Chris Isaak: 'My advice is: if you've got to be miserable to write great music, then drive a truck!'

The singer on recording his new album of covers in the legendary Sun Records studio – and the secret of his quiff

Hi Chris, how are you?

I'm cold.

Oh – whereabouts are you?

I'm in a hotel room in London … but it's one of those hotels where you turn on the heat and nothing but cold air comes out. But anyway, I'm moving around while I talk, how about that?

Life on the road can be tough …

It often happens. You go into hotels and have to have something fixed in the room. I have to start bringing my own screwdriver. But then, maybe it's the quality of the hotels I'm staying in …

Your latest album, Beyond the Sun, has you covering the greats who recorded at Sun Records studio (1). What made you want to go there?

When I was a kid my parents would play that music and I really took it to heart. We only had 50 records in a box (2) when I was really little, but we'd play them over and over – Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash. You know, everybody likes Johnny Cash – he's probably the most universally liked artist. You could speak to a 16-year-old with spiked hair or a farmer who's 70 and they'll both like Johnny Cash.

Were you worried about breaking a stool or something?

You can have an attitude like it's a museum. But when you've got records to make it's a different thing. You're thinking about the realities of getting a record out because you have to eat. God was brilliant when he threw that one in. If we didn't have to eat we'd just stop and cry by the graves of those who've gone before us.

What makes the Sun studios sound so good?

There's a concrete floor with linoleum that I've never seen in any studio: no studio would want that. And on a pragmatic level, it really works. Obviously you get the occasional flash that you're singing in the same spot Elvis was singing. My bass player said: "Where shall I put the bass?" And I said: "Well, there's a hole in the floor where Bill Black (3) used to stick his bass … that'll do." There's a lot of history there.

Those songs (4) are so iconic I have to ask: why bother covering them?

I went blindly ahead because I loved the music and I was having so much fun singing it. I'm a singer. I love to sing these songs. I wasn't thinking about who will buy it or even who will listen – I was just thinking, this is going to be a ball to make this record.

A good way to think! (5) Do the songs speak to you about your own life now?

People say it's a nostalgic record, but if the lyrics didn't speak to me about my life I don't think I would have been able to do it. I wouldn't want to be like [sings]: "Woo, my baby has a pink Cadillac!" Because my baby doesn't have a pink Cadillac.

What's the most important thing about a good song?

You've got to be able to strip away the arrangements and say, "What you got?" To me, the arrangement is like cream in a restaurant: you gotta strip away the cream and the sauce and see what's left. A song like It's Now or Never is evergreen. When I play it I look out and see people hold on to each other and dance or just couples leaning into each other and kiss. And I'll go: "You know, I could have worked hard at school and been a dentist. But I'm so glad I didn't." Because when I look out and see that I feel like the Pied Piper of love.

Your song Wicked Game has endured to become a classic.

I try hard. And that's my very best work. But hey [adopts Beatles voice]: "I'm not saying we're better, or greater or comparing us to the Beatles." (6) For me there's the Beatles, Elvis and then everyone else, the mere mortals.

How does it feel to see a new generation of artists such as the xx and Lana Del Rey who sound influenced by you?

I haven't heard those groups. I know Lana Del Rey has got a lot of press, but I've not seen her play live apart from when she was on television for a few minutes the other night and someone said "Hey look, it's the same chords as Wicked Game!" But any time anyone does something that is inspired by me I'm thrilled. I'm not that big a shot, I'm sure they could find someone better than me to be inspired by.

A colleague thinks Forever Blue is the pinnacle of breakup albums.

Well, I sure wrote that at a horrible time in my life. I had broken up with someone I was really in love with. It ended so badly. I had a wedding ring bought and I ended up, like: "Well, what do I do with this?"

You were about to get married?

Yeah, it was in the future and then it wasn't. Instead of that I got a lawsuit. But I have this good news for anyone going through a similar terrible time – if you try and act on your best instincts then with time you can look back and hopefully salvage some friendship out of it. And I did make a friendship out of it.

Do you have to go through the pain to make a great breakup record?

Well, I sure don't think it's worth it! My advice is: if you've got to be miserable to write great music, then drive a truck.

What's the secret of a good quiff?

There's a great hair grease called Murray's. It's usually black guys who use it to straighten their hair. You need thick hair otherwise it looks like you've got about three strands. I don't spend as much time on my hair as people think. I get out of the shower, whack some grease on there and I'm done.

Do you prefer acting to music? (7)

I'm a natural ham. It doesn't bother me to perform. Apparently people's number one fear is public speaking and number two is death! Well, not in my case. I'm not afraid of getting up and talking. I think anyone who has ever watched TV can act. People over-rate actors. It's a business, so they have to say: "Come see Chris in a movie, he's wonderful." The reality is that if I wasn't in a movie someone else would be and they'd be wonderful. You could be wonderful too.

Foot notes

(1) Sam Phillips's tiny studio in Memphis that basically invented rock'n'roll.
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(2) Unlike now – Isaak says there's "barely room for me in my house with all my records".
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(3) Rockabilliy pioneer and Elvis's bassist.
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(4) Among Isaak's covers are Ring of Fire, Can't Help Falling in Love and Oh, Pretty Woman.
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(5) It really was – his album went top 10 in the UK.
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(6) What John Lennon said about Jesus.
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(7) Chris's acting CV includes Silence of the Lambs, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and his comedy show The Chris Isaak Show.
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Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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