Mr. Dadís Adventure

Singer-Songwriter John Gorka Adjusts to Happiness
By Benjy Eisen

October 25 - October 31,
2001 / Vol. 10, Ed. 43




When John Gorka went back into the studio for his latest album, he decided to shake things up a little. Called "the preeminent male singer-songwriter of the New Folk movement" by Rolling Stone magazine, Gorka has achieved a level of success and comfort in his career that afforded him certain luxuries, such as name recognition and a loyal fan base. As he prepared to cut his ninth record, he didnít want "certain luxuries" to turn into the certain stagnation thatís afflicted so many other once-successful singer-songwriters.

"I think maybe knowing what the process is going to be like kind of ruins the adventure," Gorka said, speaking from his Minneapolis home. "I wanted to go into the studio and not know how it would turn out, and not know if it would succeed or fail, and I wanted to do it with people who had a similar sense of adventure and whose opinion I liked." The like-minded people turned out to be a considerable group in their own right: Ani DiFranco, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Larkin, Lucy Kaplansky, and others.

Released earlier this year, The Company You Keep has been widely reviewed as the best John Gorka album in years. If itís a thematic contrast from the broken-hearted bitterness of some of his earlier work, itís also a natural evolution. After all, Gorka is no longer broken-hearted and bitter. "I come up with a batch of songs and I just try to treat them right," he said. "I donít necessarily know what they should sound like going into the recording. I know how they should feel, and that changes with time, and my point of view has changed over timeÖ"

Gorkaís first noticeable mark on what was then being called the New Folk movement came in 1992 with his second album, Land Of The Bottom Line. That disc told tales of a man who lived (and stood) by himself, singing songs with just poetry and an acoustic guitar. Despite guests such as Colvin, Gorkaís backing band was seemingly an afterthought Ė perhaps a luxury afforded by the studio or being signed to a record label. The rhythm section was intentionally non-descript, there to keep time and little more. What stood out was the emotional appeal of the lyrics, delivered with Gorkaís rueful baritone.

This was a contemporary take on traditional folk music, as pioneered in the 1930s by men like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. But if Guthrieís songs were meant as a way to heal, Gorkaís songs were meant to expose the wounds. And that was what was so great about them Ė their sentiments reverberated strongly with the emotionally wounded. Reaching a certain level of success from singing them, however, removed Gorka from the situations he described. He was no longer broke. He found love. And now heís living a relatively comfortable life with few complaints Ė and it shows in the music heís making.

The Company You Keep is a disc filled with healthy, almost uplifting, songs, layered with subtle instrumentation and playful harmonies. Gorkaís lyrics are still often introspective and usually clever, but theyíre rarely bitter, except perhaps in recollection. These are living room songs; songs of a family man, a New Folk troubadour who has been domesticated.

Itís affected his approach to touring as well. Where Gorka used to average as many as 150 shows a year, heís now down to half that, going on four show mini-tours before returning to his home, where heís father of two. On the road heís "John Gorka." At home, heís just dad. And the company he keeps? "Mostly little kids these days," he says. "Itís a constant juggling act, but since there are fewer shows I really look forward to them. Ö Itís hard to leave home now, but I still love to play."

The shows are different now than they were when he was just starting out, living in the basement of Godfry Daniels, a coffeehouse in Bethlehem, Penn., opening up for acts who were passing through. "Instead of trying to find an audience and get to know an audience, itís like thereís this group of songs I have in common with the audience now," he said. "In the kind of music I do, I have to be reaching new audiences all the time even to maintain the level Iím at, so thatís kind of a never-ending process. But Ö I feel like the audience, for the most part, knows me Ö theyíre not trying to get to know me.

" In making each night count, and in keeping with the albumís attitude of seeking new adventure, Gorka walks onstage knowing the first song heís going to play Ė and thatís about it. He hasnít written a set list in years and he takes requests throughout the show. "Sometimes people will call out a song and itís almost in the way that they call it out Ė itís not that theyíre the loudest voice, but they call it out and it sounds like they really need to hear that song. And sometimes Ö the songs that people suggest are better than the songs that I was thinking about doing."

Still, in picking out the songs one by one he tries to play whatís right for the particular show; not every song can make the cut. Then there are his songs that people request that he canít do simply because he canít remember them. There was a guy in Seattle, he remembers, who was calling out the same song for the second consecutive night. During the set break, Gorka tried to write down the lyrics, but couldnít pull it off.

Itís a rare and honest approach to performing. That same integrity may also be the secret to Gorkaís longevity. It dates back to when he was working as the MC at Godfry Daniels, seeing all the acts pass through who were selling records out of the backs of their cars. "They were doing exactly the type of music that they wanted to do and they didnít have to compromise," he said. "It was very inspiring..."

So while Gorka is touring in support of the new album, when he plays the new songs live it isnít out of some record-company-conceived notion that it will push product.

"Iíve just been enjoying doing a bunch of the new ones from the new record; they seem to get along well with the older songs," he said. "I donít always know which ones are going to find a home out there and find a place in peopleís lives, and itís a concert, so I try to take my cues from (the audience). Maybe I can do a new song for more experienced audiences or older audiences that have liked my earlier records, and get them to look at it in a new way if it didnít catch their ear from listening to the recordÖ

"I try to be real, be a human, rather than being Mr. Showbiz with a canned show or a slick show. I just try to be present in the moment for that particular audience alone because that may be the only time that they ever see me."