Thanks to a lot of “hangout-ology” at Godfrey Daniels Coffeehouse in Bethlehem, PA, and presenting upwards of 200 shows a year through the years, singer-songwriter John Gorka has blossomed into one of the most important voices in contemporary folk music. He’s always coming up with new song ideas.
Songs flow through Gorka like water from a well, and the fact that he has only released 10 albums is misleading, because he’s always got another album in the works and only the creme de la creme make the cut onto his albums. Gorka began his recording and performing career in the 1980s, hanging out at Godfrey Daniels and joining Greenwich Village’s Fast Folk Music Cooperative. In the 1990s, Gorka’s songs were recorded by everyone from Mary Chapin Carpenter to Mary Black and Maura O’Connell, among others. Country music fans may know him from his long-running video on Country Music Television, the Nashville Network, and on VH-1’s “Current Country.”
His latest album, “After Yesterday” was released earlier this year on Red House Records, and a compilation of his best songs, “Pure John Gorka” was also released two years ago by Red House. “Writing in the Margins,” another recent album, came out in the summer of 2006.
Gorka was the reason for the birth of the now successful independent folk and roots music label, Red House Records of Minneapolis. His first record, “I Know,” and the first for the label, was released in 1987. Two years after signing with Red House, Gorka was tapped by Will Ackerman, who had started the Windham Hill Label and then High Street Records, to record for High Street. Later High Street became part of BMG (Bertelsmann Music Group), thus ensuring international marketing and distribution of his recordings.
“These days,” Gorka says in a phone interview from his friend and fellow folksinger Cliff Eberhardt’s house in western Massachusetts, “the whole music industry has changed. There used to be record companies and actual record stores. When my first record came out on Red House it didn’t sell much at first, but it got me work, and when I signed with Windham Hill they had more resources to work with, so they were really good and generous with me, even though the whole thing ended badly in 1997,” he says of the demise of Windham Hill and its merger into Private Music in Los Angeles, as well as the subsequent merger of BMG into Sony Music in New York.
Though it was a painful parting of the ways and Gorka felt like an orphan for a time, “the good they did outlasted all the bad stuff. In retrospect, I realized I came in on the tail end of the music industry, and of course we didn’t know it at the time. Now there are no more record stores and people under 25 don’t buy a lot of CDs,” he says. “The new world is still forming, so I’ve got one leg in the old and one leg in the new. I still love to play, and the audiences have been coming out. I’m very fortunate that way.”
Gorka writes insightful songs, many of them funny, a few of them sad, and in general, likes to tell funny stories between tunes at his concerts. His December 6 show at Concerts at the Crossing marks his first appearance in the venue, a wood-paneled room where the sound always seems to be impeccable.
Gorka was raised in the Colonia section of Woodbridge Township. His father, formerly a printer in Belleville near Newark, died from a heart attack when Gorka was just 13. His mother, who is 91, now lives in Pennsylvania near his brother and his sister. “After my dad died in 1972, she went back to work, first as a Kelly girl and then as a draftsperson for the Middlesex Water Company. This was all pre-computers,” he says. Several years ago at McCarter Theater, with his mother in attendance, Gorka performed his poignant song, “Part of Your Own,” about his own relationship with his mother, and when he finished, it was hard to find a dry eye in the house.
He graduated in 1980 from Moravian College in Bethlehem, majoring in history and philosophy. Gorka moved from the East coast to Minnesota in 1996 and married Laurie Allman in September of that year.
Gorka says his songwriting process is constant, as is the flow of ideas through his head as his travels from gig to gig, usually by rental car. “The ideas are the sparks that the songs come from,” he says, “and they can happen anytime, so I always try to be ready for that. My most productive times, lyrically, are in the morning and going to sleep, if I can monitor my thoughts at those times. Also right before a show at a sound check, as I think about what I’m going to play, I often find myself playing something I’ve never played before. My general routine is to try to get out of my own way, get out of the way of the song and just let it flow.”
Aside from his song “I’m From New Jersey,” which he says he is asked to perform everywhere he goes around the U.S., Canada, and Europe, Gorka says other frequently asked for songs include “Italian Girls,” “Houses in the Fields,” and “I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair.”
Those unfamiliar with Gorka will be pleasantly surprised with the range of emotional states they’re likely to go through at one of his concerts. “I try to be flexible and listen to people in the audience as they call out songs,” he says. “I don’t have a very rigid set list, unless I make one up after the show. These days, my shows are infused with newer songs, and it’s a mixture of old and new songs. It’s harder and harder to get the new songs in there over time.
“That’s also kind of true of making records, and after this many records out, I’m kind of competing with myself,” he says, “but I’m glad I have a lot of songs to pick from. I’m starting to work on a new record now. Most of it is done, all working from my home studio, and the December 6 show will be my last show of the year.”
That’s Gorka — ever the working, 24-hour-a-day songwriter.
An Evening with John Gorka, Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing, 268 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road Titusville. Saturday, December 6, 8 p.m. Refreshments. $25. 609-406-1424 or www.crossingconcerts.com.