Do You Understand His Joy?

A happy marriage and new baby boy have instilled popular
folk singer John Gorka with an infectious joie de vivre.


John 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 anymore.

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 "Zuly"?
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 or what.

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.

Willamette Week | originally published April 7, 1999 .