By Ross Raihala | rraihala@pioneerpress.com
Pioneer Press
| January 18, 2018

Things to Do > Music & Radio
John Gorka captures a little magic recording his new album live in the studio

Singer/songwriter John Gorka made a habit of swinging by the office of his record label, St. Paul’s Red House Records, every time he was leaving for a tour. He’d stop on the way to the airport to pick up a few CDs and chat with the employees, who had long since become friends.


“That’s what I did that day,” Gorka said. “I saw them in the morning and heard the news that night. It was a big shock.” Gorka is talking about the surprise closure of Red House Records’ St. Paul office in November, when owner Beth Friend announced she had sold the label to the Nashville-based Compass Records Group. Gorka’s new record “True in Time,” which hits stores Friday, is the first Red House album to be released through Compass.

“I think Compass is a good company,” Gorka said during a phone interview last week from a tour stop in Florida. “But after working with that group of (Red House) people for so long, to have them not be there anymore … I’m still not really adjusted to it yet.” Gorka will spend much of the year on the road supporting “True in Time.” He plays Crossings at Carnegie in Zumbrota on Jan. 26 and returns to Minnesota on May 12 for a show at Hopkins Center for the Arts.

A New Jersey native, Gorka issued his 1987 debut, “I Know,” on Red House. After a five-album stint on Windham Hill, Gorka returned to Red House for 1998’s “After Yesterday,” and it’s been his home ever since. He’s called Minnesota home, too, since 1996, when he married a native of the state and the couple moved to May Township, about 30 miles northeast of St. Paul.

While writing what would become “True in Time,” Gorka was inspired to return to his roots. In late 2014, he retrieved from storage the master tapes from his very first recording sessions. Back in 1985, he took his first stab at capturing the songs on “I Know” in Nashville, but ended up shelving the tapes and re-recording the material in New Jersey. Red House issued those initial Nashville sessions as “Before Beginning, The Unreleased I Know” in 2016.

“My first attempt at my first record was live, with everybody singing and playing at the same time,” Gorka said. “I figured I’d like to do another record like that.” Last summer, Gorka did just that with a group of local musicians including former Prince associate Tommy Barbarella on keyboards and jazz drummer J.T. Bates. “We set up on a Sunday night, started recording on Monday morning, finished five songs on Monday, five songs on Tuesday and three songs on Wednesday.”

Gorka invited several friends to contribute guest vocals – including his Red House labelmates Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson – that were recorded elsewhere and added to the final mix. But he did very little overdubbing or editing beyond that, giving the record a warm, comfortable and timeless sound.

“The rest of the musicians were really good listeners,” he said. “They left me room and I was really able to hear myself. And I think they inspired me to play better than I usually do. I had worked with them all before, and it was so relaxed, I tried different things on the guitar for every take. Often, it seems like the first time I play something, it’s the best. If I try to imitate or repeat what I had just done, it doesn’t get better, it usually gets worse.


“There were good sightlines, so I could see everyone play. I watched Tommy move from keyboard to keyboard — he played three different keyboards in one take, it was just unbelievable. I think we captured a little magic there. J.T. told me he enjoyed the sessions because ‘We’re all good enough to do it this way, but nobody ever lets us do it this way.’ ”

Gorka was forced to take a different approach to his guitar on “True in Time” after an accident nearly ended the project before it began. “I was helping a friend and neighbor clear some trees and branches after a storm,” he said. “I cut my left thumb with a saw and had to go to the emergency room and get nine stitches. This was Saturday, two days before the sessions.”

Fortunately, the ER doctor was also a guitar player and made sure Gorka could still make the recordings work. “I had to reconfigure how I did some of the chords, because I couldn’t wrap my thumb around the neck like I usually would. But it feels like this thing was meant to be, stitches or no stitches.”

Gorka specifically chose to open and close the record with two versions of the title track. “With the times we’re living in, with the daily attacks on truth, I wanted to have some of my own truth, as I see it.”

Does that mean President Donald Trump was an inspiration?
“Oh yeah, he’s probably the leading attacker of truth in the world,” Gorka said.

But his dislike of Trump goes back decades. In 1991, he wrote the anti-gentrification song “Where the Bottles Break,” and referred to the real-estate developer as “low-life Donald what’s-his-name” in the lyrics.

“The biggest insult was not using his last name,” Gorka said. Gorka doesn’t directly address Trump on the new album. “I wanted it to be more general, I wanted the songs to last. Generally, I try to draw on human nature rather than any specific incident. Frankly, I don’t think he’s worth a song. That’s giving him more power and more time than he deserves. I mentioned him in song in the past and my opinion has not changed.”




What: Folk singer John Gorka in concert
Details: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26; Crossings at Carnegie, 320 East Ave., Zumbrota; $27-$24; 507-732-7616 or crossingsatcarnegie.com; and 8 p.m. May 12; Hopkins Center for the Arts, 1111 Mainstreet, Hopkins; $28; 952-979-1111 or hopkinsartscenter.com.

Ross Raihala A Minnesota native, Ross Raihala joined the Pioneer Press as pop music critic in 2004, after stints at The Forum in Fargo, N.D., and The Olympian in Olympia, Wash. He covers local and national music as well as some theater and other arts and entertainment topics. His favorite part of his job is reviewing, and live tweeting, Twin Cities arena concerts. And, yes, he saw the same show you did.
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