Sun-worshipper Chris Isaak’s latest CD a labor of love
BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO email@example.com July 18, 2013 3:52PM
♦ 8 p.m. July 19
♦ Arcada Theatre, 105 E. Main St., St. Charles
♦ Tickets, $59-$125
♦ (630) 962-7000;
Updated: August 20, 2013 6:09AM
It’s Chris Isaak phoning from a tour stop in Boston.
On this sunny day, the veteran rockabilly-roots singer-songwriter is particularly excited to share a piece of very good news: his longtime drummer Kenny Dale Johnson is bounding back from successful treatment to combat leukemia.
“He’s like a brother to me,” Isaak offers. “We have played together for like 30 years, him me and Roly [Isaak’s bass player Rowland Salley], and this tour is the only gig he has ever missed. He’ll be back in October and I can’t wait.”
Isaak’s equally excited about returning to the Chicago area where he says he loves to ride his bike and check out salvage yards and architectural restoration studios. “I have found the most amazing architectural pieces and stuff that folks consider scrap that turns out to be some great Art Deco original,” Isaak says. “If it’s small, I just carry it back on the bike. If it’s big, heck I’ve got a tour bus with huge [storage] bays that’s a phone call away.”
Isaak headlines the Arcada Theatre on July 19.
Q. You’re touring behind your latest album, “Beyond the Sun,” recorded at the iconic Sun Studios in Memphis. The history and the legacy of the studio is something that touches musicians in so many ways. How did the ghosts of so many singers who went before you affect you as you stepped up to that mike?
CHRIS ISAAK: I never believed much in ghosts even though I’m Catholic. [Laughs] But I’m very pragmatic in some ways. But you walk in that room and you see a little hole in the linoleum on the floor from Bill Black’s stand-up bass peg. There’s a tape mark where Elvis (Presley’s) mike would sit. On the wall is Carl Perkins’ picture. The first time I went to that studio I was in my tour bus, and I never do this but I said to the driver I want to go up to Union [Street] in Memphis. It’s 4 in the morning and Kenny and I got out and went up to the door and I’m like, Johnny Cash put his hand on this door. Elvis put his hand on this door. And they all put it on there when they were sacred. It just goes through you.
Q. What was the recording session like?
CI: I’m really proud of the way we did our recording. So many singers or bands go into Sun and they take a picture and then go to some modern studio to mix it. We did it very much the old-fashioned way: Everyone sang and played at the same time in one room. If you hear my vocals that’s the take. No remixing. And we were so fortunate to have Roland James who played guitar on all those [old Sun] records. Cowboy Jack Clement who wrote with Johnny Cash recorded with us. That [studio] is one of the most beautiful-sounding rooms in the business. Maybe if you’re a hip-hop artist that’s not the room for you. Modern music [sound] is a little more buried.
Q. What’s your love affair with this kind of music, that Memphis-Delta sound that is so prevalent in your work?
CI: To me it’s just great music. I always wanted to make music that was joyous and pretty, like that great music from all those artists. It’s a good time. You hear the beauty in those voices. You hear Cash’s every word. You heard Elvis’ every word.
Q. Who have been your greatest musical influences?
CI: Two people: My older brother who learned to play guitar first and I stole everything from him. And [Sun Studio/Sun Records founder] Sam Phillips’ records. When I heard those records, I went from being a flat-top, light-featherweight boxer in Japan to knowing what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Q. You did a cover of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” on the album. Why did you choose that song from among all his hits?
CI: That was very last-minute. I always thought it was a great song and I loved singing it. It’s just a beautiful love ballad. Everyone thought we were done with the session and we had like 30 minutes left and I was like we can cut one more song. We had tried that song before at my house but I have a crummy piano and it didn’t sound good. This time it all just came together.
Q. Of all the artists that you have idolized or worked with or wished you could have worked with, who was the best in your mind?
CI: I have only two pictures hanging on the walls in my house. One is of my mom at age 5, looking like a cute little imp, and the other is a signed photo of Johnny Cash when he was very young. He was a great writer. A great singer. He cuts across everything — all genres, country, punk, easy listening. His music is so simple it doesn’t get in anybody’s way. He’s telling a story and he’s so likeable when he’s singing it that everybody can’t help not listening to it.
Q. Are you tired of “Wicked Game” and being so identified with that one song?
CI: [Laughs] I wish I had 15 more like it. If I did then I’d be Paul McCartney.