Chris Isaak Has Cheer to Spare on His Second Holiday Album, Everybody Knows It’s Christmas

Music Features Chris Isaak
Chris Isaak Has Cheer to Spare on His Second Holiday Album, Everybody Knows It’s Christmas

Theoretically, Chris Isaak could have spent all of his seasonal spirit on Christmas, his Yuletide set from 2004 that featured signature classics like “Blue Christmas,” “Let it Snow,” and even his Orbison-smooth take on Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper.” But this year, coming out of the pandemic, the Stockton-bred, Nashville-based crooner found he had more cheer to spare—an entire album’s worth, in fact, the recently-released Sun session Everybody Knows It’s Christmas. Produced by go-to Music Row whiz Dave Cobb, it boasts rollicking new versions of classic chestnuts like “Winter Wonderland,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “Run Rudolph Run,” plus slapback-sassy new Isaak originals like “Almost Christmas.” And it’s the perfect feel-good panacea to close out a truly dark and dismal 2022.

To tout the record, Isaak, 66, phoned in this week from a New Orleans stop on his current Christmas tour, and his trademark ribald wit, offbeat observations and deadpan-droll delivery was enough to lighten the most oppressive mood with optimism. He was making it back to his old hometown of Stockton either by Christmas or immediately afterward, he said, and was looking forward to reconnecting with family. “I’ve gotta see my brother,” he said, wistfully. And he was also eagerly looking forward to after-show visits from Big Easy buddies later that night, he added, although—given our recent pandemic past—they wouldn’t be the warm-hug, backslapping same as they used to be.

“You know, we don’t get to get out and see people, because it’s still there,” Isaak explained of the coronavirus specter that’s still hovering over the entertainment industry. “So after the show, I can wave to people by the bus, but I’m not supposed to sign things, because people still don’t wanna get sick.”

So it’s possible to still have yourself a merry little Christmas, when tempered with an unflappable sense of humor like Isaak’s, which he’s had from his rockabilly-pure Silvertone debut back in 1985, through two hilarious TV series and a cavalcade of coveted roles for film-director fans like David Lynch and Jonathan Demme. This perpetually pompadoured, smooth-talking singer can just step to the mic, sing one haunting verse—either original or Santa Claus standard— and somehow make everything feel alright. Like maybe it’s all going to work out for most of us in 2023.

Paste: We always start our interviews the same way, year after— I’d say “How’s your mom,” and you’d say “How’s yours?” But my mom passed in 2017, and I heard your mother recently did, too. And I’m sorry, by the way. But did that give you the freedom to finally leave San Francisco for Nashville?

Chris Isaak: Thank you. And you say you lost your mom, too? Well, you know, I still go back (to Stockton) because I have a brother there, and I’ve got my great nephew there, and a lot of friends back in my home town that I still go back and visit. But it’s hard, particularly around the holidays—as I’m sure you found out—where it’s like, “Oh! I wanna call my mom!” But the good thing is, I can’t really complain, because I had a great mom up until she was 89, and I think of other people that I know that lost their mom when they were, like, seven or eight. And I go, “Oh! Yeah! I’d better not complain!”

Paste: I’m grateful that she didn’t have to go through Covid.

Isaak: You know, when I think of Covid, I guess I always put personal things on it, but I think of my mom and I think of John Prine. John Prine? He died and he had no idea. He went over to…I think he was playing in Europe, and he had no idea Covid was coming. It was just there, and you got caught flat-footed, as we used to say in the boxing rings.

Paste: How did you cope with Covid? And you were in Nashville at the time?

Isaak: I was in Nashville at the time, and I just hunkered down.

Paste: You always loved vintage TV shows like Wild Wild West, and—judging by the album cover art you just created—you were really into vintage Rankin-Bass.

Isaak: The album cover just brought me back to all those Christmas specials that I saw when I was a kid. And I made that little house. I had time to kill during the pandemic, and I’ve never done crafts in my life. But I had time. And I had all these cardboard boxes. Somebody had come and they had worked on my floor, and they put down this brown, thick paper to protect the floor, and when they left, the guys left a big roll of paper> And I went, “Hey!” And I took that paper and made a whole village of little houses, Christmas houses. And my manager said, “Where are you learning to do this?” And I said, “I dunno—I just learned to do it out of my head, you know what I mean?” I could only watch so many Andy Griffith reruns, and I watched them—I think I’ve seen ’em all. So I watched reruns on TV, I got so desperate for time I did puzzles, and I’d never put together a jigsaw puzzle since I was three or something. I was like, “Oh, my God! This is for shut-ins! What am I doing?” So it got pretty boring there for a little while, and then I thought, “I’ve gotta get outta the house. I’ve gotta get out and play!” So as soon as we could play, we got out and played.

Paste: I’ve got a cool retro cable-TV station on in the other room right now called FETTV that I discovered during lockdown. Right now, it’s The Beverly Hillbillies, but during the pandemic there were two episodes of Wild Wild West, daily, and it felt like comfort food.

Isaak: That’s great! Here’s some trivia for ya—the guy that played the bad guy, Dr. Miguelito Loveless….

Paste: Michael Dunn (a charismatic American actor with dwarfism) who actually had a 1960s folk duo in Greenwich Village, where the show’s creator Michael Garrison discovered him.

Isaak: That’s right! That’s it—you’re in on it! I remember as I watched the show and I thought, “”Gosh, he sings pretty good!” And he had some girl on there always singing with him. But that was his old folk duo partner, and he brought her on! And I thought, “I love show business, when people go, “Hey—I’m on this show, and I think I can get you on!” Because that’s actually how it works. And he was so good, so good. And if you ever get a chance to watch, with Lee Marvin, Ship of Fools, Dunn is in that, and Lee Marvin and Dunn have a scene together, and Lee Marvin looks at him and goes, “You’re some kind of sawed-off intellectual.” And just working with Lee Marvin? That’s pretty amazing.

Paste: How do you write Christmas songs and whip up a festive mood in, say summer, when you probably put this album together?

Isaak: You know, I was in the studio with Dave Cobb in Nashville, and there was a Christmas tree, a white, beautiful Christmas tree, all decorated, and it even had records hanging on it. And I was going, “That’s so cool! Dave’s treating me like a rock star! He put a Christmas tree up for my recording!” And he goes, “I didn’t put that up for you—that’s John Prine’s tree. He left it here.” And I said, “Did John Prine record a Christmas album here?” He goes, “No. John was recording, but he just loved Christmas. Christmas put him in such a good mood, he just put up a tree.” And I said, “I love that about John Prine! What a cool dude!” So that tree is still there, and I don’t think anybody is gonna take it down. And I think, you know, that’s the right attitude to have about Christmas—put it up! Anytime!

Paste: One of the strangest things I stumbled across during the pandemic was a 2021 Oikos Greek Yogurt commercial, where a woman was karaoke singing your hit “Wicked Game” until a man in the audience shouts “Sing about yogurt!” And then she does! It was like WTF?

Isaak: Ha! You know, I’ve always said this about commercials, and at a time when I would see things about them like “Where are The Rolling Stones at?” “We don’t do commercials.” or, “We’re The Beatles, and we don’t do commercials, either.” And I’d go, “I’m Chris Isaak, and I’m not The Rolling Stones or The Beatles!” If there’s somebody who wants to use one of my songs, I’m usually happy to have it in a commercial if I don’t think it’s malevolent or something, because I think I want people to hear my music. And where do they hear it? Nowadays, people don’t listen to the radio as much, you know? So commercials? It’s a good way to have people hear something.

Paste: In keeping with our festive theme, what is the best Christmas present you ever got?

Isaak: The best present? One time on Christmas—and I’m gonna be serious for a second—my mom had a friend, and they worked at the potato chip factory together, and it was Christmastime and we were completely broke. We’d been eating string beans and flapjacks for about a week—that’s all we had. We had flapjack powder and string beans, because somebody had given us a big box of string beans. And Rose, my mom’s friend came over, and she brought a big box of food. And you think, when you’re a kid, that you’ll want a toy or this or that. But we looked in there, and we were like, “There’s baloney! We can make a sandwich—oh my God!” And that stuck with me. And I know she didn’t have a lot of money, but she gave us this big box of food for Christmas, and we ate every bit of it, and we were thrilled. And years later, I’ve gotta say, that I played in Vegas, and I invited my mom and I invited Rose, and I was staying in the Star Suite, where I had my own private elevator, I had a butler, and I had a grand piano in my room, a hot tub on the balcony, all this stuff. And I had Rose and my mom come, and they lived like queens. And I thought, “Good! You got paid back, and what comes around goes around!”

Paste: And your worst Yuletide memory ever?

Isaak: One Christmas turned out okay, but it started kind of creepy. We didn’t have money for a Christmas tree, but we went down to the Christmas tree lot, and we were looking, like, “What’s your cheapest tree?” And they were all too much for us. But my brother, who is older and smarter than me, pointed out, “Look! They cut off the twisted branches, and they’re throwing ‘em over there!” And we said, “Are you throwing those out? And can we have them??: And the guy said, “Yeah.” So we took the twisted branches—we had 25 or 30 twisted Christmas tree branches of all different kinds, we took ’em and went home, we took a two-by-four and drilled holes in it, and stuffed the branches in the two-by-four and kind of made a Frankentree. And I’m sure people who looked at that tree went, “What the hell are these people thinking?” But we were like, “Aren’t we smart? We didn’t have to pay eight dollars for a tree! We have Frankentree!”

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin