Photo Mike Pengra
For John Gorka, one of America's most sensitive and gifted singer-songwriters, the title to his new album came before the song that bears its name. "One of the reasons I called it 'Writing In The Margins,' is because now I try to work on songs whenever I can get a chance," says Gorka, a New Jersey native who resides in Minnesota (his wife's home state).
"Before having kids (ages 7 and 9), my creative time was waking up in the morning, the first few hours, when I'm between the awake and the dream state. But that doesn't happen now at home. Often it's when I'm traveling. Uninterrupted blocks of time are very rare, precious things."
"Writing In The Margins" (Red House Records) is his 10th album. He says each one seems to have its own way of coming into the world. This one began when Gorka was asked to record a song for the "Holiday Train" CD. It's an adjunct to Canadian Pacific Railway's Christmastime runs across the U.S. and Canada, collecting food donations for the needy
While in the studio, liking the sound he was getting, Gorka began recording covers of some of his longtime favorites. Beautiful versions of Townes Van Zandt's "Snow Don't Fall" and Stan Rogers' "The Lockkeeper" made it into "Writing In The Margins."
"The project kind of gathered momentum over the course of the summer. I'd schedule a session without having anything to record for it. So I would finish songs that I hadn't finished and write new things. A little bit of pressure is good. To have something to shoot for was a motivating thing."
By the time he brought studio musicians into the picture, Gorka was comfortable enough to allow spontaneity to take its course. "On several songs, I was able to come up with little guitar intros that I hadn't played before. That made it fun. I think the best recordings are not re-creations of existing songs. They're capturing the moment of creation. I'm used to playing by myself most of the time, so playing with other musicians is exciting."
The live-in-the-studio approach also benefits his singing. "I think the vocals tend to be less self-conscious," Gorka said. "I often get the cues to the vocal phrasing from what I do on the guitar." Compelling new Gorka songs give the CD a genre-transcendent magnetism. "Road of Good Intentions" gave Gorka a chance to express his doubts and frustrations regarding the Iraq War. "It came out of trying to make sense of the world and trying to preserve hope ... or at least, to actively pursue it. I think of this record as a quietly subversive search for hope. "Where does hope come from? How do you achieve it and maintain it? It seems like it's a daily undertaking."
"When You Sing" was inspired by hearing the soulful Mavis Staples perform at a festival. "When I hear her sing, I feel lifted. I met her afterwards and said, 'Ms. Staples, when you sing, you make the world a better place.' She said, 'That sounds like a song.'" Gorka always wanted to be a writer. It just took him a while before he realized he needed to follow the path of song. "I started playing the guitar, seeing if I could write songs. I found that the combination of words and the music was a more powerful and more complete form of expression than the words alone." Of writing, he says, "I enjoy the struggle. Sometimes it is a struggle. Sometimes it comes easy, but that doesn't make those exclusively the best songs."
Gorka, who's looking forward to returning to the Freight, says he's having more fun than ever on stage. "I feel fortunate to be doing this, writing songs and traveling and playing for people. I usually do not go out with a set list, especially if I'm playing by myself. So it's always interesting to see where the show ends up. "As I travel, I see some of the same faces, the people who work in the clubs, as well as in the audience. In Chicago, somebody called out a song. I said, 'You've requested that before, haven't you?' They said, 'Yeah, but you didn't do it right,'" Gorka laughs. "So it makes it fun, playing some old things that have gotten out of the short-term memory. Sometimes they're not quite the way they were when I recorded them. Either I'm unconsciously rearranging them or I'm just not remembering them right."
However Gorka arranges his tunes, they could cut across genre lines. But he accepts the label of "folk artist." "I feel like I aspire to be a folk singer. I aspire to write songs that find a meaningful and helpful place in people's lives. Folk music is where the song transcends the category or the genre. A friend defined folk music by saying, 'The song is more important than the singer.'" Audiences respond to the honesty in Gorka's work. "People yearn for connection on all levels. That's what folk music does at its best. For me, music was always a place of refuge, offering company when there were no people there. That's what I hope to do with my songs and shows. It's about the connection, not 'Hey, look at me.'"