There’s nothing special about John Gorka, which just may be his secret
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 2, 2002) – Other than the fact that he is one of the most popular singer-songwriters of the new-folk movement, there’s nothing particularly outstanding or extraordinary about John Gorka’s biography. And the way he sees it, that just may be the secret of his success, and what makes him able to write songs that connect so deeply with his audience.

“My life’s not any more special than anyone else’s, or no less special,” said Gorka in a recent phone interview from the Stagecoach Inn in Cedarburg, Wisc. “So even when I’m writing about my life, it’s not only about my life, because it’s not an extraordinary life.”

As fans know from one of his more autobiographical songs, Gorka is a New Jersey native who discovered folk music while attending Moravian College in eastern Pennsylvania in the late-1970s. It was at a nearby coffeehouse called Godfrey Daniels where he first encountered the likes of Stan Rogers, Eric Andersen, Tom Paxton and Claudia Schmidt, singer-songwriter who were able to make a life for themselves in music without comprising their art to the commercial dictates of the marketplace.

“I found that inspiring,” said Gorka -- who performs at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield (443-7171, ext. 10) on Thursday night at 8 as part of the museum’s “Originals in Song” series – “because I thought that you had to fit into some kind of box in order to make a living making music, and if you didn’t fit into a box you were out of luck.

“That may be still be true for the music industry in the larger world, but I also think you can make your own box, and make it expandable.”

Gorka’s box has expanded wide open since his days living in the basement of Godfrey Daniels and working as the resident M.C., soundman and opening act. His slow rise to the top of the new-folk heap grew out of his association with Jack Hardy’s Fast Folk circle in New York, where in the late-1970s and early-‘80s budding singer-songwriters like Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith and Lucy Kaplansky swapped new songs over spaghetti dinners.

Twenty years and eight solo albums later, Gorka is an icon of the new-folk community, regularly headlining top festivals like Newport, Falcon Ridge and Kerrville. At age 44, his road warrior days are already behind him. Married with two children, he’s easing into the middle period of his career, where instead of month-long tours he goes out for three or four dates at a time and then scoots back home to Minnesota to his wife and kids.

As a result, his overall outlook has changed. “I’ve got a bigger stake in the future now, and I have to look at the future in terms of decades rather than a week at a time,” he said. “It’s not so much putting down roots -- more like digging in than settling down.”

What hasn’t changed much is his hands-off approach to songwriting.

“I put the songs down and leave them alone for a while, and if I see that there seems to be some objective energy in them -- I kind of look at them as individual life forms -- and if they have managed to survive my neglect of a few months, there may be something there that will reach out to people.

“I feel like me and the songs are a work-in-progress, so I just try to pay attention to where the sparks are coming from for the songs and not try to direct them too much.

“I’m trying to take my cues from where the songs are coming from, rather than what people might expect from me. And I think that will keep it fresh for me, and I hope for the audience as well.”

Gorka’s last album, The Company You Keep (Red House), featured an all-star cast of guest star vocalists harmonizing with his unassuming baritone, including Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ani DiFranco, Lucy Kaplansky and Jennifer Kimball. Instrumentalists included guitarists Patty Larkin, Dean Magraw and John Jennings, fiddler Peter Ostroushko, and drummer Andy Stochansky, who used to work behind DiFranco and who shared co-production credits on the album with Gorka and Robb Genadek – or, as the liner notes put it, “two Polish guys and a Ukrainian.”

Like many artists, Gorka was shaken by the events of last September 11, and it affected his creative process.

“I was in writing mode before 9/11, and I wrote a couple of things after it, but in general it made me just wonder what … it made me question everything and what I should be doing with my time,” he said. “But it seems like the songs are coming again.”

For his Berkshire Museum concert, Gorka is bringing along the highly-touted, up-and-coming singer-songwriter Alice Peacock, who will warm up the audience for him and duet with him on several numbers.

Gorka says Peacock combines a pop sensibility with a desire to build a career from the grassroots up.

“She’s like Lucy Kaplansky in that way, in her attitude towards people and her own work and in constantly trying to grow as an artist,” he said.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 9, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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