While Chris Isaak's reverb- and romance-laden songs recall the monumental collision of early rock 'n' roll and bluesy country of the 1950s and early '60s, his music always has felt timeless rather than anachronistic. Perhaps this is because when he croons a tortured torch song, it speaks to emotions rather than eras.
Since his debut album in 1985, Isaak also has occasionally injected into his music touches of surf rock, Spanish guitar, roots music and R&B rave-ups, elements that speak to a classic pop sensibility, brushstrokes that add stylistic flourish but never distract from the integrity of the song.
In a recent e-mail interview, the 55-year-old Isaak said he never wanted to make music that sounded old, nor did he try to indulge in nostalgia.
"I never wanted to write about 'going to the prom in my hot rod,' because I never did that. I write songs mostly about love and mostly about stuff I have been through. I love the sound of old records, but I also love the sound of a lot of new records. If I could pick any time to be living and recording, I would pick right now."
Isaak and his band will play on Tuesday, July 12, at Casino del Sol's Anselmo Valencia Tori Amphitheater.
He briefly described what fans can expect from the concert: "We have stage suits that look like Liberace turned them down for being too flashy. I have a piano that rolls out and catches fire and blows smoke, a 20-foot-tall inflatable pin-up girl, and I come out at some point wearing a 35-pound mirrored suit."
Not only will Isaak and company perform the hits the audience wants to hear; he said they'll play a "show within the show" to preview several tunes from his forthcoming 11th studio album, which was recorded in Memphis and will be released in September.
"We recorded a bunch of classic rock 'n' roll, plus a few new originals. We do some of these songs in the middle of the show—songs by Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Elvis. This was so fun to record, and now it is so fun to play it live onstage. When we kick into some Johnny Cash song like 'Ring of Fire,' it's just great to see that everybody in the band is just having a ball. ... (The album is) called Beyond the Sun, because the music all started at Sun Studio in Memphis and just keeps going."
Those artists and that distinctive sound were among Isaak's earliest inspirations as a youngster growing up in Stockton, Calif. Dad worked in a sawmill, and Mom worked in a potato-chip factory.
"I grew up listening to my parents' records. We had a box of old records and a funky old crank record player—no, I'm not 97 years old; we just had some out-of-date stuff growing up. I would listen to Hank, Fats Domino, Elvis, great stuff. And then my brother Nick got an old guitar and taught himself how to play, and my whole family would get together, sing songs and stay up late just having a ball making music. It was a lot cheaper than other entertainment, and I learned a lot of songs that way."
Speaking of entertainment, Isaak's also a noted actor, having appeared in movies such as The Silence of the Lambs, Little Buddha, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, A Dirty Shame and That Thing You Do! He's also guest-starred on many TV shows, portrayed a fictionalized version of himself for three seasons on The Chris Isaak Show and hosted a short-lived talk show (The Chris Isaak Hour).
He said he had the same amount of formal acting training as formal singing training: none. "I tried to read about what other people thought you should do to get better, but mostly I was just thrown in the water and learned to swim or sometimes sink."
Isaak feels all Americans, because of their exposure to popular culture, are born experts in acting.
"We watch an average of 12 years of TV in our lifetimes. Isn't that sick? Yikes! I always loved old movies. I am the guy who would stay up all night and watch some ancient black-and-white movie, and then I remember all the lines the next day. I wish my mind would hold on to other important information, but it's mostly full of old movies and song lyrics."
Isaak said he never imagined as a child he could make music or act in movies. "It seemed like a dangerous dream to think such things. But I guess when you really love something, you just follow where it takes you. For me, singing was everything, and when I started having a little success singing and then was asked to be in a movie ... wow, somebody up there likes me."
As a songwriter and music producer, Isaak understands filmmakers who have unique visions, and knows how to provide what they need to fulfill them.
"When I hire someone to play on a record, I want them to know the song and to really give me their best. I take that attitude to films I work on. ... I show up early and know my lines. I figure sometimes, with a good work ethic, you can make up for lack of talent. And I don't think it hurts to actually work at something."
Isaak has worked hard at crafting a trademark sound, and in the process, he's become something of an icon.
"I do try different things. I love country music, the real old stuff like Hank Thompson, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, all the way to Buck Owens and back to Dwight Yoakam and Junior Brown. I love Hawaiian music, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby. I have a long list of songs and styles that I would love to try, and I keep doing bits and pieces."
Also: He has sung onstage with metal band Metallica.
"They were kind enough to invite me, and I love their song 'Nothing Else Matters.' What a great love song."