Written by Dan Hyman • Photography by Beth Elliott • August 19, 2016
When Kiefer Sutherland headed out on a 70-date club tour across North America earlier this year, he was convinced no one would turn up. The 49-year-old veteran actor--with encouragement from his longtime friend and producer Jude Cole--had just recorded an album of country-inflected rock songs. The record, called Down in a Hole, was his attempt at jumping on the moving train that is the music industry, but after running a record label of his own for years, Sutherland knew the odds were stacked against him. Much to his delight, the fans proved him wrong.
"I was just so grateful that anybody showed up at all," Sutherland admits over the phone. "We managed to sell out almost all of the places we played, and we were touring ahead of an album release, so I know it's not because people really liked the music."
Yes, Sutherland's concerts may have been filled with people who wanted to see Jack Bauer croon about life and love, but that discounts the deftness with which Sutherland writes and sings. From the steel-guitar weeper "Not Enough Whiskey" to the ominously affecting "All She Wrote," Sutherland's debut LP is much more than just another actor trying his hand at music.
"Let's be honest," says the 24 star, whose new ABC drama Designated Survivor debuts next month, "there's a real stigma attached to doing this, but the goal at the end of the evening is that audience realizes we've got a lot more in common than they think." Below, we talk to Sutherland about his deep-seeded musical roots, how playing live affected his acting, and why his turn as a singer has opened him up like never before.
Tell me how Down in a Hole came to life.
Music has been a huge part of my life just as a listener. I had a label for 10 years called Ironworks; the whole point of that was to try to help younger artists that weren't getting signed to major labels, and we did that for about 10 years. Then personally I've been playing violin since I was four and guitar since I was 10, but I still had no intention of making a record. I went to Jude Cole—who is my best friend and also my partner in Ironworks and an incredible musician—with about 25 or 30 songs. I wanted to record a couple and send them off to BMI or Sony and see if any other artists would like to do them. It was really Jude who liked the songs and liked the way they were sounding; he pushed me to consider recording them myself. It was around the fifth or sixth song that I had my Come to Jesus moment: I liked the songs a lot and I was proud of them and I loved the way Jude was producing the album. I knew in my heart I would be willing to stand by them for better or worse.
You casually mention having 25 or 30 songs. I take it you've been writing songs for a while?
Absolutely. I played in a few cover bands over the years for fun and it was always nice to be able to throw in a couple of your songs into a set. The writing for me was really therapeutic. When we had the label we had great artists like Suzanne [Santo] from HoneyHoney, Rocco DeLuca, guys from Billy Boy on Poison. I watched all of these different artists and the way they would approach writing and I couldn't help but pick up tips from them. I got to a place where there was kind of a format for how I would go about writing a song. It's the closest thing I've ever had to diary. If I could grab something and I liked the way it sounded, that was exciting for me.
You said there's a stigma about actors who make music, but I have to imagine your acting informed your music and vice versa.
What was really weird that yes, it did, but it was exactly the opposite of what I thought it would be. I thought 30 years of working as an actor on stage and in film was going to help me perform live onstage as a musician. The thing that I had forgotten about was that as an actor you always get to hide behind the character. These songs are actually very personal to my life. If I'm singing a song like "Calling Out Your Name," which is about heartbreak, that actually happened. That's mine. When I explain to the audience that this is where I was when I wrote this, and this is what happened to me, I find myself opening up in a way that I never had before. I had just come off about 30 dates when I went to go shoot Designated Survivor, and I allowed a lot more of myself into that character than I think I would have had I not done those shows. It opened up my perspective of what I could do as an actor.
Are there any specific musicians who have inspired you over the years?
I've always liked shows in a bar or a club a lot more than I do in arenas. So, for instance, Rocco Deluca, who was on our label. There was a night in New York when he was playing the ballroom and something had pissed him off before the show. He came out and played one of the best rock shows I've ever seen in my life. It was extraordinary. So that is certainly someone who inspired me. I saw David Bowie when I was 15 years old and I think myself and the other 40,000 people at the Canadian Exhibition where I saw him knew within 10 minutes that he was the coolest guy on the planet. That sense of is something that's always moved me. The Rolling Stones: I love looking at those documentaries of them. And really one of my favorites, especially through the late-'70s and '80s, is Tom Petty. He's one of my favorite writers. I'm certainly not saying I'm like any of those people, but I think it's really important to have people you really respect.
I was pleasantly surprised by your voice. Has singing always come natural to you?
Everyone has the voice they've got and they have to work around that. I'm certainly not Steve Perry from Journey by any long stretch of the imagination, but my voice seems to be able to suit the stories I'm trying to tell.
How has the experience been relating to fans as Kiefer Sutherland and not a character?
I think in the very beginning it was something that took some getting used to and maybe scared me a little bit. It did take me a minute to feel comfortable explaining that these songs represent the last 15 years of my life and what I was going through. We all go through heartbreaks. We all go through disappointments. We all have our own issues and things we're battling, and I write about all of those things. I have to be honest, though; the audiences were so gracious and cool and they really gave me a chance to do this without coming in with such a prejudged attitude, and for that I'll be grateful till the cows come home.