Danny Gokey Talks New Album, 'American Idol' Memories & Christian Music Misconceptions
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; since then, the Milwaukee native has released four albums, launched two non-profits and bounced across three record labels. Even with the ancipation 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 singer spoke to Billboard about the inspirations behind a few new songs, the importance of giving back to his community and balancing his music interests.
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 artists?
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], watches 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 markets?
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.
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.
After I listened to “Wanted” on the album, that song actually felt like a message for people who are losing their grip on hope.
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 happened.”
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.
My favorite 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 your faith 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 purpose 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 a 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!