John Gorka has arrived for our pre-show interview
with his entire entourage. I only see John. Now he's disappeared,
and soon a roadie who looks exactly like John is loading in his
gear: two guitars, a small amp, a pre-amp, and a rumpled sport
coat. When you live the gypsy life, John has written, you need
"high standards, low overhead, and realistic expectations."
Kleiner: That was your general philosophy in 2012. Is it still
John Gorka: That's still
Gorka in the Hague 2012, Photo by Jos van Vliet
does it mean?
Gorka: In terms of music, high
standards mean trying to make the best music you can. Don't put out
anything before you think it's the best you can do. Don't settle for
almost good enough…
The low overhead part in a musician's life means you never know where
your next meal is going to come from. I've always lived below my means
even when I was delivering flowers part-time and playing as much as
I could at places that paid. And realistic expectations…
you seen that recent documentary, 20 feet from Stardom? These are supremely
talented people that didn't lack for talent and didn't lack for ambition.
But sometimes the world says, "No." You've got to know that the world
isn't always fair. All you can do is always improve and try to reach
more people at any one time.
And you also noted that people keep
coming to the shows and you keep having fun.
It's more fun now than it's ever been so I'm grateful
for that. I just hope I keep healthy and keep writing new songs and
folks certainly do keep coming. It's a sellout at Steel City.
the start, the Gorka on stage is quite different from the one in the
interview. Before, he was hesitant, with speech well stocked with fillers
(uh). In concert, he's familiarly self-deprecating, relaxed and spontaneous.
I know too well that what seems like improvised patter is sometimes
oft used on stage, but even so…
performs without a set list. He explains, "It's presumptuous to think
I know what songs to sing for an audience I haven't met yet." But, for
now, folks call out names of songs and he warns, "I don't know all my
opens with "More Than One.
Than One" offers a slightly different philosophy of life, "a clear sky,
a dry road, a full tank, a light load."
When I introduce it at shows, I say it's a song that offers the kind
of advice I'd offer if I were the kind of person to take advice.
"The Bright Side of Down," you're working once again with producer Rob
He's a great guy, a great engineer, and a good drummer. The people he
recommends are always right on the money. He's great at helping people
when they need some direction and he's also good at letting them go.
Claudia Schmidt… I sent her the recording. She wrote me a note and sketched
out a few ideas. Then, she came in and just banged out the part. Very
impressive. The best oohs I ever had on a record.
one of my all-time favorites, one of the people who inspired me
to want to do this sort of thing. She's got a great new record
out, too. She sang on the "Land of the Bottom Line" record but
those parts were a little quieter, so it didn't really showcase
her vocals like this one does.
"Prom Night in Pigtown" follows, introduced as a song about "love,
nutrition, and barnyard animals." Then John asks for a show of
hands. "Who's seen me before?"
clear majority… "I'm John Gorka, by the way, so I'll do an introductory
song." "I'm from New Jersey," follows. It has become even more
widely played since Governor Christie's recent problems.
No Monument Stands" comes next.
Gorka live in Lithuania in 2012. (Photo: Lino Vasiliauskas)
"Where No Monuments Stand," is featured in the
upcoming documentary "Every War Has Two Losers." It's a poem by activist
poet William Stafford. Is contemporary poetry an influence?
as much as I would like it to be. Recently I got a collection of Stafford's
poems. They are masterful. He can really paint a whole world in a few
lines. I admire poets because they can do it all, just with words alone.
course, poets refer to music in their poetry…
That's right. When Debussy asked permission to set one of Mallarmé's
poems to music, Mallarmé responded: "But I thought I had already done
request and John's pianist sits down at the keyboard on stage. He, too,
looks exactly like John. It's another iconic song, "Houses in the Fields,"
inspired by development in the countryside around Bethlehem, PA, where
he got started in music. Afterwards, he quips, "Is that the 'House in
the Fields' you wanted?"
Back on the guitar, John explains the cut out capo he's putting on the
second fret. It only covers the middle four strings. Then he tells the
story of the title, "The Bright Side of Down," a phrase a friend used
when discussing the attributes of goose down. For John, it becomes the
title of a song about something completely different.
does that happen, going from a phrase that strikes you to a song?
Sometimes it is something I overhear, something that moves from the
language of a conversation to the language of a song. And I try to pay
attention to that… I say, "Okay." I just try my best to get out of the
way. And it seems to work out better that way, otherwise you can stunt
a song's growth.
times] it starts with a feeling or something I play on the guitar. It
might even be a part I've played a million times but it's somehow different
that day. So I start paying attention to the sparks of a song wherever
they may come from.
think the problem some people have with writer's block is that the song
they want to write is not the song that wants to be written.
concert, John posits that every song, "Is an act of hope."
the liner notes for "Silence" on "Jack's Crows," you virtually apologized
for writing a completely positive song…
think there's room for those kinds of songs, but songs about harder
times and marginal people have always appealed to me more than songs
about successful people. I've learned more from other people's sorrowful
songs than I have from the "happy days are here again" kind of song.
introduces "Outnumbered" which he describes-only half-jokingly-as one
of what must be three or four overtly positive songs he's written.
Talk about "Outnumbered."
brief... One of the things that inspired me in the last few years were
the songs of Tim Hardin. He was able to say a whole lot in two minutes.
I never got to see him play, but he wrote really great songs. That's
a good goal as a songwriter… to say as much as possible in as little
time as possible.
used to think I had time to do the things I wanted… until I had a child.
had stopped traveling abroad and then resumed a few years ago:
2008, a couple guys came over from Holland to a show at World
Café Live after the "Writing in the Margins" record came out.
They had seen my tour schedule and realized I wasn't going over
there. So they said, "[If he's not coming here], we're just going
to go see him." They picked the show in Philadelphia.
came up to me and said, "One of us is turning fifty and one is
turning sixty. We want to invite you to our one hundred and tenth
birthday party." So I went over, met those guys, and I started
going over there regularly. There's a real audience in Holland
and I may go a few more places.
Gorka with Peter and Willem from the Netherlands in Oct. 2008e
audience calls out more requests. "I'm recognizing some of these titles.
I can usually retrieve a song or two during the break." But he'll play
two or three more before then, "depending on how much I talk."
He does, "I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair" then says he'll be back in
ten minutes for a second set and "there will be no repeats." He closes
the set with "Thirstier Wind" from the new record.
He explains that because there's such a dry wind around Minneapolis
where he lives, the snow never melts until spring.
me, "Thirstier Wind" was a bookend to "Holed Up in Mason City," [about
a snowstorm). It's finally the end of a long winter ("Every spring is
a victory / when the winters are this long.")
It's one of two spring songs on there.
finishes by promising that his road manager will be out during the break.
And sure enough, the road manager-who also looks exactly like John--comes
out carrying boxes of CDs, most of which sell. John must need a very
large trunk in his tricked out folksinger's touring vehicle.
The second set begins with "Holed Up in Mason City," the opener on the
Up in Mason City," introduces the themes of time and winter that run
through the album… I wondered if you possibly could have written some
of these songs during this terrible winter and then had the album ready
for a March release.
It's kind of funny how it worked out that it was in sync with this long
winter. I [actually] started recording it in September of 2012 and finished
it around a year later.
says he wants to get in everyone's requests "while you're still here"
and launches into "Blue Chalk" from "Between 5&7" ("because it was my
sixth album"). It's about some of John's friends who "made bad choices."
Next he does "Let Them In," a poem set to music by John that was recorded
by David Wilcox and a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Snow Don't Fall."
don't often do covers.
do covers to honor the people who inspired me and the people that should
be heard if they haven't been. A lot of these songs are older songs,
like the Townes Van Zandt song. Michael Smith's "The Dutchman" is one
of my favorite songs ever, it needs to be heard.
"She's That Kind of Mystery" is a highlight of
the CD. Talk about Bill Morrisey.
was just a great guy, a great artist, and a great person to be around.
He was always very funny and very smart and we miss him, so I wanted
him to be on this record. Yeah… it's a great song.
pretty faithful to Morrisey's original version, even with the female
voice tracking the main vocal.
I wanted Amelia to sing on that because she was close to Bill. She couldn't
come to the celebration of Bill's music we had in the Summerville Theater
in 2011. She came up with multiple parts. It was nicely done.
First met him in 1979. Russ Rentler and I opened for him at the
Godfrey Daniels Coffeehouse as the Razzi-Dazzi Brothers, a sub-group
of the Razzi-Dazzi Spasm Band.
At the Godfrey Daniel, I would read about the people that were coming
there and sometimes they'd let me open for the ones who seemed interesting,
mostly the singers/songwriters.
And Jack came in and most of what he performed that night had been
written in the previous eighteen months or so. He kept himself on
the schedule where he'd write a song every week.
I knew that novelists would sit down every day and write a chapter a
day or a certain number of words. I didn't know that songwriters could
do that; I thought they waited for the inspiration to strike. But Jack
said, "No, that's a copout. If you work at it you'll be kind of exercising
the writing muscles. Even if you throw out three quarters of what you
do, you'll get better faster by working at it."
And that was very inspiring to me and I decided I'd try it. Maybe I
couldn't do a song a week, but I could do a song a month. So, the first
year I set a goal to write a song a month and I ended up with more songs
than months. The next year I said I'd go to two songs a month. I tried
to keep on that for many years… That's before having kids.
Jack and Christine Lavin were the real forces behind the Fast Folk scene
at the Speakeasy in Greenwich Village. Christine was like the cheerleader,
the social director who brought everyone together. Jack was a very charismatic
guy but also a polarizing one, so between the two they were able to
gather a lot of good people together.
he says, "I'm going to play little guitar for you," and pulls out his
diminutive G# guitar… "I'm going to play an old blues song… that I wrote
myself from the time of the decline of Bethlehem Steel. Bethlehem was
trying to re-vitalize itself and pricing other folks out" and plays
"Where the Bottle Breaks" and then the traditional, "Wayfaring Stranger."
The G# guitar has a shimmer that gives me shivers, but it also has an
listed as a first on your website that you had "traveled with the
tuned standard as if it were capoed on the fourth fret. I played
it during the session. Not sure if any of that remains [in the final
mix.] …and a tube amp, a 1970 Fender Bronco."
That's like a Vibro Champ but it's rebranded… Came in a package
deal: the Fender Bronco guitar came with a Fender Bronco amp, 6
I've seen the new record described as "warm"
and I think that is very apt. One element of that to me was the
sound of the high strung guitars.
high strung on three tracks. The only time I played a high strung
guitar before was on the Dylan tribute, "A Nod to Bob" on "Girl
from the North Country."
Gorka in the Hague, the Netherlands, February 2012
also did "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" on "A Tribute to Bob Dylan."
I'd forgotten about that one. I was terribly sick. They set up two microphones
in a stereo pair. I don't know how it came out. I don't think I ever
listened to it. I like Dylan but I liked Tim Hardin and Eric Andersen
do you play on stage?
A Martin OM-28VR and the G#.
you use any tunings?
I play in Drop D, and I sometimes play with a cutout capo.
On "Bright Side of Down," 8 of 12 tracks begin
with acoustic guitar.
last record and this one were built around the vocal and the acoustic
guitar performances. Sometimes when I play with other people it's fine
and it adds to the whole musical picture but sometimes it changes things,
subtleties get moved around a little bit or disappear.
I think since most of the time I play by myself, I wanted the record
to reflect what people would hear if they came to see me live.
calls out for a singalong. John responds, "All the songs I've done were
singalongs." …goes into "When I Grow Up to Be a Tree," and afterwards
warns the audience he's going to share every song that comes into his
head. And then another new track, playing the guitar figure from the
Spring…" Your side won… but in the end you're on your knees with the
It just knocked me down.
opens with a lovely overlay of guitars.
That's me playing acoustic and Dirk's playing the high strung part.
I think there's an electric part. And then there's Antje [Duvekot].
And a lovely overlay of Antje voices it is.
plays "People My Age" for an audience largely made up of folks who fit
that description, so afterwards he adds, "If I made eye-contact with
anyone in the audience, it was purely accidental."
You put out three great albums in the three years
from 1990 to 1991 "Land of the Bottom Line," "Jack's Crows," and "Temporary
Road." That's high quality output in a short time. Now it's been five
years since your last album of new material.
tricky now is that I spend my time [performing] and there's so many
songs I'd like to get to play and so many the audience wants to hear
and two hours is not enough time. It's hard to get in all the songs
I'd like to do.
make a new record, the songs have to be, in some way better than the
best of what I've already done, which is a difficult thing to do… or
at least there has to be some way [the new songs] all go together.
don't feel like I have to put out an album every year, I just want to
do justice to the songs as they come and also to the songs that I've
written. Many of them I haven't played out all that much. It's trickier
after you've been doing it for a while. .
vocal attack on the new release is easy going. What do you have to say
about this softer, gentler approach?
I used a different microphone and pre-amp combination, so maybe it's
got something to do with that. I used an old Neumann U87 with a Focusrite
Red preamp. I recorded some at home and some in the studio in Minneapolis.
I'd go back and forth. I'd just bring the microphone and the hard
drive and have the mic pre stay the same. I'd just go in a little
at a time. I'd try to get a good performance
of one song and then I'd start to add parts to it. The main thing
was to get a good vocal and guitar performance.
Gorka in the The Brewhouse Recording Studio
Horse" is written in the voice of a character, the only one on this
I think of that as taking place maybe on the south side of Bethlehem.
I don't remember too much about writing the song, but I just wanted
it to tell a story and have it be as real as possible. It could still
be me saying those words.
Judge a Life" is another one about the passage of time.
are a number of people that applies to, but I was first thinking
of Bill Morrisey…
In terms of the ones who went before?
I started that right after we'd had a song workshop for Jack Hardy
with people doing his songs. That was a Friday, and Saturday night
I think, I got a call from Cliff Eberhardt that Bill had died. So
he's in there, and a number of others. I think nobody goes out with
much grace in this life.
about "Honeybee"? It's probably the most hummable tune on the album,
but… a John Gorka kids' song?
I hadn't thought about recording that at all. It was a song I'd sung
around the house for my daughter when she was little. So, my wife said,
"You've got a song or two that mention your son. You've got to get one
in there for your daughter to equal things out a bit."
So I recorded that at the end of the session. I just went in and did
it. That wasn't the first take. That was the only take. Then I sang
some back-up parts and humming parts. Y
Schmidt provides the most revelatory guest vocals on the CD in "Procrastination
Blues." She's got pipes. Was her vocalese part at the end spontaneous?
We had left this long outro, knowing something was going to go there.
I thought about Claudia because she's so musical. And she just came
through. I was hoping for something good and she was more amazing than
was from a session in 1995 at Paisley Park. The only part we kept was
Michael Manring's bass. Everything else was re-done.
the first note, it's unmistakably Michael Manring on bass. You were
both with Windham Hill…
[had been] a fretless bass on "Land of the Bottom Line" and Will
Ackerman recommended Michael. "Jack's Crows" was the first time
we worked together. And that was the first time I recorded live
with the other people playing. I loved that. The whole thing was
done in about ten days where the others had taken a couple years.
The first two records were kind of painstaking because I was getting
introduced to the recording process with Bill Kollar. We did the
vocal and guitar separately to a click track, which is a difficult
Manring with John Gorka live in Italy (Photo: Gert-Jan Vos)
track's got you on banjo.
That's funny… The mixing on this album didn't take very much time at
all because it was essentially done. There weren't a lot of parts. So,
I went out to get some food and when I came back Rob played me a mix
of that and I said, "What's that in there, banjo?" That hadn't been
included in the mix for months. I'd forgotten I'd put a banjo part on
there. It was just back porch sounding enough that it works really nicely
with the mandolin and the fiddle .
All Music website offers a list of words about you, I think its readers
contributed. The top words were: acerbic, bittersweet, brooding, literate,
melancholy, organic, somber. What do you think?
That's a little darker than I would have wanted. I could see if they
listened only to the recordings. At least some of them sound like a
sadder guy than I am.
year is the 25th anniversary of your first record, "I Know."
doesn't feel like that long ago.
closes the show with "The Gypsy Life," (with an encore of "Love is Our
Cross to Bear") explaining that "people love you when they know you're
leaving soon." He says he'll go down stairs for a minute "so the people
who don't want to meet" him have a chance to get away first. And he
does just as he promised, graciously staying as long as there's someone
to talk to or a question to answer, his own press secretary. Then he'll
become his own roadie, and his own driver, and his own road manager
and go on to the next gig in his car.
Gorka has managed the Gypsy life for more than a quarter of a century,
and it hasn't gotten one bit more glamorous, even for an artist dubbed,
"The preeminent male singer-songwriter of the new folk movement" by
"Rolling Stone Magazine."
Last question… in your top ten for 2012, you noted--first
on the list--that, "The world did not end on December 21. " Were you
prepared to adjust, just in case it did?
think I would have, yes.