Conversations: Chris Isaak, Renaissance Man

(By Neal Preston)
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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chris Isaak may be the closest thing popular music has to a Renaissance man. The moody singer-songwriter's résumé includes stints as television and movie actor, talk-show host, artist, surfer, fisherman and Golden Gloves champion. (Yes, the man with that soft-as-honey voice can throw a knockout punch.) Isaak turned 53 (53!) last month and is on tour -- he performs at Wolf Trap on Monday night -- supporting his most recent album, "Mr. Lucky," his first collection of original songs in seven years. We caught up by phone with him in St. Louis, where he was wrapping up a sound check.

-- Joe Heim

Is it true you were the homecoming king at your high school [A.A. Stagg in Stockton, Calif.]?

No, no, no. [Laughs] I was student council president. I even had my own office. I was a cheerleader, too. I found out about cheerleader camp and heard that there were about six guys and 3,000 girls, so I signed up. It was a precursor for a rock-and-roll career.

Maybe you could draw on your student council experience to help sort out the enormous budget crisis in California. Any remedy for it? I don't think we want a remedy for it. The less the government has to spend, the better off we'll be. But I should say that I, and the rest of entertainers, don't know a god-durned nothing about policies. We're too busy self-aggrandizing to come up with any solutions. It's amazing how many entertainers can find time between adopting children to tell you how to live your life.

On your Bio channel show, you spend an hour talking with a musician. If you could have only one more guest who would it be?

Probably Paul McCartney. I've met him a few times. One of the first times I was sitting alone [outside a recording studio] and he came over and I was really nervous. I just kept thinking, "Don't ask him about the Beatles. Don't ask him about the Beatles." I figured everyone must ask him about it. But he just sat down and talked about the early Beatles for 45 minutes. It was one of the greatest moments of my life, and he couldn't have been a nicer guy.

Is the show going to continue after this season?

It looks like we may do another eight episodes. I'll be thankful if we do, and if we don't, that'll be great, too, because I can spend more time fishing with my brother.

What was the first song of someone else's that you learned to play?

Probably Connie Francis's "My Happiness." It was also the first song that Elvis recorded. I was probably 12 or 13 when I started playing guitar and singing. [Laughs] And I've never gotten any better.

Are there any songs you really wish people wouldn't request?

Yeah, I hate in the middle of my show when they yell out for Abba and Blue Öyster Cult. [Laughs] No, I'm really lucky. I've never recorded anything that I didn't want to perform. "A Wicked Game," "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing," those are all in my repertoire and I enjoy playing them.

A lot of songs on your most recent album are about heartbreak. Anything we should know?

Well, heartbreak is my forte. But I tried to make it a balance on this record. There's some really upbeat songs like "Big Wide Wonderful World." And "We've Got Tomorrow." You know my parents have been married 60 years and I asked my mom, "How do you stay together?" And she said, "You don't leave." It's really simple.

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