Kiefer Sutherland is best known as the ruthless government agent Jack Bauer in FOX’s hit TV show 24. This fall, though, he will play a drastically different role on ABC’s Designated Survivor. In the show, Sutherland’s character becomes the president after an attack wipes out the presidential lineage. While in 24 Sutherland’s Bauer was trained to protect the president, his character in Designated Survivor now has to figure out how to lead and protect the country as the president himself.
However, that fictional role reversal pales in comparison with the new direction Sutherland has taken in recent months as a singer-songwriter. On August 19th, he released his first album of music, the country and Americana-tinged Down in a Hole. On the album, Sutherland can be heard using his deep, raspy voice and steady guitar to lead his band through a collection of 11 tunes. The release follows a 32-city tour of the country earlier this year with his band.
During a recent phone interview, Sutherland said he enjoyed being able to explain during the live shows where he was when he wrote a specific song, why he wrote it and what he was going through.
“Hopefully at the end of the evening the audience and I will realize we’ve got a lot more in common than you might think,” Sutherland says. “Even the human experience is quite familiar from one person to another.”
Sutherland says he really enjoyed touring and that it was full of special memories. One of them was getting to talk to Merle Haggard before a performance in Bakersfield.
“He welcomed me to Bakersfield and was incredibly generous. Literally two and a half weeks later, he passed away,” he says during a live press conference. “So I wanted to play a song of his.”
Another special memory was his debut at the Grand Ole Opry.
“The depth of humility was overwhelming, and that made the show go like a blur,” he says during the press conference. “I’ve never seen my band smile like that before.”
While being an actor allows Sutherland to put his own persona aside to portray his character’s, becoming a songwriter in the public eye forced a new kind of openness that he was previously unfamiliar with. It required him to open himself to the world.
“As an actor I’ve managed to hide behind a character. And that can sometimes be very comforting. Whereas with the music, because it is so personal and the performances are live, you open yourself in a way—and certainly for me—that I’m not used to,” he says. “I’ve spent 30 years working as an actor and being very private about my own personal life. So this has been a very big shift. The big significant differences required me to open up about things that I normally would have been very protective of.”
In order to have a conversation with an audience, he says he had to admit the personal nature of the songs.
“I had to say ‘No, this was my breakup, this was my heart getting broken in this song’ or ‘this was a friend that I lost that changed my life,’’” he says during the press conference. “Some of the drinking songs were problems I’ve had. So that took me a couple shows getting comfortable opening up that way.”
Despite the many differences in the two professions, Sutherland got behind the common denominator of both as outlets for telling stories.
“That’s what’s made acting so attractive to me. And the music was no different,” he says. “The lyric of any of my songs is the single driving force of that song.”
When Sutherland first listened to country music in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he noticed that most of the time they would write in the first person narrative. He used that as inspiration when he decided to seriously try his hand at songwriting.
“For instance, I do not believe that Johnny Cash went to shoot a man and watch him die. But he wrote that character and played it. That’s my wheelhouse as an actor,” Sutherland says. “So I went to write stories they would be in the first person narrative…The storytelling of country music is something I was really drawn to…So me picking that genre was really based on the first person narrative storytelling that really grabbed me as a listener but also motivated me as a writer.”
Sutherland says that he wrote many songs that are more story-oriented than the ones on the album but chose to release the more personal songs, because “they meant something on a deeper level” when he played them.
As an actor, Sutherland says he’s usually given a script, and that becomes the “groundwork or the map that defines what you’re going to do creatively with your body or your voice to tell that story.” He adds that that’s really “interpreting someone else’s writing.” However, as a songwriter, he has complete control. When he sits down to write a song, it “usually starts because something reminds me of something from the past or I’m actually feeling something from my past.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a verse or chorus, but I’ll start out with a lyric line and then I’ll figure out the music or melody after that,” he says. “So to me music, the closest thing I can compare it to is writing a journal. These songs are the closest thing I have to a journal.”
He’s quick to admit that he’s not setting out to sell millions of records. Instead, he has humble aspirations.
“I’m not trying to be Whitney Houston in any stretch of the imagination,” he said during the press conference.
The decision to play music professionally stemmed from a partnership he has with songwriter and longtime friend, Jude Cole. For several years, they signed musicians to Ironworks Music, the label they co-founded. The label issued records by artists like Rocco DeLuca, Billy Boy on Poison and Lifehouse. Sutherland started writing songs about two years ago after he finished the last season of 24. Despite his interaction with musicians and growing interest in writing music, he initially had no intention of making an album or touring.
“I hear about an actor wanting to do music, and my eyes roll back, too,” he says during the press conference. “I’m completely aware of the stigma, and that’s why I never did it.”
It was Cole that helped change his mind about that.
“I went to Jude and said I’ve got these songs and would like to record a couple of them. Maybe to see if BMI or Sony had an artist that wanted to record them,” Sutherland says during the press conference. “And it was his enthusiasm about the way the songs were sounding and knowing how personal they were to me that made him tell me that he wanted me to keep them and do a record with him. And I kind of laughed at him and said ‘no, I would never do that.’ He took advantage of my weakness and got me a little drunk, and all of a sudden it sounded like a better idea.”
The album is the culmination of his many years of interest in music. He first became interested in country music while he was team-roping in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
“I did that for 10 years and did it pretty hard,” he says during the press conference. “I toured with a couple of cowboys. They were listening to Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristopherson, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.”
Sutherland says that he’s already begun to see the effects of his music on his acting.
“I shot Designated Survivor for ABC and was shocked how much it informed my acting,” he says during the press conference. “The characters I was creating were so specific. The music shows changed that for me, and I started to believe that there was a humanity that you could give that was personal and real to you and these characters as well. Designated Survivor was informed by playing 25 shows in California.”