When Danny Gokey released his previous album, “Hope in Front of Me,” he lacked a key component most artists count on to help create awareness of the project.
“I had no tour to support it,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I remember we did the release and then it’s like, ‘All right, now we’ve got to do work,’ and we didn’t (have any). You know, it’s funny and it’s not a hit on anyone, I understand where they’re coming from, but we couldn’t land a tour to save our lives. Nobody was interested. And so it just got to this point where we just kind of had to work and grind and create our own thing.”
He didn’t have that problem with his current album, “Rise.” Gokey landed the direct support slot for headlining act Casting Crowns on that group’s winter/spring tour last year. He then moved from that high-profile tour to a series of fall headlining dates and finished 2017 on a co-headlining tour with Natalie Grant. Now Gokey is out opening for TobyMac on his winter tour.
The touring activities are a sign that things are starting to fall into place for Gokey after years of encountering setbacks – both personal and professional – that would have caused many musicians to give up on their dreams and settle into another line of work altogether.
Gokey first came into the public eye in 2008 on “American Idol,” where his back story may have gained as much attention as his singing performances. A month before auditioning for the show, Gokey’s wife, Sophia, died during what was supposed to be routine surgery to repair a heart valve problem.
Before her death, Sophia had urged her husband, a truck driver by day and singer by night, to try out for “Idol.” He did and made the show. Looking back, he said the “Idol” experience helped him with his grief in ways he never anticipated.
“You know, the interesting thing about it is that actually I found hope in Hollywood,” Gokey said. “When she (Sophia) passed a way a month before my first audition, I didn’t have an opportunity (to audition for ‘Idol’) after that. I was 28, and 28 was the age limit. So either I had to go (then) or I’ll never go. And the interesting thing about it was it was actually the best thing for me. You know, when she passed away, a lot of times when we go through really difficult situations, our world becomes very small. We isolate ourselves and we fall into a very dark place because our vision of the world is small. That show enhanced my world and made it bigger.
“The bird’s eye perspective allows you to see a much grander view, a bigger view of what you thought it was,” he said. “And that actually helped bring healing because I was able to find life after death, which at that time I didn’t think was possible.”
Gokey finished third that season on “Idol,” a strong enough showing to earn him a deal with RCA/19 Recordings, and made a country album,” My Best Days,” which was released in 2010.
Gokey had been active in his church in Milwaukee and served for a time as church music director, but at the time viewed country as the logical genre for his music. He had developed a taste for country music growing up and wanted to share a message of hope and healing he worried he might not be able to fully express in the Christian music world.
“I said, ‘You know what, if I go to country music, I can keep my faith and I can talk about (topics) that you won’t necessarily be able to talk about sometimes in some circles of Christianity,’ ” he said.
But despite strong initial sales, “My Best Days” failed to deliver on the expectations of RCA/19 Recordings, and Gokey was dropped from the label’s roster. Looking back, Gokey said he realizes he didn’t have a fully formed vision for his music and his album suffered as a result.
After losing his country music deal, Gokey took stock and moved forward, self-releasing an EP, “Love Again,” in 2012 and writing a 2013 memoir, “Hope in Front of Me: Find Purpose in Your Darkest Moments.” He also began shopping for a deal in the Christian market, only to be turned down by Christian labels that, Gokey said, thought his vision and message was too broad for their audience.
“So I actually signed with a label that only did mainstream (music),” Gokey said. “They signed me and ... didn’t try to tell me what I had to make. They said you just make the message that’s in your heart.”
That label was BMG, which released Gokey’s first Christian-oriented album, “Hope in Front of Me,” in 2014. Even without a tour to coincide with its release, the album went No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s Christian Album chart and the title song topped the Billboard Christian Airplay chart.
Opportunities to tour with Grant and Steven Curtis Chapman followed, and in 2015, Gokey released a holiday album, “Christmas Is Here.” As he gained a foothold in the Christian music scene, Gokey landed a support slot on the 2016 Rock & Worship Roadshow tour and began working toward the “Rise” album.
Well before those career successes, things had started looking up on the personal front for Gokey. In 2011, he began dating Leyicet Peralta, and they married in January 2012. They now have a son and a daughter, and they keep the memory of Gokey’s first wife alive with a charity, Sophia’s Heart Foundation, which provides scholarships and support for children in homeless families.
Gokey had already started pointing toward a pop-soul sound on “Hope in Front of Me.” But where that album mixed a good deal of acoustic and organic tones with more modern sounds, “Rise” pushes further into a synthetic/electronic direction, while keeping pop melodies and danceable beats at the center of the songs.
That sound is a good fit for today’s mainstream pop trends, but Gokey said he went into “Rise” without a set idea of how he wanted the songs produced and let his producers and the songs themselves (all but one co-written by Gokey) dictate the sonic direction of the material.
“We just sat down with the raw, organic version of the song, and we began to build block upon block, brick upon brick, and this is what we came up with, which I love,” Gokey said. “I feel like it’s a growth.”
He also found a central theme of discovering the inner strength and faith to overcome life’s challenges. Gokey said his current live show will echo that message, which runs through new songs like “Rise,” “Stronger Than We Think” and “Never Be The Same.”
“I kind of want to take the approach of more like a, almost for lack of better terms, a Tony Robbins type set,” Gokey said of his show. “It’s not talking, but through my music letting people (know) ... you’re stronger than you think you are. You have more inside of you than what you thought you did. You don’t have to be bound by what you went through. You can actually rise above and change peoples’ lives through your stories.”