A Conversation with John Gorka
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?
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
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?
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.
This is your fifth album working with Rob Genadek.
That sounds about right, yeah.
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
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?
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.
It must great to be part of a musical community.
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.
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?
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.
What is your advice for new artists?
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.
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.
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
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.
I also wanted to mention another highlight of the album was "Don't
Judge A Life," your tribute to Bill Morrissey.
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.
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?
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
Mike Ragogna on Twitter
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.
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.
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.
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. .