Danny Gokey Talks New Album,
'American Idol' Memories & Christian Music Misconceptions
Gracie - Billboard Magazine
After wrapping up his Hope
Encounter Tour last fall, Danny Gokey is continuing a whirlwind
year with a new album, as well as an addition to his ever-expanding family.
"I think the biggest thing going on in my life right now is having another
baby," the 38-year-old singer tells Billboard. "My wife is pregnant with
baby number four."
The Christian star's music career took off following his appearance on
American Idol season 8, where he finished in third behind Adam Lambrt
and Kris Allen. Since then, the Milwaukee native has released four
albums, launched two non-profits and bounced across three record labels.
Even with the anticipation of his fifth album Haven't Seen It Yet
(out Apr. 12), Gokey says he's ready to take some time off. "Me and my wife
Leyicet bought a new place in Tennessee, and it's like 24 acres," he
says. "So I'll finally be able to enjoy my land and be at peace."
The lead single and title
cut from the CD is already climbing Billboard's CCM charts into the top 5. (click
The singer spoke to Billboard about the inspirations behind a few new
songs, the importance of giving back to his community and balancing his
How did your
love for music first develop?
I grew up with five
siblings and we would all sing with my parents at church, so it started as a
thing that mom and dad wanted us to do. But the change came when I was about
12 and I began singing in the car. My dad turned to my mom and said, "Wow,
he has a great voice!" I never felt that way, so those words really pierced
me. Then my youth pastor at church started taking me out of my comfort zone
and really pushed me to sing solos. I didn't want to do it at first, but I'm
so glad they pushed me in the right direction.
Did you mostly
listen to Christian music growing up? Or was it more of a mix with secular
It was definitely a mix.
My dad listened to a lot of Motown, funk and jazz artists like The Chi-Lites,
Average White Band, James Brown and saxophonist Candy Dulfer. But
we also listened to country, worship music and contemporary Christian music.
My dad was really the one who led the family's music taste. When I'm
listening to Huey Lewis & the News and James Brown and The
Temptations, they have so much soul. That really resonated with me. I
remember when I first did karaoke at 12 years old, I sang "Tutti Frutti"
by Little Richard. Just this big soulful voice coming out of this
maybe 80 pound kid!
You're now 10
years removed from your first American Idol audition. Looking back,
how did that moment help shape you as an artist?
Man, that was such a
pivotal moment in my life and it brings back all kinds of memories. My first
wife watched American Idol all the time, and one day I [in 2008] sat
down with her to finally watch it. One month later, she passed away [from
complications from a congenital heart disease] before my audition, and I was
devastated and felt uncomfortable. But I still went out to try it and it
shaped my future.
Trust me, I wanted to take a year off and go try out the next year. But
that was my last opportunity to audition because of my age, and it became
destiny. God writes our stories, and that was one chapter that I couldn't
comprehend [at the time]. But I can look back now and say that I'm stronger
because of it. A whole new opportunity opened up during that very, very
difficult time. And, hopefully, that could be an inspiration for a lot of
people - you don't have to be defined by the darkness. It can actually
catapult you towards the light.
Do you still
watch the show?
I wish I did! I so want to
watch the show, but every time I try to I'm literally not in a place to
watch it. Mandisa, she's also an American Idol alum [from
season five], watched it while we were on tour together. The one thing I
forgot to do was to record it while I'm on the bus. But I have this weird
thing where if I don't watch [a show] from the beginning, I can't just jump
into it. Can you stream American Idol on Hulu? I think I'll get a
subscription then. (laughs)
You signed to
Capitol Christian Music Group last year. Did you have any nerves that doing
Christian music could hinder you from expanding into other mainstream
That's always been part of
the concern. So American Idol was a big eye-opener because I realized
that so many different kinds of people tuned in to the show. It didn't
matter about your race or ethnicity - there were no borders. So I didn't
want to create music just for the church. I wanted to encourage, motivate
and entertain people who would never walk into a church because music is a
gift that should be shared. My first record deal that I came out the gate
with was actually country [at 19 Recordings/RCA Nashville in 2009], and I
completely failed at it! I sold a bunch of albums, but I believe that was
from the American Idol crowd. When the music went to radio, no one
really believed it, because I was a soulful singer on American Idol.
When I left the show, I didn't sign to a Christian label because I didn't
want to be put into a box. So I ended up getting dropped from the label and
I was devastated because I thought I would have the most momentum after the
show. I took a couple years off from music and later got signed to BMG. The
guy who signed me actually told my manager, "I don't know why I'm signing
Danny Gokey but I feel like I'm supposed to. Don't make me lose any money,
at least make me break even."
So there wasn't a lot of confidence in me! But I'm glad he took that
risk, because I was actually able to make the record that I wanted. Before
that deal, I sat down with a few Christian labels, and none of them wanted
to sign me because they felt like I didn't know who I was. But I had this
vision that I wanted to reach out to the churched and unchurched, and BMG
helped me do that. Now, Capitol is doing the same.
official video of
"Haven't Seen It Yet"
official video of
live performance of
Contemporary Christian Music hit,
Are there any
stigmas you face while being a Christian artist? Do you even want to be
classified as that?
We're always going to be
judged before we're known, but the goal is to reach beyond that and write
music about hope and entertainment - that's what I do. If [being branded] as
a Christian artist is affecting me negatively, then no. But to some people
of the faith, it really means a lot to them for me to carry that label. One
of my favorite characters in the Bible is named Paul. He said, "[I have]
become all things to all people." And I love that thought.
What was the
inspiration behind your
"Haven't Seen It Yet" single?
It's for people dealing
with disappointment, which often makes people do a lot of things they don't
want to do. I was a widower and now I'm married again, but there are many
who try to escape the pain of losing a spouse by doing bad things like
drugs. So this song is for those people - not just widows and widowers - to
give them hope. If you've been praying for a long time and haven't found the
answer, you're gonna need to look at all the good things that God has done.
What you feel now many not be the truest, and God is not finished with you
yet. The best is yet to come. It's a song of comfort, hope and to keep
people pushing through the dark times.
listened to "Wanted" on the album,
that song actually felt like a message for people who are losing their grip
This story gets kind of
interesting. (laughs) So that was the very first song we wrote for the
album. There was me, the producer and writers Jess Cates and
Bernie Herms in the room. These guys have written massive pop hits [Backstreet
Boys' Incomplete, David Archuleta's Crush], but
they're also Christian men. Jess was talking about an experience he went
through when he was younger. He shared this story with us about this prayer
group of guys that he talks with. A couple of years ago, he explained to
them that he kept hitting this wall and couldn't get over this situation.
One of the guys told him, "Jess, I want you to close your eyes and go back
to that dark place. I want you to ask Jesus where you were when that
All of a sudden, Jess breaks and starts crying. He said, "I saw Jesus in
the corner. He walked up to me and said, 'I was there the moment when it
happened. I saw you lost your heart that day, and I'm giving it back to
you.'" So Jess began to realize it wasn't that God wasn't there, he just
couldn't see him through all the pain. "Wanted" is about people who
have dealt with massive rejection. But no matter how big or small the trauma
was, the creator - the one who's written the story of your life - still
wants you. Rejection can really tear people apart and make us own our
enemies. So, the song is just about restoring hope to a lot of people.
song on the album is "More Than I Could Be" - I think it can pass for a
Justin Timberlake track. How do you find the balance between highlighting
and creating modern music?
That's always my goal, you
know. How do we stay current? I'll just say it flat out: the budget that we
have in Christian music is nothing compared to pop budgets. With that being
said, it creates a stigma with Christian artists. Some pop artists don't
want to work with us because they feel it could tarnish their reputation.
[I'm] not saying that's always the case, but sometimes we have to work
through that stigma. But I want music with very current sounds when it calls
for it - not every song is gonna be a monster-pop song.
The last one I
wanted to highlight is
"New Day." It's such a feel-good song,
and I can see it being a fun summer single.
We do that song live on
tour and it's such a crowd-pleaser. Me and my band do a choreographed dance
to it and we get down! The song took, like, three writing sessions to get it
right. When you write an inspirational song like that, making it an up-tempo
can be cheesy. So, the goal was to remove the cheesiness. It's so difficult
because, lyrically, you're like, "Uh oh, I see where this is going!" So it
took us a little bit of work, but we nailed it.
I know you
recently created your Better Than I Found It non-profit. What's the
behind the organization?
Before my first wife
passed away, she worked at a school with kids. There was a death stipend in
her health insurance. When they gave me the check, I wasn't expecting it. It
wasn't a lot of money, but I took it and founded Sophia's Heart
Foundation - which was named after her. I had facilities in Nashville,
Milwaukee and Sacramento where we rehabilitated 200 homeless families, but I
couldn't keep the funding up. I was really sad when I had to shut the
organization down [in 2016] because it took a lot of love to make it work.
So then I decided to start Better Than I Found It to help those
people who are helping others. We recently did a $150,000 remodel on a
kitchen for an organization that has been feeding homeless people in
Nashville. They recently lost their location, so we found them another one
and gave them a new kitchen. Now they're serving 26,000 meals. I want to
find the Mother Teresas of this world and help take them to the next
level. We filmed our first episode, so now I'm trying to find a deal and
turn this into a TV show. Sky's the limit!
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