Chris Isaak‘s new album, First Comes the Night, is his first set of original material in six years, but fans of the crooner needn’t worry that the “Wicked Game” singer has made any drastic alterations in the interregnum: His flawed characters are still doing bad, bad things in the sexiest and slinkiest of tales, all swathed in Isaak’s guitar-wrapped melodies.
What has changed is his location. In addition to working with his longtime producer Mark Needham in Los Angeles on the Vanguard Records release, Isaak upped his already considerable twang factor by traveling to Nashville to craft the project with Paul Worley (Lady Antebellum, Dixie Chicks) and Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell), as well as some of Music City’s top songwriters.
Isaak is traveling much farther from his California home than Nashville these days. He called Billboard from Sydney, where he’s serving as a judge on The X Factor Australia, to discuss the new album, his beef with James Blunt, dinner with Robert Plant and why he has Stevie Nicks to thank for his new album.
So many of your songs here and over the years deal with heartache. Is heartbreak inevitable, or is it just way more interesting to write about than happiness?
Heartbreak is inevitable, but it’s so much fun trying to dodge it for as long as we can. When I think of most love affairs, if they don’t end badly, they end in time. So there is that element of heartbreak. But would I have it any other way? Would I not be in the game? No way.
How did your pal, Stevie Nicks, convince you to record in Nashville?
She had a record called 24 Karat Gold, and it sounded really good. I [asked], “Where did you do this?” “Nashville.” I thought, “I don’t want to fly to Nashville. It’s expensive to fly there. They have microphones in my hometown. I’m cheap.” She [said], “Oh, but there are really great studios and the prices are good.” The first day — because I am really cheap, I’m not just saying that — they have the free breakfast at the hotel. I don’t care if breakfast ends at 6 o’clock, I’ll get up at 5. And I bump into Robert Plant and he invites me to have dinner with him. I was thrilled. We start talking. He’s the smartest guy on music I’ve ever met. I had been worried about going to Nashville. I thought, “Am I going into someplace where they expect me to sing country or put a fiddle and banjo on things?” And I went, “What was I thinking? Robert Plant is recording here. Rock ‘n’ roll town. I’m safe. I’m okay.”
You wrote with top Nashville writers Natalie Hemby, Gordie Sampson and Caitlyn Smith, among others. How was that experience?
I have to say that the talent there was fantastic. I had really good times with almost everybody I worked with. There was only one guy that came to one session that I went, “No, I don’t want to work with that guy again,” because he kept trying to say, “And we can have something about beer and ‘girl, you’re my kind of woman.'” Girl this, beer that. I was thinking, “Have you listened to any records that I’ve made?”
He was trying to bro-country you!
I was looking at him like, “I have no interest in jumping on a bandwagon.” When I started working with Paul Worley, we went in with the idea of we had no interest in trying to sound like what’s on the radio last week. We had a lot of interest in making a record that sounds good. One of the songs had a very country feel to it. We were just laughing and I said, “We’re probably the only guys in Nashville making a country feel record.” … I love rock ‘n’ roll, but I grew up listening to Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman, Mac Wiseman, Hank Thompson and that stuff I know by heart. I wouldn’t listen to new country radio.
How much did your last album, 2011’s Beyond the Sun — a cover album of songs recorded at Sun Studios — influence this one?
It reminded me the reason you do music. Yeah, you want to tell a story and everything else. But I think Sam Phillips said, “If you’re making rock ‘n’ roll music and you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.” And we had a lot of fun making Beyond the Sun. I said, “I want to make this new record and I want to work hard, but I want to make it fun.”
Are you going to move to Nashville?
I don’t think I can move to Nashville because my mom’s in California and I got to take her garbage out once a week. But I’d love to go back and work there again. I’d work with Paul Worley and Dave Cobb at the drop of a hat. What I did there was make music, eat barbecue and walk.
It’s got to be pretty hard taking out your mom’s trash when you’re in Sydney for X Factor and sparring with fellow judge James Blunt. What’s up with that?
[At] the beginning of the show, James and I were the new guys and we kind of bonded. I really liked him. But then it got to a point in the middle where we were really competitive and we hardly spoke. And then it got to the point where we were ready to wrestle. It became uncomfortable. I thought, “I don’t want to be in a situation where we’re in a fistfight.” We started arguing with each other and the argument turned into a discussion and I said, “James, I liked you better when you were a friend. How do we get back there? You got to tell me what it is I’ve done that pissed you off.” And being English, he actually remained calm and told me. And, dammit, he was right. I was taking myself too seriously and we had to take a step back. Thank God, he kept a calm head and saw us through. I don’t think James gets rattled. I think once you’ve been through Kosovo in a tank, I don’t think X Factor is going to rattle you.
He’s ex-military. You’re a boxer. Who’d win in a grudge match?
I would go with James any minute of any day.
Is it true you’ve never missed a gig in 30 years?
I never have missed a gig. If I was sick, I would show up anyway. I’ve said, “Save your tickets if I don’t show up for a gig, because it would mean I died.”
What’s one show you should have canceled?
We did a show in Germany and they gave us food backstage and the fish was bad. I just got really sick and I remember [drummer] Kenney [Dale Johnson] said he was looking out the doorway and I walked out the door and he just saw projectile vomit go by. I walked back in, washed my mouth out, and said, “Alright, let’s go do the show.”
American Idol season 7 winner David Cook covered your 1989 smash, “Wicked Game” on his new album. Have you heard it?
No. One of my [X Factor] singers here [Cyrus] did a version of “Wicked Game,” and he got to the top of the charts over here. It’s always really, to me, fun if someone does a version of one of my songs. I love the idea that somebody loved my song enough to sing it.