Gorka’s need for expression lead him to folk music
Since the early 1980s, singer and songwriter John Gorka has entertained audiences with his baritone and guitar.
In 1984, he won the New Folk Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, and Rolling Stone magazine praised him as "the preeminent male singer-songwriter" of the New Folk Movement.
He has toured with Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega and Michael Manring, and has embarked on many solo tours around the country.
So, it will come to a shock to some to learn that the biggest challenge for Gorka over the years is feeling uneasy in front of an audience.
"I was never all that comfortable with being a performer, because I’m sort of on the shy side of the spectrum," Gorka confessed during a telephone interview from his home near St. Paul, Minn. "It’s gotten much better. I’m kind of at peace with my awkwardness, but it took decades to get there."
Gorka will show Park City audiences his poise when he performs at the Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., for two nights, Friday, May 17, and Saturday, May 18.
Ironically, it was that uncertainty that steered Gorka towards music as a way to relay his feelings when he was younger.
"I never liked the way I expressed myself through speaking," he said. "I felt that I was not connecting the way I wanted to with people by using words alone.
"However, I was drawn to the whole lyric thing because I knew that I wanted to be a writer before I knew songs would be the way for me to go," he said. "So, the combination of words and music seemed to be a more complete and powerful form of expression to me, and I could even articulate, if I could not find the words, through the music."
Musically, Gorka was originally drawn to the sound of the banjo, before he picked up the guitar.
"Seeing Flatt & Scruggs on ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and then hearing the banjo on ‘Hee Haw’ spoke to me," he said. "That led me to the acoustic, singer and songwriter world, because my older brother would introduce me to the songs that would have banjo on it."
As Gorka listened to other music in general, the different artists that would catch his ear were classified as folk musicians.
"Sure, I like the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Elvis, so I wasn’t against mainstream rock music, but it seemed like the more I found out about folk music, the more it spoke to my whole life, because the topics weren’t just about love," Gorka said.
Of the three things Gorka has done throughout his career — writing, performing and recording — he spends the least amount of time making albums.
"So, I’ve had to gradually learn how to make records," he said. "That area really interests me these days. I can do more recordings at home, thanks to all the new technology than I thought I would be able to do. And that has pleased my inner geek, because I’m learning the technical side of things."
While recording new albums, Gorka has run into a dilemma.
"I feel like, lately, that the new songs I wrote have to be as good as the best of the old ones," he said. "Having made a bunch of records over a long period of time, it has gotten harder for me to decide if I’m going to perform songs that people want to hear and the ones I want to play.
"I know people come to my shows to hear old songs and relive memories, and I don’t always know which songs are my best songs, so I’m glad people ask me to play their favorites, so I can sort of gauge that and work on making new songs that live up to them."
When writing songs, Gorka looks to the human experience for inspiration.
"As people, there are only so many experiences we go through, even though there are variations to the themes," he said. "The essential experiences are pretty universal and I try to write the songs in a way where people can see themselves in the lyrics."
Gorka feels there is a difference between topics that are personal and ones that are private.
"You can write a song that’s personal, but it doesn’t have to make the listener uncomfortable," he said. "I feel like the strength of what I do comes from what I have in common with people and not what is different.
"If I can tell a story or relate and experience and feel at ease putting it out there, that’s a good sign that others will understand what I’m trying to say," Gorka explained. "That’s something I like about folk music."
Another thing that has inspired his writing is a project called Red Horse, which is a trio Gorka performs in with fellow folk artists Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson.
The group released a self-titled CD in 2010 and gets together on occasion to play concerts.
"I’ve been singing with Lucy since 1984 and we’ve sang on each other’s records, and I had done some shows with Eliza, and she has done some shows with Lucy," Gorka said. "Eliza had the idea of doing some shows with Lucy and me in 2009, and Lucy’s husband suggested we make a record."
Although the musicians didn’t have a lot of time, they agreed to concentrate on recording three or four songs, Gorka said.
They added more songs that turned into the CD, which surprised the artists.
"We were really pleased at how our voices sounded together, which was fun, because all three of us had never sang together at one time," Gorka said. "We had some great musical and personality chemistry and played some good shows.
"The conversations we had in the car driving around to different parts of the country, spurred some new songs in me," he said. "So, that was a nice bonus of that experience."
Currently, Gorka is working on a new CD and is targeting a January release.
"The theme is waiting for the spring," he said. "I don’t know how your winter was, but I live in Minnesota and we had snow as late as last week, so we’ve been in this kind of endless winter."
Other than the new release, Gorka said his future plans are to keep writing and touring.
"I want to reach all the people who want to hear what I do," he said. "It’s a continuing quest, because I feel like I have to reach new people all the time, and I hope to remain healthy enough to do that.
"I’m looking forward to Park City, because I’ve never been there before," he said. "I’ve been in Provo, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Moab. It will also be nice to play two nights in one place. That’s rare for me."
Singer and songwriter John Gorka will perform at the Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., on Friday, May 17, and Saturday, May 18, at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $40 and are available by visiting http://www.parkcityshows.com.
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The recognition left Jewish Family Service Executive Director Ellen Silver speechless, which she joked “doesn’t happen very often.”