Since the ’80s, Chris Isaak has been mining the darker, dreamier reaches of American pop music past: the weird, echoey, rolling waves of surf, the snake-hipped thump of rhythm and blues, and the sultry stylings of rock ’n’roll crooners like Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, both of whom he covered on his second-most-recent album, 2011’s “Beyond The Sun.”
Isaak went right to the wellspring for “Beyond the Sun,” two discs of familiar vintage country and rockabilly songs. At Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, he and his band tried to record the songs the way record man Sam Phillips had first committed them to tape with Orbison, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Ray Price and others.
Isaak plays the House of Blues on Tuesday.
“At Sun, it was, ‘Let’s do it just like they did it,’” Isaak explained during a recent phone interview. “A performance, you do it in one take. It puts the pressure on, but the fun is there, because everyone is in the room making the music. It’s brought to this: Let’s see if we can go in the room and nail it.” Playing with the assumption that you’ll go back and tweak the recording, he said, alters the energy.
Isaak followed up “Beyond the Sun” with the late-2015 release “First Comes The Night,” his 13th studio album and first new collection of original songs in a half-dozen years. “First Comes The Night” brought him back to Tennessee — to Nashville, another town with an ace musical legacy. This time, he traveled Southeast not to soak in a rich past, but to join in on the red-hot present.
“Musically, it’s an amazingly fertile moment in Nashville,” Isaak said. “People think in L.A., you’ll walk down the street and see a rock star? Most of them are in Nashville. If I go out to get a burger, I always comb my hair.”
He went exploring in Music City in the first place on the recommendation of Stevie Nicks, who’d recorded her 2014 project “24 Karat Gold” there. The first day he was in town, he ran into Robert Plant. (“He’s a bigger star, a better singer and better-looking than me, but we both record in Nashville,” Isaak noted philosophically.)
On the Nashville sessions for “First Comes The Night,” Isaak employed a dream team of locals, including producers Dave Cobb — acclaimed for his work on recent releases by Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson — and Paul Worley, a veteran credited with, among other achievements, discovering the Dixie Chicks.
For all of his image’s retro trappings — his reverb, his pompadour — Chris Isaak has always been too strange and sui generis to be wholly a revivalist. His biggest hits, after all, are the sinuous, vaguely menacing heartbreak songs “Wicked Game” and “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing.” His music is a favorite of director David Lynch, who also cast him in “Twin Peaks,” and has been used in films by Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino. He’s a weird one, and if the years have taught him anything, he said, it’s that he’s perfectly fine with that.
“The more I go along in my career, the more liberated I feel about doing exactly what I feel like doing,” he said. For example, writing the song “Insects” for “First Comes The Night,” a line came to him: ‘Bad ideas are like insects on the windshield of my mind.’
“I thought it was kind of weird, kind of goofy,” he said. “But I liked it. Go ahead if you don’t like it — I love it.” Underscoring the point, he chose to quote a teen-idol crooner from the era of Elvis and Orbison.
“The safest bet is, actually, please yourself,” he said. “God bless Ricky Nelson. He was right.”