The man from New Jersey is coming back – at least for one night.
Colonia native John Gorka, who has typified the new folk movement for the past three decades, is passing through the Garden State as part of a long-winding tour around the country. And on Dec. 1, he’ll appear at the First Congregational Church in Montclair, as part of the Outpost in the Burbs concert series.
And yes, Gorka says he’ll play what is, arguably, his most famous song, “I’m From New Jersey.”
“It’s true. I grew up in New Jersey, but moved to Pennsylvania to go to school – the Lehigh Valley – and stayed for almost 20 years,” he says. “For the past 21 years, I’ve been in Minnesota, because I met my wife here. She’s from Minnesota. It seemed a good place to be, because it’s a pretty central place to tour around the country. But I’ll always be from New Jersey. And I sing that song just about every night.
“One reason is that, last year, I started taking a poll of each audience and asked how many had not seen me play live before. To be honest, I was surprised how many hands went up. So I have a couple of introductory stories and songs to make the new people feel included. And ‘I’m From New Jersey’ is the first of those, and is also the most effective introductory song.”
That’s not really a surprise, though, because that tune also typifies an insightful and often wry lyrical style that has helped Gorka establish — and sustain — himself during a tumultuous time for working musicians. Even as streaming has made it tougher for bards to eke out a living, Gorka still manages to fill cafes and clubs, and release a new album now and then.
In fact, he is scheduled to release another early next year, although this will be his first since The Bright Side of Down appeared in 2014. There are longer stretches now between them, he says, simply because the evolving reality of the music business means he relies more on touring than royalties. But that hasn’t stopped him from writing new material.
“The same need to write songs is there. I don’t feel like I can express myself adequately just through talking. My favorite place to be is still in the middle of a song, working on a song,” he explains. “But it’s difficult to get new material into live shows. I know when I go to see a show I don’t want to hear the last five songs somebody wrote. I want to hear what I know and like. So I put myself in the audience’s position. And I do songs from the beginning.”
In other words, Gorka mixes things up a bit. He never uses a set list, but like many musicians who have been around long enough to become fixtures, he gladly reaches back to his earliest days as a folksinger to please long-standing fans and win new ones. And he has a lot of material from which to choose. Since his first album appeared in 1987, he has released 14 records, plus a live album.
Despite the platform his music provides, however, Gorka shies away from explicitly addressing current issues that may be making headlines. At 59, he clearly remembers when folk and rock music sometimes not only reflected societal change, but also was used to propel it. But to the extent that he addresses such issues, Gorka prefers to rely more on metaphor and imagery, in hopes of having an ongoing impact.
“Mainly, I look at current events as a window to human nature. I try to write songs about that and have them last longer and still be true,” he says. “There are easy targets. I actually wrote a song in the ’80s that mentioned (Trump), but not his last name. It’s about gentrification. I’ve got other songs I’ve written that could apply to current times. I don’t want to ignore what’s going on.”
Buy low, sell high
You get rich and you still die
Money talks, people jump
Ask how high low-life Donald what’s-his-name
And who cares?
I don’t wanna know what his girlfriend doesn’t wear
It’s a shame that the people at work
Wanna hear about this kind of jerk
— from “Where the Bottles Break”
“The title of my new album is True in Time,” he says. “Mainly, it’s a series of questions, but particularly, what is true in time? A big question is, ‘Who do we believe?’ I’m not really interested in exploiting divisions, though. That’s one way to go. I’m kind of looking past that.”
And he’s looking past New Jersey, too. After all, he may be from the Garden State, but the road beckons.
“I hope to tour as much as possible without hurting my health. I enjoy playing,” says Gorka. “It’s not a chore to travel and do shows. It’s more fun now than when I started. I’m lucky that way.”
Gorka performs at the First Congregational Church, 40 S. Fullerton Ave., Montclair, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m., as part of the Outpost in the Burbs series. Outpost volunteers will be collecting donations of new, unwrapped toys for the Toys for Tots program at this show. Visit outpostintheburbs.org.
For a chance to win two tickets, send an email to email@example.com by midnight Nov. 29 with the word “Gorka” in the subject line.