John Gorka’s Bright Side of Down reflects grace and gratitude with effortless elegance. The Minnesota-based songwriter nurtured songs on his excellent new collection over the course of four years.
“I knew I wanted to build it around the vocal and guitar performances,” Gorka says. “That’s the way most people see me, so I wanted to be true to the live show and the feel of me playing solo — but have some color and magic from the other players and singers to put a frame around the songs.”
CMT Edge: How did you approach the recording process for Bright Side of Down?
Gorka: I would go in once a week to the studio in Minneapolis, and sometimes I would record at home. I tried to get a good performance and then see how it went — if it would hold up over time, if I liked all the lines in the songs as well as the performance.
It was the first time I’ve done it like this. I really enjoyed the process. I could try parts and instruments I had no business playing at home, even if they were to be replaced by better players.
Which instruments did you have no business playing?
There’s a bass part on a couple of things that ended up being replaced by a real bass player. I played the high-strung guitar on a couple which ended up being kept. I played a banjo part that I forgot I played until [producer] Rob Genadek brought it up. That ended up making it on the record, and I played a Wurlitzer part on one that ended up not being kept. I just tried different things to see how they held up. In the end, I’m happy with how everything went. I can listen to it and not cringe.
Tell the story behind the title track.
That was funny. I was staying with my friend Tom Pirozzoli. He made some records in the ’80s. If you can find his record called Travels, that’d be a great one to give a listen to. He’s also a very good guitar player and painter. I used his paintings for my last cover and this one.
I was staying at his house after a show — he runs a series in New London, N.H. — and it was wintertime and I was getting ready to go. I was telling him that I liked my down winter coat because it was really warm, plus it packed really well into the smallest places in my suitcase. He said, “Yeah, that’s the bright side of down.” I said, “Oh, I’ve gotta use that.”
How does his cover painting represent the new album’s lyrical theme?
Well, I think of the last record and this one as bookends. If you look at the cover of the last one, there’s a little house in the distance. I think of the new record as a close-up of that house looking in the window. It just seemed to feel right to have that on the cover.
How did “Holed Up Mason City” come to you?
My daughters had a birthday party, a tubing party, in Wisconsin on a Friday night. Our vehicles weren’t big enough to transport all the girls who were going, so we rented this minivan. I figured I’d just leave after the party and head south [on tour] to Iowa.
There was an ice storm and the windshield wipers didn’t work and it was pretty scary. … All of a sudden, I started feeling the minivan, which did not have snow tires, moving sideways on the road. I pulled over to the right and was riding on the rumble strip. It was getting worse and headed east. I ended up having to turn back a couple of times because the drifts were like five or six feet high. There was no way I was driving through them.
Eventually I made it to Mason City and stayed the night. It wasn’t until later that I realized that Mason City was the airport where Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens flew out of after their last show. So, he made it in the song. There is no Big Bopper Diner in Mason City, but I found out afterward that there is a Big Bopper drive-in in Solvang, Calif., so I guess I wasn’t totally off.
What drew you to Bill Morrissey’s “She’s That Kind of Mystery”?
Oh, I’ve always loved that song. Bill was a friend. I always loved his songs and him. He’s a great guy. His CD Standing Eight is one of the best singer-songwriter albums of the late 20th century. I just wanted to have him represented on the record.
Describe Bill’s greatest asset as a songwriter.
I think he was great at inhabiting a character and then painting a scene with that character where the subject seemed fully human — warts and all. I admired that about him. Somebody asked me if there was a song I wish I’d written, and I said, “Birches.’” I think that’s a great song.
What other songwriters do you draw from as a lyricist?
Townes [Van Zandt] is a great one. Sometimes when I’m running a lyric in my head, I try to imagine other people singing it and how it would sound. With “If These Walls Could Talk” from the Red Horse project [the 2010 album with Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson], I thought, “Would these lines sound OK coming out of Townes Van Zandt?” I figured if they would sound all right coming out of Townes’ mouth, it’d be OK.