He Saw the Light

Songwriter John Gorka finds it's always darkest before the dawn

By Aaron Howard for Houston press

Article Published Apr 12, 2001

Don't call it a midlife crisis. Forty-two years old isn't midlife, but by that age one has been knocked around a bit. It's time to take stock of what has passed and what the future holds. Have you made it? Are you still following your passion? Or have you given up on it in order to buy ever more expensive toys? (Maybe toys were your passion from the beginning…) You begin to ask, Where do I go from here?

Songwriter John Gorka is no exception. As he wonders on "Morningside": "Am I a fool at this date / To heed a voice that says / You can be great?"

It's not a young man's perspective, but then Gorka is 42. While he has released eight albums and commands a solid following on the club circuit, Gorka, in his fourth decade, has come to realize that life no longer stretches out in front of him like an endless highway.

He has confronted these doubts. More pointedly, he has asked himself if he was a fool to continue his career when it became clear he was not going to be a superstar. There's a ton of soul-searching on Gorka's latest album, The Company You Keep. For people of Gorka's age, it's easy to identify with his answer to the question he posed above: "You ask the world / And the world says no / It's the world's refrain / Mine says go."

"My first inspiration was negative role models, people I didn't want to be like," Gorka says of his dogged perseverance. "My teachers in high school in New Jersey, for example. I remember one in particular, an English teacher. He was a cynical character. I remember him playing piano at a graduation party. One of his friends said he could have been a concert pianist. Apparently he just didn't try.

"I didn't know how much ability I was given when I first started out. But I was going to go after my dreams and see what was possible."

Gorka, who lost his father when he was 13, was never pushed into a conventional profession. He was the first one in his family to go to college, but once there, he stressed broadening his mind over his future bottom line. College for Gorka was a relentless pursuit of music, writing and the world of ideas.

Gorka also hung out at Godfrey Daniel's, a coffeehouse in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There his dreams galvanized. "I saw the kind of performers I realized I wanted to become. They were making the music they wanted to make. Trying to become big was not the object. The pursuit of mass success would water down what they were good at," says Gorka.

In 1976 Gorka began his songwriting career. Eight years later, during a Texas sojourn, he won the Kerrville Folk Festival's New Folk Award. His first album came three years after that, but it was 1991's critically acclaimed Jack's Crows that earned him national recognition. Since then, Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith, Kathy Mattea, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Maura O'Connell and Mary Black have toured with Gorka, sung on his albums or recorded his songs.

Gorka happily acknowledges that he has accomplished more than he ever dreamed possible, perhaps mostly because he never thought music would take him far. Not that the past few years have been all blue skies. His first three releases on the High Street label sold very respectably -- between 50,000 and 100,000 units. Then High Street told Gorka to do "whatever it took" to get to -- as the current buzzphrase has it -- "the next level." That translated into aiming him at different radio formats, which, according to Gorka, changed "from month to month." The label increased the pressure by carping about his choice of producer, then his song selection and finally his track sequencing.

Corporate meddling isn't unusual in the music business, Gorka says. "I would have understood if the record company no longer supported me as they had. But I didn't understand how and why they wanted me to change."

Furthermore, had this been a Quincy Jones or a Jerry Wexler he was dealing with, their unsolicited advice might have been heeded. But the people who headed the creative side of the label when Gorka first arrived, whom he held in high esteem, were no longer there.

"What it came to was I didn't want to listen to people who knew less about music than I did," he explains. "I figured if I could do the kind of records I wanted and have the creative control over the music and song choice, I'd let them have control over the marketing. But it got to be a power-play situation. It wasn't about whose ideas were better. They wanted me to submit to them."

In 1995 Gorka had gotten about halfway through recording the rough tracks for a new CD when he canceled the project. He told the label he had no further plans to record for High Street or anyone else. He figured if it boiled down to making an album he wasn't proud of, he simply would not make one at all. "Making the best records was the important thing to me as opposed to what place they have in the world," he says. So Gorka fought to get out of his contract. Though he owed High Street two albums, his counsel's lawyerly maneuvers won Gorka a release after just one.

In 1997 Minneapolis-based Red House Records inked Gorka. He calls his new label "a step up in quality." Maybe there's less money spent on his behalf, Gorka concedes, but he has no doubt he'll be able to release the kind of records he wants.

The Company You Keep, his third Red House release, is a snapshot of a guy who's still whistling through his toils in the bowels of the music-biz slave galley. Company is more outgoing and domestic when compared to his earlier releases. Mellowing down is what Gorka's all about these days. "A Saint's Complaint," for example, chronicles the writer's newfound sense of home and family. Gorka is clearly no longer seeking adventures for their own sake. Maybe the urge to settle comes with age, or maybe for Gorka, the father of a young daughter, there are fewer compelling reasons to ramble. Whatever the reason, the songs keep coming, if only he could find time to polish them off between daddy chores at his Minnesota home.

Gorka jokes that he had hoped to write a song about aging with grace, but what came out was "People My Age" with its wonderful line: "People my age are looking overripe / Some are getting operations to tighten up what ain't tight." As Gorka says, "I see people I knew in junior high 25 years later, and it's interesting to see how they have done over the years."

As evidenced by his troubles at High Street, one of the songwriter's main struggles is to draw larger, perhaps even younger, audiences without alienating his core following. Gorka thinks of his core as being his age or a decade in either direction. "Hopefully we're growing old gracefully together," says Gorka. Agreed. As Gorka sums it up in "Morningside": "Better be off / I've got dreams to dream / Though it seems uphill and a little extreme / If I can find hope in this fading light / Then I'll find you on the morningside."

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