By John Benson
Folk music has long been considered the fabric of America with a new block or square added to this familiar and comforting quilt every generation or so.
It was nearly 30 years ago when John Gorka emerged onto the late ’80s scene with his soulful baritone voice and warm, acoustic guitar sound placing him alongside the likes of new folk movement artists Suzanne Vega, Bill Morrissey, Nanci Griffith, Christine Lavin and Shawn Colvin.
Today, the Minnesota resident is hoping to once again redefine himself after his 2009 effort, “So Dark You See,” which saw him returning to his roots with his most traditional album to date. As for his upcoming new project, due out in 2014, he’s taking the same approach.
“This album is a bookend to the last one,” Gorka said. “The approach is very similar. I want the overall sound to be built around the vocal and guitar performances, because that’s mostly how people see me. If I can get good performances and if I can accompany myself well on the guitar, keyboard or whatever I’m playing, that’s kind of the focus. In a way, I guess I’m putting more pressure on myself to become a better player.”
Gorka characterizes the new album as thematically tackling issues of mortality and a longing for spring. Where the unreleased project differs from any of his previous 11 studio efforts is in the preproduction.
In the past, Gorka’s musical journey began in the studio; however, this time out the veteran musician is pulling back the curtain for fans to see his approach by road-testing material. For example, at his Friday show at the Kent Stage, Gorka may perform the “Richard III”-inspired song “The Last Plantagenet King.” You may remember the King’s skeletons were reportedly found under a parking lot in England not so long ago.
As for playing unreleased tunes, it’s a new experience for Gorka, who is basing the idea around the notion of a comfort zone.
“I don’t think there is any comfort zone, and there has never been a comfort zone,” Gorka said. “It’s just a different way of doing things. I still need to do all of the songs I would like to do and that people would want to hear. So it’s difficult in some ways. But in order to make a new record, I’ve got to make it as good as the best of the old stuff. So I’m kind of competing with myself.”
Gorka said as far as he’s concerned, his live show offers the best representation of his music.
“I think of the live performances as the primary way to get what I do,” Gorka said. “If people like the records, they’ll like the live show more.”
In talking about that live show, Gorka admits there’s a common exchange he has with fans that always tickles him.
“They thought I’d be more depressed than I turned out to be,” Gorka said. “But that’s OK; I kind of like having the melancholy tag. It gives me something to play off of. Also, that means the live show is a lot more fun than they might expect.”
It sounds as though Gorka is intentionally lowering a bar of optimism and frivolity with music that is the exact opposite with the end result being a surprise fans will enjoy.
“That’s right,” Gorka said, laughing. “I’m setting them up.”