He’s From Jersey

Singer-songwriter defends low self-esteem

By Susan Van Dongen
Tuesday, November 25, 2008 2:39 PM EST

Copyright © 2008
Packet Publications Website

A native of Edison, John Gorka will return to
New Jersey to perform in Titusville, Dec. 6

Peruse the Web site of singer-songwriter John Gorka and you’ll find a long list of his favorite things. Among these is the knowledge that people who take naps live longer. And yet another favorite thing are the naps themselves.

In fact, speaking with him by phone from his place in Minnesota, he sounds a little sleepy. However, Mr. Gorka suggests that he might be able to rouse himself long enough to have a chat.

”Naps have become a necessity,” he says with a chuckle. He doesn’t elaborate whether this is because of a busy musician’s schedule, passing a milestone birthday or raising two young children. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three.

He must be doing something besides snoozing, though, playing more than 100 concerts a year. Mr. Gorka has taken his multi-faceted songs across the country, as well as into Europe where his tours led him through Italy, Belgium, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland and Germany.

Mr. Gorka will return to his native New Jersey to perform at the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing in Titusville, Dec. 6, part of the Concerts at the Crossing series.

Known for his witty, thoughtful and carefully crafted songs, Mr. Gorka might be most easily recognized for his wry, autobiographical “I’m From New Jersey.”

”I’m from New Jersey/ I don’t expect too much/If the world ended today/ I would adjust,” Mr. Gorka writes. There’s also a line about his mom being Italian, but no, they don’t belong to the Mafia.

”That’s kind of a fun song and when I do a show, I sing it just about every night,” he says. A casual listener might think he’s making fun of New Jersey’s self-esteem issues, since the Garden State is in the shadows of New York and Philadelphia. You grow up in New Jersey and you have low expectations, just like you know the exits on the Turnpike.

”Actually it’s an asset to not have a superiority complex — you don’t ever stop trying because of this,” Mr. Gorka says. “Not expecting too much is not a bad attitude, and if it doesn’t paralyze you, it helps you in the long run. You should have high standards and work hard at what you want to accomplish but don’t treat the reception of what you’re doing as a passing or failing grade. You may not see the results immediately, but you’re on the right path. You’ll still be doing the right thing.”

He grew up in Edison, then moved to Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley to attend Moravian College, remaining there until 1996, when he moved to Minnesota to be closer to his wife’s family. ”I gradually got used to seeing rivers that freeze and then people drive their trucks on them,” Mr. Gorka says.

In the Lehigh Valley, Mr. Gorka was a frequent performer at the venerable folk haven Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem. It was around 1987 when Red House Records caught wind of his talents and released his critically acclaimed first album, I Know. A couple of years later, he signed with High Street Records, recording five albums for the label over the next seven years. Reuniting with Red House Records, Mr. Gorka recently released After Yesterday.

In addition to roots musicians like John Prine, Steve Goodman, Tim Hardin and Eric Anderson, as well as the women of folk, such as Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, Mr. Gorka says Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers are a major influence. On his list of favorite things is Ms. Staples’ album We’ll Never Turn Back (ANTI- Records, 2007).

”I’ve been a fan of the Staple Singers since I got to see them at the Newport Folk Festival, probably sometime in the early ‘70s,” Mr. Gorka says. “I’m also a huge fan of the records Mavis did on her own and also with Aretha Franklin. Some of those gospel records have worked themselves into my songs.

”Another Staples connection was when I was at the American Music Festival in London and I was at the bar because I was jet lagged and couldn’t sleep,” he continues. “This old gent sat down beside me and it was Pops Staples — he couldn’t sleep either. What was funny was, the next morning, in the little hotel cafeteria, I was having breakfast and Pops came over and asked to join me. We had breakfast together and I asked him about his life and whatnot.”

The result was that Mr. Staples asked Mr. Gorka to send him any contemporary gospel songs that he might come up with. The singer-songwriter was working on “Good Noise,” and had the chorus but not the verses. Meeting Mr. Staples was his motivation to finish the song.

”I sent him the CD and thanked him,” Mr. Gorka says. “A few weeks later, the phone rang and my answering machine came on and it was Pops Staples. I picked it up and he said, ‘Oh, so you’re screening your calls?’ Then I could hear my song playing in the background. I just feel like the Staples Singers have a place in music, but also American history, as part of the civil rights movement. They are an essential family in American music.”

John Gorka will perform at the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing, 268 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville, Dec. 6, 8 p.m. Tickets cost $25; $5, children 14 and under. (609) 406-1424; http://concertsatthecrossing.com. John Gorka on the Web: www.johngorka.com