that part. I tried to copy that . . . for some reason, I couldn't do it. I could do this kind of arpeggiated kind of thing, and I did that, but I wasn't able to um I don't know, sustain the energy. My pace of it was just too slow, and it ended up too long, and it started out okay, but would kind of lose its energy as it went on. But since then, I started trying it my own way, and was able to get a performance I was real happy with. So let's see if I can remember how it goes. The Water Is Wide . . .

John performs "THE WATER IS WIDE"

Otto: You're listening to "Acoustic Eclectic," on WDIY. My guest in the studio this evening is John Gorka. Wow, I love that song.
John: That's a beautiful song. It's one of my all-time favorites. Otto: Whew! Magnificently done. John: Aw, thanks.

Otto: John, years ago, I know that you were involved with Jack Hardy, up in New York, in the songwriting workshops that he used to and still does, I guess host up there.
John: Yeah, it's a fairly informal kind of idea of a workshop. It's mainly more of a social event. People come, and the idea is to bring new songs, weekly. Bring a new song every week, and have a lot of the same people come, so that they know what you've done before, and where you are breaking new ground, and they can offer criticism, or not. It's one of those things that's fairly informal. People can seek it out, you know, seek out criticism during the break or something like that, if there's a break for food, or you know, if somebody has an idea that could improve the song with a change, or uh . . . So, I really like the idea. It was fun to be able to to be a part of that, 'cause there'd be some really good people who would come fairly regularly. I know David Massengill would be there pretty regularly, and Jack, and um, some other people who are really good. Other people would kind of come in every now and then.

Otto: That got you started writing on a regular schedule?
John: Yeah. Jack was the first person I met who wrote songs on a schedule. I opened for him at Godfrey's in 1979. It was one of the first it was the first opening act I did there. I did that with my friend Russ Rentler, and we went as the Razzy Dazzy Brothers, 'cause it wasn't the whole Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band. So I didn't do many original songs that night, I remember, but, uh . . . I remember talking to Jack, and I know I had been writing for a few years, but I basically waited for inspiration to strike, and that's how I, how I worked. And that's how I told Jack I worked, and he said that was kind of a cop-out. If you work at it, you'll uh, you'll get better faster, even if you throw out three-quarters of the songs that you, that you write. Just by working at it, you kind of exercise the writing muscles, and you, you get better, just by sheer effort, because sometimes you meet inspiration halfway. You didn't know you might not know that there was a song there, until you tried. And so that was a really good approach. That was an exciting kind of idea, that a real revelation, that you could write songs that way. You know, that you could work at it. I knew novelists would get up and write for six hours, or whatever, or a certain number of pages a day, but I didn't know songwriters could do that sort of thing. I thought it was, you know, sort of . . . you're at the mercy of the muse, but it turned out that, uh that really helped me, and I set myself on a schedule of about two songs a month. That's what I've continued to try to persue, that goal. I don't always make it, but that's what I I'm kind of starting in a writing phase again and, uh, I want to see if I can keep up on that schedule.

Otto: I guess with a new baby in the house, the schedule must go out the window at times.
John: Yeah, he's the boss right now, so the idea is, there is really no routine, and so, you try to get things done when there's kind of a moment's peace. But there is time, and you just have to be ready to seize the moment.

Otto: Have you got some new songs in mind for your next album?
John: I've got yeah, I've got a bunch of things that, uh that I've written. Now I have to see if they I'm gonna put them down on tape, and see how they, how they go together and see what jumps out. Sometimes that's the I don't know until I listen back, and then I realize that a song that I thought might not have been all that strong, when I listen to it on tape, it actually jumps out at me. It's one of those things that I try to, uh, try to go into a recording project with more songs than I could possibly record, and record more songs than I could possibly fit on a record, then see which ones kind of step forward.

Otto: You've changed record labels recently changed back, I guess.
John: Yeah, back to Red House.

Otto: What brought that change about?
John: Well, there was kind of a, a change at the old label, Windham Hill, and um a lot of the people that I worked with either left, or got fired, and uh so the whole kind of atmosphere changed, and I realized that it was not a place that I wanted to be, so I got out.

Otto: Hmmm. I would guess that Red House is delighted to have you back.
John: Yeah. It's a really nice thing, since I live in Minnesota now. I really like everybody on the staff, and I can just go there and, uh, meet with them, or uh . . . Bob Feldman helped me move into my house. He's the head of the record company. How often does that kind of thing happen? So, uh, yeah, it's a good . . . Bob and I have been friends for a long time, so, uh, I think it's gonna be a good, gonna be a good thing. It was either that, or do it myself. With the technology being what it is, that's something I'm thinking about, for the future, is to make records, and seeing as how I was talking to other people about this and putting them up on the internet, just to have it be available for people to download it if they want to, you know, have it be something like shareware, that if they want to contribute something to it, do that, but not really have it be a product. I don't know if that's a practical thing or not. I think the technology is getting pretty close.

Otto: Yeah, the technology exists to do that.
John: Uh-huh. Liquid Audio, you know, I don't know how much expense it would be to for my end of things, but if I have a home studio set up, you know, I would still maybe make CDs to sell the "hard copies" of the CDs to sell, I don't know about the distribution. I'm not really all that interested in the music industry, as much as I am getting being able to get the music out there, and, um . . . I'll continue to play, probably, and tour as long as I'm able, 'cause I enjoy that a lot.

Otto: Hey, let's get another song in here, shall we?
John: Okay, let's see, maybe we'll do something in another key. Maybe I'll do this one. This is a Stan Rogers song. I think this is going to be on one of those compilations, too. On a radio station in California, Santa Monica Howard and Roz Larman's radio show I did this. I was doing I hadn't done this, performed this, in a long time, but uh, I guess this was recorded in 91. This is called "The Lock-Keeper."

John performs "THE LOCK-KEEPER"

Otto: You're listening to John Gorka, performing in the WDIY studio. That's a Stan Rogers tune, called "The Lock-Keeper."
John: Yeah. It's one of my favorite songs of his. That line, "my wife has just given me a son," was going through my head the morning the boy was born.

Otto: I'll bet it was. I remember hearing you play that song, years ago. I'm glad you've brought it back out again.
John: Yeah, me, too.

Otto: Let's see, you're going to be back in this area in a little bit. I wanted to let people know where you'll be . . .
John: Okay.

Otto: John is going to be performing in northern New Jersey this Wednesday night, New Year's Eve.
John: Yeah, part of the First Night celebration, there in Oakland, New Jersey.

Otto: Who else is going to be there, John?
John: Cliff Eberhardt. My friend, Cliff Eberhardt, and, let's see, I think Lucy Kaplansky is going to be there. I think Vance Gilbert is going to be there, and Greg Greenway, I guess . . . Cliff and I are going to be alternating sets. I'm going to do one set, he's going to do two sets, then I'm going to do another set, in the one place. Everybody else is in different places, and I think we'll probably all get together at the end of my set and do a song.

Otto: Wow, that sounds like fun. That's in Oakland, New Jersey?
John: Yeah, right off of 287.

Otto: And then John's going to be back in the Pennsylvania area. He'll be back in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, at the Common Ground Coffeehouse, on February 5th, and then in New Jersey, at Princeton University . . .
John: Yeah, at the McCarter Theatre. It's gonna be a show, also, where Dee Carstensen is going to be playing. I don't know if you've gotten to hear her. She's a spectacular singer, and she also plays the harp not like, the celtic harp, but the full thing. She's a beautiful singer, as well as a beautiful musician. She's really worth catching on her own.

Otto: All right. That concert in McCarter Theatre will be on March 7th, that's the date on that. John, can you play one more song before you go?
John: Sure. Let's see, what would be a good song to go on? What's one that I know? Tricky things about getting started. Maybe I'll do the "Flying Red Horse" song. I think I know that one. This is a song about what if one of the flying red horses from the Mobil station should escape.

John performs "FLYING RED HORSE"

Otto: You're listening to "Acoustic Eclectic," on WDIY. My name is Otto Bost. My guest in the studio this evening has been John Gorka. John: Yeah, thanks a lot for having me, Otto. Otto: Thanks for coming by, John. Please stop by anytime.
John: All right.

Thanks to a few dedicated volunteers who have meticulously transcribed this interview from audio recordings.