Danny Gokey made a name for himself as a finalist on the eighth season of American Idol. Now he’s making sure you don’t forget it. Released in March, his debut album, My Best Days, spawned two Top 40 country singles, “My Best Days Are Ahead of Me” and “I Will Not Say Goodbye.” In addition, Sophia’s Heart, a charitable organization he founded in memory of his late wife, continued to reach out to underprivileged children and families.
Gokey recently visited CMT’s offices in Nashville and reflected on the response to his style of country music, the decision to cover Amy Grant‘s Christmas classic and what he’s expecting in 2011.
CMT.com: Your last year has been pretty eventful. Looking back, what was it like during your first year as a mainstream country artist?
Gokey: Love it. It has been awesome. Going into the whole “being an artist” thing, I didn’t know what to expect, but it has been better than I expected. I mean, there are ups and downs — and I think I’ve experienced both of them this year. But I love music and I love what I’m doing. I’m entering a new part of my career right now, which is writing. Just writing, singing and getting ready for the next album. I can’t wait to see how I start evolving more. I really think next year is going to be a big year.
What are you expecting for next year?
Well, with music, we really had to rush the first album, and it turned out so good. It really did. But on this next album, we get to take our time. I wasn’t allowed to write on the last album because we had to fit into a time frame, which I totally understand. But now that we don’t have to rush it, there’s no extra headache or excess anything. We can really be patient with it and put all our heart and soul into it. We can really form it and evolve it into what I sound like as a growing artist. With each album, you want to get better and better and better. So I do expect this album to be even greater.
What were some of the surprises you found as you started trying to establish yourself at country radio and with country fans?
Probably one of the biggest surprises is that we experienced pushback from people. They didn’t really want to hear it because my voice is very soulful, probably more than most country singers. But I think that’s what’s so unique and what makes me stand out as an artist. And I’m sure they have their right reasons. I think in some places I haven’t been given the full shot that I wanted, but it doesn’t stop me. You just keep moving forward and keep making better music. You’ve got to think ultimately, when people push you back, it refines you. You refine your character. You refine your musical abilities to be even better than you ever could’ve been before. I think every challenge poses an opportunity to become better. Although it’s a lot more work now, I think that the next album is going to prove to be a better album. Not only that, but I’ll be a more refined artist.
What was going through your mind the first time someone told you no?
I was hurt. There was frustration because I was like, “Why would you just shut me down like that?” I mean, do you want everything to sound cookie-cutter? Does everything have to sound the same or else you won’t give it a shot? So that was a challenge because then I had people tell me, “You need to change this, and you need to change this.” And I’m like, “But that’s not me, though.” It’s a tough question to answer because you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you. Radio is a huge part, and you need radio to be successful in this career. So we’re working with it and we’re trying to show people who didn’t believe it that it is believable.
Did you expect that response coming off the show? On Idol, you didn’t sing much country.
Well, on the show I sang three country songs, then I sang a whole plethora of everything else. It’s funny because people are like, “Why don’t you do R&B?” I’m like, “I don’t even like R&B. Why would I want to do R&B?” Or, “Why don’t you do Christian music?” Well, no, I don’t want to do Christian music. It’s not for me. I was raised in church. I love Christian music, but I don’t want to be a Christian singer because it automatically puts you in a box. You’re this, and I don’t want to be that — whatever they say I’m supposed to be. I want to sing music that makes sense all across the board. I grew up on country music, and I’ve always loved country music. When I chose that this was what I wanted to do, a lot of people went with it, but there were a strong few that said, “No, we’re not going to have it.”
A lot of your music focuses on the positive. Is that what you were going for?
You can only do so much with 10 songs, and there are only 10 songs on my first album. But, yes, of course, positive was part of it. But with the second album, I can’t wait to show more dimension. Of course, I want to have a positive part in it, but I want to talk more about stuff. Positivity gets old after a while. I want my albums to reflect what people go through in life, and a life experience is anything from sex to pain to love to getting down and getting funky and just singing your face off to things that are really just fun. And that’s what we do.
And that’s why you chose country music?
Absolutely. Because you can do all of that. And the one thing that I appreciate about country music the most, what’s definitely at the top of my list, is that having the beliefs in God that I do, you’re not criticized. You’re not put down, and I think that’s really cool. I like that.
You have a new holiday single, “Tennessee Christmas,” which was originally recorded by Amy Grant. What attracted you to that song?
I love Amy Grant. She’s just a great singer-songwriter. Listening to her music in the ’90s was awesome. I loved “Baby, Baby.” And she’s married to one of my all-time favorite country singers, Vince Gill, who I think has one of the best male voices ever. The guy is unbelievable. But going back to “Tennessee Christmas,” it’s just a great song. It really, really is a great song, and it’s a song that hasn’t been overdone. There haven’t been 30,000 recordings of it. I thought I could get in there and put my own interpretation on it.
What are your plans for the holidays?
There are a few things. With my organization, we’re doing some giveaways this year in Milwaukee, my hometown, and in Nashville. We’re giving away bikes to kids, which we’re really excited about. And we’re going to do some music programs. I’m going to perform with the kids choir that I have here in Nashville and the kids choir that I have in Milwaukee. Then I’ll go home with the family. Just cut up, eat unhealthily and have fun. It’s a blast to be around my 15 nieces and nephews. We have a big family. And to be around my in-laws and to see all them and be connected to them still, I just love it.
You’ve had a big year from last Christmas to this Christmas.
Yeah, not only with the career, but with the organization. Now we have a facility, and we’re getting ready to start housing homeless families starting in January, so I’m excited about that. Our music and arts program is really starting to find its feet this year. Everything has just come together.