Q&A: Chris Isaak Talks 20 Years on Billboard Charts, Covering Elvis and Keeping His Shirt On
Q&A: Chris Isaak Talks 20 Years on Billboard Charts, Covering Elvis and Keeping His Shirt On

Chris Isaak says the forthcoming "Beyond The Sun" -- a collection of songs by Sun Records artists that he recorded in the famed Memphis studio -- is "an album I've been wanting to do probably my whole life."

"If you asked me... If I had to be in a life or death situation, or on a game show or quiz show or something and they said, 'Pick your category. What do you know about better than anything else,' I'd have said Sun Studios," Isaak tells Billboard.com. "Those guys -- Elvis (Presley), Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, that's what I'm made of. That's in my DNA. So to go in there and do this (album) was pretty special."

Isaak says he and his band recorded "enough stuff for three records," at least 40 songs by his estimation. "Beyond The Sun," which comes out Oct. 18 on Vanguard Records (his debut for the label), will come out in a 14-song standard set as well as a two-CD Deluxe Edition that adds 11 more songs. A two-LP vinyl release of the deluxe tracklist comes out in November.

Among the songs Isaak takes on are Cash's "Ring of Fire" and "I Walk the Line," Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" and Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love," "Trying to Get to You" and "It's Now or Never." There's also a selection of more obscure material such as "I Forgot to Remember to Forget," "Dixie Fried," "How's the World Treating You" and "Miss Pearl." "It's always surprising to me how many really good songs that people have forgotten, that aren't on the jukebox at Johnny Rockets or anything," Isaak notes. Michelle Branch duets with Isaak on the song "My Happiness," while the Secret Sisters contribute backing vocals and Sun guitarist Roland James plays on some of the other tracks.

And as the title indicates, however, Isaak and company also recorded songs by Sun artists after they left the label. "The common link to all the songs is they're all by somebody that (Sun founder) Sam Phillips discovered and recorded," Isaak explains. "What we tried to do is show you here's what they recorded at Sun, then maybe pick another couple of songs from later in their career. So with Roy Orbison, for instance, we might go from 'It's a Weak Man That Cries' or 'My Baby's Gone,' and the next thing we'll have is 'Oh, Pretty Woman.' So it's kind of showing where rock 'n' roll started and what it grew into."

Isaak also wrote some original material for the Sun sessions; "Live It Up" appears on the standard edition, while "Lovely Loretta" is on the deluxe. "I wanted to make sure they fit in with the other (songs), and I think they do," Isaak says. "I was very happy because somebody listened to the thing and said, 'Who's song is that? I don't know that one.' I said, 'That's mine' and they said, 'Oh, I thought it was one of the Sun songs,' and I said, 'Well, good, that's what I wanted.'"

Isaak is performing "six or seven" of the Sun songs during shows on his current tour, and he says the experience was "a great joy" as well as a learning experience for he and his band. "We really learned the stuff," he says. "We really listened to it, really practiced it. None of that stuff is a straight, modern rock beat. None of it's played with super loud double guitars or distortion.

It's a whole different feel. And sometimes they break every rule. I just liked the attitude; those guys were making stuff up, having fun and weren't looking with one eye towards the future, about being in some Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They thought it was going to be over in three weeks, so they were just playing, y'know?"

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