Tuesday, October 18, 2011
SAN FRANCISCO – Bill's Place is Chris Isaak's kind of place. Great burgers, sinful fries and saucy waitresses. There's something decidedly retro about the joint. Ditto the guy digging into his lunch out on the patio, given his, well, let's just say it, Elvis voice and looks.
"The '50s was a pretty wonderful time for people, it was hopeful," says Isaak, 55. "But I didn't record this new album out of nostalgia."
Isaak's new disc, Beyond the Sun, out Oct. 18, was recorded with his longtime band at Memphis' fabled Sun Studios, and includes both rock staples (from Great Balls of Fire to Ring of Fire) and uptempo originals such as the album's first single, Live It Up.
But in tackling this material, Isaak wasn't interested in lionizing an era ("The '50s had polio and racism, too," he says bluntly) but rather paying tribute to his modest childhood in scrappy Stockton, Calif.
A memorable serenade
Chris Isaak knew early on that something about Elvis Presley rocked his world. And it didn’t hurt that he could look and sound like The King with ease. “Elvis was my nickname when I was a boxer as a kid,” says Isaak, who in his 20s boxed as a light heavyweight for a university in Japan. “I was like, ‘OK, well, maybe.’ But I knew I didn’t want to be an impersonator.” Once he’d made a name for himself, Isaak felt more comfortable tackling Presley’s canon on stage. Which led to what he considers one of the most fantastically embarrassing moments of his life. I was playing the Greek Theatre (in Los Angeles) a few years back, and I walked into the crowd to sing a song,” he says. “I started in on Love Me Tender and looked around in the dark for someone to sing it to, kind of like a lounge singer would. So I turned to this woman and starting singing. And then I saw who it was. Priscilla Presley. “I just went, ‘Uh ... uh ...’ I forgot the words. I said, ‘Man, I didn’t mean to do that.’ And she gave me this smiling look like, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard this song before.’” "
My mom and dad played this music all the time when I was growing up, so to me songs by Jerry Lee (Lewis) and Fats Domino are the classics, they're the best songs ever," says the man who sprung into the cultural mainstream in the early '90s with Wicked Game.
"I write my own songs, and I only see their flaws," he says. "But It's Now or Never? There's nothing ever wrong with that."
Isaak says that for years he shied away from covering his heroes for fear of being pigeonholed as a retro crooner. That was a wise move, says Alan Light, Rolling Stone contributing writer.
"He was smart to not do an album like this early in his career, but now he can," says Light. "The tricky thing is, how do you win in a head-to-head battle with those (legends)? You can't really advance a song like I Walk the Line. But Isaak can easily pass the sincerity test, which makes his versions of these songs work."
Besides, adds Light, anything that "brings a spotlight to a place like Sun Studios is a good thing. (Studios such as) Stax and Hitsville are gone. But Sun remains."
The idea for Beyond the Sun came years ago, after Isaak read an interview with Sam Phillips, Sun Studio's monarch who crowned the careers of Elvis, Johnny Cash and Lewis, among others. In the article, Phillips cited Isaak as a personal favorite.
"Reading that brought tears to my eyes, because it was what Sam did that made me a musician," says Isaak, who was planning to meet Phillips when the legend died at 80 in July 2003. "I loved that he knew that I loved all that stuff."
Preparations for the album began at his home studio here. The woodshedding sessions went late into the night, fueled by pots of spaghetti cooked up by Isaak, who is Italian on his mother's side. ("And let's face it," he says with a laugh, "whatever your mother is, is what you are.")
Once prepared, the band made for Memphis. Setting up nightly just as the studio's public tours wound down, Isaak and his gang pounded through a few dozen classics, doing just one or two takes each, breaking only to get milkshakes from the diner next door.
"It was the most fun I've ever had," he says of the sessions. "We knew our stuff cold."
Sun Studios is a comically small place, considering its global impact; it's as if The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Who had all recorded in the same small London building. So does it have an aura?
"I'm not a very spiritual guy when it comes to music," says Isaak. "I remember hearing Carlos Santana say that angels helped him write his songs. And I thought, 'Really, angels?'
"Well, Carlos was right. Now I get it. It's not like those guys were talking to me in that room, but you feel like you want to do your very best out of respect for them," he says. "It's like, Babe Ruth hit it out of the park. You know you're not going to be as good as Elvis or Jerry Lee, but I just wanted to go in there and hit a good one."
On September 19th, Cowboy received the Maggie Cavendar Award of Service (in recognition of extraordinary service to the songwriting community).
Photos by CJ Flanagan
|Cowboy with Country songstress, Lynn Anderson|