published Thursday, February 14, 2008
A songwriter may think he's written something special, but John Gorka has learned that the only true test is to play it for an audience.
"The audience is never wrong," said Gorka, who will be in concert tomorrow night at Owens Community College. "You can't just think you're a misunderstood artiste if the song is not getting the reaction that you wanted. If the audience doesn't react, it means you need to go back and make some changes."
In addition to playing the concert at Owens, Gorka will share the benefits of his 20-plus years of experience as a recording artist by hosting a free public workshop on songwriting at 3 p.m. tomorrow.
In a telephone interview this week from his home in St. Paul, Gorka said he does not lead many workshops, but is looking forward to the opportunity to encourage aspiring songwriters.
"I'm not really a teacher, but I tell people about what kind of things inspired me and the way I became a songwriter and what's worked for me," he said. "I guess I want to help people figure out their best way of discovering if there are songs in there inside that are waiting to come out." A native of Newark, Gorka, 49, said he wrote his first song, "Like My Watch," when he was in his late teens, although it took him 10 years and three tries in the studio before it appeared on his 1987 debut disc, "I Know."
Known for his sharp wordplay and rich baritone voice, Gorka started out playing banjo in a "nontraditional" bluegrass band called the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band when he was a philosophy student at Moravian College in Bethehem, Pa..
"I love the sound of bluegrass banjo," he said. "In fact, for Christmas I just got a fretless, gut-string banjo.It's lots of fun. I need to try to get it out a little bit more." He soon switched from bluegrass to folk, and literally moved into a famous Bethlehem coffee house called Godfrey Daniels, living in the club's basement and working as an emcee and performer. From there he moved to New York City, learning the trade from veteran folk artist Jack Hardy, who led a group of talented young artists in the city's "Fast Folk" scene of the 1980s.
Among the future folk stars who honed their skills with Hardy were Shawn Colvin, Dave Van Ronk, Suzanne Vega, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell, and Christine Lavin.
"There were so many talented people in that group, it was really inspiring to be around them," Gorka said."But before we knew it was a scene, it was over." He said Hardy, who still holds weekly artist gatherings in his Greenwich Village apartment, helped him realize that songwriting required discipline and craft, not just creativity.
"I had been waiting around for inspiration to strike, and at the time Jack was writing a song a week," he said.
"I knew novelists could wake up every morning and try to write a chapter a day. But I didn't know songwriters could do that." Gorka earned widespread attention by winning the prestigious New Folk Award at Texas' Kerrville Folk Festival in 1984, and has gone on to record 11 albums for Red House and High Street Records. His most recent release was a two-DVD set, "The Gypsy Life," released last year by AIX Records in high-definition video and digital surround sound.
He hopes tomorrow's songwriting workshop will help "demystify" the creative process as much as possible, but admits that there is still a sense of wonder to it all. "I've done it for a long time but it's still interesting and mysterious to me how a song comes into the world," he said.
John Gorka will be in concert at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Owens Community College's Center for Fine and Performing Arts. Tickets are $18; $16 for senior citizens, and $12 for Owens students, available at the box office, 567-661-2787, or online at www.owens.edu. He also will lead a free songwriting workshop, open to the public, at 3 p.m. tomorrow in Owens' Mainstage Theatre. Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.