Hope In Front Of Him: A Conversation With Danny Gokey

Grammy Award nominee and Dove Award Winner Danny Gokey admits that he initially didn’t care for the prospect of performing on a stage located in the middle of an arena, surrounded by fans on all sides, at all times. After having spent his entire career at the north, south, east or west ends of venues, taking his talents to the middle was perplexing at best, intimidating at worst.

But passing up a shot to be a part of Christian music’s largest and most successful annual winter tour, the freshly-configured Winter Jam Spectacular, wasn’t something the 38-year-old performer wanted to do either. So, in true Danny Gokey fashion, he did what he does best — he adapted. And true to form, he’s emerged better for it.

“The only thing was that I wasn’t looking forward to performing in the round when I first heard it, to be honest,” Gokey, a former “American Idol” contestant, said in a recent phone interview. “You have your back to the people, and me and the band like to do choreography, so you have to figure out how to do some of the moves without alienating people. I was like, ‘Man, this isn’t conducive.’ But for them (Winter Jam), they’re trying to change it up, and I understand that. But (after learning of it) I also walked away thinking that I was going to get experience in an area that I need experience in.

“One thing I’ve really learned in life is that getting out of your comfort zone and having to do something that stretches you, is usually the best thing for you. So, as much as I didn’t like it, I was looking forward to doing something I hadn’t done before.”

The 3-month, 44-city Winter Jam tour rolls into Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines this Friday night, Jan. 25, and along with Gokey, features a number  of well-known Christian artists including the platinum-selling Newsboys United, Newsong, Rend Collective, Hollyn, Dan Bremnes, Manic Drive, Ty Brasel, Jen Ledger, and more.

Gokey spoke with ListenIowa recently about his “American Idol” experience, and his recent visit to the White House, among other things.

Have you been a part of the Winter Jam experience previously, or is this your first go-round?
This is first time I’ve been a part of Winter Jam. I just got done with my own headlining tour, and one of the things with Winter Jam is that I don’t have to carry the night every night. I like doing that — putting an hour-and-a-half into my sets — but in the Winter Jam set, I get 25 minutes, so it’s not wearing me out, and I feel like it’s a really rewarding experience.

You finished third on Season 8 of “Anerican Idol” back in 2009. Other than the exposure, how was the rest of the experience for you?
My experience was a little different from any other contestant who has been on the show. I’m the only contestant who faced the loss of a spouse one month before the show. That wasn’t the story that I wanted, but it was the story I had to walk through and endure. For me, that was just uncharted territory. I had never lost someone close to me like that. It also brought a lot of hope to me too, though. In the midst of losing my dream, I had another dream that I was resurrecting in that moment, which was music. As far as the show, I wish I could say it launched me, but it didn’t. My first record deal ended up falling apart. I didn’t have a successful song after the show. I was literally doing nothing for several years. No record labels in Nashville were willing to sign me.

Why was that? You had a successful debut album with “My Best Day” right out of the gates after “Idol.”
The debut was great, but the sustain wasn’t there. A person can sell a bunch of records the first week, but if you can’t sell records after that because you’re not getting radio play, the record label will end the relationship. And they did. So here I was, five-and-a-half years after “Idol,” and by then there were five additional seasons (that had taken place), and at that point we were just a thought in the wind. But it was then that I had my first No. 1 single (“Hope In Front Of Me”), and my name, when I got back on radio, it started ringing a bell for people, and that was the power of the show. But I can only give credit to God for where I am today. I should have had the most momentum coming off the show, but I had to grow this thing. It took a little bit to see some sales.

Another “Idol” contestant, Lee Dewyze, said that even though he actually won (Season 9), it wasn’t necessarily the best thing for him in some regards, ironically. Once it was over, he had to sort of reinvent himself.
I did have to reinvent myself a few times, too. When I came off “Idol,” I signed with a country label, and I think that was a reinventing of myself because most people didn’t see me as country. And then when I got off the show and lost my deal, I had to go back and make the “Hope In Front Of Me” record, which was the one that launched me. I know who I am more now, though, than when I went into the studio to make that record, because I feel like I’m learning as I go. I’m grateful for “Idol,” but it’s really difficult to make it, even after that show.

It’s not the golden ticket.
It sure isn’t. Ninety-nine percent of the people who finished “Idol” in the top 10 in 10 seasons or more, are not “making it.” Only about 1 percent are.

Your past three albums have been different in that the first was on a country label, then “Hope In Front Of Me” moved you to the contemporary side, and now with “Rise,” you’ve added some R&B, hip-hop, etc.
I’m a product of the melting pot. I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the minority is the majority. I’ve grown up with so much culture. I grew up with salsa, merengue, country, gospel, R&B, jazz. We were listening to all types of music. Everybody listened to everything growing up.

So the natural question is, what’s next?
I’m making a record now. I’m on my third record deal. I successfully finished my last deal and am making another record and working on a TV show right now. Hopefully if all goes well with the TV show, we will be releasing a show in the fall. I’m really excited about that, and it’s something that I’ve had in my heart for years. The TV show was my idea. It’s called “Better Than I Found It,” and it was something I pitched to a network, and we’re shooting the pilot for right now. It’s not a music-based show, although music will be a part of it.

You also performed at the White House recently.
Yeah, there’s something special going on at the White House right now. They’re engaging the faith community. We got to sit down and meet with a bunch of advisors who invited us out there. They said, “The president wants to fix social issues, and he knows the government can’t do it alone. We need to engage the church.” They were just letting us know what the issues were and where they needed help such as immigration, and the children with parents who aren’t here. They need foster care and people to step up. Sex trafficking is another issue in which they need help solving. We’ve had administrations in the past that have engaged the faith community, but as far as I know, this one has reached out the most. I love the fact that they realize they can’t do it alone. That’s why they reached out to the faith-based community, because our principals are feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, visiting those in prison, rescuing the innocent from the oppressors.

You’ve said in a Facebook post that you felt things were changing after the visit. What was it that you saw from within that give you this hope?
You know, it’s taboo to support this administration. Let’s be honest, it’s not a popular thing to support (President) Trump. It’s popular to be on the other side. So you just have to navigate with care. Accusations are going to be thrown out. It’s like, “Trump, you hate immigrants.” Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth, because I live with immigrants. My wife’s parents emigrated here. I just think that there’s so much propaganda, period, from both Democrats and Republicans. What it is is sifting through and finding things that really matter. We can sit here and point fingers, or we can really help. Every relationship that I’ve been in, if you point fingers you destroy that relationship. If you get in and serve a relationship, change happens. My belief system is served no matter who is in the office. I would have been there if (former President) Obama was in office. I was there, but Obama didn’t invite me, Trump did. To those who don’t like it, I think what they need to learn is that you can actually not like something and still be kind and still talk gently to others. I can be kind whether or not I like someone. That’s a character issue, and I just think a lot of people don’t possess character in our day, and they reveal themselves when they open their mouths.

Back to the music. What can we expect in Des Moines?
Man, I’m bringing my horn players. We’re a funky band, and I love having the funk there. We’re going to entertain, we’re going to dance, but I think most of all, we’re going to bring a message of hope. Hope needs to be shouted from the mountaintop. There’s a lot of hopelessness in our world. Expect to walk away knowing there are good days ahead, and that God’s got some really amazing things in front of you.