Life Journey:
A Conversation with John Gorka

By Mike Ragogna,.................. March 31, 2014

  Mike Ragogna: John, it is a pleasure. I have always wanted to have an interview with you. Your new album Bright Side Of Down features some label mates including Michael Johnson on the first track. What went into this project?
  John Gorka: I think the approach was a little different from other albums I've done. Probably one of the things that makes it different from the others is that instead of trying to do it all at once or with deadlines in mind I wanted to do it a little bit at a time, mainly building around my vocal and guitar performances and then trying to see how the songs and performances held up over time. I was just kind of living with them for a while so that I could hear them with some kind of objectivity, like a listener who wasn't involved in the process.
  MR: A lot of artists' work ethic while constructing an album comes from not only set deadlines but also because it's just traditionally the way it's done, in one scheduled run. But there's something to be said for savoring the material and letting it grow and letting you grow along with it, because there will be changes that may come down the pike affecting perspective, right?
  JG: Right. There were lines that I wondered about going into it and then as I listened to them down the line I said, "Okay, yeah, that does need to be changed." I wanted to do it like the last one, which was also built around the vocal and guitar performances, because that's how people see me most of the time, always solo. I wanted that to come through the recording. This was the longest time it ever took me to make a record. I'm happy with how it turned out, but I don't know if that's the way it will be next time. One of the things about this group of songs, I wanted to have it really reflect the vocal and guitar performances because I can play with other people but often it'll change what I do. Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes that's not, so to find my zone on the song and build around that was kind of the goal, but things change. You go in with one idea and it changes along the way.

MR: This is your fifth album working with Rob Genadek.

JG: That sounds about right, yeah.  

Rob Gebadek
  MR: And you've included many of the same musicians on this project. Even though this was a very introspective process, it's nice that you still remain loyal to your session players in addition to your bringing in new cats. What is it that they bring to the mix for you?
  JG: It's kind of fun, Rob always picks good people. He's never recommended somebody who's not right for the part. Bringing some of these guys in who I've worked with over time is a lot of fun because they bring so much to it, they have so many ideas and it's just a matter of choosing which ideas to use. They're really lots of fun to work with. Jeff Victor, the keyboard player, is hilarious. They're all great people, so it was kind of fun. I just know that these are great musicians and they can come up with any number of ideas. Beyond that it's kind of like "Make it up as you go along." There's never any real grand plan going into it other than what I said about having the vocal guitar be featured.
MR: Can you tell us what some of these guests, such as Michael Johnson, added to the project?

  JG: I've gotten to work with Michael and travel with him. I was a fan, I got his record at a used record store when I was in college or shortly after college, I got his album called There Is A Breeze. I've been a fan ever since then and when I got to see him play live, he's just a phenomenal guitar player as well as a great singer and he's got great, great stories. So just having these people, they bring all of their talent and experience to the studio. It was kind of a delightful thing to work with them. Some of the others, like Claudia Schmidt, I was glad we had this song for. The percussion was made up of Rob, who's a drummer as well as an engineer and producer, and he made sounds hitting various parts of his body as well as tapping his foot on the floor to make kind of a groove that everything played to. We had this long fade at the end and I wondered what to do with that. Claudia came in and sang three parts one after the other and then she did a free vocal at the end and it was really great to see. I knew she was capable of doing that because she's so talented, but she even exceeded my hopes with her performance on that one. I'm glad to have these people on there. My hope is that maybe some of these people have not heard Claudia before so they could now check out her music.
  MR: It must great to be part of a musical community.
  JG: Yeah, I was glad to have all of these mainly Red House people; the players and singers are all great. They're maybe not celebrity cameo appearances but they're still some of the best people I could hope for. I was glad to have so many Red House people on there, like Amilia Spicer singing on a Bill Morrissey song because she's a good friend of Bill's, and having Antje Duvekot sing on the last song. Again, she came up with parts that I couldn't believe. She just sang it to her computer at home and she sent along what she had come up with and I was knocked out by it. But she couldn't figure out how to get those parts out of her computer so she did go to a studio and re-did those. It's a remarkable vocal arrangement, what she came up with.
  MR: Since 1987 with your I Know project, you've had a very prolific relationship with Red House. You went to Windham Hill High Street for a while, but all of your material is at those two labels. When you look at this body of work, what do you think as far as John Gorka's career? Are you on target with where you wanted and now want to be?
  JG: My goal, I guess, was to be able to make music and discover the music that was inside me. If I could do that for a living, that was my goal. Beyond that, I've not really thought that much about it. I'm grateful that I get to do music and I get to make records and travel around and people show up. That's a lot of fun and it's more fun now than it was in the beginning. But beyond that I'm not sure. Mainly I just wanted to play, and my goal now is to get kids through college and I can play as long as I'm healthy. I guess those are my short- and long-term goals.
  MR: What is your advice for new artists?

JG: I was focused on my songs and the live show, but I'm kind of learning from new artists how they do it. It's harder now. With Red House and Windham Hill, I was able to reach a large group of people all at the same time, so I was able to have a base to build on. For new people... Some people are great at doing the online YouTube videos and stuff like that. Antje Duvekot is one of those people. She's kind of a next generation after me, and she's able to do YouTube videos, she recently did an animation where she drew all of the backgrounds and created this very low-tech animation using her iPhone. The track that she recorded sounded like a record and she sang that on GarageBand through her computer. So I think the main thing is to concentrate on good material. My general philosophy is high standards, low overhead, realistic expectations. So don't put out a record until you feel like you've done the best you could.  
Antje Duvekot

Don't put out stuff just to put it out. There's a line in Suze Rotolo's book about Greenwich Village growing up in the late fifties and early sixties; she was Bob Dylan's girlfriend for a while, she was on the cover of the Freewheelin' album, she said, "The difference between then and now is we had something to say, not something to sell." I thought that was great. The main thing is to have something to say first and then do your best to make it as easy as possible for the world to find you. There's a lot you can do on the internet now. I was just reading a story in a guitar magazine about an acoustic guitarist who put up YouTube videos and became very well-known, so I think that would be a good way to go. Other than that, for the acoustic singer-songwriter a few of these festivals have emerging artist showcases and contests. The Kerrville Folk Festival has that, in Kerrville, Texas, the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival has that in Colorado, the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in New York State, there are all these places you can send stuff to and then if they like it you can come and play those songs. Other than that, the thing is it's a very different world from when I started, there were record companies and record stores and ways of reaching a large block of people in a short amount of time. Now everything's very fragmented and it's difficult to get known. You can make a lot of music on your own, you can make records and potentially reach a huge number of people, but since everything is kind of fragmented and compartmentalized it's difficult to reach that critical mass of people. That's where record companies still have a role. Red House still does what they do better than I could ever do, so I'm glad to be able to work with people who care about the music and know how to get the word out.

  MR: I'm especially fond of "Holed-Up Mason City" because it's the story of you driving through Iowa--I'm in Iowa right now, so I get the story. So did it actually happen, you getting blinded by the snow here?

  JG: Oh yeah, yeah! I had rented a minivan because my daughter was having a tubing party with a bunch of her friends because we had two vehicles and one of them wasn't large enough to transport all the girls who were coming. So the plan was when I went to drop my batch of girls with their parents I would then begin to drive towards Iowa because there was a storm coming on. It turns out that the storm started that night. I was able to get to southern Minnesota but it was already terrible, it was icing over the windshield, so it was really difficult to see. On the day of the show, I stopped north of Des Moines because I wanted to drive partly back after the show. I was able to get to the show and it snowed and snowed all of that time. When I came out they asked, "Where are you staying?" I was about twenty or thirty minutes north of Des Moines and they said, "Oh, you'll never make it. You'll end up on the side of the road in a snow drift." So I took their advice and ended up getting a second hotel room and in the morning I was able to get back to my first one to get all of my stuff and head home. That's when it really started. It had become more of a ground blizzard and the snow was heading out of the west. It was a wicked wind, and like in the song I found out that the van I rented had no snow tires, they were all-weather tires, so I'm moving sideways seeing people flying past me on the left, so I pulled over to the rumble strip with my flashers on and eventually I thought, "This is not going well." So I was able to get off the interstate and headed towards what I thought was a town. Some of the roads I took I had to turn back because they were drifted over. Five foot drifts covering the roads. Eventually, I made it to Mason City. I ended up staying there and then I realized that that was the airport that Buddy Holly and his friends had flown out of in 1959. That's how he ended up in the song. There is no Big Bopper diner in Mason City, but I did find out later that there is a Big Bopper diner in Solvang, California. Eventually I was able to make it home. It was kind of funny because there was still ice on the road, but also a blue sky by then. The blue on the sky was reflected on the ice on the road, so that's where the "ice blue highway" line comes from. It's a pretty scary ride.
  MR: I also wanted to mention another highlight of the album was "Don't Judge A Life," your tribute to Bill Morrissey.
JG: Yeah, I was at a folk festival and we had just done a set of Jack Hardy's music...he had passed away March of 2011. I sang at that and his kids were there and his ex-wife, so I was glad to be a part of it because Jack was somebody who encouraged me when I needed encouragement the most. The next day, I got a call from a friend telling me that Bill Morrissey had died, so I started it right after that. Since then, that song also applies to other people that have passed, so I'm glad to have that on the record.  

Bill Morrissey

  MR: After all these years, you've got this reputation for being the songwriter's songwriter. So where do you go from here? Do you just keep getting better and better or something?
  JG: I guess it's one song at a time. When I forget how much work went into this record I'll start the next one. I'm thinking maybe May. I've got some other songs I'd like to record. There's some from this project that didn't make it onto the record. I liked them well enough, but they didn't go together as well as this batch seemed to go together. One of the things I've been doing lately, instead of thinking I had to write a song for the universe I think about one place and one room, one group of people, one moment in time and have a song for that moment. Then if I can do something with that it seems like it makes it easier to come up with something new. I don't feel that it has to be for everyone and forever. It seems to free the process. If I can play with that a little bit to make it go beyond that room and that moment of time then I'll go about that, but that's kind of my current approach to new songs.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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New York-born Mike Ragogna (pronounced ruh-go-nyuh) was signed at 15 as a songwriter by producers Terry Cashman & Tommy West (Jim Croce, Dion, Mary Travers) who additionally developed him as a recording artist for their label, Lifesong Records. His first release came in 1975, a cover of his original “Peter Stays and Spider-Man Goes” from the 1975 album Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Superhero (featuring Crack The Sky and Stan Lee), an early “indie” hit at college stations. After writing and recording songs for Tippi Hedren’s international hit movie Roar, he teamed with producer Terrence P. Minogue to record his debut album in 1982, Safari in America. In 1984, Ragogna also wrote jingles for Workbench, Quincy’s Steakhouse, Showtime, and he supplied the Joey Ramone-esque voice for the mega-popular MTV/Saturday Night Live commercial for Atari's video game Pole Position.

Ragogna’s album The Almost Brothers (recorded Everlys/Simon & Garfunkel-style with vocalist Steve Mosto) was released in 1985 on MTM -- Mary Tyler Moore's Nashville-based record company that was distributed through Capitol Records -- containing four charting singles. Label-mates Girls Next Door recorded Mike’s first big hit as a songwriter, “Slow Boat to China,” that was a Billboard Country Top Ten and one of 1986’s top-selling country singles. It also was the first major hit for MTM’s publishing division, Uncle Artie Music, and received an ASCAP award honoring it as one of the most frequently-played country singles of that year.

Mike Ragogna and Steve Mosto then recorded and performed as the groups Body Politic and Bone People before moving on to solo careers. Since 1999, Mike has released a series of solo albums including Minefield Diaries, Writer’s Block, Valentine’s Day, and Summerland that featured "Home," a duet with the late, legendary vocalist Dobie Gray. In 2009, Ragogna released a remixed retrospective of his last four albums titled Greatest Hits, that title being a wiseguy nod to his days as a record business executive. Ragogna’s new box set, The End of the Line: 1975-2013, is a career spanning, four-disc box set that not only includes his best recordings but also those by artists who have recorded his material.

Over a 16-year period, Ragogna also performed A&R duties for various record labels, including EMI-Capitol, Universal, BMG, and Razor & Tie, where he produced and oversaw catalog compilations and reissues for many acts. Additionally, he has supplied the teacher's voice for hundreds of courses for the online school, Universal Class, and currently, he is a radio personality on KRUU, the Midwest’s only solar-powered station, TV and online host of Fairfield 2.0 and Fairfield 3.0 in addition to being a contributor to The Huffington Post. .


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