Chris Isaak

Optimistic bent

It may be hard to believe, given his penchant for aching love songs, but Chris Isaak prefers a balance of the happy with the sad.

By Naila Francis

He can still do melancholy like a man whose misfortune it is to be perpetually ravaged by loss and heartache.

But on his latest CD, “Mr. Lucky,” Chris Isaak proves there’s inspiration beyond the brooding remorse and tortured yearning that have littered the musical landscape of his career for the last two decades.

Yes, love bruises and burns on tracks like the atmospheric alt-country opener “Cheater’s Town” and the wrenching honky-tonk tearjerker “Breaking Apart,” a reworked Diane Warren collaboration that appears as a duet with Trisha Yearwood.

It inspires obsessive thoughts of reunion on the boisterous rockabilly of “Mr. Lonely Man” and caves to unexpected pressures in the breezy surf rock-inspired “We Lost Our Way.”

In short, love gives Isaak ample reason to wail despondently in that creamy falsetto of his.

But it also is the unexpected guest that soothes past fears in the seductively crooned “Baby Baby” and the joy that won’t be tarnished by others’ cynical expectations in the rhapsodically twangy “Best I Ever Had.” In fact, when Isaak concludes his journey through love’s highs and lows, despite a preponderance of the latter, he emerges a hopeless romantic, closing the album with the swinging, horn-laden euphoria of “Big Wide Wonderful World.”

“I do think that I put this album together in a different way just because I got to the point where I like to see the positive and the blue sides balance,” he says. “I like a record that keeps turning for me. Sad songs need happy songs and vice versa. I think this album has some really blue songs, some lonesome middle-of-the-night music, but it also has songs that belong in the middle of the Disney parade. And I’m proud of it.”

Even the title,”Mr. Lucky,” alludes to an optimism that Isaak himself wears with a droll insouciance.

“When things go wrong, I call myself ‘Mr. Lucky,’ and when things go right, I feel the same way. I might have problems in my life, but … If God dropped down to visit, I would only say, ‘Thanks so much, all good here, love your work!’ ” says the 53-year-old San Francisco resident.

For the most part, life really is that good. In addition to releasing “Mr. Lucky,” his 11th album, in February, Isaak also debuted his new music-themed interview and performance show “The Chris Isaak Hour” on the Bio Channel that same month.

Unlike the Showtime sitcom “The Chris Isaak Show,” on which he played a fictionalized version of himself, this new gig has him chatting up musical guests, who to date have included Stevie Nicks, Glen Campbell, Yusuf Islam — “He didn’t know it, but I have been playing along to his records since I was a school kid,” says Isaak — Smashing Pumpkins and Michael Buble. Each guest plays a live set, with Isaak joining in for a song or two in a format that is fun and relaxing.

“I get to play with a different legend each week and I’m the biggest fan you can imagine,” says Isaak. “I learn so much from them. One thing you do find in all these people — they were gonna do it NO MATTER WHAT. They just had the drive, the love of the music that couldn’t be stopped.

“Think about Glen Campbell. He was in a tiny little town no one ever heard of and living in a cabin of a house with no electricity and no radio, no records, and he learned to sing and play so damn good, the whole world heard of him. You think about how hard that is to do — man! The stories these artists tell make you want to get up and go for it.”

With a music career spanning more than 20 years, Isaak, who has a pair of dates in the area this week — first on Tuesday at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside and then as a headlining act at Musikfest in Bethlehem on Saturday — is not exactly a novice in need of encouragement. But having grown up the son of a forklift operator and potato chip factory worker in Stockton, Calif., the one-time would-be boxer appreciates the grit and perseverance necessary for the realization of a dream.

“I grew up in a small, hot, flat, working-class farm town. We drove pick-up trucks, we played country music — funny, but the stuff that was originally rock and roll would now be considered too country for country music — I loved Floyd Tillman, Earnest Tubbs, Mac Wiseman, Hank Williams … The Everly Brothers, Elvis (Presley), Jerry Lee,” he says. “This is the music I really fell for. After I heard that stuff, I stopped wanting to be a boxer and I let my hair grow so I could grease it up. My friends’ parents would warn them, ‘If you hang around that Isaak boy, you’ll end up in the penitentiary.’ ”

He did have the requisite rough start trying to make a name for himself with his rockabilly-influenced band Silvertone, but once he was signed to Warner Bros. Records and released his first album in 1985, Isaak’s career steadily took off. By the time “Wicked Game,” from 1989’s “Heart Shaped World,” became a breakthrough hit, he was well on his way to being a dynamic talent on stage — and on screen, beginning with a bit part in Jonathan Demme’s 1988 comedy “Married to the Mob.”

He followed that with several notable turns in films such as “Silence of the Lambs” and “Little Buddha,” but for Isaak music has always held a greater sway.

“On a film … you don’t control how things work; you are just one of the parts of the director’s vision. But in a rock band, I get to write the songs and choose the color suit I wear. That explains why sometimes I’m in clothes that would have made Liberace blush,” says Isaak.

From the start, his retro sound has born the heavy stamp of his influences — in particular Williams, Presley, Buck Owens and Roy Orbison.

“Orbison was a great writer, a strange and wonderful singer, and most of all to me, just the nicest guy you could ever hang out with,” says Isaak, who once toured with him as his opening act.

“He told me something I never forgot — that every song, no matter how sad, should have some ray of hope in it. We like to throw in one of his songs when we play. You can never do what he did, but I think his music really still tells a story; it doesn’t get old.”

Isaak may not necessarily have his own philosophy when it comes to making music, but he does appreciate the duality of what he does.

“I always think that when I’m making a record, writing the songs, recording and mixing — then I’m an artist. When I’m on stage and people paid good money to see me and drove a long ways, then I also am an entertainer,” he says. “I want people to have fun and to hear the songs they came to hear and then to also have something in there that I hope they can’t just find at any corner bar.”

Performing live remains the pinnacle of any day that he’s on the road.

“I know that no matter how many times I get searched at the airport, or the bus breaks down, or the amp breaks, the most fun I have,” says Isaak, “is on that stage.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer