Sittin' In With John Gorka, Part One
By Shawn Henderson
I am a very fortunate guy when it comes to music. My life is surrounded by music, whether it is in my role as contributing editor to FolkWax magazine, my role as director of a non-profit music venue here in Maine or as host and co-producer of my own cable access music television show called "Stay Tuned."
I've been doing the TV show for about a year now and have had the pleasure to sit down with many great artists. However, sitting down in front of a camera talking to John Gorka was a little daunting. He has long inspired me with his music and lyrics and he doesn't do a whole lot of interviews. To be honest - I was worried that I wasn't up to the task.
I soon found that my worries were for naught. John is a tender and open man with a very shy, yet warm, personality. He is also very funny. I learned that the reason he doesn't do interviews that often is because he is more comfortable on stage performing than in a one-on-one discussion about himself. After setting up the studio, I called over to him, "John it's time for the interview" - he started walking over and said under his breath, "You mean the terrifying part" - and I knew exactly what he meant by that. So there we were - two people nervous about talking to one another, but willing to give it a try.
Transcribing the interview from the video was interesting. It was a friendly conversation and I worried that it would come across as kind of flat. I hope it translates well to the written page. If you like the format let us here at FolkWax know, and maybe I'll try it again sometime.
Shawn Henderson for Folkwax: Hi, John - glad to have you on the show. I know that this is not your favorite thing to do so I am very grateful that you agreed to do it. John Gorka: Thanks for having me. I'll try to do a good job.
FW: As I was saying to you before the show, I sometimes have a hard time starting these interviews. JG: I totally understand. FW: I had two questions in mind but I think I'll start with this: Have you lost weight?
JG: [Laughter from both of us] Thank you, I'm glad you noticed. Someone once asked me in an interview I did a while ago: "Is there one question that nobody has ever asked in an interview that you wish they would ask?" And that question was it.
FW: [still laughing] I actually read that interview and said that if I ever got the chance to interview you, that's what I would ask.
JG: Thanks - I'm glad I finally got asked that question. FW: How were the holidays for you this year?
JG: They were real good - I was traveling a bunch earlier in the fall, but I was home for the important days.
FW: Why don't we talk about your traveling? You used to be a tour monster and you still tour quite a bit - How difficult is it to balance the road and family these days?
JG: I used to go out for much longer periods of time but since becoming a dad I only go out for three or four shows and then I'm home. If I'm on the road any longer than that, I end up missing too much at home. It's kind of a balancing act to be a big part of the home life without getting out of performance mode.
FW: I imagine that you want to be in top form in both situations, husband and dad, as well as performer for your fans. Is that difficult to do?
JG: Yeah it is. It's hard to leave home now and it takes a little while to readjust when I do return home because it disrupts things a little bit. I'm glad to be able to do both though.
FW: You have been married for 5 - 6 years now? JG: We just had our six-year anniversary in September.
FW: Obviously she knew you were a musician when you first got together.
JG: Yeah, we were together quite a long time before we actually got married. I asked her a long time ago and it took her a long time to agree to marry me.
FW: I know you live in Minnesota now, but you are somewhat famous for being a New Jersey boy.
JG: I am definitely from New Jersey, but now I'm a Minnesota guy, yes.
FW: Why the move?
JG: My wife is from Minnesota, so we decided to move out there. It's also centrally located for touring, too. There are no five-hour flights to anywhere, which is good.
FW: I've never spent any real time in either state. I've only been through New Jersey.
JG: And it's been through me. [laughs]
FW: It seems like it would be night and day living in Minnesota compared to living in New Jersey.
JG: There are a lot more people in New Jersey and the pace is a lot quicker, especially the driving. It's a shock to visit there now because people in Minnesota drive more politely. They are really polite there. I'm trying to learn to expect more now.
FW: Expect more from New Jerseyians or from people in general?
JG: From the world.
FW: Well, that's a good gift that Minnesota can give to you.
JG: Yeah, I've learned a lot living there and I've also learned there is a lot more they can still teach me.
FW: As you know this is a performance/interview show - so if you don't mind, now that we are talking about New Jersey, would you mind performing your song "I'm from New Jersey" and then we can come back and talk some more?
JG: No not at all - I'd be happy to do that for you. [John performs "I'm From New Jersey" Please insert that disc from your collection and follow along!]
FW: That was great, thanks. I really love your songwriting. You are definitely one of the best out there in my opinion.
JG: Well, thanks
FW: I wanted to talk more about your writing. I met Jack Hardy in New Bedford this summer and heard about his Spaghetti Songwriting Dinners. I thought it was a brilliant idea and really made me wonder what kind of processes musicians use to write songs. How do you approach your own songwriting?
JG: Jack was the first person I met that wrote songs on a schedule. At the time he was finishing a song a week, which was a revelation for me. It was June of 1979 and I opened for him that night. He did a whole night worth of music and almost all his songs were written in the previous 18 months. I thought it was amazing that someone could come up with a whole evening of original material in that short time frame. We started talking about songwriting and he encouraged me to work at writing songs on a schedule.
FW: Was that a foreign concept to you at the time?
JG: Oh yes, I knew of some novelists that would get up and write a thousand words everyday, but I didn't know songwriters did that. I just thought they sat around and waited for inspiration to strike and that is kind of what I did. Jack told me that kind of writing was a cop out and that I could get better faster if I worked at it. He said, "If you exercise the writing muscles you will be in better shape when inspiration does strike."
FW: How did that advice materialize in your own writing? JG: After that I set myself up to try and write a song a month and at the end of the year I had more songs than months. Then I went to two songs a month and that was kind of my schedule for a long time. My deadlines each month were the 15th and the last day of the month.
FW: Where do you get most of song ideas?
JG: It's one of those things that is still kind of a mysterious thing to me. I think of it as a layer of consciousness that I try to access. For me the best ideas come to me as I am waking up in the morning or when I'm going to sleep at night. It's like your pass through that layer where the songs come from as you approach the state of mind where you can function during the day. It's like it's at a more primitive level than waking consciousness, so to speak. Where the songs come from is still very interesting to me. On one level songwriting is getting to that place and another is getting out of the way of the song when it arrives.
FW: You said you used to wait for the Muse to strike. Do you think the Muse encouraged the work schedule or is it the work schedule nurturing the Muse?
JG: What I do is try to see if the writer is home or not. If the writer is home it's like, oh yeah, there are so many possibilities. If the writer is not home, I don't push it. I just kind of do something else, something that will feed the process, like learning someone else's song or trying a new rhythm on the guitar or something like that. FW: So you never force a song or take a certain subject and determine yourself to write about it.
JG: I never try to create anything if it's not coming naturally. If you try to force it than you are really in trouble. It's often a process of discovery for me, where I don't know what the song is going to be about. Sometimes it's years later when I realize why I wrote a particular song. I know when it feels right but I don't always know what a song is going to be about. Sometimes I do, but more often it ends up being, like I said, a process of discovery.
FW: Speaking for myself, I would say that it is a similar process for the listener. Your songs can have the affect of making me look at things a little differently. When I listen, I often say, "That's cool how he brought that together in this song or that." I actually have a million examples of that but I won't beat this into the ground. I'd like to ask you to do another song for us if you don't mind. When we come back I want to talk about your album Land of the Bottom Line. Would you mind playing the song "I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair?" JG: I'd love to do that for you. [John performs]
FW: Thanks again. Very nice job.
JG: Thank you.
Stop by next week when we conclude Shawn's interview with John Gorka. Shawn Henderson is a senior contributing editor at FolkWax. Shawn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sittin' In With John Gorka, Part Two
Thanks for all the great feedback about Part One of Shawn Henderson's
interview with singer/songwriter John Gorka. He's one of our favorites,
too. If you missed Part One, please go BACKSTAGE to the ARCHIVES and read
it on our website. Otherwise, here we go with Part Two:
FW: I used to be a Rock 'n' Roller. In fact I still am a Rock 'n' Roller, but it used to be that all I would listen to was Rock. I got my first taste of so-called "Folk" music when I borrowed some CDs from the public library in Portland, Maine. For some reason, and to this day I don't know why, I picked up three CDs that I had never heard of before. One was Cormac McCarthy's Picture Gallery Blues, the second was Lucy Kaplansky's Flesh and Bone and the third was Land of the Bottom Line.
The experience of those three albums changed my life. Even now, they are probably my three favorite albums, and especially Land of the Bottom Line. JG: Were you depressed at the time? [laughter from both of us]
FW: [Laughing] Actually I wanted to get into that. I read somewhere that you said, "If you are depressed, you will love that album."
JG: It will keep you there that's for sure.
FW: I don't think I was depressed at the time, but I know that the album really made me happy. I listened to it over and over again.
JG: [continued laughter from us both] Well, you were probably like, "This guy is really screwed up - I guess my life is not so bad after all!" FW: [laugh] Right - I said to myself, "Wow! I thought I was messed up - this guy takes the cake." Ok, I guess I would have to say that I disagree with that statement. I think what moved me so much about that album was what appeared to be genuine and honest emotion in the songs. I guess it was something I hadn't experienced in music up to that point.
JG: Often with a song, I feel like I have to be moved by it first before I can put it out there. I feel like a thought, an idea or a melody has to move me emotionally so it can stand on it's own and then make it's way into the world.
FW: So if a song moves you - you trust that it will touch someone else. Do you always write from an emotional base or do you ever come at it as just a storyteller?
JG: I think the songs can come in any way. There are no rules. It's like a feeling I get sometimes. Sometimes it's just a way a phrase hits me or it may be something I hear, something I read or something I thought I overheard somebody say that will get things going. Often if I can get the first line, I'm on the way to making a song happen. Sometimes I repeat the line that I know is true over and over again until it leads to the next line. That way I can try to keep that spark that first hit me all the way through the song.
FW: Do you think that kind of songwriting can be taught? Do you do songwriting workshops?
JG: I have done workshops and I think it's a matter of discovering your own way of going after a song. There are things you can teach and learn about the craft and things, but I think it's largely a matter of learning to teach yourself. I think it's good to read interviews with songwriters because there really is no one-way. You just have to discover what works for you.
FW: Interesting - See, you are good at this interview thing. You said you were no good at it.
JG: I feel terrible at it. I feel my songs are a much more complete form of expression because it's a combination of what I can articulate with the lyrics and what I can't articulate can come out in the music. To me it's a much more complete form of expression.
FW: Speaking of that - I read that you wanted to develop your off stage personality more in lines of what you project on stage. Is that accurate? JG: I think that off stage I wanted to be more like I was when I was onstage performing. I wish I could be more like the person on stage because I feel like that person is much more together than the person off stage. I tend to complete more sentences on stage than I do off. [laughs] FW: How is it coming along? Has having a family changed that at all?
JG: I think it's definitely helping because now I'm usually too tired to be nervous. [laughs] FW: Well, I don't want you to be nervous here so let's go to what you do best. I want to talk about the newest album when we come back so maybe you can play something off that. JG: Sure, no problem FW: Would you mind hopping on the piano and playing "Let Me In"?
JG: I can do that sure. This is a song that started out as a poem that a friend of mine sent to me. It was a poem that her mother brought back from the Philippines after World War II. She thinks a patient slipped it into her pocket when she was working at a military hospital. We just recently found out that a woman named Elma Dean originally wrote it. It had already changed from the original when she got it because it was probably memorized and then written down. I've changed it some, too. I've had it now for 11 years and it's gotten Folk-processed along the way. I included it on my last album The Company You Keep. [John performs]
FW: Wow. Thank you. That is a beautiful song.
JG: Thank you very much. Unfortunately it's quite timely.
FW: Very true. It's really a perfect time for that song to be out there in the collective consciousness.
JG: I'm happy that it's on the album. I want the songs to be useful in peoples' lives. That's why I consider myself an aspiring Folk singer because that's what I'm aspiring to do is to write songs that people can take some comfort in. I don't want to just provide entertainment. There are lots of things one can do to pass the time. I want to do work that has meaning to people and not just myself. FW: I like all the songs on The Company You Keep. I notice the shift in your writing and it's obvious that your family was a big influence on you when you were making the album - meaning, you are keeping pretty good company.
JG: Yeah right. That's the company I keep and I am hopeful that I can keep. It's me looking at the world from one place after being a road warrior for ten years and wanting to be a road warrior for the previous ten years. It's an interesting time. I don't really feel like I'm settling down as much as I am digging in
FW: It seems like making this album was more of a selfless process for you.
JG: I've come to realize that I am not the most important person in my world any more. Having a family is a less self-center existence and it's really a saving grace. The music business is kind of a destructive, self-center thing. Having someone to take care of is saving me from my own devices. I feel like my family is something worth fighting for and I hope that by doing what I do, I can make their world and the world as a whole a little bit better place.
FW: You also brought your political views into this album. Can you tell me about that a little bit?
JG: I am interested in balance and I feel like things in this country are out-of-joint. It's being run by extremists that are pretending to be moderates. I feel like I am a much more moderate person than the powers that be, and that is disturbing to me. I sing a song in my shows sometimes called "The Water is Wide." It's a traditional song and I wrote a verse to it. It's kind of weird to just say it. Let me sing it for you. [John grabs his guitar and starts singing the song, "The Water is Wide"]
JG: [while he is singing] - This is the verse that I wrote: "America - of thee I sing. Eagles can't fly - with just one wing. Compassion to - the mighty few - and empty words - for me and you." That's kind of the way I feel. The eagle can't fly with just one right wing. FW: Great verse. Are you discourage by the situation in the world today or do you see hope?
JG: I think the truth is in the center of the circle and everyone is coming at it from where they are and from different directions. Each might have a piece of the truth and may appear to be directly opposite of you, but we are all trying to get to truth, which is hopeful.
FW: I understand that you recently went to the Martin Luther King Museum and that had a profound affect on you. Can you tell me about that?
JG: Yeah, that was very inspiring to me. Reading his words after the 9/11 stuff was kind of a comfort, especially after so much talk of retribution. I think it's important to learn the lessons that he teaches, mainly that violence begets violence and war begets war. I'm not a total pacifist and I know that there are times when you have to defend yourself. But there is a price that we need to know about when we react. He teaches that the result of violence on the victim is a feeling of emptiness and bitterness and a desire for retribution. If those feelings aren't addressed than we just end up planting the seeds for future wars and the cycle never ends.
FW: Well, that is a great way to end this interview. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me; it's been an absolute pleasure for me.
JG: Thanks FW: Can you do one more song before you leave? JG: Sure FW: You decide JG: OK - perhaps we can go out on something stupid [laughs]. This is a song about growing older and uglier. It's called "People My Age," and it's also on The Company You Keep.
FW: Ok - here it is [laughing] one last "stupid" song from John Gorka. Thank you all for tuning in. I hope to see you again soon. [John performs to close]
Shawn Henderson is a senior contributing editor at FolkWax. Shawn may be contacted at email@example.com.