Wednesday, September 5, 2012

SEEN AND UNSEEN: SONGWRITER/SINGER JOHN GORAJ


Several years ago my friend Timmy J. Smith of Windom, Minnesota who is now studying for the priesthood hooked me up with his friend Johnny Goraj, who at that time still lived in South Dakota. I forget now exactly why: maybe John had read one of my books and wanted to say hey; maybe some kind of heart thing and Tim knew I had had the same kind of heart thing--something like that. I just remember talking to John on the phone from my apartment in Koreatown, and I remember that later he sent me a CD of his songs that made me realize he was the real deal.

Then John moved to L.A. We saw each other a couple of times, and then we didn't see each other for awhile. Last Christmas, he and his new wife Felicia stopped by because John wanted to buy a signed copy of Shirt of Flame to send to his mother. And then a few weeks ago we ran into each other again. I was happy to see him, as I always have been, and he told me he had a new CD. And a couple of days later he sent me the link to the album, Seen and Unseen and another link to the lyrics.

And I spent about the next week listening.

From the liner notes:
I recorded “Seen and Unseen” over a 12 month period in a guest house, where my wife and I still live now as I write this. This year of recording also included 3 months of teaching myself how to record music, learning the ins and outs of the software and bugging my musician friends on the phone, who are much more adept in audio engineering than I am, about how to make a something sound good. Around this time, I was living in the east end neighborhood of Los Angeles, Silver Lake, and was working as a trauma tech in the ER of Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. I felt a tremendous desire to get out of the noisiness and stuffiness of the city and was looking for somewhere else to live that is quiet where I could record my second album. I found this area that I live in now on accident. I was driving the wrong way on the CA 2 Highway heading north away from the city. Within a few minutes, I was astonished to see a beautiful lush and green valley that was situated in between a small mountain range known as the Verdugo Hills and a much larger system of mountains, the San Gabriels...

These songs are very special to me. These songs are typically never about one thing. Most of them are about several different things, ideas and feelings within one song. Some of them are about love. Some about childhood. Some are stories and experiences . Some about happiness. Some are serious. Some of them are about nature. Some of them are just sounds and noises and some of them I don’t know exactly what they’re about. Some of them are more accessible and some of them are concealed and written in more of a codex. This dichotomy became a central theme in the project and thus became the title, “Seen and Unseen,” which is a lined removed from an ancient mystical text- “I believe in God the Father, of all that is seen and unseen.” This line struck me very much in its parallel to life and our existence. When I reflected on it more, it resonated with me. It seemed like a great and fascinating mystery on all levels- but especially the physical, spiritual and emotional levels.


sample lyrics:

and how to make sense
of a casket built

for a baby
who barely got to live

and asked God
to be there with us

and He was
i felt him in my nervous system...


In short, I fell in love with this album and told Johnny so and he graciously agreed to respond to a few questions.

In "Horse and Home," you write "We grew up amongst farmers and drunks." Can you elaborate a bit?

"Horse and Home" is about a lot of different things. In short, It's also about being in a new relationship and the beautiful nature of finding someone very special, that person for me became my wife. It's also about when I moved to Los Angeles from the Midwest and how crazy of a time period that was in my life. The other parts of the songs are like little narratives, like we, "we undress in quiet rooms and open windows~ and someday we'll have a horse and a home." And the line that you asked about as well. That line references, the early stage of me getting sober from drugs and alcohol in South Dakota. The "farmers and drunks" refers to the older people that I met who helped me to do that, since that happened when I was pretty young still. The "farmers" meaning people who actually did farm or had rural or agricultural jobs or lived in the country who were a part of my life during this time. And the "drunks" meaning the people who actually were actually sober now, but playfully refer to themselves as drunks. The line goes on to say, " and they taught us the tough kind of love." And this is mostly elaborating more on the painful process of getting sober and how those instrumental people in my life loved me very much but also firmly encouraged me to look at things in my life I did not want to look at and that was very uncomfortable. But looking back, those people loved me enough to tell me the truth and that was what saved my life.

I was talking recently to some friends about the ways in which landscape informs creative imagination and really, the whole way we see. How did growing up in small-town South Dakota affect the way you see and experience L.A.?

Well, I can't say that I am from a super small town. The town I am from, Sioux Falls is more like a smaller city. But in general South Dakota is made of a lot of small towns. So no matter where you are in South Dakota, you feel the open spaces and fields,the slow pace, the wonderful changes of the season. There is less than a million people in the entire state of South Dakota, which is a stark change from the roughly 12 million that make up the greater Los Angeles area. So coming from SD definitely effected the way I experienced LA. I think creatively it was a beautiful thing to compare and contrast the two places and experiences and see what happened. "Seen and Unseen" delves into both worlds for sure, because some of the songs were written in SD and some in LA and some of the songs have traces of both places within the same song. I think , as a lot of people do, I have a lot love/hate relationship with LA. I mean, we all know the traffic sucks, there's too many people at times and all the noise and movement can get old . But then there's this other incredibly beautiful other half of it, which is the ocean, the mountains, all of the different cultures, the amazing history of LA, the food, the amazing plants and trees that grow all year round, and of course, the idyllic weather that we all fall in love with.

Where do you go from here? And what's your next project?

From here it's always songwriting and working on the craft, that's always the most important thing. I will probably make another album in the next year. I almost have enough songs for that. A friend and I are going to make a music video of the song, "We Were Just Kids" from the album, which I am really excited about. Beyond that, just continue to get the music out there to more people and hope for the best.

Also maybe tell us about the cover art, which I also love.

I am really glad you asked about this because it's a really cool story. The image is from a collection of apocryphal images ad writings called the Beatus Facundus. Beatus was an 8th century monk, writer and cartographer who lived in the Pico de Europa mountains of Northern Spain. He devoted he life to writing, compiling and creating these extremely colorful and detailed manuscripts that included commentaries on the Book of Revelation. I immediately fell in love with this work- the vivid colors, the bizarre creatures and the writings on the images in the Gothic Language. I was lucky enough to get permission to use it!


Give Johnny a shout, or buy his CD, or catch one of his shows
Thank you for your beautiful songs!

2 comments:

  1. Awesome, Heather! When you come to Spain you'll be able to see several "Beatus" manuscripts in different cathedral treasuries, libraries, etc. (There's also at least one at the Morgan Library in NYC.) Beatus wrote his commentary on the Book of Revelation in the 8th century, when a group of Christians had taken refuge from the Islamic invasion---they were pretty certain the end of the world was at hand...Thanks for sharing John's music, and his story, with us all.

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  2. oh wow...Spain..."Beatus"...aren't John's songs incredible?...

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