at Ottawa's Great Canadian Theatre Company, singer-songwriter John Gorka
is offering up deep thoughts on the state of America. He's deeply disappointed
by the political quagmire in which the country currently sits. He's
even more dismayed by the nation's lack of leadership. It's a strange
state of mind for a performer who only minutes before entertained 350
people with his unique blend of wit, humor and melancholy—all rolled
up into confessional lyrics anyone can relate to.
a quick look into Gorka's background reveals something about his fascination
with his country's state of affairs. In 1976, the 37-year-old New Jersey
native studied American history and philosophy at Moravian College in
Bethlehem, PA. Before completing his studies, he changed his life's
focus from academia to music. It all started that same year at a local
coffeehouse called Godfrey Daniels. It was there that he honed his craft
as a singer-songwriter, exploring the middle ground between the political
and the personal.
deep baritone and poignant songs soon captured the attention of many
of his contemporaries including Suzanne Vega, Christine Lavin, Bill
Morrisey and Shawn Colvin. Various folk accolades followed and Gorka
soon found himself courted by several record labels. To date, he's released
five albums: I Know, Land of the Bottom Line, Jack's Crows, Temporary
Road and Out of the Valley.
interview was conducted in support of 1992's Jack's Crows—arguably his
breakthrough album in terms of entering the mass public's consciousness.
His energy may have been drained after his two-hour performance, but
his words were alive with a wealth of intrigue and intensity.
inject a great deal of humor into your performances. I can't believe
I took some of your songs as seriously as I did when I first heard them
Well, some of them are serious, and on a record it's a different kind
of thing. Songs in different positions on a playlist or in different
combinations accentuate different things. Like the song "I Saw a Stranger
With Your Hair" works as a transitional song, from going from a funny
song to something more serious, because it has some laughs in it. Or,
sometimes it gets a laugh at the beginning, with the line "I saw a stranger
with your hair/tried to make her give it back," but by the end of the
song there is no laughing. Some things it's very difficult to get humor
across on to a record. That's why I a lot of times I do songs in a live
performance that don't ever make it onto a record. It's just real hard
to get it, there's just something in the recorded form.
you ever find that range of interpretation or misinterpretation limiting
Well in some ways it's limiting, in other ways it brings songs to life
that don't go over too well. I remember Leo Kottke saying there was
a song he liked but he stopped playing it in concert because it never
got any response. But it was a great song on the record. It was a song
I'd learned because I was talking to him about it. It was a song called
"Sonora's Death Row"—one of my all-time favorite cowboy songs. It was
on.. I forget the name of the album—Burnt Lips or something like that.
I saw him at this festival outside of Denver last summer and we started
talking about that song, and he asked me if I would do it because I
told him I used to perform it. There was a guy who used to ask for it
every night where I played, the owner used to ask for it every night.
But he asked me to do it because he doesn't do it anymore and he'd like
to hear me do it. So I quickly wrote the first line of every verse and
put it on my notebook, and I was able to do it at the festival later
that morning. That was a thrill, to do a song that I learned from a
record, and to have the guy who recorded it ask me to do it.
did Kottke think of your performance?
He liked it. He's a great guy, really very funny.
Crows is just starting to get off the ground in Canada. But I understand
it's really taken off in the States.
The record company's happy, and it's gotten more attention than anything
I've done before. Partly because of the production, I think, it's a
good record, and partly because I did a video of the "Houses in the
Field" song that ended up being played on Country Music Television.
It was in heavy rotation. It's owned by The Nashville Network but it's
geared towards a younger audience. Like I said before on stage, things
have gone better than I ever expected them to, so it's like, "Well,
I'll just keep doing it." I think Jack's Crows is the best record as
reviewers seem preoccupied with your last album Land Of The Bottom Line.
They often refer to it as a superior effort.
Yeah, that kind of thing is silly because it's one of those things that
depends on where a person is emotionally or what they're thinking about.
But Land of the Bottom Line, if you're in a low groove, that's perfect.
But if you're not, it's not perfect. I think the songs are all real
good, but I think it's moodier. Jack's Crows is a more listenable album
if you're not depressed. I just try not to repeat myself, try not to
make the same record. This next one is going to be different, sound
different. There's an improvement on each of the records. On the second
one I had better sound quality I think than on the first one.
voice has improved markedly since your first album.
Yeah, I think the singing's a lot better on the second one. I think
the third one has a lot more life to it in the production, just better
musicians and stuff. People like Michael Manring. It was fun making
Jack's Crows. It was the most fun I've ever had recording because I
could play and sing at the same time, which I hadn't done before. Technically
you can get a better sound a lot of times if you do the vocal and guitar
separately, so there's no leakage or anything like that from anything
else, no phase cancellations and stuff like that. So this one, Jack's
Crows I was able to play and sing at the same time. It was just going
to be an experiment to see if it would work recording this way—playing
live, playing with other people at the same time. Originally, we were
going to try and record four songs, maybe five songs in the five day
period. We ended up recording ten. Then we went back for another three
days and recorded another three. The recording all in all took two weeks,
I think, whereas the other ones before it had taken months. Months and
idea was it to record that way?
Dawn Atkinson's. When she heard "Semper Fi," that was like her favorite
song when I sent her the demos. She's the one that wrote the string
arrangement—she thought of it immediately. I'm mainly a songwriter.
Making records is still, like I said in the liner notes—I feel like
a newcomer, even though it's my third record. I don't work in the studio
all the time, I make my living traveling and playing. I feel most at
home writing songs, that's what I think I do best. Everything else I'm
got a particular view of the United States in all of your work.
Yeah, yeah, and I think it's going to get a little bit clearer, too.
It seems like I started to become more political in my thinking when
I saw Dan Quayle at the Republican Convention in 1988, and I said "Boy,
this guy's a moron!" I just couldn't believe it, this guy was going
to be running for vice-president. Something was wrong—something is definitely
wrong here. What happened to the statesmen that used to have the ability
to inspire people when they made speeches and had a command of the language
- unlike me. [laughs] People who were really brilliant men and inspiring
leaders—and now we have these empty-headed liars.
you sure empty-headed liars are a new breed in politics?
That's what I'm wondering, if it's a new thing or if it's finally dawning
on me that it's always been this way. A friend of mine who used to be
in a band called the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band with me in college and who
is a philosophy professor said, "That's the way it's been since the
time of Socrates." It's the same thing, so maybe I'm just waking up
to that fact. Maybe our standards have slipped a whole lot. That's the
way I feel about the last twelve years in the United States. I was expecting
people to say something that moved me, you know, and there was just
all these really lame comments. I think we once had people who were
at least better speakers.
Yeah, maybe better liars. John Kennedy was an inspiring speaker, and
we don't hear anything like that anymore. Charisma is a dangerous thing
in America politics—you get shot for it. [laughs]
referred to yourself as a dark optimist. Can you expand on that?
Well, I guess I've always had faith in myself that things would work
out. But whenever a new situation presents itself, I look at all the
possible things that could go wrong first before I can enjoy any of
the good things. So I think that's why I'm a dark optimist. Because
like I'm going to be going on my first tour of Europe next month—Italy,
Holland, and a little bit Germany. There is some interest there. I know
there was quite a bit in Amsterdam and around that area in Holland.
So I'm thinking of all the possible things, like some of the cities
I'm going to I've just heard terrible things about—like Naples I hear
is terrible. That's where my grandparents are from on one side of the
family. So I'd like to go there and see, but I'm just trying to think,
"Well, I won't bring a guitar I really care about," or that kind of
thing. I've been ripped off enough that I don't want to lose anything
I really care about. Like this one guitar got stolen: I got it in January
of last year and it was stolen in May. It was in a trunk of a car with
all my stuff in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I went to a diner—it wasn't
my car, I was getting a ride—and we stopped at a diner because I was
hungry. Twenty minutes later we came out and not only was my stuff gone
but the whole car was gone. But it turned up in a pawn shop, pawned
for sixty dollars. The promoter of the festival where I played called
around to all the pawn shops and they found it. It's a miracle. I have
another song from the "Crime and Punishment" series now about that.
I've recorded it but I don't know if I'm going to use it.
that the same incident in which you lost your songbooks?
Yeah, that really hurt. There was so much like my telephone book that
I'd had numbers in for over ten years or something like that. I had
all those pieces of my life that I can't retrieve, are gone. Just the
feeling of violation. A lot of that stuff, like money, is replaceable,
but the songbooks and stuff like that I just felt really surprised at
how much it affected me, even though it was just stuff like a driver's
license. I had to get all that kind of stuff done, credit cards stopped.
So I have a song about that called "Grand Larceny."
of your new tunes have great song titles. "Gravyland" was one of the
more memorable ones.
That may be the title song on the new record. I was also thinking about
calling the record "Rules of Behavior." That's because the political
situation is really interesting to me. I think it depends on how bad
the economy gets. Will people start waking up? There's a political satirist
named Barry Crimmins who's great. He's got a line, "Empty pockets open
ears." When people start feeling it economically, they tend to wake
up politically. So hopefully that will happen. But it just seems so
horrible. It just seems like a big lie that we're getting. It seems
overwhelming, it seems like there's nothing that you can do. But there
is. I think I have faith in people, that they will eventually wake up
and change things. I think Lincoln was right—you can't fool all of the
people all of the time, forever.
as the saying goes, "the bigger the lie, the easier it is to believe."
That whole thing—it's gotta be a big lie, but it has to be repeated,
it has to be repeated often enough and then it will be believed. I think
that's the Republican way.
been a lot of talk about the "folk renaissance" that's currently happening.
Do you think there's been a genuine shift in what people are listening
to right now?
I think there's a lot of interest in acoustic music. That's always been
close to folk music. I think what we have now is maybe a reappearance
or reemergence or renaissance of the singer-songwriter. It's not so
much so closely tied to the traditional music that the sixties folk
boom was. A lot of that was traditional songs done in a trio or in a
quartet by guys with short haircuts. So it's different now, we have
longer hair and it's more of a songwriter thing. I think there will
always be this kind of music. It will always be there, and then from
time to time someone will emerge and then people will say it's a revival.
But I think there's a lot of real quality—people out there who are getting
a chance to make records. Because I think these people have always been
around, but it's like the record companies say, "Oh, maybe we could
sell some records by people like this."
been doing some work with Patty Larkin lately. How did you guys hook
We're booked by the same agency, but we met a long time ago in Boston
at a record signing thing. That was before I had any records, but they
invited me so I went. Nanci Griffith and Tracy Chapman were there—but
I don't think Patty had even done anything for _Fast Folk at that point.
But I liked her sneakers. I think we were admiring each other's footwear
or something like that. But I always liked her, and that was even before
I heard her music or anything. Patty's somebody whose grown amazingly.
Her songwriting has just really blossomed. It's great and I'm inspired
to see that happen. She's a great guitar player and a great performer.
So it's really neat—these are the people I'm inspired by most. People
I get to do shows with or friends...getting to know them as people as
well as musicians or artists. It's really inspiring, people like Patty.
I think Greg Brown's great too. I think he's a genius. An amazing songwriter.
Let's see...there's so many and I can't think of any now. Greg Brown's
more established in the States. There's a woman, a great singer—Patty
Griffin. I don't know if she's going to have a record or she may have
one in the not too distant future. There's a duo called The Story who
are really good, really good singers. Real nice, intricate harmonies
and interesting lyrics.
for the interview John. You've got an interesting perspective on the
world around you.
I never know what I'm going to say. The interview process is interesting
for me, because it makes me think about things I have vague feelings
about, things I haven't put into words before. I just feel a certain
way about something. Yeah, it makes me think and put into words what
I have feelings about. It's interesting—the political thing—that's the
thing I've been wondering: Is this the way it's always been and I'm
just waking up? Or have things really gotten worse? It seems like the
pendulum has swung too far to the right and it's bordering on fascism.
I've got a song, it'll be on the new album, it's called "Brown Shirts"
It's kind of about that. Especially when I heard George Bush, after
the war, talk about the New World Order. When I heard that, I said,
"That sounds vaguely fascist." So I read a biography of Hitler, and
there was one passage there saying that Hitler read this pamphlet and
got involved in this group. It was kind of a discussion group that was
like a forerunner of the Nazi party, and they had this pamphlet they
had printed up with their ideas. Two of the phrases that captured his
attention, one was "National Socialism" and the other one was "New World
Order." So there I was able to find a confirmation of that feeling I
had before that it was a fascist kind of thing. I don't even know if
they were aware of that. I think that's a danger in all people, where
they think their way of ordering the world is the right way, and so
whatever means, whatever it takes to get that order is the right way,
and is justified. You can justify anything—the ends justify the means.
And the United States being the policeman of the world scares me. Especially
when I hear more about that One World government. If it's a One World
government and it's a bad government, that's worse than having communism
and totalitarianism and our form of democracy. It's scary. Especially
the way CNN and the way the media has been manipulated and watered down,
like USA Today, where there's no depth at all.
seems like the world has gotten so complicated that people want to be
told something to make them feel better because facing the truth is
so overwhelming that they don't want to deal with it. So they'll accept
something that's an oversimplification or a complete lie just because
they can pay attention to their own lives. It's great to see all of
the reaction to the JFK movie. I think it's great. I've read a lot of
those books and it kind of fits in with some of the things that are
going on now with Bush and the CIA Just that, what kind of people can
these men be and call themselves patriots and then lie to the people
they are supposed to be representing? I don't understand that. I would
like to believe in the President—that if he has to lie he was doing
it for national security or for a good reason that's too complicated
to go into. But that's not what's happening, they're lying to protect
themselves, and to protect their position, and to protect their power.
Not for anyone else's good but their own. And that's really frightening.
I'd like to have leaders we can believe in. But maybe that's naive.
if history is any indication...
Yeah, I look around and travel around and meet the people who make up
a small part of the world, and I'm amazed at how much talent there is
out there. Not just music or art but just the kind of minds that are
out there. But if you look to the government for leadership, there's
nothing there. It's a total vacuum. They're weathervanes, not leaders,
that blow whichever way the wind goes, whichever wind is strongest.
Like Bush said, he'll do whatever it takes to get elected.
they drag you away, let's talk footwear.
My footwear. I think it's an important thing, footwear is very important.
So I believe in shoes with arch supports—strong arches. Yeah, I believe
in shoes with strong arches, good laces, and a healthy shine.
used to be a red Converse high-top person.
That's right. The arch supports weren't good enough, these are much
better. These are K-Mart work shoes. These have real good arch supports.
custom red laces.
Yeah, the original laces I didn't like, but I got these the same day
as the laces, same store, so they went together pretty well. Yeah, I
figure if you take care of your feet, they'll take care of you.
Thanks To Roger Steiner for transcription assistance.
Great Canadian Theatre Company.