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Chris Isaak is enjoying some rare down time at home in San Francisco. Not that he's taking it easy.
With an album to promote — a collection of rock 'n' roll standards dubbed Beyond the Sun — Isaak is engaged in a string of phone interviews with music journalists. At the moment, however, he's a bit distracted. His manager's playful Maltese has him in stitches.
The dog is sprinting and sliding deliriously across the floor, as if mimicking the surfers that brave the waves outside his window. "You wouldn't believe how hilarious he is," the singer laughs. "He's really having some fun."
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Isaak knows good times. After all, his music has always bristled with a sense of celebration, especially when emulating his heroes. And that makes Beyond the Sun especially significant. For one, it's his initial release on revered folk label Vanguard. For another, it's a long-planned ode to his earliest influences, specifically producer Sam Phillips's Sun Studios and its remarkable crop of rock 'n' roll pioneers, from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison.
"I tried to go for a balance," Isaak explains. "I wanted to pick material the average listener would know, but I also wanted to use my expertise to say, 'Hey, there are a few things you might not know but might really like.'"
Granted, a number of the songs (Presley's "It's Now or Never," Cash's "Ring of Fire," Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire") are inescapable classics. Wisely, then, Isaak chose to toss a few obscurities and a handful of his own songs into the mix.
"I hope that people go back and listen to the original songs," he insists. "Hopefully, someone will say, 'I didn't know this body of music was out there. But now I do.'"
In keeping with the album's vintage style, Isaak did his best to ensure an authentic ambiance. He and his longtime band — bassist Rowland Salley, drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, pianist Scott Plunkett, and percussionist Rafael Padilla — traveled to Sun Studios when it finally came time to put Beyond the Sun to tape.
"When we recorded it, we did it like they did it in the '50s," Isaak recalls. "We cut it all at one time, everybody in the room, listening to each other. No overdubbing, because that's cheating.
"Everybody got excited, and that made a big difference. I told the guys, 'This is the way it's going to be: If I'm singing good, you better be playing good, because if that's my best vocal take, guess which one we're gonna use?'"
Then again, Isaak needn't have worried. Over the course of 15 critically acclaimed albums, his smooth croon and unassuming attitude have positioned him halfway between Roy Orbison's brooding melancholia and Rick Nelson's squeaky-clean sincerity. Indeed, it's his Everyman image that makes Isaak so accessible.
And along with his biggest hits ("Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing," "Wicked Game," "Somebody's Crying"), the man's cool good looks have also fostered a budding acting career, beginning with cameos in films such as Married to the Mob, Wild at Heart, The Silence of the Lambs, and A Dirty Shame before leading to the title role in his own Showtime sitcom and an interview show on the Biography Channel. While he hints that acting is still a possibility, Isaak insists music is his main focus now.
"This album was the definition of a labor of love," he says. "When my manager asked how many songs we cut, I informed her we were up to 38! And she sighed and asked, 'Do you know how much it's going to cost to mix that many?'"