Chris Isaak’s moody, anachronistic music is an unlikely addition to the pop charts, but after years of near-obscurity the handsome Californian has achieved major stardom. Virtually since his debut album appeared in 1985, Isaak has had a cult following - and the raves of critics - but he broke through to the public’s attention in 1991 with the top ten hit “Wicked Game”. Since then Isaak has been quite happy to bring his jazz- and rockabilly-influenced sound to large theaters and concert halls.
Success was slow in coming to Isaak because he placed artistic merit before marketability. A number of his early albums failed to sell because his fifties-style rockers and ballads sounded so different from standard pop fare. Isaak told the Washington Post: “I heard all those other records that didn’t use any guitars and I heard all those guys who couldn’t sing at all, and they didn’t stick in my mind at all. . . . I mean, do you think Wynton Marsalis wakes up every morning and says, ‘Jazz is never going to sell as much as pop, so I’m going to change what I’m doing?’ No, you have to do what you’re going to do. I’m always going to make records where the emphasis is on a good song with the voice out front.”
Unlikely as it seems, a singer-songwriter who plays the accordion and calls up images of Roy Orbison succeeded on his own terms. At one time Isaak and his band Silvertone were fixtures on the West Coast rock scene and were favorites of such Hollywood notables as Sean Penn and David Lynch. In fact, Lynch’s inclusion of Isaak’s music in the soundtracks of Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart helped launch the rocker on a national level. Critics have praised Isaak’s music, however, even his debut album that sold only 14,000 copies on release. “No one else has so successfully drawn from the past, with an artist’s eye, reassembling the disparate images, sounds, styles and artifacts of pop-culture history into one persona,” wrote Michael Goldberg in Rolling Stone. “Of course, Isaak would be just another two-bit Elvis clone if he didn’t manage to transcend all the stagey photos, contrived outfits and retro minutiae. Sure, that stuff is fun; it has its charm. But what matters is his music, which is the genuine article.”
Isaak grew up with a healthy distrust of fads and trends. He was raised in Stockton, California, a blue-collar town some 65 miles east of San Francisco. Isaak was a radio buff who wired his whole backyard in order to pull in esoteric stations from all over America and Canada. “I listened to tons of stuff as a kid,” he told the Boston Globe. “I’d listen to the radio very late at night, lying in bed. All through high school, people probably thought I was the world’s sleepiest guy or just a dummy. During the first three classes each day, I would just sleep because I’d been up until 4:30 or 5 listening.”
Despite his interest in music, Isaak never considered pursuing a singing career. Still, he had an instinct for the offbeat style and a stubborn pride in his individuality. After high school he enrolled at the University of the Pacific, where he studied filmmaking, English, and journalism. “I was definitely on the outside,” Isaak told the Chicago Tribune of his college years. “I’d drive across town over to the old Santa Fe Depot on the south side of Stockton and box all day, and it was all blacks and Mexicans and a couple of white trash guys like myself, and then I’d go across town to this university and it was all these upper-crusty guys with that Poupon kind of mustard. I didn’t really fit in with either side.”
Isaak cultivated an artistic look by dressing in bizarre thrift shop clothing from other eras. He became devoted to music in 1979 while spending a semester in Japan. “There was this Elvis song that really knocked me out called ‘I’ll Never Let You Go,’” Isaak said in the Washington Post. “I liked the song so much that I sang it and sang it. One day, the Japanese lady that lived downstairs from me started singing it too. She couldn’t speak English. She had learned it phonetically from hearing me. That’s when I decided to give singing a try.”
After graduating from college, Isaak moved to San Francisco, California. “When I came down from Stockton, I was pathetic,” he told the Washington Post. “I had this bright lime green suit with black velvet buttons. I thought that was how musicians dressed; I didn’t really know. I kept going down to this nightclub and standing outside the door until they eventually said, ‘Do you want to come in for free?’ Then I’d go in and look for people who looked like someone who might want to be in my band.”
By 1981 Isaak had formed a small band called Silvertone. The group played in the San Francisco nightclubs and bars, alternating fifties’ hits with more and more of Isaak’s original material. They literally began at the bottom but soon became favorites in the Bay Area. Producer Erik Jacobsen became a big Silvertone fan and eventually helped to secure a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records. The debut album, Silvertone, was released in 1985.
The nation’s pop music critics simply loved Silvertone. Washington Post contributor Joe Sasfy wrote: “Chris Isaak’s Silvertone is not only one of the most striking debut albums of the year, it is also one of the few albums of the ‘80s offering a thoroughly contemporary rock sound fashioned from America’s musical roots.” Goldberg called the work “terrific,” praising its “sparse, Sun Sessions-like production, ... twanging Duane Eddy-ish guitar playing and Isaak’s romantic, larger-than-life voice.”
The accolades notwithstanding, Isaak’s first album - and his second, Chris Isaak - sold very few copies at first and received almost no radio airplay. Some influential people did notice Isaak, however, Lynch, for one, and rocker John Fogerty, who called Isaak “a skyscraper against the landscape.” Even Roy Orbison befriended Isaak and began writing a few songs with him before Orbison’s fatal heart attack.
Inevitably Isaak was compared to Orbison, and to Presley, due to his falsetto vocals and moody tunes about love gone sour. Isaak is frankly uncomfortable with the comparison. For one thing, his music has a distinctive contemporary edge, even though its style harks back to earlier years. Furthermore, Isaak is simply unwilling to try to fill someone else’s shoes. “When you compare somebody to Roy Orbison or Elvis, it’s like parking a speedboat next to the Queen Mary,” he told the Boston Globe. “What I do is nice, but I’m not trying to compare to those guys, because it makes my work look tiny. I have hopes that if I keep working hard, some day I’ll have a couple of songs that’ll add something to music. But I’d drive myself crazy if I thought I had to be like Elvis or Orbison, because I just don’t think it’s possible. Those guys are once in a generation.”
Isaak’s third album, Heart Shaped World, seemed destined to follow its two predecessors into obscurity. Fortunately for Isaak, a disc jockey in Atlanta heard the instrumental version of the rocker’s “Wicked Game” in the soundtrack of Lynch’s film Wild at Heart and decided to track down the original song. The deejay then added “Wicked Game” to his station’s playlist, and before long, requests for the tune were pouring in. A single was released, and it slowly climbed into the Billboard Top Ten, pulling the album along after it. Two years after its release, Heart Shaped World emerged as Isaak’s first gold album, and “Wicked Game” became his first hit. The album has since achieved multi-platinum sales.
Isaak then moved from nightclubs to large theaters and the realms of MTV. “After years of playing to avid fans and very few others, Isaak is pleased as punch,” wrote Sam Wood in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He’s finally found his audience - several different audiences, actually.” Those audiences responded warmly to Isaak’s wild rockers and his heart-rending ballads. Isaak has had his share of broken romances, and he explores his own personal pain in his lyrics. “A lot of times it’s just stuff that I can’t say to anybody,” he told the Chicago Tribune of his songs. “Those ideas get stuck in my head and the only way I can say ‘em is in music. The way I write, I sit down with a guitar, and usually it’s in the dark, and I just start singing like I’m talking to myself. It all comes out at one time, the melody and the words.”
Isaak followed the success of his third album with San Francisco Days in 1993. Again working with Jacobsen as producer, Isaak explored emotional highs and lows that “move from cautious joy to haunting heartbreak within seconds,” according to Billboard’s Melinda Newman. Isaak’s 1995 follow-up, Forever Blue, echoed more of his characteristically melancholy moods in a collection of what Andrew Abrahams of People magazine deemed “tender odes for the lovelorn.” Baja Sessions, released in 1996, included acoustic-based versions of earlier work along with new songs “I Wonder” and “Return to Me.” Speak of the Devil, released in 1998, originated in studio sessions, a departure from Isaak’s usual songwriting method of lying in bed with his guitar and recording the songs in his garage. “I wanted to be very experimental this time, use lots of different sounds and be more rockin’,” Isaak said in comments included at his official website. The success of Speak of the Devil was driven by the single “Please.”
Now that stardom has found him, Isaak has branched into film and television work. He has appeared in such films as Wild at Heart in 1988, Silence of the Lambs in 1991, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in 1992, Little Buddha in 1993, That Thing You Do! in 1996, and Blue Ridge Fall in 1999, and he has also made guest appearances on such popular television series as Melrose Place and Friends. His own television show, The Chris Isaak Show, debuted on cable’s Showtime network on March 12, 2001. The show is a loosely factual take on Isaak’s life as a rock star with a comedic bent.
Though Isaac has found success beyond music, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he is not at all interested in changing careers. “I’d never give up music, because I like to sing more than anything,” he said. “More than anything. People always ask me, ‘What do you do on your time off?’ I tell ‘em I sing, ‘cause that’s what I like to do. Call me a one-dimensional shallow person, but if I got time off, I grab my guitar and play some more.”
Mr. Lucky (2009), his first album of new material since 2002’s Always Got Tonight, Isaak tries something new. Rather than focusing on one sound, he brings all his musical personas together under one roof.
Isaak is convincingly alt-country on “Cheater’s Town”, complete with his patented Orbison-esque falsetto flourishes. He’s a Petty-esque rocker on the chugging first single, “We Let Her Down”, and a tender pop balladeer on “You Don’t Cry Like I Do”. He charmingly tackles Bob Wills-styled Western swing on the simple, sweetly restrained “Take My Heart”. And he goes for another “Wicked Game”-size hit with a pair of lost-love songs - a reworking of his Diane Warren collaboration “Breaking Apart” as a wrenching duet with Trisha Yearwood and the pretty pop-country duet “I Lose My Heart” with Michelle Branch.
For nearly 25 years, Isaak has had a way with a pop melody, but his time away pursuing other interests seems to have made his ability to make his musical points that much sharper. “Mr. Lucky” shows that the talented Isaak doesn’t have to pick a passion. He can pursue them all with great results.