April 18, 2020 – John Gorka
Rising from a milieu of lovelorn singer-songwriters, John Gorka illuminates instead with his trademark wordplay, twisting, turning and tying words and phrases in the way a balloon artist creates complex creatures from simple balloons. Few contemporary songwriters coax language as deftly as Gorka. For over two decades, Gorka’s keen ear has picked up the stories of those along his path, folding them into poetry and song. His keen perceptiveness inspires people from all over the world to share their stories. By involving those tales in his music, he escapes the trap of introspection that hobbles less gifted singer-songwriters.
From New Jersey, John Gorka is a world-renowned singer-songwriter who got his start at a neighborhood coffeehouse in eastern Pennsylvania. Though small, Godfrey Daniels was and is one of the oldest and most venerable music institutions and has long been a hangout for music lovers and aspiring musicians.
In the late 1970’s, John was was one of these aspiring musicians. Although his academic coursework at Moravian College lay in Philosophy and History, music began to offer paramount enticements. Soon he found himself living in the club’s basement and acting as resident MC and sound man, encountering legendary folk troubadours like Canadian singer-songwriter Stan Rogers, Eric Andersen, Tom Paxton and Claudia Schmidt. Their brand of folk-inspired acoustic music inspired him, and before long he was performing his own songs – mostly as an opener for visiting acts. Soon he started traveling to New York City, where Jack Hardy’s legendary Fast Folk circle (a breeding ground for many a major singer-songwriter) became a powerful source of education and encouragement. Folk meccas like Texas’ Kerrville Folk Festival (where he won the New Folk Award in 1984) and Boston followed, and his stunningly soulful baritone voice and original songwriting began turning heads. Those who had at one time inspired him – Suzanne Vega, Bill Morrissey, Nanci Griffith, Christine Lavin, Shawn Colvin – had become his peers.
“John Gorka is perhaps the quintessential iconic singer-songwriter of the 80’s folk scene. Hailing from New Jersey, but forged in the Greenwich Village Fast Folk scene, he honed his craft and persona into an unmistakable image. The shy, wry, insightful, and yes, sensitive singer-songwriter has been copied and parodied. But the old coat he wove still fits, and still suits him well. The old songs ring as true as they ever did, and the new ones are just as good.”
In 1987, the young Minnesota-based Red House Records caught wind of John’s talents and released his first album, I Know, to popular and critical acclaim. With unusual drive and focus, John hit the ground running and, when an offer came from Windham Hill’s Will Ackerman in 1989, he signed with that label’s imprint, High Street Records. He proceeded to record five albums with High Street over the next seven years: Land of the Bottom Line, Jack’s Crows, Temporary Road, Out of the Valley and Between Five and Seven. His albums and his touring (over 150 nights a year at times) brought new accolades for his craft. His rich multifaceted songs full of depth, beauty and emotion gained increasing attention from critics and audiences across the country, as well as in Europe where his tours led him through Italy, Belgium, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland and Germany. He also started sharing tours with many notable friends—Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter among them. All this brought his music to an ever-widening audience. His video for the single “When She Kisses Me” found a long-term rotation on VH-1’s “Current Country,” as well as on CMT and the Nashville Network.
In 1998, after five successful recordings and seven years at Windham Hill/High Street, John felt the need for a change and decided to return to his musical roots at Red House Records. The choice was driven, in part, by the artistic integrity that the label represents in an industry where the business of music too often takes precedence. The 1998 release After Yesterday marked a decidedly different attitude towards making music for John, and his next release The Company You Keep held fast to his tradition of fine songwriting, yet moved forward down new avenues. Its fourteen songs displays John’s creative use of lyrics and attention to detail. Andy Stochansky played drums and shared production credits with John and Rob Genadek. Ani DiFranco, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucy Kaplansky and Patty Larkin contributed stellar guitar work and vocals to this fan favorite. Old Futures Gone was informed by his life as husband and father of two young children and also contained the colorful experience of many hard years on the road. Writing in the Margins followed in 2006 and was an engaging collection of sweet and serious songs that spanned many musical genres—folk, pop, country and soul—and featured guest vocalists Nanci Griffith, Lucy Kaplansky and Alice Peacock. Now with this, his 11th studio album, he returns to his roots with So Dark You See, his most compelling and traditional album to date.
In addition to his 11 critically acclaimed albums, John released a collector’s edition box featuring a hi-definition DVD and companion CD called The Gypsy Life. Windham Hill also released a collection of John’s greatest hits from the label called Pure John Gorka. In 2010, he also released an album with his friends and Red House label-mates Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson under the name Red Horse. Getting high praise from critics and fans alike, it landed on the Billboard Folk Charts and was one of the most played albums on folk radio.
Many well known artists have recorded and/or performed John Gorka songs, including Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith, Mary Black and Maura O’Connell. John has graced the stage of Austin City Limits, Mountain Stage, etown and has appeared on CNN. His new song “Where No Monuments Stand” is featured in the upcoming documentary Every War Has Two Losers, about activist and Oregon Poet Laureate William Stafford (1914-1993).
John Gorka lives in Minnesota and when not on the road, he enjoys spending time with his wife and children. He continues to tour, playing festivals, theaters and clubs all over North America and Europe.