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By Pam Steinfeld
Hometown Weekly Correspondent
Editor's note: John Gorka, an artist Rolling Stone referred to as "the preeminent male singer-songwriter of the New Folk Movement," is set to perform at the Homegrown Coffeehouse on Saturday, February 9. To mark the occasion, the editor has interviewed Needham's Pam Steinfeld, herself a singer-songwriter, to put Gorka's performance into context. Steinfeld's own career as an artist has won her over twenty songwriting awards, including six from the Billboard song contest. She has shared the stage with Richie Havens, Debi Smith, and Bill Staines, among others, and her work has been featured in publications such as the Washington Post Magazine and Music Monthly. She considers Gorka a major influence.
Pam, for those unfamiliar with him, who is John Gorka?
Well, he’s one of the most respected songwriters and singers in acoustic music - and has been for decades. John’s a very unassuming, likeable guy with extraordinary talent. His songs - which are either deeply touching or slyly funny - are staples of acoustic and independent radio playlists across the U.S. and abroad. And his performances are unforgettable - fresh, fun, and elevating.
John has been touring extensively for at least twenty-five years in the U.S. and Europe - sometimes playing 150 gigs a year. He won the prestigious Kerrville (Texas) New Folk Contest, has appeared on CNN, and toured with Mary Chapin Carpenter. His fourteenth CD, “True in Time,” was released this year, to critical and popular success. To quote Folk Alley, “John Gorka is a towering figure in folk music thanks to his longevity, powerful baritone, collaborative spirit, and remarkable songwriting.”
His backstory is really interesting. As he tells it, when he was a student at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, in the late 70s, he volunteered regularly at Godfrey Daniels, an acoustic music venue for major national and international acts. He volunteered because he wanted to hear the musicians coming through there. Over time, he started hosting the open mic there and then became the house opening act for artists such as Nanci Griffith, Jack Hardy, and Claudia Schmidt. My understanding is that within a few years, John had become so good that these same artists considered him to be one of their peers, took him under their wings, and introduced him around. He went on to win the Kerrville (Texas) New Folk Contest in 1984 and his career took off from there, with John headlining festivals, performing with Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega…
One of the great aspects of folk music is that you can often see the genre's "heavy hitters" in ridiculously intimate settings, like the Homegrown Coffeehouse. Can you describe the experience of attending a John Gorka concert?
Well, that question makes me think of Maya Angelou, who said something like "people will forget what you said and people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Anyone who has ever been to a John Gorka concert can attest to the truth of that statement. They remember the concert - first, because it was so much fun, and second, because it made them feel good. And they probably came back for seconds (and thirds, etc.). John’s tens of thousands of fans have been turning out for multiple concerts for decades.
The silver lining to the end of one of John’s concerts is that you get to meet him afterwards. He always comes out, a line forms, and John signs CDs, chatting with everyone.
So, let's say somebody with no folk experience shows up to see John's performance in Needham. What should they expect?
At a Gorka concert, there are so many aspects of his music and his performance vying for your attention and admiration. He has insightful lyrics, catchy tunes, deep guitar grooves, and often funny topics. (John sang that his newborn son “looks like Charles Bronson when he cries.”) You will be thoroughly entertained - you’ll learn something, feel something, laugh, and probably be fascinated by his talent. You’ll feel more connected to people than when you walked in, and you’ll probably smile a lot throughout the night. Whenever I’ve looked around at the audience, people seem really happy to be there - as does John. I love these performances and I learn so much from them.
You've been in the songwriting game since you were a kid…
Yes. I was always fascinated by songs - by all they could convey. I started to write songs when I was eight, a year after I started piano lessons. I listened to radio stations as much as I could - it was like finding treasure. And every time I got a new CD, I’d rip open the package and sit reading the lyrics. I wanted to find out where I was going, what “we” (the artist and I) would be exploring, what the artist valued, what insights I might glean from the songs. Then, of course, I’d listen to the CD and see what meaning the music and vocal delivery added to the words. Because I gravitated to artists who put a lot of time into their lyrics, I learned a lot - about songwriting and more. I saw what they valued and gained different perspectives. Songwriters staked their claims to what was important to them, and I think seeing that gave me the confidence to do the same in my songs.
I can only assume that like many singer-songwriters in the modern era, John Gorka's influence has made its way into your work.
Absolutely. For me, he set the gold standard for using words and music to make a story compelling. Because of his work, I see what songs can do for a listener in three to four minutes. When I was preparing to interview him in the 90’s, I looked closely at many of his songs and discovered so much about his work - such as when melody changes were most affecting, his creative ways of getting ideas across, lots of inventive rhythms, and how he could make so many topics so interesting. His songs really pull listeners in.
I’ve also had the incredibly good fortune to get to know John a little bit, thanks to the interview, attending many concerts, and enrolling as a student in two of his songwriting workshops. These experiences clarified even further what the targets should be, and I’m really grateful to him for that.
I would imagine that you’re also grateful to find such a world-class songwriter performing in your back yard.
Very. The Homegrown Coffeehouse gets top-tier acts and always has. The fact that John’s playing there is the ultimate proof that it’s a premier venue. I’m happy about the convenient location, but I can tell you that I, like most of his fans, would travel pretty far to hear him.
John Gorka will be performing at the Homegrown Coffeehouse at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Needham, located on 23 Dedham Ave., on Saturday, February 9, at 8 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at www.tiny.cc/GorkaNeedham29.