One word — one descriptive word — keeps emerging when you talk to John Gorka. It is used when this veteran singer-songwriter describes how he writes, how he records and especially how he approaches concert performances.
It also pops up whenever he refers to his extensive solo career, his involvement with the all-star folk trio Red Horse or his duo performances with fellow songsmith and Red Horse mate Eliza Gilkyson.
The word? Fun.
It's as simple as that. For as long as Gorka has been making records, from his '90s albums for the Windham Hill spinoff-label High Street to his lusciously stark 2009 effort So Dark You See, or writing songs, from the whimsical I'm From New Jersey (from 1991's Jack's Crows) to the curiously retributive If These Walls Could Talk (from last year's self-titled debut album by Red Horse), Gorka has found a sense of lasting jubilation.
"Inspirations for songwriting can come from anywhere," said Gorka, who performs with Gilkyson for Monday's taping of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. "But the process is still fun and mysterious. I generally try to get out of the way of the songs and try not to force them into any box or corner."
Largely rooted in folk, Gorka has never shied away from band-oriented projects. But on So Dark You See, he scaled back the music for more of a coffeehouse feel: The arrangements and production accentuate vocals, acoustic guitar and the songs themselves. The album's thematic and stylistic scopes, however, were vast.
There is a spirited cover of Utah Phillips' I Think of You, prefaced by a spoken intro/endorsement by the great folk activist, the first instrumental compositions Gorka ever committed to a record (Fret One and Fret Not), a sleek reading of the blues gem Trouble in Mind, a Robert Burns poem that Gorka sets in an elegant acoustic setting of guitar and harmonium (A Fond Kiss) and a selection of fine Gorka originals (Whole Wide World, Night Into Day and Diminishing Winds).
But So Dark You See accomplished something else. Perhaps unknowingly, Gorka set the wheels rolling for his next project. Among the guests on So Dark You See were Gilkyson and Lucy Kaplansky, the other two-thirds of Red Horse.
"The three of us had never sung together before we made the record. We didn't even know how our voices would sound together. But it was a lot if fun."
Although the trio is new, Kaplansky and Gorka are longtime friends ("I've been singing with Lucy longer than I have not been singing with her"). The alliance with Gilkyson is comparatively recent.
When the three set about work on the Red Horse album, they opted for the same stripped-down folk feel of So Dark You See.
"The idea for So Dark You See was to have the center of the music be the vocals and the guitar. I think Eliza and Lucy wanted that same kind of spareness for Red Horse, for it to be less about production and more about the songs. We were more interested in letting the song shine than having some big, impressive product."
There is also a major organizational distinction in the design of Red Horse. Usually in all-star configurations, the artist who writes the song will sing the song. Red Horse jumbles that notion by letting the three tackle one another's songs.
"That was Eliza's idea, and it was really a great one," Gorka said. "It's a fun challenge to try and inhabit the lines that somebody else wrote. So it's fun that we were able to do that."
Unfortunately, logistics don't always land on the side of the trio. With Kaplansky, who performed in Lexington last winter, eager to spend much of her time with her young daughter, Red Horse often becomes the duo of Gorka and Gilkyson. And that presents its own performance dynamic.
"We've been doing quite a few shows as the two of us," Gorka said. "Lucy hates to leave home, so that leaves me and Eliza to mix up the show a bit.
"I love Eliza's songs, I love her singing and I love her records," Gorka said. "I've listened to her records a lot. They're great company on road trips. There are only a few people whose records are good company like that. But Eliza's records are definitely in there."