Chris Isaak on Nashville, X Factor and First Comes the Night

Music Features

There are miserly penny-pinchers in modern music—artists who will do anything to save a buck or two when the pricey recording-studio meter is running. And then there’s rockabilly revivalist Chris Isaak, who proudly stands alone, in a cheapskate category all by himself. Or, as he drolly puts it, “I’m the Jack Benny of rock and roll. And this is not a joke—it’s important to me.” So when his chum Stevie Nicks casually mentioned that she had cut costs and valuable work time by tracking her last 24 Karat Gold set in Nashville, with professional, first-take sidemen, he was all ears. “She told me, ‘It’s less expensive than recording in L.A.,’” he says. “And I went, ‘Money? It saves money? Why yes, I’ll go there, if it’s going to be less expensive!’”

Isaak, 59, made good on his word. Four years ago, the Stockton, California-bred artist made a lifelong dream come true by visiting Memphis to cut an entire retro-covers album, Beyond the Sun, at Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Records Studio. For his latest all-original set—First Comes the Night, for the classy Vanguard imprint—he took a studious sabbatical to Music Row and allowed his material to be fine-tuned by two of the city’s most adept producers: Paul Worley, of Dixie Chicks and Martina McBride renown, and Dave Cobb, who has handled more alt-country aesthetes like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. While some songs were perfected in Los Angeles by his longtime production associate Mark Needham, First stands as Isaak’s first real Nashville album, and it boasts backing from several of country music’s session-playing elite, alongside his regular backing band Silvertone (drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, bassist Rowland Salley, guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, keyboardist Scott Plunkett and percussionist Rafael Padilla).

Initially, Isaak had trepidations. Although he loved classic country, he didn’t want to add to that genre’s loping, pedal-steel-keening canon, per se. And it was his Scrooge-like instincts that put him on the right path, oddly enough. Two days into his Tennessee stay, he went downstairs at his hotel early one morning for the complimentary food. “Because I would never miss a free breakfast,” he says, chortling. “And Robert Plant was there, and he says, ‘Hey, Chris! Come over and sit with me!’ So I ran into Robert Plant, had dinner with him that night, and talked with him.” And Isaak arrived at two pertinent conclusions: “One, he knows everything about music; And Two, I’d been thinking to myself that most work in Nashville had a country tilt to it, but I didn’t want to do a country record. But I thought, ‘If Robert Plant is recording here, this is not country—this is rock and roll.’ Because Robert Plant, to my mind, is the dead center of rock and roll.”

The 17 numbers that comprise the First deluxe edition meet somewhere in the middle—they echo the composer’s trademark David-Lynch-eerie take on C&W, R&B and rockabilly (first heard on his spooky Silvertone debut back in 1985, and later featured in Lynch films, one of which the part-time thespian actually appeared in, 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me), yet also shimmer with a professional gloss and a sense of carefully crafted restraint that’s synonymous with a town famous for its almost scientific publishing houses. It opens with the gently-strummed title track, a stock-in-trade lovesick lament that puts the acoustic jangle up front in the mix, alongside decorative pedal steel, then the singer’s lonesome, reverb-edged croon. (Isaak has said that his material echoes traditional Portuguese fado music, and its forlorn feeling of saodade, perfectly exemplified on First; “It’s a rock and roll record, but it’s got a sense of longing for something that’s gone, maybe,” he says, sighing.)

Then the disc shifts gears into the Marty-Robbins-meets-mariachi “Perfect Lover,” and an Elvis-backed-by-The-Jordanaires raveup called “Down in Flames” (which mocks death with “Kennedy got in a Lincoln/ Caesar got it in the back…Everybody’s gotta go sometime, sooner or later they call your name/ I don’t know yet but I’m willing to bet I’m goin’ down in flames”). Then it slows down to a piano-based “Reverie,” a flamenco-orchestrated “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” the Tex-Mex shuffle “Don’t Break My Heart,” a honky-tonk rocker, “Running Down the Road,” and a truly eccentric musing dubbed “Insects,” with the unusual chorus of “Bad ideas are like insects on the windshield of my mind.” The regular edition closes on a classic country tear-in-your-beer trope, “The Way Things Really Are,” but the five bonus cuts—like the Ennio Morricone-evocative “Some Days are Harder than the Rest” and a Roger-Miller-whimsical “Every Night I Miss You More”—push the envelope further.

So yes, Isaak admits, he wound up with a rock record, nicely balanced with romantic ballads. He can’t help himself, he says. “I guess I’m still a fan of my idols, like Roy Orbison and The Beatles, so I try and mix them in. And this time, I had some great producers—Dave Cobb, Paul Worley, Mark Needham, all three of those guys are just incredible. And it was the first time I worked with Dave and Paul, and I would work with either one of them in a second, any time they wanted me. I’d come by and trim their hedges, even wash their cars to work with those guys again, they were that good. They’re the real deal, not some guy with a trendy haircut just calling himself a producer. They really know how to make a record, and I loved it.”

First, Isaak teamed with Worley, who taught him how to bring deeper range and depth to his vocals. Then Cobb worked closely with his subject to nail his Orbison-esque vocals with every last live-session take—no computer trickery involved. “Doing the Sun record was the most fun I ever had in the studio, going into Memphis and actually into Sun Studio,” relates Isaak, who was lucky enough to work with Roy Orbison before he passed away. “We went in and recorded everything, boom! We did it at one time, we didn’t go back. So many people go into Sun Studio and go, ‘I want to make a record like Elvis made!’ And then they take the record back to another studio and Pro-Tools everything. And that’s not how they did it. So for Beyond the Sun, we did our homework and we knew the songs, so we went in and we played and we did it in three or four takes of each song.

“And after that, I realized that it doesn’t take a million years or Pro-Tools or a computer to fix things, if you can kind of go in and just get what you want,” he continues. So on First Comes the Night, that was kind of the attitude that we had—have fun going in, and try to make it a record that sounds good. And I’ve never been interested in perfection as much as having it sound great, having it sound fun.” And he recalls a mid-session moment when Cobb played a vintage Johnny Cash chestnut and pointed out the moments within the song when the vocals were obviously too flat or too sharp. “And Dave goes, ‘But it’s great!’” Isaak adds. “In other words, nobody cares about some of those little imperfections—you just want a performance to be emotional and real. I think people get awful hung up on correcting and creating perfection, because they have a machine that they imagine they could do it with. They take a computer and straighten every line, every drumbeat.”

During Isaak’s stay on Music Row, he came to respect how business was conducted there. He rarely co-writes, but he decided to expand his horizons by collaborating with local craftswoman Natalie Hemby on two tracks, “Please Don’t Call” and “Reverie,” the latter assisted by Michelle Branch. “Natalie is just a great songwriter, and she’s got a long list of hits, but I didn’t know her before,” he confesses. “But I thought, ‘You know, I don’t want to be an old dog who can’t learn new tricks—I want to try stuff.’ And when I first started, everything was new, and it was fun. So what did I have to lose? I try to write a song with someone for three hours and it doesn’t work? Nothing happens—I don’t use it. But if it works and it’s good? Tremendous! Otherwise, I missed Gilligan’s Island for three hours.”

Aside from saving dough, the spendthrift swears, it was enjoyable to just be temporarily residing in a metropolis where making music was a good deal of the population’s focus. “They’re listening to music there, they’re playing guitar, they’re working on their craft,” he says. “I think L.A. had that kind of music scene about 30 years ago, and some of it got spread out as the studio system of recording died down, and people started recording in their garage. But it’s nice to have a system in town like Nashville’s, where you’ve got six drummers who can lay down a track really great, and great bass players, great guitar players, great engineers. And you can get equipment any place that you want it—they’re just built for making records in that city.”

The Californian didn’t stay put there for long. Soon he was off to, of all places, Australia, where he was invited to be one of four judge/mentors on the reality-TV competition The X Factor Australia, alongside pop star James Blunt and dance diva Dannii Minogue. And you would imagine that Blunt, possessed of a razor-sharp wit similar to Isaak’s, would be best buds with his new teammate. But the pair has wound up in some infamous on-air scraps, usually over the relative validity of contestants, such as one of Isaak’s favorites, Big T. Why did he take the curious position in the first place? In America, Isaak explains, he might best be known for his huge 1991 smash single “Wicked Game,” even though he also acted in several impressive films, like Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, John Waters’ A Dirty Shame, and even Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, in addition to anchoring his own The Chris Isaak Show for three seasons. But, after countless extensive tours of the continent, he’s a more familiar face Down Under.

“In Australia, they know who I am, and they know my work,” Isaak asserts. “But before I got on the show, I was a complete smartass about it, like, ‘Oh, my God—it’s a TV show with singers, and they’re probably no good.’ So I thought, ‘Well, it’s the modern world—I’ll go on and people will remember that I’m not dead! It’ll be good for me—they’ll know that I’m still making records!’ So I got on the show, and listened to the singers, and it was humbling. Because it’s the modern world, the singers don’t have the bars and clubs that I grew up in. They have the Internet and Facebook and things like that to put up their music, and X Factor is just another one of those venues that they have. And they’re young singers with raw talent, but there are some on there where I was like, ‘They’re as good as anybody I ever heard!’ And then you realize that there’s a lot more to becoming a rock star than having good pipes. Like, Big T sang Robert Plant’s ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ and I never heard somebody sing it like that, except maybe Robert Plant—he just killed it. But there’s more to it—that’s just Step One. Step Two is, How bad do you want it? And how many years are you willing to scrape to get it?”

Why do he and Blunt frequently find themselves sparring? It’s not as serious as viewers might think, Isaak laughs. “I actually get along with James really well—he’s a funny guy. But if we got too close, we’re probably going to kill each other…if you get to be around someone who’s just like you? You’re probably going to hate him. But what I like about James is the differences between me and him. I don’t know anybody like James, really—he’s got that correct English accent, you know? ‘Well, I would raley rathuh nawt.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, wow! That’s a movie accent to me!’ I don’t know anybody who talks like that. I looked over at him one day and said, ‘I have people in my family with a crest, too, James—but it’s just that the cap is off of it!’ He was telling me that his wife has a book collection that goes back to Louis XIV. And I said, ‘Mine goes back to the public library on the 15th!’ We’re just two different animals—it’s like The Patty Duke Show!”

Isaak has an ear for spot-on impersonation. And he’s put it to work in the cartoon world, frequently doing voiceovers for characters on animated TV series like American Dad, The Cleveland Show, and—just this year—on the cutting-edge, almost psychedelic Adventure Time. Again, he says, he tries to be fairly thrifty. “I always try to do a good job, and I try to do it quick,” he stresses, happy to participate in shows that he finds more smartly written than most current blockbuster films. “Because I always remember the fundamentals. Those people work down there, and I don’t think they want to hang out when I’m doing a cartoon voice—they’re like, ‘If you can get this done quick, I can go home to my kids.’

“So all my life has been spent walking into a room, and there’s a microphone, and you’re expected to deliver something. And it really doesn’t bother me. I kind of look at it like, ‘Okay, this is what I do. I’ve got this!’”

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