John Gorka —Americana singer songwriter from America's North East and one of Red House Records most prolific acts.

Bright Side Of Down is Gorka’s latest recording for the label, and like before it has one or two of his label mates lend a helping hand. Vocalists especially, seem to line-up to be a part of his albums. This time you have Eliza Gilkyson, Lucy Kaplansky, Claudia Schmidt, Amilia Spicer and Michael Johnson. In the past his records have also featured Nanci Griffith, Lee Satterfield, Shawn Colvin, Ani Difranco, Christine Lavin and Jennifer Kimball among others.


John Gorka, Photo by Ann Marsden

How do you get your ideas assembled to come up with a record that sounds fresh and new after making a dozen albums. Is it becoming harder to do this?
It is kind of tricky finding a place for the new songs on the live show. I think some of these songs were inspired from living in Minnesota, though I am not originally from there. I have learnt to appreciate Spring, I have been living here 18 years, and that line ‘every spring is a victory’ is as it actually feels. In being older I think more, and I'm starting to lose family and friends, my contemporaries I believe there’s a feeling of mortality running through the record.

You mention, losing contemporaries. One of who was of course Bill Morrissey and whose song She’s that Kind Of Mystery you have covered for the record. Was he a tragic artist?
He was a great artist, very funny. I guess he did have trouble with alcohol but that’s not uncommon. He was a great person and always a delight to be around.

High Horse is a most interesting song
I lived a long time in Pennsylvania, in a place called Bethlehem. It is a steel town and has seen some pretty major changes, especially during the time I lived there. I spoke of the people in the neighbourhoods I used to live in and it came out as a little story. When I open up (whilst writing) it is a process of discovery because I don’t really know what the song is about! It might start being about a character and it goes from there. I try to keep the energy, the original spark through till the end, so that the song is alive.

That is one of the great things about your music. You always seem so comfortable performing; the melodies tend to roll effortlessly
Thanks. This one is a little different to the last few records. With this one I did a little at a time. Got into the studio and did one song, maybe one session a week or every other. See how the songs held up, the lyrics and music, over a period of time and see if the performance held up. I liked that way of working, and wanted it to be built up around my vocals and guitar. Doing it like that put more pressure on me to make my guitar parts a little stronger, often when I record with other people I end up changing the whole arrangements to fit them. Sometimes that is good, but sometimes a little can get lost. So I wanted to be true to how I play the songs solo, because that is how most often people see me playing live.

It is nice the way you have been sparing with the musicians used, that way the record is more about John Gorka?
Yeah, that is how I wanted it. I did not want it to be like me and the band playing and then more instrumentation on top of it, it was mainly to serve the song.

I notice you play a little banjo on one song?

Yes, I did play banjo. It was kind of funny when it came to mix that song I had gone out to get some food for Rob the engineer and producer. In the meantime he played back what he had done and there was this banjo part on there I did not remember playing! I had been listening to one where I had used mandolin and wasn’t aware of the banjo version. I hadn’t heard it other than the time I played it. I like the banjo.

You break up the album, and lighten the mood nicely with Honeybee?
Yes, the record definitely needed that song after Don’t Judge A Life. Something to lighten the mood a little bit, but I had never thought about recording that song. It was something I used to sing around the house, and in the car for my daughter and was my wife’s suggestion. I had recorded a song for my son in the past and she thought I should do one for my daughter too. At the end of the day I only did one take and that’s it.

There is one track on the record, Out Numbered, what a beautiful song

Yes, a love song. I have not done one of those for long time.

On hearing it a time or two I felt it sounded very much like a song Steve Forbert could have written or suitable for him to cover

Well, thank you. That is interesting. I have done a couple or so shows with him over the years.

Being with Red House must be a wonderful place for you, to be among such a wealth of singer-songwriters that are so approachable?
It is a very good company, and a very good group of people. After I did my first record with Red House I moved to Windmill Hill and High Street Records. That started out great and later became not so great. When that ended I did not know if I wanted to be with a label again, and it was then that Bob Feldman (the late label boss and founding member) said they could do a better job that I could on my own. And that is still the case; they are a very good group of people.

Having the likes of Eliza, Danny Schmidt, and others making such great records will no doubt have inspired you to come up with something special. Plus there is a guy who also has a record just out Ray Bonneville. I can’t wait to hear it. Like yourself he’s able to get a great rhythm going, that starts with the first note and it doesn’t stop till the last one note on the record?
Oh, yeah. Ray is one of my favourite people. He is a whole band himself and is such a complete musician. He does everything. He is a great harmonica player, guitar player and singer too. He is one of my favourites. I love Eliza too. I love Claudia Schmidt’s new record too. Have you heard it yet?

I understand she was one of the artists who influenced you when you were younger?
She is an amazingly talented person. With words and music, and is such a force of nature.

On your debut album I Know (Red House, 1987) you list a host of inspirers; Ray Charles, Nanci Griffith, Jack Hardy, Stan Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Bill Withers along with Claudia. A good many are your grass roots kind of people, musicians
I guess they were, some I just heard, and others were people I met at Godfrey Daniels Coffee House in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. That was my main place of inspiration when I went to college.

Is that where you did the sound and were the MC guy?
I did a little of everything there. MC, sound, counter worker, usher and I used to go to the open mic sessions and ended up hosting them for a long time. Yeah, I gained a great deal of inspiration there, and a lot of people who I opened shows for at Godfreys’ opened doors in other parts of the country. Nanci Griffith was a good example, and Jack Hardy too who really helped me down the line.

Winning the New Folk Singer-Songwriter Award at the Kerrville Festival in 1984 must have been an exciting few days. Meeting so many other musicians must have been a great thrill for you?
I was so nervous, and didn’t sleep at all the night before. My stomach was in knots and everything. But it ended up good. People liked my songs and I got to open the festival the next year.

Coming back to the present, you have some music on Eliza’s new record?
She does a version of a poem by William Stafford, Where No Monument Stands and I also made a version for a short film on William Stafford and some of my music. Its called Every War Has Two Losers and recorded on my So Dark You See album. She is so talented.

Along with Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza you formed a trio a couple or so years ago, Red Horse?
Yes, we did! We made a record in 2010 and toured all over America and Canada with the record, the shows were always good fun and there was a lot of chemistry on stage. It was always fun to travel and do shows together.

Do you see yourselves getting back together to perform and make another record?
If we can get our stars in line. It is a little tricky with us having three different booking agents, but it is possible. It would be fun to do more shows with them.

You have a few guests share vocals with you on this record too?
Yes, I have Claudia Schmidt on Procrastinating Blues. I left a space for her and she came in with a bunch of ideas and knocked them out in a very short time. She was very impressive. I was so glad. She was on my second record. Here the listener gets an idea of what she can do.

Michael Johnson who recently made a comeback to the scene is also on the album?
Yeah, we also did a few shows together. He is a masterful guitar player and a great singer, and has tremendous stories about people he has met and travelled with.

Talking about stories, I imagine you have a few considering how you started at the café and open mic nights?
I have a few I can share about those days, about the people I met. I have more fun performing now than I ever did. Especially at the beginning, though I drawn to performing it I never felt comfortable no matter how hard I tried. Now I am able to incorporate that awkwardness into the show, and get on with it. I get a lot of fun performing today.

Having the album entitled Bright Side Of Down does that make you something of an optimist?
Maybe, a little bit. I always saw myself as a dark optimist. I see the bright side of the situation only after exhausting all the alternatives. (More laughter)

Earlier you spoke about High Horse and how there is no longer the heavy industry around and ever fewer people working with their hands today. People doing so are now the minority.
Right. My father worked in a tag and label factory. It was called the American Tag Company in Bellville, New Jersey, I found it when we did a show in Newark, New Jersey and went up and found the factory, and it is still there but under a different name.

Did anyone else in your family play or sing?
My brother played guitar and I think my grandfather on my mother’s side did opera and played violin, and my father played the drums a little.

When you were growing up who were the people you would listen to?
The Beatles and others of the day, and the banjo kind of captured me. I loved anything that had banjo on it. Flatt & Scruggs and a TV show called the Beverley Hillbillies, and hearing the banjo in a scene from Deliverance. I loved that sound, anything with banjo on it I would listen to. Some would be singer-songwriter records had banjo and one that I remember was by Jonathan Edwards.

Yes, and he also made a record with the Washington DC band The Seldom Scene
I believe he did, and he made a live record. I remember the radio playing the whole thing and I found out later it was Bill Keith playing the banjo on it. What a great player. Then I got into the singer-songwriter world, and at some point I was playing, copying these banjo instrumentals, singing these slow sad songs, and it was suggested to me by someone that I should specialize. That is when I decided to concentrate more on the singer-songwriting and put the banjo to one side. I still look forward to sitting down to writing songs, it's lots and lots of fun and probably my favourite thing to do. There is always something to learn in music, you never learn it all. At the moment I am travelling with this little D Sharp electric guitar and interested in learning to play electric guitar better. I love recording technology, and have a home studio I love to play in. I am like a mad scientist!

One of my all-time favourite records from you is Temporary Road; it is truly a wonderful set of songs
I think the sound on there is all very well done, Steve Miller was the engineer and I was most lucky to have all those special people perform with me on the record.

What are your immediate plans?
I have a gig tonight and then its over to the mid-west to play some shows with Antje Duvekot, who is one of my favourite of the next generation of songwriters. So I am looking forward to that.


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