Resilient ‘American Idol’ standout has found success in Christian music
By Joshua Maloni
After entertaining millions of people for months on end, Danny Gokey found himself where most reality television music stars end up post-screen: without a record deal.
In reality, these shows exist to make their TV networks successful – not necessarily the artists who compete for a season crown. That’s not to say the judges are insincere, but rather it’s impossible for them to take myriad new artists under their wings year after year.
Where Gokey differed from so many of his castmates is that his purpose wasn’t just to become an entertainer. He had a higher calling – and sought to become an inspiration to others. Pairing his natural talent with supernatural favor, Gokey was able to bounce back from his overnight success hangover and build a sustainable career as a performer in contemporary Christian music.
Over the past decade, the “American Idol” alum has garnered three Grammy Award nominations, while also taking home a Dove Award and three KLOVE Male Vocalist of the Year trophies. He’s charted top of the pops with “Hope In Front of Me,” “Rise,” “Haven’t Seen It Yet” and “Christmas Is Here,” while cranking out hit singles “Hope In Front of Me,” “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again,” “Rise,” “The Comeback” and “Haven’t Seen It Yet.”
His latest album, “Jesus People,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Christian Albums chart last month on the strength of songs “We All Need Jesus (feat. “The Voice” standout Koryn Hawthorne),” “Stand In Faith” and the Spanish-language “Cristo Es Necesario (feat. Christine D’Clario).
Gokey will bring his “Stand in Faith Tour” to The Chapel’s CrossPoint campus at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21. Fellow “American Idol” alum and Christian music hit-maker Colton Dixon will support. Click HERE for tickets or more information.
The singer-songwriter and founder of nonprofit Better Than I Found It recently chatted with NFP. An edited Q&A follows.
Danny Gokey (Image courtesy of Merge PR)
Q: We are excited to have you back up in Buffalo. Outside of Kingdom Bound, Christian artists sometimes avoid New York – for whatever reason. When your team originally announced the “Stand in Faith Tour,” they only announced 11 shows – and we were fortunate enough to be among those 11 shows. What do you like about this market – and what made this a worthwhile stop for you?
Danny Gokey: Well, you know, I do love New York. That's No. 1. I love New York City, even too, like, even (though) I know there's so many tight measures now.
New York is, I think, an expensive place touring – in general – there's a lot of costs associated with it. Higher taxes and venue fees. And I think that's the challenge we walk into. And in Christian music, there's not a lot of margin.
But I was really glad that they made it happen. When they route out the cities, we give the approvals.
Right now, another thing is that so many tours are going out because everyone's trying to get back on the road – get back to doing what they love most. And so, I love the fact that we get to be out by you guys. I love the fact that we get to go up that way and do shows.
It’s interesting: In the East Coast, last year when the pandemic hit, we had a whole string of shows up around that area and everything fell through. So, it's almost like picking up the pieces again and saying, “Well, where can we go?”
Q: I talked with musicians at the beginning of the summer, and there was a lot of optimism, of course, about what could be done this year that couldn't be done last year. But then it was sort of very up in the air as we got to the end of the summer. What has touring looked like for you this year?
Danny Gokey: It's been cut in half, it seems like. Or maybe cut in thirds. Usually, our tours are minimum 32 cities, sometimes up to 45 cities. And now my spring tour was 12 cities. This tour, all together, with those 11 cities, it's like 14 cities we have in total. We have some shows that we added. And it's just small.
But I guess I don't mind at the same time, because I really enjoy being home with the kids. One thing about last year is that, when I got to be home more, it made me really see a part of my career that needed to shift. And that is being home more and not touring as much. And so, I think I'm looking for a happy medium now.
Q: So, even though you've had less shows, do you find that the shows have been better? Do you find that the fans are just so excited to be back out and seeing live music, that maybe the experience is just better than it was prior to the pandemic?
Danny Gokey: Yeah. I do notice that, actually. And it's funny: We go to different cities and some people will tell me, “This is my first show back and I can't wait.”
One show that we did – a festival we did in the summertime – they were saying, “This is the first thing we've done; it's been two years; (you’re) the first in the city.” And, man, you feel that anticipation.
At the same time, I think we've been used to it, because we've been touring more and more, but I have to remember that this is some people's first time back in a couple of years – to see a live show.
Q: Tell me about your live show. What can we expect when we see you up on stage?
Danny Gokey: Man, I mean we love to dance. We choreograph stuff.
I love my band. The musicality is off the charts. And the moments – it’s a lot of free flow.
But I think, more than just entertainment and singing, it's like soul food. People are going to get (that). Their hearts are going to be comforted, their souls nourished – for lack of better terms. And I feel like they'll feel ready to go out again, and be encouraged and full of faith, to get back out in this world and to go after their dreams again.
"Stand in Faith Tour" (Image courtesy of Merge PR)
Q: Danny Gokey in and of himself is a great show, a strong show, something people are jazzed about. But you plus Colton Dixon – that’s quite a double-bill. How did this come together, and what made this a good opportunity for you guys to partner up?
Danny Gokey: Yeah, I love Colton. You know, Colton and I have known each other for some time.
I saw Colton at a conference that we were at in the beginning of the year. He was there just giving me the idea, like, “Why aren’t we touring together? So, our teams connected, and we worked out the details, and it worked.
I love the fact that we share a brotherhood that not many people share. That’s the “American Idol” experience. And we've been through the fire – the “American Idol” fire – and we lived to tell; we still have careers. And, respectfully, not everyone can say that. It's a hard show. Music is just hard to do after the show, you know? If it was easy, every one of those “American Idols” (would be making music) – because they were all extremely talented – probably more talented than me and Colton. But many of them aren't doing music now.
So, it’s definitely a blessing.
Q: Of course, “American Idol” is coming up on season 20. There have been countless musicians that have gone on that show – even if you just think about the finalists over that period of time, versus the number who are actually working musicians right now. Everybody says when they're eliminated, “You haven't seen the last of me,” and we're kind of just like, “OK.” That's just kind of the way it is, right, because it's not sustainable – the market cannot sustain all these reality shows and bringing 40 more superstars in every year.
So, the question is then, what did you do differently? How is it that you are among the few who have been successful at this, post-“American Idol”?
Danny Gokey: You know, and that's a really good question, because when I came off the show, I signed a record label. That flopped. I literally signed my record label with great expectation; released the music; it didn't do as well; got dropped in 2011. You know, 2011 goes by. 2012 nothing. 2013, I got a new manager, and he basically sat me down and said, “Hey, without a record label, this is not possible.” And he said, “Because you need someone to finance your radio team; get you exposure; we need to get you with great producers and songwriters.”
So he goes, “I don't want to waste my time with you” (laughs). And he goes, “But I'm willing to take a risk on this.”
We went to a couple record labels; everyone shut it down. Finally, we went to this other record label – it’s BMG – they used to be Sony; they split apart. And he sat down with this guy named Richard Blackstone. And Richard Blackstone, he brought me up to the table, and Richard Blackstone said, “I don't know why I'm signing this Danny Gokey kid,” but he goes, “I feel like I'm supposed to.” And he looks at him and he says, “Help me not to lose any money! At least make me break even on this deal” (laughs).
And that was the confidence going in. But I went in – I think a big thing about me is my faith. I believe that God writes our stories before we even walk them out; and that there is gonna be challenges, but the challenge is not to abort a plan. You know what I mean? The challenge is stay focused. And vision is a big part of that. If you have a vision of what you want to be and who you want to be, that helps out.
And so, I made that record in 2014. It was the third or fourth quarter of 2014. I had my first No. 1 song – a four-week No. 1. And the rest is history.
It was literally five-and-a-half years after “American Idol” before I had any success.
And so, what's the secret? Really, I think there is no secret. I just think that you need to know who you are. And I think you need to – no matter what happens to you – stay on course. If you have that vision, keep chipping away at the vision, doing what you feel you're called to do. And you'll watch the pieces coming together.
It’s interesting, because that's the thing: Not many people on “American Idol” – I don’t know if anyone can say that – that they got dropped by their record label and rebounded. But I did, and I'm grateful for that.
Q: It's remarkable that you did have that little bit of a gap, because, to me, you're a musician's musician. I think you're as talented and as knowledgeable as anyone in the business.
Of course, being a Christian artist, you have challenges that are inherent to this music genre. Musicians outside of Christian music, they mainly want to entertain, and they want to say what they want to say. You want to entertain, too, but you also have to craft songs that are God-approved, that are Christian-friendly, but also accessible enough that they can resonate with any person, of any faith, or no faith at all.
Tell me about the challenges that come with that, the opportunities it presents, and how you sort of walk that line where you can reach and impact everyone.
Danny Gokey: That's really a great observation, that you recognize it, because I learned that on “American Idol.”
“American Idol” gave me this platform where I was like, “Wow.” There are people who will never walk into a church, who don't believe in God, but yet we're making a connection with music over this platform. And although faith is my No. 1 – and that's just not changing, because it's been real to me. It’s not like something I'm just creating and making up, and just on a whim. I've had huge experiences that have marked my life, to how true God is. But I want to write music in a way that the believer in Christ would resonate with. And part of that thing is I want to make music that – and not every song fits this category – but I've always said I want to make songs that, even if you never were a believer, you'd say, “Man, that really speaks to me. That really feeds my soul.”
It's not easy. And like I said, it's not every song. There's just some songs that are just going to be really super strong faith. But that doesn't mean that people who don't believe in faith (won’t like them). A lot of times, with that kind of song, they would say, “You know what? I want to give this faith a chance.”
"Jesus People" (Image courtesy of Merge PR)
Q: Was that the approach you took with “Jesus People”? What was the goal with that record, and are you pleased with the way in which it all came together? Certainly, it's been a commercial success so far. But are you happy with the way it all came together?
Danny Gokey: I am. And I think, in this day and age when everyone's trying to divide us – you know, divide and conquer is one of the easiest ways to conquer people, right, and to subdue a people – and that's what we're living in: very divided times. Jesus had the message of unity. He had the only message of love. Real love. Jesus brought people together. Jesus healed people. Provided for people. He does have the message of unity.
We can talk about “unity, unity,” but a lot of the things that people think are unity (are not). They haven't studied history; and they don't realize that it always goes to a really bad place.
You know, things that can look on the surface like, “Oh, this is a good answer for what we're in.” Jesus is the real answer – that's my very personal opinion.
And I'm not trying to slap people on the head with it. You know, there's a scripture verse in Acts that talks about you become witnesses when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And it's interesting. The reason I talk about Jesus is because I'm a witness to this. What is a witness? A witness retells events. They see something or experience something, and they just retell it.
And that's what my life has been. It's just, “Man, wow, God did this. Wow. This happened in my life.” I just get to retell through songs.
I get to retail the events, and I think we have the answer, and I want to share that answer with people. And I think “Jesus People” accomplished that.
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