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?' "