After completing his five-album output for Windham Hill's High Street imprint with 1996's Between Five and Seven, singer/songwriter John Gorka decided to return to his first label, St. Paul, Minn.-bas

After completing his five-album output for Windham Hill's High Street imprint with 1996's Between Five and Seven, singer/songwriter John Gorka decided to return to his first label, St. Paul, Minn.-based Red House Records.

"I wasn't sure if I wanted to work with another record company or do it all myself," says Gorka, a New Jersey native who now lives in Minnesota. "But [Red House president] Bob Feldman convinced me he could do a better job than I could myself."

Red House satisfied Gorka with its release of "After Yesterday" in 1998 -- 11 years after it issued his debut, "I Know." "The Company You Keep" is now scheduled for release March 13 by the Koch-distributed independent label.

"I was pleased with the last one, because I knew it wasn't a radio-style record," says Gorka, who recognizes that the album's songs were too long and not "extroverted" enough for successful radio promotion. But he was also happy with the album's production approach, which has carried over to "The Company You Keep."

"We mostly started with drum parts Andy sent in on Adat, and I sent him DATs of my vocals and guitar," says Gorka, speaking of percussionist Andy Stochansky, who co-produced the album with Gorka and Robb Genadek of Minneapolis' Brewhouse studio, where the parts not recorded by the artist at home were cut.

"Andy overdubbed parts to my vocal and guitar that Lucy Kaplansky sang on and sent the tape to Michael Manring to put on the bass parts," Gorka continues. "Both operated without hearing the other one -- which was kind of interesting."

Another difference was that the songs were freshly composed. "I barely knew them better than the other players, but we were able to get the better part of eight songs done in two days," says Gorka, who enlisted numerous guest artists and backup players, including Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ani DiFranco, and Patty Larkin. But the backing was basically that of a jazz trio, with keyboards, bass, and drums.

"We left John to his own devices, and I think that's what he likes about being on an indie," Feldman says. "The musicians spurred him to take risks in the studio and make a record that really sounds live."

Feldman particularly cites participants like backup vocalist Kathleen Johnson, who has worked with Prince, and Stochansky, a DiFranco sideman. He also points to Gorka's "maturing" songwriting, which reflects to some degree Gorka's experiences as a new father.

"'Over There' is probably the 'family song,'" says Gorka, who has decided to spend less time on the road and more at home in order to be a "real dad" to his 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. But other tracks on "The Company You Keep" show the pensive but frequently droll attributes that have made his songs so popular with fellow singer/songwriters.

The DiFranco collaboration "Oh Abraham," Gorka notes, "covers a lot of ground" in pointing out the changes in the world, in his own life since childhood, and in the country since Lincoln. "It's about how far we've come -- and maybe gone in the wrong direction."

The writer's personal passage of time is further addressed in witty titles like "Hank Senior Moment" and "People My Age," which Gorka intended, unsuccessfully, to be a song about aging gracefully.

Gorka's transition from major back to indie label, meanwhile, could have been "devastating," Feldman notes. "But the thing about John is that he's selling more tickets in larger venues and new areas while maintaining a strong following which has bought over 400,000 albums during his career -- which is great for an indie artist. And he keeps doing developmental work: He even did a symphony show in Winfield, Kan., in February, where they worked up 15 of his tunes. He's a big risk-taker in that way and hopes to do it with other orchestras."

Touring and tour press are key for Gorka. "He's been a road horse for many years and is coming off a great year," Feldman says. "He set up the album last year by playing songs from it at festivals, and he'll be a staple on the summer festival circuit again this year. He'll also do dates in select larger theaters with friends like Cheryl Wheeler, Cliff Eberhardt, and Lucy Kaplansky."

Gorka will tour heavily in key markets across the country, Feldman notes. Currently he's touring the West Coast, with the Midwest and Northeast to follow.

"I'm busier this spring than I've been in a while," says Gorka, "but I only go out for three or four shows at a time or two weekends in a row so I don't become a stranger at home."