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Rock'n'Roll Romantic

by Jason macNeil

HE'S BEEN AROUND FOR TWO DECADES in popular music circles, but Chris Isaak is one of those musicians who you’re left puzzled by. Some people are amazed at how he has reached so many fans while others are left wondering why his consistently strong catalogue of songs and albums never quite reached that next level of stardom.

Regardless, Isaak has forged a career that seems to have walked that fine line between both star and cult hero rather nicely.

The singer, who performs September 9 at the Barbara B Mann Performing Arts Center, released his last proper studio album, Always Got Tonight, back in 2002. He’s currently touring behind his 2006 compilation entitled Best Of Chris Isaak but he’s also on the cusp of putting out another new studio album by year’s end as well as a live album that is reportedly being finalized.

And on top of that Isaak will be back on the small screen with his own program called The Chris Isaak Hour. The show will go into production in September for the Biography Channel.

“So far, I have the idea of doing a version of ‘Greatest Moments in Rock History’ and just re-enact it with puppets,” Isaak said in a recent interview with Recordnet’s Tony Sauro. “Somehow seeing Ike and Tina (Turner) fighting it out in puppet form or the Beatles’ breakup would have me glued to the set.”

The branching out into television is nothing new for Isaak. In fact he was one of the few who seemed to tastefully make his comedy, The Chris Isaak Show, one of the more believable reality shows around simply by playing his music in the series.

“You don’t have to live in a house full of cameras, eat bugs or get voted off the island,” he said in the same interview. “You just have to play good. Crazy, huh?”

It’s been that same idea of playing good which first got Isaak’s career off the ground. After forming the band Silvertone following graduating from college, Isaak, now 52 and a native of Stockton, California, released the band’s self-titled debut in 1985. Critics praised the album but that praise didn’t translate at the cash register, resulting in unremarkable sales.

It wasn’t really until his song “Wicked Game” from the album Heart Shaped World, and the ensuing sexy video with Isaak and Helena Christensen on a beach, that Isaak seemed to achieve a measure of success despite not really enjoying the video shoot itself.

“They were literally throwing buckets of cold water on us,” Isaak said in a 1993 interview with Australian publication JoyZine. “Literally. Sea water. We were standing by the ocean and they wanted us to look wet and damp and it was windy. If you look at us closely, we were covered in goose bumps and we’re rolling around, like, half naked in the sand.”

From that point on Isaak’s music suddenly was noticed by a larger audience, making albums such as 1993’s San Francisco Days and 1995’s Forever Blue just as strong musically but now achieving gold status for sales.
“When I sing the words about feelings and heartache, it seems natural for me,” Isaak said in a 1999 interview with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “I can sing about anything that I’m feeling. Some of the inspiration comes out of my own life, but I don’t think people relate it as being my life but their own lives. To be able to do that with a song is the magic.”

After 1996’s Baja Sessions and 1998’s equally strong Speak Of The Devil, Isaak’s music career got another shot in the arm thanks to the 1999 Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman film Eyes Wide Shut, the last film directed by Stanley Kubrick. Isaak’s tune “Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing” was a smash hit. Yet to Isaak fans it was a case of the mainstream finally catching up – the song was released on Forever Blue four years prior.

Regardless, it seems like every decade or so Isaak comes up with a smash hit that ends up on a film soundtrack, meaning this current album he’s working on might have another magical nugget for the big screen.
“I am just finishing up a new CD,” he told a Detroit area publication in August. “I always work up a bunch of songs then I make a tape and listen to it while I’m doing whatever the heck I gotta do around the house. The songs that stick in my head are the ones I keep working on. I think I have a good album coming up. We have been playing some of the new songs at our live shows already and people seem to like them.”

But getting him to describe his style which crosses many musical boundaries is a bit more complex.

“I think I am more vocal than pop,” he told Playboy in 2002. “Roy Orbison was gleeful one time and said, ‘People ask me what kind of music I do. I tell them I’m the romantic balladeer.’ I thought that was a great description for what I try to do – romantic balladeer, and then put some rock and roll into it.” •

from the September-October 2008 issue