Musician Chris Isaak

The singer-songwriter, whose new CD is “Beyond the Sun,” discusses the music of Elvis Presley and, with his guitar, demonstrates why he thinks Presley’s music is “just so damn pretty.”

Chris Isaak's star rose after the instrumental version of his song "Wicked Game," from his third CD, was featured in the film Wild at Heart. He's since won a Grammy nod, hosted two TV shows and segued into acting. Isaak, a self-taught guitarist, started writing songs as a teen and first considered a music career during college, as an exchange student in Japan. He went on to form the band Silvertone, release his debut CD in '85 and open for one of his idols, Roy Orbison. His new CD, "Beyond the Sun," was recorded mostly at the historic Sun Studio in Memphis.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Chris Isaak to this program. The talented musician and sometime actor is out now with a new CD paying tribute to the legendary Memphis label, Sun Records. The collection of rockabilly-era covers is called “Beyond the Sun,” and from the project, here now some of the recording session for the Elvis song, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.”

[Clip]

Tavis: So that’s recorded at Sun Studio.

Chris Isaak: That’s at Sun Studios, and that’s Cowboy Jack Clement who’s sitting there playing with us, and Cowboy Jack is an amazing musician, much more talented than – I don’t know how we conned him into being in the room with us. But it was fun, and he’s – when I first heard he was going to come in, I go, “Cowboy Jack? He’s got to be pushing 80 or whatever.” The second day that we played my bass player came in wearing dark glasses, and I said, “You okay?” and he says, “I think I have a flu or something.”

I found out later on he tried to keep up with Cowboy Jack the night – (laughter) and he just, no, he just couldn’t keep up with the guy.

Tavis: What does the aesthetic, being in the place that you’re offering tribute to, do for the music?

Isaak: Everything from – it made everybody’s game come up, because you walk into a room and you go, “This is where B.B. King recorded. Howlin’ Wolf was standing in that room. Elvis Presley was in that room.” You go, “Royalty has been here.” You’re going to put on your best.

The other thing – that’s kind of the emotional side, but the physical side is it’s a great-sounding room.

Tavis: You don’t get intimidated by all those spirits floating around the room?

Isaak: You focus. (Laughter) You focus; you just try to hit those notes, man.

Tavis: Yeah. With so many great hits that came out in this era and out of this studio that you’re paying tribute to, Chris, how do you figure out what to put on the project in terms of the playlist?

Isaak: I think I had kind of an advantage. When I was growing up, my dad had just got out of jail and he had a great record collection. He had – it was all – these were the songs. So I heard a lot of these songs, like, my whole life, so for me it was easy. I already knew what I was going to sing. For the rest of the band, they had to learn a lot of these things. They didn’t know them as well as I did. But I was really impressed.

I’m really impressed with my bad. I love the guys. They really threw down on this.

Tavis: What do you recall about that era and your dad’s record collection that turned you on about this kind of music?

Isaak: Well, he started off – my dad had the stuff that came before this, like Leadbelly, and he had Hank Williams and that kind of stuff, so I had heard that and I liked that music, but when I heard this, seemed like all of a sudden it took it to a modern place that I could actually imagine myself playing.

I couldn’t be Leadbelly; I couldn’t be Hank Williams. That was something – there was something unfamiliar there. But when I heard Elvis, I went, “I could sing this kind of stuff. I like this.”

Tavis: Was it the music or was it the voice, was it the lyrical content? What did you first fall in love with?

Isaak: It’s just so damn pretty. That’s weird, because when I say that I always feel – I’ve said that over the years. I love pretty music, and most musicians, when I say that, they look at you like, “Pretty?” I go – the first thing that Elvis cut when he walked in, they said – he goes, “I want to make a record for my mama.” He walks in and the first thing he goes, (playing guitar and singing) “Evening shadows make me blue when each weary day is through. How I long to be with you, my happiness.”

I go, “I listen to that and even with his guitar out of tune,” (laughter) because it was before tuners and anything, you know? I listen to that and I just go, “It’s pretty, romantic,” and I love that kind of music.

Tavis: I get the sense that you’ve been doing this Elvis thing, the impression, since you were what, eight, nine, 10?

Isaak: I just always sang that kind of music, and I actually had to avoid – because I’m probably the same genetic gene pool or something back there, I’ve got a little bit of resemblance, and I put the hair up and people look and they go, “Oh, Elvis.”

When I was boxing, that was my nickname with the Japanese guys. “Hey, Elvis.” (Laughter) Well, at first, when I first started boxing, my hair was about that long. It was about as long as yours is right now.

Tavis: Right.

Isaak: I got a bunch of scars on my head, too, so it didn’t look good. But I was boxing and then I found this record, “Sun Sessions,” Elvis Presley, and I listened to it and I went, “I’ve got to grow my hair long if I’m going to be singing this music. I want my hair greased back.”

So I went to the boxing coach and I said, “Coach, I’ve got to let my hair grow.” And they’re Japanese – I was in Japan, boxing, and they’re serious. They don’t put up with anything. He goes, “No, you’re not going to do it.” I said, “No, I have to,” and I was the only heavyweight he had, and he goes, “All right, as long as you win, you let your hair grow.”

Tavis: So what happened?

Isaak: I got long hair, but I had to fight for it. (Laughter)

Tavis: When you grow up idolizing these greats and are able to make yourself sound like them, how do you go about developing your own style, your own song stylings as you become a professional?

Isaak: That’s the trick. I don’t know if you ever really know when you accomplish that or not, because you don’t hear yourself, really. You don’t listen to yourself and go, “Okay, now I sound like somebody unique.” I always hear traces of other people in what I’m doing.

I can hear that in there, but I think it was just I wrote my own songs, I didn’t do cover songs, I didn’t go out and do these songs on stage for years on purpose.

But you still, if you listen to Elvis Presley and he does, (playing guitar and singing) I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill, let me guess that he heard somebody else do it. (Laughter)

You listen to it, and it sounds beautiful. It’s a little different, but when I heard “thrill,” I go, “thrill?” I think that came from New Orleans a little bit.

Tavis: Yeah, I respect Elvis a great deal, but the jury is no longer out on where he heard a whole lot of stuff that he did, but I digress on that point.

Isaak: Oh, yeah. I thought that – you know David Bartholomew?

Tavis: I know who he is, yeah.

Isaak: I talked to him, and I’m a huge fan of his, and I asked him, I said, “Did it bother you that Elvis changed some of the lyrics on things that he did that I thought were -” because I actually changed them back on one of the songs.

It goes, is it, (playing guitar and singing) one night of sin is what I’m now paying for. The things I did and I saw would make our dreams fall through. Here’s the good line I love. Don’t call my name. It makes me feel so ashamed.

I love that. A guy saying, “Don’t call my name; it makes me feel so ashamed.” Well, Elvis turned it into, “One night with you is what I’m now praying for. Just call my name, and I’ll be right by your side.”

That’s much sweeter, and you can imagine 13-year-old girls going for that. But I love David Bartholomew’s -

Tavis: It’s much sweeter, and much more narcissistic. “Call my name.”

Isaak: David Bartholomew was, I thought he had it nailed, man.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs) When did you know that you were good enough? I asked you earlier about your own style and you didn’t know how you came into that, because you still hear traces, as you said, of your favorites now.

When did you know you were actually good at this, that this was your – you boxed, you’ve done a bunch of other things. When did you know this was your calling, your vocation?

Isaak: I still don’t know if I’m good enough or if it’s a calling or a vocation or something, but the talent part is out. My desire to do it is undoubted. I just love doing this.

You can make a record for a lot of reasons, and people say, “Well, you hope to get rich or something?” When I made this record I thought, man, I hope I sell enough that I could go back and make another one like this. (Laughter) Because I had so much fun doing it.

I remember when I started my career, my dad’s driving a forklift in Stockton, my mom’s working at Tillie Lewis potato chip factory. I have no connection, and – do you have a show business background?

Tavis: I do not.

Isaak: Me either, and it’s kind of daunting. When you start off you go, if I want to get a job at the post office I could figure out how to get there. There’s steps. But I didn’t know how you got on stage. There’s pictures in here where I was so – inside the book there’s some pictures where I’m so naive I just went – I threw hay all summer and I had a Shure microphone that was a cool old-looking microphone, and I had a broomstick painted silver that it was stuck on. (Laughter)

But as soon as I got that, and I had a guitar, I thought, man, like, I’m almost in show business. I got a guitar and a microphone. (Laughter) I’m almost there. All I need’s an audience. I had my friend take pictures, and I was like, I want to do this.

Tavis: Speaking of show business, you going to be doing any acting coming up soon? I see you here and there and everywhere.

Isaak: I’m always happy to do anything that’s – I always love being in films, because any time you’re in a film it helps people remember that you’re alive and you’re out there singing. (Laughter) But my main thing is I got offered a part, somebody offered me a part in a television show. They always want me to play cops. I guess I just look like I’m clean-cut enough -

Tavis: Such a nice guy.

Isaak: – I could be a cop.

Tavis: It’s the hair.

Isaak: Yeah, right. (Laughter) But they wanted me to play a cop, and they said, “You’ll be in this thing, we need you to -” you know how it is, “Sign up for five years and you’re going to be the star, you’ll be on network, it’s going to be -” and I said, “Five years?” I said, “What am I going to tell my drummer and my bass player?” (Laughter) I said, “You got a part for them? Because we can’t do that, man.”

Tavis: I’m laughing; I’m dropping stuff all over the place.”

Isaak: That’s all right.

Tavis: Anyway, his name, of course, Chris Isaak. The project is called “Beyond the Sun.” It is a wonderful tribute to all the great artists and all the great music that came out of Sun Records back in the day. Chris, I’m honored to have you on this program, and thanks for bringing your guitar there with you.

Isaak: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: You want to play us out?

Isaak: Sure.

Tavis: Whatever you want to – let me just say goodbye, and you can play us out.

Isaak: (Singing)

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  • Judy Stevens

    Where have I been? Issak’s singing and guitar is wonderful. I will buy his record. Thank you Mr. Smiley for this interview.

  • Anya

    Fantastic Album!! What can I say you are just the best Chris…..THE BEST!!!!

  • Allan

    WOW! What a great interview.Such a man and sexy voice His music is so beautiful and gives me goose bumps just listening to him . Chris You are the best . Cheers

  • shatney

    What a great interview. I have seen Chris Issak in concert many times and Chris puts on one heck of a show.

  • Barb

    What a great interview including two of my favorite people! Tavis is so very interesting, funny, smart, and I just love his infectious laugh. Chris has been one of my very favorite performer/singers for many years. Once you see him in concert, your socks will be knocked off! He’s so down to earth during and after the show signing autographs. All the guys in the band are super great, too. Sure hope the tour brings them back to upstate NY.

  • Will Ruha

    This is the album Chris Isaacs was meant to make, a tribute to the rockabilly pioneers by their vocal protégé. Isaacs, whose stage suits are fashioned from auto upholstery, has the hair, the look, the pose, but most of all, the stylistic iconic tenor voice to inhabit the Sun Records style & bring it fresh to life. He also has humility & a great sense of humor. I was honored to have once sung on his television show. (A song I co-wrote & performed was featured in an episodes of the Chris Isaacs show.) Thanks to the eclectic & always excellent Tavis Smiley for featuring Chris on his program.

  • Henrik

    Awesome interview! Chris is the man! Thank you Tavis Smiley!!

  • randy peters

    God guest Tavis, Isaak is a fantastic singer. I just got my first turn table….. at 60 years old.
    My relatives will be getting this Sun Record for Christmas

Last modified: November 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm