A Conversation with Chris Isaak
Soulful singer and accomplished actor Chris Isaak plays The Joint in Catoosa’s Hard Rock Casino on August 30. While early hits like “Wicked Game” and “Don’t Make Me Dream About You” launched his career, he’s still going strong, touring, recording and winning new fans decades later.
In 2011, Isaak released Beyond the Sun, covering songs originally recorded by legendary Sun Studio artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Isaak’s musical gifts seem tailor-made for songs like “Great Balls of Fire” and “I Walk the Line”, and the album reflects this musician’s passion for the glory days of Memphis’ fabled recording studio. I recently had the chance to ask Isaak a few questions by email about his songwriting and his latest project.
JW: How has your approach to songwriting changed (if it has) over your career?
CI: Well, I think in some ways I am writing songs the same way I did when I was twelve years old. I start singing and make up some words and a story, then I keep at it. I keep reworking the weak parts and polishing the good parts and hope by the time I’m done I have something I like. I remember when I was a kid I saved my money and bought a tape recorder. It was one of the early cassette recorders that had a “stick shift” sort of control. My friends all thought I was nuts not to buy a football with the money. I remember coming out of the store with the recorder, and they all went “what are you going to do with that?” and I said “I can write songs on it!”. I still have that tape recorder and the cheap little microphone that came with it. I’m at a different place in my life now. I think having my dad pass away this last year has made me look at the world a little differently, I suppose, searching for the meaning and the value of things, and that makes its way into the way I write. But in so many ways, I’m still the same struggling songwriter I was when I was twelve…looking for a melody that moves me and trying to make that third verse rhyme!
JW: Your 2011 release, Beyond the Sun, included songs originally performed by legendary Sun Records artists like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. What do you think it is about this music and these artists that has had such an enduring appeal to musical audiences?
CI: I think the music that came out of Sun is just…it’s almost magical. If people don’t know what Sun Studio is, it’s a very little one room recording studio out on the edge of town in Memphis, Tennessee. A genius named Sam Phillips built it, and he recorded and discovered some of America’s greatest talent in that one little room. Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Elvis…the talent that was in that room is mind blowing. I think the reason that this music endures so well is that it was simple, real, straight from the heart. Most of the artists who were recording were just off a farm or some other back breaking work, and to be able to go into a studio and play …without rules and clocks on the wall or someone telling them to sound like someone else…it was FUN. And all that fun, that energy, you can still feel it when you put on those records. I think when we went there to record it was still that way. No rules, we just set up and played pretty much the way they would have back then. We all played in one room, all at one time, just having a ball. No tricks and no computer fixes, you just sing and hope it comes out right!
JW: Do you have any new projects coming up?
CI: Well, I always am working on new songs, and I have a bunch I want to record, but right now because people have liked the new record so much we have been out on tour playing it live. It really is fun to be able to mix these songs into a live show, to go from playing “Wicked Game” to “Ring of Fire” or “Oh, Pretty Woman”. We are playing the US, Europe, and Australia, so for a while it looks like I’m going to be living out of a suitcase moving from town to town…and I love every minute of it!
For more information and tickets for the show, visit The Joint.
– With permission from The Current.