He's handsome, talented and photogenic. So why isn't Chris Isaak happy? Justine Picardie meets the James Dean of his generation
THE THING about Chris Isaak is, he's almost too good to be true. He sings like Roy Orbison; he writes appealingly moody rock'n'roll, he's a handsome Californian ex-boxer (so extravagantly attractive, in fact, that the very eminent Bruce Weber asked to photograph Isaak long before anyone else had heard of him). Plus, he can act (as seen in Bertolucci's Little Buddha and David Lynch's movie version of Twin Peaks), and he's funny, and he's got an exceptionally good quiff. Oh yes, and he's sensitive too. He split up with his girlfriend on 26 October 1993 - he remembers the date, you see - and so now he's written a whole new album about being utterly broken-hearted. OK, so his previous four records were also about being broken-hearted, but melancholic crooning is his absolute forte.
With all this to offer the world, it's strange that he's not more famous. He's had one huge worldwide hit - "Wicked Game" - but that was helped along by David Lynch, who used it on the soundtrack of Wild at Heart. That was in 1991, and since then his career has reverted to its previous pattern of good reviews and sold-out concerts but only moderate record sales. Isaak himself wonders if he's just too nice to become fabulously successful. "Maybe it would be better if I had a serious drug problem or I didn't show up," he wonders. "I always show up. I've never missed an interview, and in all the years I've been playing, I never missed one show. It's amazing to me that the people who miss shows, who throw beer at the journalist, who take a swing at them - they're on the cover of the magazine! And I'm in 'Random Notes', page 14."
Chris Isaak tells me this in a small, nondescript room at his record company's London office. He's completely sober (he doesn't drink or smoke or take drugs), but slightly jet-lagged after his overnight flight from San Francisco. Still, it doesn't show. His hair is immaculate, his tan is glowing, his clothes are stylish (jeans, 1950s jacket, silver rings on his fingers and three crosses around his neck).
You'd think he'd be happy, looking like that, but no, he just keeps on talking about yearning for his lost love. The title track of his album is called "Forever Blue" - sad twangy guitars, sad twangy voice, and a chorus which goes "She walks away, you're left to stay" - which just about sums it up. "I wrote it," he says in his soft drawl, "and it was like one of those cheap scenes in a movie, when a guy sits at the piano and the song comes out all at once. Usually, it never really happens like that. But with this one, it was two or three in the morning, and I started writing, and it came out perfect. I wrote it down on an envelope in the dark, really quick, and then I went to bed."
He starts singing a mournful country and western song about wanting his darling back again, and then interjects. "I was playing that, and meanwhile the camera pans across town and we see my girlfriend dancing on a table, and a bunch of guys clapping, and they're playing 'Shimmy shimmy go go bop!' "
I ask him if he always sees his life in these filmic terms. "Sometimes I do," he says. "Some-times I look at my life and think, no one would believe this was happening if they ever made a movie of it. It's been a really strange life."
"What are the strangest bits?" I ask.
"In San Francisco, I've been out in the ocean with 20ft waves and I'm sitting there in the fog by myself," he says, looking even more photogenically angst-ridden than usual. "I just about drowned this year, twice. I went out in way too big surf, with no one else around, and I'd think, what am I doing here? It's such a lonely different world. And an hour or two later, I'll be on stage playing in front of a bunch of people.
"Or I was in Bhutan, for the Bertolucci film, in a religious centre - the Buddhist equivalent of St Peter's. It was ancient, so mysterious. Coming there from California, I felt I'd gone to the other side - it's as far away as you can get, unless there are people living in the middle of the Earth."
The thought of this 38-year-old pop singer, who looks like a 1950s teen idol, wandering around in a haze of incense in a remote Buddhist monastery is extremely incongruous. But Isaak is good at making his life sound weird: classic Americana with an artful twist, just like an episode from David Lynch.
Isaak was raised in a small town in California which is called Stockton but might as well be Twin Peaks, the way he tells it. "It's very flat," he says. "The highest thing in town is the Medical Dental Building. That's about it. We grew up by a cemetery. You could look out and see the cemetery from our house. My Dad worked on the other side of the cemetery, in a factory.
"There's a lot of farm-workers in the town, and a lot of boxing. The people work on the farms all week, and at the weekend they watch boxing matches. There's not much else really."
His father, who drove a fork-lift truck at the factory, was also a former amateur boxer and he taught his three sons the sport. Chris, the youngest, carried on boxing at college, but then learnt to play guitar and decided he wanted to be a singer, just like his childhood heroes, Gene Vincent and Johnny Ray. (Luckily for Isaak, his oft-broken nose ended up not squashed flat but simply fashionably retrouss.) He formed a band and played in small bars for years and years, supporting himself at the same time with a variety of crummy jobs, including one as a janitor in a funeral parlour.
It's taken a long time for him to become even semi-famous (his first album was released in 1985), but sometimes you wouldn't guess, because of that clever knack he's got of investing his past with a mythic status. He tells me a story about a fire at his old family house a couple of years ago. One of his brothers was living there at the time, "and he almost died. Everything was burnt, and burnt bad. It melted the glass in an old juke-box, it burnt his clothes, everything he had. But there was a record, a picture disc of me, a German one made out of plastic, laying in the middle of the room, on the floor, and it was not even warped. There were ashes everywhere else. I just don't understand how that happened. It must have been a good omen." Then he pauses, and adds, deadpan, "either that, or the Germans make damned good records".
The last minute self-deprecation is characteristically charming; but perhaps it's also the reason why he's not a full-blown rock star. Not only does Chris Isaak fail to date supermodels or inject large quantities of heroin, he doesn't take himself quite seriously enough. At one point, I ask him what was so great about his much-missed ex-lover. He talks wistfully about how she would get into a box with a flashlight between her teeth, and he'd push her round the house whilst making car sounds. "She was small," he says. "She would fit right in a box. It was fun." This is a sweet story, and also slightly strange: but it's not what you imagine the lead singer of, say, Guns and Roses getting up to at night.
When the interview is over, Chris Isaak poses for his picture, looking tough yet tender-hearted: James Dean with a girlfriend problem. As must so often happen, a number of young women gather round to watch him, looking longingly at his bulging biceps and lovelorn eyes. Afterwards, the photographer gives him a Polaroid of the portrait, and Isaak shows it to me in an offhand sort of way. "That's me," he says. "A clean-living all-American boy. I'm going to draw a little halo around it." Forget the sad weirdo persona: they should have called his album Forever Nice.
! 'Forever Blue' (Reprise/Warners, CD/tape) is released on 22 May.
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