If there's a message communicated by singer Chris Isaak's album covers, it might be "Let's brood a while." Cover photos depict Isaak's moody male-model countenance in various stages of ruminative funk, while his song titles include "Blue Hotel," "Cryin,' " "Unhappiness" and "Funeral in the Rain."
In concert, it used to take Isaak a few numbers to get across to some listeners that appearances can be deceiving and that his music and attitude are at odds with the syntho-suicide thrust of several of his contemporaries. Now the Stockton-bred singer thinks he has a way of communicating that right off the bat.
"I've recently got this leather guitar cover for my Gretsch, like that cover Elvis had, and it's all black leather with white stitching around the edges and white lettering that says 'Chris Isaak' with white roses. I love it when people see that because there are people who like to think that they are going to be hip and cool and underground or something and might like this moody music, and they come to the gig, see that and go, 'What the hell is this?' It's the most state-fair-looking, 'Here-I-Am-Show-Business!' thing, so trashy and tacky in a way. Having my name on a guitar is a real step up."
While there is indeed a melancholy streak running through many of Isaak's songs, it is his melancholy, assaying deeply personal places, as did Roy Orbison's time-stopping arias and the Beatles' "There's a Place." And there's nothing glum at all about Isaak's comedy noir monologues or the Bo Diddley tunes and wicked surf instrumentals he is prone to tear through with his band, Silvertone (named for the old Sears brand of guitars). The quartet will headline Saturday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
The just-released "Heart Shaped World" has been drawing critical raves, but so did his previous two Warner Bros. albums, "Silvertone" and "Chris Isaak," which failed to make much of a dent on American radio. Isaak says some of the blame for that is his.
Reached in Denver this week, where he was finishing up a promotional tour, Isaak said, "I think as far as self-promotion goes, I probably have a lot to learn. If I would get an album out every eight months and if I would write songs that were more up-tempo and try to focus more on making singles, then I could probably get more attention. But I don't think the albums would be very fun to listen to, and it would be a drag for me.
"Also mood is the most important thing to me in my songs, and I don't know if that's a huge selling point for mass-marketing things. Because mood and atmosphere are things that don't take you by storm. Meanwhile, something like 'Teenie Weenie Polka Dot Bikini,' like a lot of things, becomes a hit because it's a catchy ditty and you remember it the first time. But that doesn't necessarily make them songs you want to remember."
While Isaak has formerly argued that he wasn't quite the forlorn character suggested by his songs, he has been having second thoughts lately. "I never set out to write a certain kind of song, I just play my guitar and see if I catch something. But listening back to all the songs can be surprising because you can reveal things to yourself about your life that you might not have noticed.
"Losing my girlfriend made this last year tough for me; coming back from a tour and seeing a BMW in a driveway where my Nova used to be. BMW trumps a Nova every time, I figured that out. And all of a sudden I started listening to my own songs, and going, 'Boy, this is sad.' "
While Isaak's moods have won him a modest, but ardent, following here, he hit it big in France with the 1987 "Chris Isaak" album and "Blue Hotel" single. Three sold-out tours followed.
"I think it happened there mostly because somebody started playing it on the radio--I don't think the people there are any different," Isaak said, before deadpanning: "Oh, I guess there is a difference: They're more sensitive, yeah. They understand me . . . me and Jerry Lewis. We'll do a tour together: 'The Nutty Professor and Chris Isaak.' "
On the home front, meanwhile, Isaak is hoping to find radio playlists more receptive to "Heart Shaped World," though he's not sweating it.
"We got some radio play before, and I don't really feel slighted because most of the people I like who are getting a lot of play have six albums out or so. This is only my third album. I just figure if I keep doing stuff that I like, eventually I'll find people that like it too.
"The tough thing about radio is I've met a lot of people in it who like my music. But it's hard for them to figure out how to play what they like when there's somebody up above them yelling 'you have to play this.' It's weird. I'll go to radio stations and the deejay will say, 'I can't play your record, but will you autograph it?' "
Growing up in Stockton, Isaak listened to his parents' jazz records, his brothers' country-and-Western records, and the Beatles on his pile of discs picked up in thrift shops. It wasn't until he went to Japan on a college program that he started playing music, skipping classes there to sing Elvis and Everly Brothers songs in the halls with truant Japanese students. "That's one place I'd like to tour now because I know the language a bit," he said, "I feel like a dork in France only (knowing) ' Oui !' "
Back stateside, Isaak began playing solo in San Francisco clubs, putting his band together slowly and catching the interest of producer Erik Jacobsen, best known for the clean, inventive sound of the Lovin' Spoonful's albums. Critics weren't alone in noticing Isaak, and he's been featured in fashion spreads and in Bruce Weber's "Let's Get Lost" film homage to jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (noted photographer Weber also shot Isaak's second album cover). He also appeared in Jonathan Demme's "Married to the Mob" as a homicidal fast-food clown. He's turned down other film roles because they were either "too crummy" or conflicted with his record work. Despite his jocular manner and his adoption of the languid Robert Mitchum as a role model, Isaak is very serious about his work and what music means to him.
"Music does tremendous things I think. It makes us closer to God. Everybody's got parts that are animal and parts that are godlike. And the godlike part is the good stuff, I think, when you're generous, giving and loving. When you're greedy you're animal-like. And I definitely think music is on the good side. It helps a lot.
"People have given me tremendous help in my life, and I never even met them--I just heard their music. I remember in Stockton before I'd ever met a musician or seen a live band, I had 78s of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, and because they were old records and scratchy and stuff, I'd listen to them and feel like they were millions of miles away. I never saw these guys, even on TV, but I felt they were telling me a message, like 'hang in there.' "
It is a daunting hope of Isaak's that he might also be capable of making music with such an impact.
"That's probably why I really push at it. Not that I really day-to-day think that I'm going to be as good as my heroes, but there's a little part of me that thinks like a minor-league ballplayer. I know I got the power, I know I can hit it out of the park, but can I put it all together?
"Eventually, I think if I can just keep at it there's going to be one or two times when I'm going to put all 110% right at the tip of the bat. That's what I'm dying to do.
"If I can do it once or twice I'll be real proud. I feel like there's certain people like Orbison, Elvis and the Beatles who just did it every time to me. That's what makes them godlike to me, like legends, because there is just song after song that you want to listen to, and wow, it's all there. If I can get a couple even in that ballpark I'd be happy.
"I guess that is the most important thing to me. That's a crazy thing to have be important. Probably I'll regret it someday when everybody else has kids, and I don't, or when everybody else has a house and a car and I'm broke. Some interviewer asked me if I've imagined myself being rich and famous, and sure, everybody does. But much more easily than that I can imagine myself playing at some Holiday Inn 20 years from now, with people not caring, but me playing and still hacking away, and still trying to make music, because I love it."
Chris Isaak plays Saturday at 8 and 10:30 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $16.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.