30 Mar 2024

Chris Isaak: Mirror suits and serenades

From Music 101, 1:15 pm on 30 March 2024
Singer/songwriter Chris Isaak

Singer/songwriter Chris Isaak Photo:

He's been playing music for 40 years and released 13 critically acclaimed studio albums, but even legendary US singer-songwriter Chris Isaak suffers from imposter syndrome.

"I write music and then I go: 'Who wants to hear this?' But I can't help myself," he tells RNZ's Music 101 ahead of his New Zealand shows on 22 and 24 of April.

Over his 40-year career Isaak has released 13 critically acclaimed studio albums and created music for multiple film soundtracks including Eyes Wide Shut, True Romance, Wild at Heart, and Blue Velvet.

He talks to Music 101 about the enduring influence of Roy Orbison and how he creates his classic sound, even when writing new music.

Speaking from a spot looking out his window at San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, Isaak says he's looking forward to visiting New Zealand and hopefully heading out for a walk around.

His special brand of showmanship will be front and centre, as usual, on this tour.

"I always bring that mirror-ball suit because people like to see it and I like the people to be happy. So it weighs about 35 pounds and it cost me a fortune to have it put together ... it's hilarious I think, to have somebody come out in a suit covered in mirrors, it's over the top by far."

Roy Orbison was an early influence and inspiration on his journey.

"I listened to his music tonnes when I was growing up, and then ... something I learned in life, if you really love something it kind of draws you into that world, and I loved his music so much I ended up being friends with him.

"And that seems crazy, because I was just from like a nowhere town out in a farm area of California, and the chances of me getting into show business and meeting him and playing with him, that seemed like impossible when I was growing up.

"But if you love something it's like a magnet - brings it to you.

"We were trying to work on songs together and we played together. He was on tour and he had me open for him, and he couldn't have been a nicer man ... when he passed away I really cried hard because he was just unique in his kindness."

US singer and musician Chris Isaak performs during the Noches del Botanico festival in Madrid on June 22, 2023. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)


Isaak says he's working on new songs, in between tours.

"I write music and then I go: 'Who wants to hear this?', 'Is this any good?' But I can't help myself.

"But I like it, so I'm writing it anyway."

After his current touring schedule taking him through Australia, New Zealand, the US and then Europe, once he gets back home he has plans to record a new record.

Nowadays he thinks the fact the Chris Isaak sound has remained true partly comes from the method the songs evolve from, and says his focus is very much on guitar playing.

Whereas the sounds being generated by many recent song-writers, are "very different because it's from a different technology."

"My process that I use to make my music is the same process that would have been used in 1920.

"It's me with a guitar sitting in my room with a piece of paper, and I play the song 50 million times in different ways and I write down the lyrics that I like. That's how I make up a song.

"And other people get their computer out and they work on that. And it's not right or wrong, they're just different ways of doing it. And I wish I was better at computers, I'd try that too, but you do what you do.

"Me, my song-writing is a pencil and a guitar."

Chris Isaak plays the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington on Monday 22 April and Auckland's Spark Arena on Wednesday 24 April.