By Tim Cuprisin Media Columnist Published Feb 16, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Danny Gokey was in a car traveling from Austin to Dallas last Thursday afternoon when he took some time to talk about how his life has changed over the past year, since his run to a third-place finish on Fox's "American Idol."

He's pushing his first album, "My Best Days," which comes out March 2, and he's working just as hard on his Sophia's Heart Foundation, which he set up in memory of his late wife to fund arts and music programs for kids.

Gokey, 29, is hoping to find a niche in the musical world as a country artist, a genre that wasn't exactly what you might have expected when he competed on last year's "Idol."

Enjoy this latest Milwaukee Talks in which we catch up with Danny Gokey. If I had talked to you a year ago, would you have thought you'd be recording in Nashville and doing a country album?

Danny Gokey: If you'd a talked to me a year ago, you would not know what I would've recorded. My experience has always been in gospel. Going on "American Idol" was good for me, because it helped it me to find out where I fell, and where my strengths were. It was a learning process for me. I knew when I came on the show, I didn't want to do gospel any further.

I knew I wanted to pick out new horizons and I've been influenced, you know, all types of music, and country was one of them. I covered four country artists on the show: Mickey Gilley, LeAnn Womack, Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood.

I guess I should say it was Randy Travis that really got the ball turning in my head and in my mind. When he mentored our show, it was off-camera. We were wrapping up and we were leaving. I was walking back to our vehicle and I happened to walk past his bus where I had to go, and he was standing outside and he saw me and he called me over by him.

He just asked me, "Have you ever considered doing country?" He said, "You really need to try it." He said, "The fans will embrace you," and he said, "the amount of soul that you could bring to country music ... they would just love you." I was blown away, this is Randy Travis, the icon of country music. If anyone knows what success is, he does.

And I was blown away because I know I'm a soulful singer, there's no doubt about that. But part of my soulfulness is that I like to pour my soul into my music and I like to tell stories, my life is a story. And I like to be real.

OMC: You like to tell stories. These days, country music seems to be the only place you can tell stories, commercially, in song.

DG: It's so true. Don't get me wrong, I think pop music is great. But since I've known country music, it's always been a very real genre, it's always been real people just singing, and it's touchable.

That's how I've always wanted to be as a musical artist. I kind of have a story that comes along with me. I want to be able to share that and I want to give people hope, and give people help while I'm entertaining.

OMC: How is Sophia's Heart Foundation going -- and where is it going?

DG: It's going really great. When I was on the show, we supplied a grant to a school in Milwaukee for their music and arts program, because music and arts is a key component in increasing learning.

When I was on the Idol tour, I had the opportunity to fly some kids out to the Idol show, I think it was in Ohio. Then we awarded some kids scholarships. I was able to listen to their stories, I was able to listen to them. Part of our scholarship requirement -- and we're taking scholarship applications right now by the way -- was that people had to overcome something. You just couldn't get good grades, you just couldn't volunteer, although those counted. You also had to have a story.

We had the ability to team up with organizations over Thanksgiving and we fed over 1,000 people between Milwaukee, Nashville and L.A. And then, (at) Christmas time, I teamed up with an organization in Nashville and then Los Angeles, and we gave away bikes, presents and gifts. We raised money for Haiti just recently.

The active thing we're doing right now is we just landed a spot in Milwaukee to start our first music and arts program. I want to be careful about what I say because nothing is set in stone, but we're looking at a March 1, April 1, start-up date.

We just found out yesterday that there's a place in Nashville that called our organization and said they like what we're doing, they like the concept we have and they have offered us a spot at a school in Nashville. They asked us to get something together in 30 days. We don't know if we can do it, but we're going to push towards it.

OMC: How much time are you spending on the foundation?

DG: Honestly, man, I spend as much as I can, without letting it interfere with my music. My involvement, obviously, is as president and CEO and I have to watch, financially, where we are. I have to be honest, I thought we would raise more money than what we did. I thought being on "American Idol" would help elevate our cause, and it did, but I've spent a lot of time strategizing and coming up with new ways to show people where we are at financially, and how we need their support to get where we are. I work a lot on it, I have a team, at the same time, who does a lot of the groundwork.

OMC: Do you get back to Milwaukee very often?

DG: I was just there last week, about a week ago, yeah.

OMC: You're on the road, traveling a lot. You'll soon be touring. Have you much time for yourself, to have a private life?

DG: Not as much as I would like. I really want to take a vacation. The last time I had time off was Christmas. I went back home to Milwaukee then. That was the first two weeks in the whole year that I actually had off. I seriously just decompressed, and I just laid around. I love Milwaukee. I love going back there because it's a place of rest for me and I actually just purchased a house in Milwaukee. I'll pretty much be in Milwaukee and Nashville, and obviously Nashville more than Milwaukee. But I plan on being in Milwaukee because my foundation is there and I want to be involved with the kids and involved with the growth of the process.

Your question was about a vacation, I really feel like if I just work hard now, I'm setting up Sophia's Heart to turn into a machine, and I'm setting up my music, you know I'm doing my groundwork so that it can gain its momentum and it can become, I use this loosely, like a machine. You put in the hard work now so that it builds someting, and you get some momentum going and the wheel keeps rolling.

If I don't work hard at this point, things will not work out. I know it takes hard work to get where I want to go.

OMC: You're about to turn 30.

DG: Yeah (laughs).

OMC: We all know your story. People wonder how you're doing in terms of your private life. Do you date? Do you have a girlfriend?

DG: I don't have a girlfriend. I'm not dating. I think I'll probably be more open to it after the two-year mark, the two-year mark comes July 9 of this year.

"American Idol," it's an entertaining show, a lot of people look at it for entertainment, enjoyment. But for me, it was a second chance at life, it was a second breath. I hated life. Before I started off on "American Idol," I was a pretty miserable person. I'm an emotional person, I can sometimes get too left or too right. I think being on "American Idol" helped me stay in the middle.

But now I feel like I've just approached the second stage of my grieving process, where, even though we're going at a fast pace, I've been able to shut down everything about me and focus on the issues, and the sadness. I'm letting it work through.

I think after two years, I'm not going to force it, but when it comes it comes. I wanna get married again, I really do.

OMC: The other strong aspect of your public personality, I would guess your private personality as well, is your faith. Is that still as important to you as it was a year ago?

DG: Oh, man. It's very important. I'm glad people see that inside of me, because you know faith somehow has got a bad rap lately. And probably rightly so, because people probably mishandle it. I don't shove my faith in anyone's face. My faith keeps me grounded. Like I told you before, I'm such an emotional personality, and I get so moved by things that come that I can go too far to the right and too far to the left. My faith ... keeps me focused. Out of my faith, was born my foundation. My foundation might be in its beginning stages and it might be relatively small, as to how many people's lives it's touching. But, man, what I see for it is very big. And I don't mind that it has a small beginning.

You know what, dude, my whole thing is this, let my foundation tell the stories. When I'm on tour, I want to sing my songs and entertain and make people  happy. But I want video packages that come together and show people's lives being changed because someone cares. You mix entertainment and charity, I don't have to talk about, I'll just roll the video packages, cutting edge video packages of teens saying "I was involved with drugs, I was involved in gang violence, but because of Sophia's Heart, now I'm mentoring youth." I'll let that do the talking, and that was born out of my faith.

OMC: It sounds like before "Idol," your career had the same double track ...

DG: Yeah ...

OMC: ... it was helping kids, and also as a music leader at your church. It sounds like what you're doing on a national level, on a bigger level, is what you were doing before.

DG: I'm glad you recognize that, because this is nothing that we just created all of a sudden. Me and my wife, this is what we did before. I used to work full-time for a non-profit, working with youth and teens. Then I started working with the church. I did the same thing, I did music, but I also worked with youth and teens at the church. I just believe life is more valuable when you pour it out to other people.

People believed in me when I was a kid. I think that's one of the big things. It really took someone to really build me up as a kid, 'cause I wasn't real confident. But people would recognize things in me and they would compliment me on it and really try to build me up. That was real important to become who I am, and what I do now. I want to do the same thing.

OMC: Your first step now is your new album, it comes out next month. Is that what everything's focused on right now?

DG: Yeah, everything is focused on this tour with Sugarland. We'll be hitting the TV circuit and hitting a few shows. I'm very excited, I'm very happy about what we've made.

My first single, "My Best Days Are Ahead of Me," let me tell you about that song real quick. Like I said, my story was very open to people and I've wanted to share it with people because it helped me, and I knew, somehow, it could help other people. But this is the second chapter, and I wanted to tell that my best days are ahead of me, something so bad has now turned into something so good.

I recorded this song months ago, and I just found weeks ago that the writer of this song, his wife died, and that's why he wrote that song. I talked with him on the phone a couple days ago and he said that "My Best Days are Ahead of Me" was the first song he wrote after his wife died. I had no idea. But it's one of those things where I know I'm in the right place. ...

That song has become an anthem to me, because I know there's a lot of good things coming up. It's just kind of interesting to see how things have worked, and how my life has progressed since "Idol."

This is not the end, it's only the beginning.

Tim Cuprisin Media Columnist

Tim Cuprisin is the media columnist for He's been a journalist for 30 years, starting in 1979 as a police reporter at the old City News Bureau of Chicago, a legendary wire service that's the reputed source of the journalistic maxim "if your mother says she loves you, check it out." He spent a couple years in the mean streets of his native Chicago, and then moved on to the Green Bay Press-Gazette and USA Today, before coming to the Milwaukee Journal in 1986.

A general assignment reporter, Cuprisin traveled Eastern Europe on several projects, starting with a look at Poland after five years of martial law, and a tour of six countries in the region after the Berlin Wall opened and Communism fell. He spent six weeks traversing the lands of the former Yugoslavia in 1994, linking Milwaukee Serbs, Croats and Bosnians with their war-torn homeland.

In the fall of 1994, a lifetime of serious television viewing earned him a daily column in the Milwaukee Journal (and, later the Journal Sentinel) focusing on TV and radio. For 15 years, he has chronicled the changes rocking broadcasting, both nationally and in Milwaukee, an effort he continues at

When he's not watching TV, Cuprisin enjoys tending to his vegetable garden in the backyard of his home in Whitefish Bay, cooking and traveling.