Author: Hunter Styles ................................................................................................................................................................................ Nov 6, 2016
Anyone who has seen Inside Llewyn Davis, the terrific 2013 dark comedy by the Coen Brothers, knows that many hard-working musicians walk a long, erratic path around fame without ever finding a way inside. Compared to poor Llewyn, Minnesota native John Gorka has been fortunate: his breakout album I Know, released in 1987, established him as one of America’s best touring folk acts. In 1991, Rolling Stone called Gorka “the preeminent male singer-songwriter of what has been dubbed the New Folk Movement.” Since then, he has been under the radar in all the right circles.
Gorka, now 58, is married and raising a family in back in Minneapolis, but he still spends many weeks on the road in North America and Europe. In 2010 he formed the folk supergroup Red Horse with Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson, which toured for four years. No stranger to the Valley, he plays the Iron Horse on Sunday, Nov. 6.
But now, 12 albums into his career, he’s looking back. His new album Before Beginning: The Unreleased I Know — Nashville, 1985, released in July on Red House Records, is actually a set of never-before-heard versions of material Gorka recorded when he was 27, some of which would appear on the official I Know two years later. Gorka recorded these ten songs in Nashville at Cowboy Jack Clements’ studio with producer Jim Rooney (Nanci Griffith, John Prine) alongside a full band and fellow vocalists Lucy Kaplansky and Shawn Colvin.
The results, recorded over five days and then hidden away for three decades, showcase a young Gorka at the start of his writing career. He sounds confident on these tracks — but to hear him tell it, his mindset was hardly laid-back. The Advocate spoke with Gorka by phone in mid-October about Before Beginning. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Hunter Styles: At this point in your career, what’s it like to look back on an early recording like this?
John Gorka: A little strange. It’s my oldest and newest record at the same time! But when I listen back on it, it’s like listening to a different person.
Hunter: What brought you into that first studio, as a 27-year-old?
JG: I’d been writing songs for between 10 and 15 years at that point, and I had done some recordings for Fast Folk Musical Magazine in New York City. I’d done some live shows, which were fun. But I really wanted to make a record. Even though 27 seems young now, I felt a little behind where I wanted to be at the time. I loved Nancy Griffith’s record Once in a Very Blue Moon, which she had done with Jim Rooney. I had opened for Nancy in 1984. I’d spoken with her, and she told me to call Jim. I really liked the idea of making a record as live and as quickly as possible.
Hunter: Do you have clear memories of that five-day session?
JG: I didn’t have a lot of time, because I was still working a full-time job at Sing Out! magazine. But I was able to take a week off. I left on a Saturday and got to Nashville on a Sunday. We recorded and mixed these ten songs, and I was on my way home the next Saturday.
The whole thing was a blur. Jim put me up, and we hung out and talked about the music scene. Then we met up with Shawn [Colvin] and Lucy [Kaplansky] and the whole band at the studio. I’m so glad these tapes were preserved. Stuart Duncan’s mandolin and fiddle playing were just great. So were Shawn and Lucy. As for me, I was just concentrating on trying to do my part right. I was trying so hard to just remember the words, I guess, and hold my own, and hope that everyone else was taking care.
Hunter: After all that, why did you decide not to release these songs?
JG: I remember coming back from Nashville with a cassette. I played it after a show with Jesse Winchester at Godfrey Daniels [coffeehouse] in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Jesse came over and said: “I like it! It sounds commercial!” I thought: uh oh. I don’t know if that’s what I was going for.
At first I liked the recording a lot, but I just didn’t know if it was right. So the tapes traveled around with me from Nashville to New York to Pennsylvania to Michigan. When I moved to Minnesota, they ended up in the garage. Then in 2014, I got curious to see if they would still play. I brought them to Rob Genadek at The Brewhouse Recording Studio in Minneapolis. We had to bake the tapes with a hair dryer, so that the magnetic particles wouldn’t flake off. We listened to them and thought, hey — this sounds pretty good!
It all happened so quickly, that recording. I started second-guessing myself about it. I doubted the project out of existence for 30 years.
Hunter: I’ve heard you say that these tracks are “good — it just wasn’t the good I wanted at the time.” What do you mean by that?
JG: The process was a lot different when I re-recorded some of these songs for I Know in 1987. I did that with Bill Kollar in Woodbridge, New Jersey on an 8-track tape machine, and then on a 24-track machine, which seemed a little more intimate than the Nashville sessions. We did it painstakingly, track by track, with guitar and vocals recorded separately. I liked it, and that’s what came out as I Know.
Still, there are things I like better on the Before Beginning version. I think i made the right decision back then, but there’s so much good on these Nashville tapes. The arrangements are different. The tempos are different. You can hear this excitement about playing live with other musicians. I wanted people to hear it.
Hunter: You’ve also said that “these songs are bigger than any one recording.” How have they stayed with you over the years?
JG: I continue to play most of them when I’m on the road. The most requested songs are probably “Love is Our Cross to Bear” and “I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair.” I still get requests for “Down in the Milltown,” “Winter Cows,” and “Branching Out.”
Hunter:Are you interested in writing and singing about things now that didn’t interest you back in your 20s?
JG: Being a dad, my perspective on most things has changed. I tend to think in decades now, rather than day to day. But the songs on Before Beginnings are a young man’s songs. They’re inspired by the neighborhood around Godfrey Daniels, which is still there, and all the local characters.
I’m still on the road quite a bit. I like to look back, but I always look for more time to write. My favorite place to be is still in the middle of a song.
......Contact Hunter Styles at firstname.lastname@example.org