who knows John Gorka will tell you that he's been after it relentlessly
since the mid-80s, and has clearly risen to the top of the field.
cutting his teeth at a great listening room in eastern PA called Godfrey
Daniels and becoming a regular in Jack Hardy's Fast Folk crowd in NYC,
he got off to a flying start when Red House Records and Fleming Tamulevitch
& Associates booking picked him up simultaneously in 1987. FTA are the
agents that veritably control the folk world, and Red House one of the
most distinguished and coveted labels. John plays up to 150 shows a
year at every venue that books singer songwriters, and has earned a
fan base that will probably sustain his career the rest of his natural
life, along with the new believers each year brings.
two albums with Red House, John made five with Windham Hill's High Street
Records, all to critical acclaim. In search of a more art, less commerce
approach to his music, Gorka's happily back with his original label
on the last two records. His latest pearl is called The Company You
Keep. The most important company he's keeping these days are his wife
and two kids outside of St. Paul, MN, and I hear them featured in spirit
hadn't heard a record of John's in some years when the new one appeared
in the mailbox, and I didn't know what to expect. The bittersweet bounce
of the first song and the soulful honesty of his baritone grabbed me
more than just as reviewer or music lover-it spoke to me as a fellow
human being. There's a relaxed maturity and absence of road perfected
cleverness that I was happy to hear. He's a very wise person, and has
a lot to offer.
from the same part of PA, and were a little acquainted, so a homey conversation
follows. (John's originally from Colonia, NJ, as many of his fans know-his
funny song "I'm from New Jersey" is a concert staple.) Unfortunately,
my little Radio Shack tele-recorder was acting up in a major way, but
I think the interview is intact, more or less. I'll fill in the blanks,
and get a better recorder...
Company You Keep includes some of John's fast company-Mary Chapin Carpenter,
Ani DiFranco, Lucy Kaplansky, Patty Larkin, and co-producer Andy Stochansky
(Ani's percussionist) whose playing on the disc is exemplary throughout.
Here's a Puremusic guarantee that this will be a sterling addition to
your collection of modern folk music, which is alive and well.
punchline from "A Saint's Complaint" opines that "good things come to
those who ain't." Fortunately, good things come to those who are, as
JG: Is this Frank?
PM: It is, indeed. How are you, man?
JG: I'm doing good, how are you?
PM: Life's great, thanks. You're on the road at the moment?
JG: I'm at home right now, got home yesterday.
PM: Good, I'm glad I caught you at home.
JG: I just played in Kansas, it was really fun. I played with a symphony
orchestra there, it was a new world experience.
PM: Who did the charts for that?
JG: The director of the symphony. He really liked my music, and has
for a long time. Weused the new record, so we had something to practice
to, and something that I could listen to, so I could remember how I
did them! I got in Saturday night, and ran over them before the show.
Also there was a little band that acted as a rhythm section and nucleus
for the orchestra, it worked out really well.
PM: So, we'll start the interview proper. On a scale of ten, how is
JG: It's very good. On that scale, it's pretty high up there. We have
two kids now, so that's the biggest change in the last few years for
me. That's the focus of things, and I'm trying to do all I can to keep
it balanced. Our boy was three in October, and our girl is just fourteen
What's your wife's name? How'd you meet?
JG: Laurie. She was the program director of The Nature Center, she put
on a music festival with Bob Feldman, the head of Red House Records,
so I met her in 1988. I got married to her when I was 38, and we were
lucky to have had kids so quickly.
Speaking of Red House, I'll bet it's good to be back.
JG: It's a better fit, I think. It's more musically oriented, in a sympathetic
way, than where I'd been.
I haven't heard all the records you've done, but on all I've heard,
you seem to stick to your folk guns closely. It's not folk pop, it's
not country pop enough to really get cut in that market, it's modern
JG: It doesn't really fit in any radio format that I know of. That's
partly what's good about it, but also what makes it hard for the record
company to market. The songs are too long to be played on the radio,
or not this enough or that enough.
But folk is really where you're coming from.
JG: Yeah, I think so. I don't know if it is folk music, I hope that
it could be. But I try to start with the sparks that come my way, then
try to keep them alive through the whole process-and try to fuel them,
rather than mold them into some box where they might fit.
Well, it seems to be working, you may be the best folk guy out
there at the moment. I'm real happy about that, and proud of you.
JG: Oh, well, thanks a lot. After the whole record company thing, I
wanted to continue in some way that felt right... "When I Lost My Faith
in People" is kind of about that, and also about losing faith in myself.
I wasn't sure whether I had anything to offer that was worth anybody's
time, I guess that's about the best way I can put it. And finding out
that I'd been able to reach more people than I thought I had, and also
the way I've been able to reach people live, that helped a lot.
Along those lines, I remember seeing you perform twice, including last
summer at the Appel Farm Folk Festival in NJ. Your stage persona is
very endearing, and very personal. How does your onstage persona differ
from your offstage personality, who do your friends know you to be?
JG: I'm probably not as outgoing offstage, my persona onstage is what
I'd like to be. In some ways, I'm more comfortable speaking to a crowd
than I am to a small group of people. I'm not trying to be anything
that I'm not, it's more a question of trying to become more who I want
to be offstage.
Yeah, when I saw Vance Gilbert onstage recently, he was so effusive
that it actually rubbed me the wrong way, but a performer friend told
me that, offstage, he's actually a very nice, mellow character.
JG: He's a very outgoing performer. He's got a lot going on, his last
record helped to shore up the songwriter side of him, as opposed to
his gregarious onstage image.
What town was it that you grew up in, in NJ?
JG: Colonia, near Edison and Rahway.
After living there and in PA, how do you like Minnesota, what's it like
JG: It's OK, the winters are rough, and this has been a very long and
Are you guys in the city, suburbs, or country?
JG: Northeast of St. Paul, more out in the country.
Who are your big influences, musically or otherwise?
JG: The people that I heard on records that inspired me, well, it was
the Battles and then everybody else. Ray Charles, I love his music,
and I listened to Joni Mitchell quite a bit. And Frank Sinatra.
Are there any new influences moving you?
JG: Let's see, Ani DiFranco is someone I admire. PM: Man, I just saw
a new picture of her in the paper, holy geez, was it cute. [John laughs.]
I mean, what happened to that quirky look of yesterday, she looks like
a model now. JG: She has so many different looks. As an artist, she's
always changing, and probably gets bored with the way she looks, you
know. She probably doesn't want people to put her in any one slot.
Who's your favorite guitar player, John?
JG: Oh, boy...right off the bat, I'd have to say Leo Kottke.
Do you have a favorite lyricist?
JG: I like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Janis Ian. PM: Well, those
are three hot ones. JG: And Paul Simon is great. PM: Overall, including
the music, who would you say is the songwriter you most admire? JG:
Irving Berlin is someone I've always liked. The way he was able to say
so much so simply. It's not the kind of stuff that I would write, but
I love his songs. PM: Sure, simplicity is something we're all striving
for. JG: Yeah, I think so. Trying to get down to the nature of things,
or to the preconceptions, the givens, something along that line.
I think I follow.
JG: Like in science, there are assumptions that precede a scientific
proof of something.
JG: It even applies to my current obsession of the last few years, home
recording, and sound. The technical end of things, how sounds are made
What equipment are you using?
JG: It's kind of the house of many formats here, my current center of
things is the computer.I'm running out of room and have a little corner
of the house for my stuff, so it makes better sense. I also have an
analog 8 track recorder, some ADATs, a hard disk recorder...
PM: That is many formats. Do you have the Roland
16 track hard disk system?
JG: Actually, I have the E-MUs hooked up to the Roland DM800, the predecessor
of the new 8 and 16 tracks on the market now. It's all synched up together.
I'd like to learn to do it all, but I know that the best music you can
make is with other people. Things happen in that situation that you
could never overdub in your home studio.
And you've stuck with Martin guitars, a tried and true Pennsylvanian.
JG: I had an old one that I've written with, and in the meantime had
a Lowden and a Larivee that I liked a lot, they were really good road
guitars. The Martin I'm using now, they gave me that a couple of years
ago, Dick Boak and Martin. They saw me play at Godfrey Daniels, and
schemed it up. They said, "We hope you play it, but you're not obligated
to." It wasn't an endorsement deal, but a gift. It was one of those
good things that happened, that made me feel like I was doing something
PM: (Since the recorder kept shutting off!)
So, I want to make sure I get that model number, it's an OM-28VR.
JG: Right, the vintage reissue.
You play any electric?
JG: I just got an electric guitar, for the home setup. I've been getting
away from the technology end, and more interested | again in just playing
stuff. It's a Musicmaster, I believe, shaped like a Fender bass, single
I like to play the Gibson jazz boxes, I have an old ES125. For those
of us that crossed over from acoustic world, it's worth a look.
JG: I notice that sometimes when I play electric guitar, that I get
a pain in the shoulder, I'm not used to having the body of the guitar
so close to me, not having to reach out.
PM: I think we're all plagued by the shoulder pains of a life of playing
guitar, right, they just never go away. [Commiserating laughter] So,
it occurred to me while listening to this recent great CD that you are
a spreader of hope, that's a commendable occupation. How do you feel
JG: I'm surprised that it's come to this. I've turned into a hopeful
guy, it's kind of a funny thing. In some ways, I feel like I've backed
my way into a normal life. I started out a kind of road warrior, the
opposite end of the domestic spectrum. Now I'm a dad, and try to spend
time with the family, and do things around the house. I'm learning how
to do that. [Laughs] I've learned how to fold clothes, after these years.
PM: I'll bet you're pretty good at diapers, too.
JG: Oh yeah.
PM: Do you have special spiritual leanings,
Christianity or Buddhism, or something else?
JG: I was raised Catholic, so that did something. I don't classify myself,
but I do believe in a God, just...
You don't give him a name.
JG: Right. With music, I've always had a faith in myself that I could
do it my own way, even though I knew it would be the hard way. But as
far as confidence goes, it's been more absent than present.
Even with all the acclaim, and all the good reviews, it's still like
JG: Yeah, I make my living from the live shows, and you're only as good
as your last show. If I feel that I didn't do a good show, then I feel
like, oh... Maybe that's the general New Jersey attitude, that you're
never good enough. And I think that kind of attitude is an asset, you
never feel like you've got it made. There's always more to learn, more
work to do.
Certainly not the makeup of a person who's going to rest on his laurels.
JG: I have to be reaching new people all the time. People aren't always
going to be able to come to the show, especially if they have the obligations
of family, and less free nights. So, I have to always be reaching new
people, hopefully for as long as I live.
I really liked the production on the new record, two Polish guys and
a Ukrainian. [Gorka, Robb Genadek, and percussionist Andy Stochansky.]
I think the Ukrainian's contribution is outstanding.
JG: Yeah, I really loved his playing. He's knowledgeable about different
kinds of music, as well as visual arts, and movies.
Seems like drummers and percussionists tend to know more about world
music that we string players do.
JG: Yeah, it's interesting. He added a lot, just as a presence. He has
his own band now, doing his own music.
Under his own name?
JG: Right, up in Canada, outside Toronto. He's done some tours in the
US. He's very innovative. And Rob Genadek was much more than an engineer,
he helped bring together a group of people that really made it happen.
Aside from knowing all about mic placement and the treatment of sound,
he was a very creative element in the process.
Fatherhood considered, have you any time for reading?
JG: Mostly, I'm just reading the Harry Potter books right now. And The
Real Frank Zappa Book, it's sort of an autobiography. It's mostly compiled,
edited interviews, I don't think he wrote a lot down. But they were
done with a book in mind.
Do you think that folk is on the rise, at a plateau, or shrinking as
JG: That's a good question. I think that there's more and more people
doing it. It goes underground from time to time, and occasionally a
big success will pop through commercially. But I think it's still going
strong. Maybe they'll have some data on that after this Folk Alliance
Convention is over in Vancouver this weekend. The Internet is changing
things a little, but performers still have to become known first from
their shows, and then build on that. And I think that will only become
more important, it's the thing that can't be virtualized. That's where
the magic always was. There were records that moved me without end,
but it was seeing people perform live that made me want to do it. Godfrey
Daniels is celebrating 25 years next month.
That's amazing. Did you do a video for this record, is that part of
the Red House budget?
JG: No. The way we did the first video, I did it with Chris Rogers,
he's a Nashville guy. He liked the I Know record, and we did it for
the cost of the equipment. "When She Kisses Me" got quite a lot of airplay.
If there was another opportunity like that, I'd do it, of course. But
there really isn't a budget for stuff like that, the main thing is still
getting the word out by doing as many live shows as I can without wrecking
the balance of family and career.
How many folk acts out there are making a good living, in your opinion?
I know that depends on what one means by a good living, but are really
more than a dozen?
JG: And also on what you consider folk. I'd have to think about that.
I'll bet there are more than you might imagine.
PM: I'd like to think so. I'd like to think there are 25, but then I
try to count them. But there are many people willing to make a meager
living to do the thing they love.
I didn't notice anything in the liner notes about publishing. Are you
your own publisher?
JG: Yes. I wonder if they forgot to put that in there.
Do you ever try to write for other artists, or always for yourself?
JG: I try to write for myself, and then see if anything might be a good
fit for someone else.
Have other artists picked up on your material, folk or otherwise?
JG: A few, Mary Black has recorded quite a few songs. Maura O'Connell
covered a few songs, and Edwin McCain covered "Let Them In."
PM: Edwin McCain? That had to do pretty well.
JG: Yeah, that helped.
He sold hella records.
I like that guy, 'cause he's not a poster child for anything but good
JG: Exactly. And I thought he did a really good job on the song, too.
He called it "Prayer for St. Peter" or something, on his last record.
So, I'll ask you one more thing, and I pray to God that this piece of
shit recorder actually worked. What goals are still on the horizon?
JG: [laughing] Well, I still want to keep working on songs. There are
so many places you can go with a song, and for me it's still all about
that. Chasing down the songs, and trying to make them as good as I can.
Well, John, it was lovely to talk with you, and I hope to see you around
JG: Yeah, Frank, same here. Have you run into Steve Kimock at all? [John
and I had talked some about my music, which I don't include here. Steve
Kimock and I were bandmates in the Goodman Brothers, which was a band
John liked back in his PA days.]
Yes, it's interesting that you ask. I'll be reviewing a record of his
in the same issue where you'll be featured.
JG: Oh, good. [After this, we reminisced about some old days, about
Steve Kimock, talked about Ken Burns' Jazz program, different things...]
Well, I hope to see you again in Nashville before too long. I notice
that Ani Difranco is playing the Ryman soon, I'd like to see you there.
JG: Yeah, I opened for Mary Chapin Carpenter there once. Thanks a lot
for doing this, and I'll check out Puremusic. Say hello to your brother
Billy for me.
OK buddy, take care.
JG: You too, Frank. See you soon.