John Gorka 1998 interview by Kate Rice

Photo Jim Mueller
Photo Jim Mueller

(originally published in The Excuse #5)

Let me preface this little chat by saying two things. First, I finally took a tape recorder to an interview. And second, BACKGROUND NOISE! Transcribing this interview was kind of like playing connect-the-dots through shattered lenses. After many painstaking hours, I was finally able to make sense of one of my favorite moments from the Lyons Folks Festival speaking with singer/songwriter John Gorka. In the midst of a warm summer evening, perched on a fallen log, he was gracious enough to share a few words with me, from the meaning behind some of his songs to his fast food restaurant of choice. Enjoy.

Excuse: First of all, where are you from, and where are you living?
John Gorka: I'm from New Jersey. I'm from Colonia.

E: As the song states.
J.G.: Yeah. Exactly. C-O-L-O-N-I-A. Now I live in Minnesota. (Notes interviewer's pen not working, offers one of his own.)

E: (Scratching pen across the paper a few times, explaining,) it's just the suntan lotion on the leg thing going on. (Way to go, Slick.)
J.G.: (Waits patiently.)

E: (Recovering.) How often have you come to Lyons? I know you're one of the headliners.
J.G.: I've done this . . . I'm trying to remember. This is maybe my fourth time? I was here at this site two years ago, and I think I might have been at two of the others at Estes Park.

E: Wow. (Nice, deep statement.)
J.G.: Yeah. It's fun. I'm glad they have me back. It's a good lineup.

E: Is this something you plan on coming back for as long as you're asked?
J.G.: Yeah. If they ask me, I'll come. It's a great festival. It's a really great lineup of people. Last time I was here, I came in on a Sunday and played on a Sunday, so I wasn't able to hang out with any of the people. I'm glad that I was here and had Friday and Saturday off to hang out . . . it's been a lot of fun.

E: I know that you have a lot of people you hang with that are singing here. I hear announcements like "John Gorka will be here with his friends Cliff [Eberhardt] and Patty [Larkin]", so I won't ask you a favorite songperson. What are some of your favorite songs of the people who are here?
J.G.: A particular song?

E: Yeah, like, "Patty, play that song," or . . .?
J.G.: I love Patty's song "I Told Him That My Dog Wouldn't Run."

E: Why is that?
J.G.: That's a beautiful song. I think it's just a great . . . story song . . . I think she's just . . . she's great.
It's great watching to see people I was a fan of before, and now they're friends of mine, to see them grow as performers and artists. It's really great. It's really an inspiring thing.

E: Do you think there are any particular performers out there who are terribly underrated?
J.G.: It was fun to see Dee Carstenson -- she's the winner of the [New Folk Showcase] -- I was really impressed by her. I got to see her performance this afternoon . . . it was just great. I'm going to leave this feeling charged up, getting to hear a lot of great music.

E: So if they could name a holiday after a singer, who would it have to be? Who deserves their own holiday? Besides you, of course!
J.G.: (Stammers). Oh, I don't deserve . . . let's see. (Thinks). I'd say Tom Waits deserves his own holiday.

E: (Exclamation of surprise and admiration). Sorry! I don't mean to totally fall in love with you -- I promised my boss I wouldn't embarrass him and ask you to marry me, but, (J.G. laughs) that statement just about put me over the edge! All the way up to Lyons we had Tom Waits playing, so I'd have to agree on that! I'm pretty surprised, because Tom has a very specific style that . . . (Struggles to state contrast) . . . your music is mellow, and his is not! It's an odd contrast.
J.G.: Oh, yeah. He's one of my favorites. He deserves his own holiday.

E: Now I'm flustered. What do I ask next? That was the big push over the edge! I have to say, I am such a fan of yours.
J.G.: (Smiles appreciatively).

E: I think the first song I heard was "I Saw A Stranger With Your Hair," and I was . . . wow. It was the whole thing -- the way the song was written, your voice. Your voice is just . . . (Makes facial expression of adulation).
J.G.: (Modestly). Thanks a lot.

E: So now in the article I'll have to write "interviewer rolls eyes and makes fool of self!"
J.G.: (Laughs).

E: What is the most heartfelt song you think you've ever written? What came to you and you put it out there . . .?
J.G.: "I Saw A Stranger With Your Hair" is definitely one of them. "Love Is Our Cross To Bear."

E: Another of my favorites.
J.G.: Several of the other ones. There's a song for my mom on the new record. There's a few other ones that don't come to mind right now.

E: I have not yet heard your new record, but I couldn't even pick a favorite of your albums.
J.G.: Thanks.

E: With other artists, I can say "listen to this," but with my friends I just have to say whatever is out there (of J.G.), buy it!
J.G.: That's nice. Thanks.

E: Another song I wanted to ask you about is "Houses In The Fields." That came to me one day. I was out driving with my family, and I decided I don't want to build a house, I want to renovate! That song really spoke to me. Was it like that for you writing it? Just driving along and . . . ?
J.G.: In the area where I grew up, in New Jersey, seeing the woods I used to play in turn into . . . housing developments. Seeing in Pennsylvania one of my favorite stretches of road was just torn up on both sides, and seeing that turn into housing developments. I think that both of these things kind of brought it on."

E: There's a place in Wyoming that is absolutely gorgeous, and they're putting the hugest housing development with the most obnoxious golf course! A "we're gonna be elbowing each other getting out of bed" kind of place. Every time I drive out there, I think of your song.
J.G.: I'm not against people having houses and against development in itself, but . . . when the landscape is not taken into account -- these are not things that are necessarily going to cost the developers. It'll just take maybe some more planning, and I think in the end it would make . . . if they planned with some of these things in mind, that the development would end up being more valuable. So I'm not against that in itself, but to see beautiful places just turn into ugly, ugly developments is kind of hard to take.

E: Have you been to Wyoming touring?
J.G.: I've played at Jackson Hole a couple times. Last time I think was at the Mangy Moose in Jackson Hole. I think that's probably the only place in Wyoming I've played."

E: I wish we could do something about that! Lyons has been an opportunity for me I didn't really expect -- a kind of early Christmas present -- but if you came to play (in Wyoming) I would be the first in line!
J.G.: Well, thank you.

E: (Looking through notebook of questions), "Here's a good one! What is the strangest thing anyone has ever said to you as a compliment? Or I guess it could be an insult. You could go either way on that.
J.G.: Okay, probably the strangest question would be "Do you sign breasts?" (laughs).

E: (Laughing also), Should I even ask what you replied to that question?
J.G.: I said, "You're the first." She asked me to sign her program and I said, "Thanks for asking. You're the first!" I guess probably that's one of the stranger ones.

E: Have you ever been in an interview, or any one on one kind of situation where the person didn't have a sense of humor? You strike me as a guy, from listening to your music, who has a sense of humor.
J.G.: I try to.

E: Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like everything was just going over people's heads?
J.G.: Yeah, I think that's happened to me. I'm trying to think of something specific. (Frowns). It doesn't come to mind right now . . . yes, (laughs), but I can't think of anything specific.

E: Here's a good one. Taco Bell or McDonald's?
J.G.: Taco Bell, because I think the drive-up window stays open later.

E: You and my boss! That's all I've had to eat this entire trip! Fruit and Taco Bell!
J.G.: That's too bad! There's things at McDonald's I would eat, but a lot of times, after a show, the only place open is either a Subway or a Taco Bell.

E: Let me ask you -- what's the favorite phrase you've ever heard in a song?
J.G.: Favorite phrase? (Pauses). One that comes to mind is a line from a Jackson Browne song, "Running on Empty". He's got the line . . . I don't remember it now -- oh! "You've got to do what you can just to keep your love alive/and try not to confuse it withwhat we do to survive." That's the first one that comes to mind. It may not be my favorite; I like that one.

I spoke a few more minutes with John, but at this point in our conversation the Laura Love Band kicked into gear, and their fabulous music made it impossible for me to lift any more direct quotes from the tape. I can write, however, that my final question was designed to elicit any words of wisdom he wanted to send to The Excuse's loyal readers. With a retiring grin he replied, "I'm from New Jersey." Having come full circle, I can only add: thanks, John.