Even before “My Best Days Are Ahead of Me” was released to country radio, Danny Gokey had earned a high profile among music fans by placing third on last season’s American Idol. With his close-cropped beard and stylish spectacles, the Wisconsin native was visually distinctive, but because his wife Sophia had died just before his Idol audition, he was emotionally vulnerable as well. Following a visit to CMT’s Top 20 Countdown, Gokey chatted about his first hit single, his enduring faith and why he’s keeping a positive attitude.
CMT: You must have heard a lot of songs when you started making the record. What set “My Best Days Are Ahead of Me” apart from the pack?
“My Best Days” just had a positive feel. So many people knew me on American Idol for the tragedy I had faced just before going on the show and those terrible circumstances. But American Idol had really brought hope into my life. It’s an entertainment show, but for me, it was a second chance at life. I didn’t want to live anymore, but going on the show brought a new passion for life and a new hope because I had something to focus on — something that I always dreamed about doing. So coming out with that song, which is a strong song, was meant to tell people where I am now, instead of where I was.
“I Still Believe” is about faith and staying strong. Why was that an important aspect for you to convey on your first album?
So many people are raised in church. They may not go to church now, but they have that foundation, and it’s a very meaningful foundation. It’s not saying that we have all the answers, but it’s saying, “I may not be where I want to be with my faith, but I believe.” It’s gotten me through a lot of stuff, and it’s going to continue to get me through a lot of stuff. Everywhere I go, when I perform that song, I ask, “How many people were raised in church?” A bunch of hands go up. And I say, “How many people were like me — kicking and screaming all the way there as a kid?” They all lift their hands. It’s like, we may not have liked it, but we’re glad we have the foundation.
I’ve heard you perform “I Will Not Say Goodbye,” and I could tell it means a lot to you. What was going through your mind when you first heard that song?
Oh, man. You talk about encapsulating all the emotions and all the feelings that I felt. When I first heard it, it was like, “Wow.” I mean, think about it — “I Will Not Say Goodbye.” What was the first interview on American Idol? I told everyone I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. That’s what I said. And I’m kind of glad I didn’t because after hearing the song, it refocused me and said that I don’t have to say goodbye. This is to be continued. Because I didn’t say goodbye, I went on American Idol and shared with the world who she was. Because I didn’t say goodbye, I birthed an organization called Sophia’s Heart to keep her legacy alive. It’s pretty interesting to see how this song has actually had a deeper meaning than I even knew.
You sang “What Hurts the Most” on American Idol and that’s a very intense song.
I love that song. I wish I recorded it! Sorry, Rascal Flatts! They do such an amazing job on it. It’s such a hit, you can’t even deny it. Every time I sing it, I’m like, “I love this!”
And you did a Carrie Underwood song on American Idol, too.
The music business can be overwhelming when you first get into it. How important is curiosity when you’re just starting out a career like this?
Curiosity is what helps you become a better performer. The desire to learn about what you don’t know about will help improve your performance on the stage. I’m curious to know what people like when I’m onstage. I walk away understanding what works and what doesn’t, and I think it’s huge.
Are you observant when you’re onstage?
Absolutely, because I’m a work in progress. Performing is brand new to me, so I want to make sure I capture the attention of people. I am noticing that there are different atmospheres wherever you go. People respond differently, so you have to be able to tailor your show to how they respond and to work with how they work. I think the best thing for me as an entertainer is always to be moldable and to be able to change. Don’t be like, “Oh, they didn’t respond” and get all mad and say, “I ain’t never coming back.”
Your positive attitude will appeal to a lot of new country fans. How do you personally stay upbeat when there’s so much going on?
It hasn’t been easy. I guess right now I’m learning to adjust. The biggest thing is I’ve been the guy who’s been trying to buck the system a little bit. I’m like, “I need rest.” I got two hours of sleep last night, and today I made up my mind that I’m not going to have an attitude because of it. Usually I pout a little bit and let everyone know. Every day I’m growing and that positive attitude really helps you enjoy life much better than having a negative attitude. Complaining is a horrible way of living. I’ve tried complaining and I didn’t like it. I’ve tried positive and liked it. So it makes it a little easier when you like it!