A Conversation with John Gorka ..August 5, 2016

Mike Ragogna: John, your "new" album Before Beginning is a 1985 alternate version of your I Know debut. Why was the initial album shelved and why was it important to get this version released?
John Gorka: I guess I was new to the recording world and musically finding my way. I had never recorded with other players before and it all happened so quickly. When I came back to Pennsylvania the only thing I had was a cassette of the sessions and my head was spinning. I was too close to it. Although I felt that it was good I didn't know if it was the "right" kind of good. I remember playing the cassette at Godfrey Daniels Coffeehouse after I got back. Jesse Winchester had played there that night and I remember him listening saying "I like it! It sounds commercial." I don't know if that was I was hoping to hear. I wasn't sure it was the musical direction that I was going for but I'm not sure I could tell you what that direction was.

I decided to put this remixed version out because I thought it was worth a listen. The players and the arrangements are different from I Know. The energy is also different. I've always been of the opinion that songs are bigger than any one recording of them. I don't sound like that any more. I just thought it would be interesting to put it out and see what happened.

    MR: Usually, projects like this end up being the second disc of a Deluxe Edition of a classic album reissue. what makes this version of the album special to you and with a 2016 perspective, how were each of the albums successful and what did each of the them accomplish for you creatively?

JG: I think Before Beginning is best heard and seen as a physical CD. It is an artifact from another time. The story on the cd package and the photos enhance the listening experience, in my opinion. I also think the CD sounds better than the MP3 or downloadable version. There is some really nice playing on the record, especially Stuart Duncan's mandolin and fiddle playing. "I Know" was a little more intimate in production, especially "Love is Our Cross to Bear." Although I have never had a comfort zone, if I did, I Know was probably closer to it.

MR: The original sessions included future Americana artists such as Shawn Colvin and Lucy Kaplansky, both of who you've worked with since this album. What do you think their performances added to the album and have you considered a reunion with them and the rest of the band to tour in support of Before Beginning?
JG: I love their singing, on their own and with me. It was one of my great joys in music to sing with them. They are great singers and great harmony singers. I have not considered a reunion. When I work with other people I like to treat them well and pay them well. I don't think logistically that a reunion is in the realm of the possible. In fact we don't know for certain who the keyboard player was who played on the sessions. It was one of the two keyboard players credited on the liner notes.

MR: What were the sessions like with Jim Rooney producing? Any interesting anecdotes?
JG: Jim was great to work with. He put me up at his place so I didn't have to find a hotel. I really liked his production style as well: pick really good players and create an atmosphere where making good music is not only possible but almost inevitable. As I mentioned in the notes, John Prine came by while we were mixing. That was a thrill. And I got to meet Jack Clement.

MR: What were some of the surprises in returning to this album? For instance, over the years, did you forget about parts or players and what was your reaction to the very first playback of the baked multi-tracks?

JG: I was surprised at how fresh the tracks sounded. It was alive, maybe because we were all playing and singing in the same room. I think a lot of that energy was captured on tape. I hadn't listened to them for almost 30 years. I was just glad the tapes would play and it was fun to hear those arrangements again.

MR: Do you think anything would have been different in your life had you gone down the road not taken and the original version been released instead of the re-record?
JG: I'm sure things would have been different but I don't know what that might be. I'd have to visit the alternate universe where that was my decision to see how that played out. I don't regret my decision way back when but I'm glad people can hear this new/old record now.

MR: What kind of creative growth do you feel there has been over the course of the twelve albums you've released since I Know? How has your approach to creating music evolved over the years?
JG: I've learned a little bit about making records. I've recorded in quite a few different ways: live with the other players and singers with no click track, live with players and a time reference; solo, playing and singing at the same time and separately. You have to be flexible and do what is best for each song or group of songs. My favorite place to be is still in the middle of a song, especially in the writing process when I feel that I've reached a point of inevitability where the thing I'm working on is not just an idea. It is a song that can go out there and maybe have a life of its own.

MR: What are your favorite songs on the project and are there any titles that you now prefer in their original version?
JG: I really like "Down in the Milltown" on Before Beginning and there are moments here and there that I prefer over the 1987 version and vice versa. For example I like the sound of the horns coming in on the bridge of song "I Know" on Before Beginning...but I miss Shawn and Lucy's singing on that song as in the 1987 version. I also like the synth part on "I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair" on Before Beginning but like the intro on that same song better on the 1987 version.

MR: Which is your favorite John Gorka album?
JG: That is like asking which is my favorite child.

MR: Your material has been covered by quite a few artists including Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith. Which are your favorite covers?
JG: Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith have sung my songs but neither have recorded them to my knowledge. Maura O'Connell's recorded version of Blue Chalk is one of my favorites. Mary Black has beautifully recorded several of my songs. Mary Travers' singing of "Semper Fi" on Peter, Paul and Mary's Discovered album also comes to mind as a favorite.

MR: What do you think of the state of the "singer-songwriter" and "Americana" genres?
JG: I don't know enough about the current state of those things to hazard a guess or have an opinion. I do feel that I'm seeing musical evolution right before my eyes and ears. There is so much talent out there and they seem to be getting better at a younger age.

Photo: Jos van Vliet (Feb 2016)

MR: In a thousand words or less, who were your musical or creative influences?
JG: There are so many! There are the ones I listened to on record and the ones I got to hear live at Godfrey Daniels Coffeehouse. On record I listened a lot to the singers and songwriters who came from the folk and blues world.

Often, their names began with the letter J: Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Janis Ian, John Prine, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez.

I also loved Flatt & Scruggs, The Earl Scruggs Review?my first live concert, Eric Andersen, The Band, Tim Hardin, Steve Goodman, Lightnin' Hopkins, Son House, Howlin' Wolf, Leo Kottke, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Billie Holliday, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Elvis, The Roches and The Staple Singers.

People I got to hear and meet at Godfrey's include Nanci Griffith, Jack Hardy, Erik Frandsen, Claudia Schmidt, Stan and Garnet Rogers, Rosalie Sorrels, Utah Phillips, Kate Wolf and Dave Van Ronk.

I am leaving out so many! I don't know if they show up in my music but these are some of the people I listened to live and on record early on.

MR: You also have a John Gorka Guitar Collection and you're considered a bit of an aficionado when it comes to guitar. What was your musical training?
JG: I don't consider myself to be a very good guitar player. I mainly use the guitar to accompany my singing. Since I most often perform solo, I have tried and am trying to become a better player. Every once in a while I surprise myself to find I'm playing something I've never played before and it sounds okay. But it appears to be unpredictable.

MR: How has recording and scoring for film and TV affected your approach or creativity when songwriting or recording?
JG: I haven't done all that much of that but I've found that I can sometimes write a song on demand to suit a specific situation, character or scene. I need to be emotionally moved by the material or specifics, however.

MR: Are there any other artists, new or older, who haven't quite broken through that you admire?
JG: There are many that I admire who are in a similar position, some of whom I've mentioned above. The music documentary 20 Feet from Stardom is very instructive here.

Sometimes you can have all the talent in the world, have all the drive, with a big record company behind you and sometimes the world says, "No." The size of the audience doesn't always seem to equal the gifts of the artist. Musical taste is very subjective. Sometimes the audience seems to be inordinately too small.

You just have to pursue your vision and seek out the people who might see it your way. It helps also if you never let up. You have to be reaching new people all the time. I remember Garnet Rogers speaking of his brother Stan, "He wasn't so much a hopeless romantic as a relentless one."


Photo: Jos van Vliet (Feb 2016)

MR: John, what advice do you have for new artists?
JG: I don't know if my advice has any value because the music business world I came from is long gone and won't come back. In general, I think high standards, low overhead and realistic expectations are a good way to go. I also think of Jackson Browne's line from Running On Empty: "You've got to do what you can just to keep your love alive and try and not to confuse it with what you do to survive."

MR: What do you still want to do creatively? How about no so creatively, like bucket list stuff?
JG: I still love working on songs, making records and I enjoy performing now more than when I started. So I hope I can stay healthy enough to do all 3 of those things for a long time to come.

I would like to get better on guitar, piano and banjo. Also, I would like to do a show in Hawaii. It's the only state that I have not played in.

MR: Any parting John Gorka words of wisdom?
JG: Follow your heart, then use your head, and be kind.

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