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Chris Isaak’s Love of Holiday Music Runs Deep: Behind the Setlist Podcast

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Chris Isaak doesn’t just dabble in holiday music — he’s loved it since growing up in Stockton, in California’s Central Valley, listening to Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Vince Guaraldi, Gene Autrey’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and Roy Orbison’s version of the Willie Nelson song “Pretty Paper.” Those influences come through on his latest album, Everybody Knows It’s Christmas, released Oct. 14 through Sun Label Group. 

“I guess whatever you listen to when you’re a kid, that’s in your head and that’s really Christmas — because you’re never going to beat that excitement,” the singer tells Billboard’s Behind the Setlist podcast. 

Everybody Knows It’s Christmas is Isaak’s second studio album of holiday music. Ever since the first, 2004’s Christmas, Isaak has donned a red custom suit and gone on a brief holiday tour that mixes Christmas music with songs from his four-decade career, including “Wicked Game,” a No. 6 Hot 100 hit in 1991, and “Somebody’s Crying” from the 1995 album Forever Blue. “I’m terrible on dates, but it’s been a long time,” jokes Isaak about his holiday touring. “I’m on my second or third red suit.”

Isaak does justice to some beloved holiday standards. His cover of Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph” (titled “Run Rudolph Run” on the album) remains faithful to the original, hard-rocking version. His take on the normally upbeat “Winter Wonderland” creates a slow, shimmering ode to winter romance. The album closes with a moving rendition of “O Holy Night,” a suggestion by the album’s producer, Dave Cobb, who worked with Isaak in Nashville’s RCA Studio.

But Isaak bucked the tradition of covering someone else’s holiday songs and wrote eight out of the album’s 13 tracks. “When I’m writing [holiday songs] I’m thinking about — now, this doesn’t sound like me, but it’s me — I actually picture a family sitting around and listening to the thing. I hope that it’ll be something they can all listen to. And it’s kind of enough upbeat energy that they can put it in the background while they’re eating dinner and they can have their argument at the table and say, ‘Turn up the music,’ you know?”

Isaak’s sense of humor comes out in “Help Me, Baby Jesus,” one of the standout tracks on Everybody Knows It’s Christmas. In the song, thieves took off with a camera, the three wise men, Mary, the manger, floodlights and an extension cord. “Where I grew up, everybody would steal everything off your front yard,” he explains. “People had to watch the baby Jesus.

“That song will not be a hit,” Isaak continues. “But somewhere in America, there will be somebody who gets a nativity scene stolen, and their friend will go, ‘Hey, there’s a song for you.’” 

Listen to the entire conversation with Chris Isaak in the Behind the Setlist podcast at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iHeart, Stitcher, Amazon Music or Audible. 

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