For more than a decade John Gorka was happy to live the lone troubadour's life, reveling in the freedom of traveling from town to town with his guitar and answering to no one but himself.
But he said it wasn't until he collaborated with other musicians as he does on The Company You Keep, released Tuesday (March 13) that he discovered true freedom.
"I found out you can be freer by working with other people," Gorka said from his label's office in St. Paul, Minnesota. "When you don't take on all the responsibility yourself, you open yourself up to new opportunities."
Gorka has worked with other artists before, but not to the extent of this album's partnership with Ani DiFranco percussionist Andy Stochansky. "Andy was able to throw a wrench into the normal workings of things," Gorka said. "And he's really knowledgeable about music I don't know."
Stochansky helped Gorka sweeten his sound with subtle interplay between the singer's guitar and Gordy Johnson's upright bass on the gentle "Over There" (RealAudio excerpt) and countryish "Hank Senior Moment" (RealAudio excerpt). Stochansky also plays djembe a tuneable West African drum on the album's centerpiece, "When I Lost My Faith" (RealAudio excerpt), which Gorka said was originally titled "The Illusion of Control and the Myth of Independence."
Gorka said the song came about, in part, from his experience as the father of two toddlers. "I had to learn how to play well with others," he said.
The song's lyrics mourn the loss of independence but celebrate the joys of community. "Possessions cannot save you / The way somebody can/ When I learned to care for others/ The boy became a man."
Gorka, 41, admitted that balancing his family responsiblities and his artistic pursuits is an ongoing struggle. "Everything is about scheduling," he laughed. "But you can't neglect yourself, either."
The Company You Keep is Gorka's second disc since returning to folk label Red House Records after a long stint with Windham Hill. The former philosophy major said the folk community had always nurtured him, ever since he discovered Godfrey Daniels, a coffee house in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
"Folk represented a world I didn't know existed before," Gorka said. "I found other people who wanted to make music that mattered to them, music that doesn't fit into a package."
The singer-songwriter, who released his first album, I Know, in 1987, said he's always tried to mix direct, to-the-point lyrics with more imagistic words that let listeners discover their own stories in the songs.
"Songs are sometimes bigger than records," Gorka said. "There's a version of the story I like, but a song's got more lives than that."
In fact, Gorka often runs into a brick wall. when he tries too hard to make a song specific. "Sometimes the song you try to write isn't the song that's in you," he said. "You've just got to let that song out."