There’s a gentle reflective cast to his songs. Nimble poetry pirouetting around burbling acoustic guitar melodies. A limber baritone supporting arrangements that are spare and understated, even on record, providing ballast that keeps them from drifting away.
John Gorka has established himself as one of folk’s finest writers, a master at walking the tightrope between sentimentality and earnestness. His songs move with a light, expressive touch, blending atmospheric beauty and rootsy flavor.
Nearly a quarter-century since his first release, the New Jersey native’s still finding new things to get into. Like getting together with fellow singer/songwriters Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson.
Their group, Red Horse, released a self-titled debut last summer featuring the three covering each other’s songs. Despite their busy schedules, they’re having so much fun with it, they’re finding time to fit in several shows this month. Meanwhile, Gorka continues to support his 11th album, 2009’s “So Dark You See,” a more intimate affair than his last few, which were recorded live in the studio with a band.
“With ‘So Dark You See,’ I wanted to do it more like my live show, which is mostly me and the guitar,” said Gorka, who plays Sunday at Norman’s Performing Arts Studio. “I wanted that to be the center of things with touches of other players, but the focus be on the guitar and vocal.”
It features his typical mix of heartbreak and social commentary. The idea of appreciation and sympathy for what surrounds you runs through the disc, prompting its title.
“It’s partly a reference to the times we’re living in, and I like the idea of a sky that’s so dark, you can see the stars,” Gorka said. “It’s also like how sometimes before you can make a positive move, you have to hit bottom before you can find a way out.”
Although his pretty, literate roots-pop potentially could fit within the adult-contemporary format, he remains somewhat ghettoized in the folk market. Not that he’s complaining. His run in the early ’90s on Windham Hill Records really raised his profile, and helped build a sturdy grassroots following.
“With the bigger record company, it started well and ended badly.
But as time has gone on, the good they did, they couldn’t undo, even if they would’ve liked to,” Gorka said. “Categorizing myself in the folk world gave me freedom to do whatever I want. I think it’s good for the music to not be in the commercial end of the music world. My friend Jack Hardy’s definition of folk music is where the song is more important than the singer. I think that’s a good way of looking at it.”
As a Jersey kid who drove himself because, as he sings, “they never think that they are good enough,” Gorka sees a lack of overwhelming commercial success as a good thing.
“That you don’t have it made is very healthy,” he said. “Enough notice, attention or of an audience to keep you going, but not so much that you can ever stop trying. You need some acceptance, but too much is a bad thing.”