Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard J. Skelly was published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 4, 1998. All rights reserved.
Meet John Gorka, Bard from the ‘Burbs
If you met John Gorka in a coffee shop on Nassau Street
for an hour or two, you’d come away with some distinct impressions
of the guitarist, singer and songwriter: words like shy, thoughtful,
modest, reserved, and polite would come to mind. Nonetheless, Gorka,
who hails from the Colonia section of Woodbridge Township, has found
success entertaining the masses. In recent years, the 39-year-old
folk singer has found himself performing at festival and theater shows,
and his videos have aired on CTN, the country music cable channel.
Banished, for the most part, are the hole-in-the-wall coffee houses
of his past, from his years spent paying dues on the way up. During
the summers of 1996 and 1997, he toured across the United States,
Canada, and Europe, playing to large crowds in all these places.
Gorka says the business of projecting confidence — if not actually
being confident — in front of an audience is still something he’s
working on. "I guess it’s an on-going process," he says. "I
was drawn to performing from the beginning, and it’s only recently
I’ve gotten much better. I’ve been enjoying it now more than ever."
Fortunately, Gorka has a good booking agent who keeps him on the road
150 nights a year. Only in the last four months, with the birth of
his son, has he taken some time off from the road to spend more time
at home in Minneapolis, where he moved two years ago after living
many years in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In fact, he points out, that
was his first substantial time off since 1987.
In 1987, Gorka was signed to the Minneapolis-based Red House Records
label. He considers that his first big break, and now he’s back at
the company where he started. Recently, Gorka ended a long relationship
with a major label, Windham Hill Records, a subsidiary of a massive
company, BMG Entertainment. To him, it’s a relief to be back where
"I feel like it’s a step up," he says, candidly. "Major
label distribution and marketing promises a lot, but I don’t think
it actually often delivers all that much."
As Gorka sees it, a major label isn’t necessarily the
best place for a niche artist like him. He sings original songs. Sometimes
they’re humorous — "I’m From New Jersey" and "Winter
Cows" — and other times they’re a bit of social commentary,
like "Houses In The Fields" or "Brown Shirts." Other
than what he does with his guitar and his voice, he has no single
style, per se. He freely mixes it up at his live shows: funny song,
sad song, social commentary song, perhaps a self-penned blues, and
then back to another funny song.
Gorka says the quality of his music is not compromised at an independent
label like Red House Records. More importantly, "they like what
I do and they’re not trying to change me into something that would
be easier for them to market. And I think that’s the plight of any
major label artist these days."
Gorka’s critically-hailed debut, "I Know," was released on
Red House Records in 1987. That’s the record that got radio airplay
and launched his career as a touring folk singer. Eleven years later,
he’s still convinced "I Know" is the best possible record
he could have made at that time, and he’s justifiably proud of it.
In 1990, he began his relationship with Windham Hill Records, but
just two years later, the people who were his champions at the label
had quit or been fired. Gorka says after Windham Hill Records founder
Will Ackerman left, he began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with
his former record company.
It’s an often-told story in the record business: an artist or group
is signed to a major label deal by their champions; then, two, three,
or four years later, these people are fired or quit and a new regime
He recorded five albums for Windham Hill before leaving the label
and returning to Red House in 1997. The pattern of his Windham Hill
releases is ample evidence of his strengths as a songwriter, as well
as his growing unease with his former record company: "Land of
the Bottom Line" (1990), "Jack’s Crows" (1991), "Temporary
Road" (1992), "Out of the Valley" (1993), and finally
"Between Five and Seven" (1996).
Still, in the midst of the uncertainty he felt with his old label,
Gorka says there were some bright spots. He continued to tour, of
course, and he married Laurie, a woman he met at a folk festival she
was running at a nature center in Hastings, Minnesota.
More recently, having a child has changed his perspective considerably.
"I’m in the process of re-orienting my whole life," he says.
"I’m trying to figure out a way to be home more yet to still have
a road life."
Asked about his earliest inklings of ambition to become a folk singer,
Gorka says he had ideas of wanting to pursue music when he was in
high school, but didn’t know anybody who made their living in music.
Gorka’s father, a printer, died when he was 13. He credits his mom,
a housewife, for being most encouraging of his earliest efforts as
a singer. Although Gorka’s father wasn’t particularly musical, he
recalls his dad enjoyed listening to "Happy Bernie’s Polka Party"
on WCTC-AM, New Brunswick, a locally legendary show that’s been off
the air now for several years. Later, while attending Moravian College
in Bethlehem, Gorka’s vision was crystallized when he met living,
breathing examples of the folk tradition like Rogers and Schmidt.
As a songwriter, he takes his cues from people like the late Canadian
folk singer Stan Rogers. He cites Rogers and Claudia Schmidt as big
influences. They taught him to specialize, to focus in on his own
unique gift for songwriting. In his early days at Godfrey Daniels
Coffee House in Bethlehem, he recalls, he played a multitude of instruments
in a range of styles, singing both traditional folk songs and his
After graduating from Moravian in the 1980s, he began making regular
visits to lower Manhattan and became part of a loosely assembled group
of folk singers who called themselves `Fast Folk.’ The musical cooperative
released several self-produced compilation albums. In addition to
Gorka, the group boasts such prominent alumni as Suzanne Vega, Christine
Lavin, David Massengill, and Shawn Colvin.
"There were a lot of really good people involved in that group,"
he recalls, "and Suzanne Vega was one of the first to be signed.
Those are still some of my most favorite times, it was very exciting
to be around people who were really talented and then to see these
people reach a large audience."
Finally, by 1988, after his debut was released on Red
House Records, Gorka began to realize he might actually be able to
make a living as a folk singer. "Then, for the next nine years
at least, I did about 150 shows a year. I hit the road pretty hard,"
Despite his focus as a songwriter, Gorka lets the rest of the pieces
fall where they may in performance. He knows how to use his shyness
to his advantage on stage, using silence for humorous ends. And audiences
all over the country find him funny.
"One of the things that Claudia Schmidt told me that I really
took to heart was to take the work seriously, but not to take yourself
too seriously. I always thought those were good words to live by,"
he says. He argues that one of the differences between the folk music
of today, "contemporary folk," if you will, and the folk music
of the 1960s, is back then, people were much more serious about it.
"Those people were a pretty serious lot," he says, noting
they were the same people who wanted Bob Dylan to remain a protest
singer and stay pure to their vision of what folk music was all about.
The traditionalists were kind of the moldy figs while there was a
whole new generation of people — Dylan, Tom Paxton, Richie Havens,
Joni Mitchell and dozens of others — who wanted to write songs,
but still considered themselves part of the folk music tradition.
Gorka bristles at the suggestion that he was part of some 1980s "New
Folk" movement. Yes, there was a renaissance of acoustic music
then; but like any good blues singer, he sees himself as just a small
part of a long and living folk singing tradition. "I’ve never
shied away from the folk word, but I think it’s more of a continuum
than it is a new thing," he says. "Folk music never goes away.
It’s music about people’s lives and the world around them."
Precisely because he’s never been part of any fad or style, Gorka
will always have an audience. Did we mention that Gorka is also notorious
for being extremely good to his fans, hanging around until every last
album is signed?
Saturday’s show at McCarter Theater will be a homecoming of sorts,
he says. "In the land of my people," as he refers to New Jersey
with a chuckle, he doesn’t have to explain as much about his songs.
While "Houses in The Fields" strikes a chord with people in
rapidly developing areas all over the nation, it takes on a special
significance in New Jersey, where the effects of the go-go 1980s real
estate market are still visible.
Songs like "I’m From New Jersey" and "Houses In The Fields"
are songs that feel right to do in the Garden State, he says.
The travel, the autographs, the momentary butterflies in the stomach
before going on stage, these things are all part and parcel of a lifestyle
Gorka has chosen for himself. Yet he’s quick to acknowledge he’s blessed
to be doing what he does for a living. And the fact that he’s never
had a substantial radio hit is a blessing, he insists.
"I remember asking [guitarist] Leo Kottke what was the secret
to his longevity as a performer. He said he thinks it was because
he never became part of a trend," he says. "I think that’s
true of me as well, to some extent. I’ve been able to develop a body
of work over time and never be associated with any real popular moment
in time or any style or fad in music. Since I was never connected
with a certain time, I can’t be a has-been."
— Richard J. Skelly
609-683-8000. With guest Dee Carstensen. $18 to $22. Saturday,
March 7, 8 p.m.
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