On a Friday night in May at the V Club in Huntington, West Virginia, I stood in front of a twenty-three foot stage waiting to see and hear one of the most recognizable faces and voices of my lifetime. The venue was packed to a standing room only capacity, most of us curious about what to expect. Would we see another actor-turned-singer who got bored with making movies, or would this be something legitimate, a soul attempting to latch on to a passion whose calling refuses to be silenced? What I learned that night is that while Kiefer Sutherland, the man known for Stand By Me, The Lost Boys, Young Guns, Flatliners, A Time To Kill, 24 and countless others, may have the reputation of an actor, he is truly a songwriter and musician at heart.
When I see someone expand their world and attempt something new, I am always curious about the motivation behind that leap. Are they following someone or something because it looks like fun, or was it a real case of being inspired by life? Thankfully, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kiefer Sutherland and discuss his immersion into the world of Country music.
“I roped in the United States Team Roping Championships for about ten years and that was my first exposure to real, authentic Country music. I mean Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and even more contemporary artists such as Dwight Yoakam,” says Sutherland.
“I loved the feel of the music, but the thing that really struck me the most was that these guys were all writing in first person narratives. I don’t believe Johnny Cash ever went to Reno to shoot a man just to watch him die, but he sings it as that character and I related to that. I related to that as an actor and I certainly related to that as a listener.”
After over thirty years as a professional (and damned successful) actor, he has found a new way to express himself and tell stories.
My desire to be an actor really came from wanting to tell stories and what I am realizing when I am playing these shows is that it is really the same thing. All of these songs are stories from my personal life.Kiefer Sutherland
Embarking on such an against the grain journey, like becoming a musician at 49, would provide anyone with multiple challenges and unexpected moments. While this has been true for the man who played ‘Jack Bauer’, it appears that the challenge of expressing himself in a different way has been incredibly beneficial.
“I have done a lot of theatre over the course of my career, but this is very different. When you do a play, you are allowed to do it within the context of the character, but this is not that. These songs are really personal and I try to explain that during the context of the show,” he explains.
“There is a very, kind of, naked feeling I had on stage at the beginning and it was something I really had to get used to. By no stretch of the imagination am I expecting everyone to like my music, but I did have to get to the point in my life that I was comfortable enough with them that I would go forward and that was a very freeing experience for me.”
When discussing the navigation of the song writing process, as well as which artists have inspired Sutherland the most, the veil is completely lifted and I am allowed an unobstructed view into who he is as a musician.
“The one thing that I have learned is that if you have an idea, you have to finish it through and if I actually sit down to write, it is usually because I have had an idea. ‘Shirley Jean’ was a song like that, where I have such great respect for Johnny Cash and how he wrote about prison. He gave such great respect to the people, a kind of dignity that we often forget they are people in there (prison) and I have such great respect for that,” Sutherland says.
“I sat down and wanted to write about a man and his last night in prison before his execution, so I sat down to write about the subject. Everything (aside from ‘Shirley Jean’ ) on the record, I have written were very personal and about my life. ‘Down in a Hole’ was written about losing a friend to alcohol and drugs.”
The emotion behind each of Sutherland’s songs echoes within me, because the stories I most enjoy writing are the ones which come from personal experience. This connection is not lost on him or his audiences.
“During the course of writing this album and even more so when playing it live, this was really about my life. What I had not counted on was that I would actually find myself revealing more of myself than I was comfortable. The 200 people in the bar were relating to what I was going through and at the end of the night the really nice thing that happened was that all of us realized we are not that different from one another,” he says.
“Regardless of the incredibly fortunate life I have had, I have still lost people in my life, I have had my heart broken and I have had to find my own way for myself and you just get to talk about that through a show.” From unexpected actions, come unexpected reactions. “When I went to film ‘Designated Survivor’ it allowed me to put more of myself in the character than anything else I have done before.”
Kiefer Sutherland is not writing songs and making music to seem cool or to gain extra attention and publicity from the media. He is pursuing a career in music because it is another way for the artist inside to further express himself. Even the venues in which he performs with his band are influenced by his personal preferences.
“For me, I don’t feel comfortable going to an arena to see a show. Most of the music that I have seen over the last ten or fifteen years have been in bars or clubs. That forces a fan or musician to interact with an audience in a very different way that becomes incredibly revealing about who that artist is.”
Being allowed to interact with audiences in such intimate settings has further allowed him to reach a comfort level and given him the opportunity he was uncertain he would ever reach and for this he is humbled by and appreciative to his fans.
“We played sixty shows on our first tour and by the end it became very comfortable. At the beginning I was quite shy and just wanted to play the songs. The truth is, and I really have to credit the audiences we got to play for, I was surprised that anybody came out,” says Sutherland.
“The audiences were so generous that they gave me the comfort to try it, connect and explain what these songs are about. I will always be grateful to the people who came out and gave us a shot.”
With his new, hit show Designated Survivor and the possibility of it lasting as many as eight seasons, along with multiple film projects on the horizon, Sutherland’s career in front of the camera is as busy as ever. Making the time to also perform as a musician is something that only the most passionate of people could accomplish. When asked if he had to choose between acting or making music for the rest of his career, he quickly made it known that he hopes to never have to make that choice. For the fans who love both artistic sides of Kiefer Sutherland, we hope he never has to choose just one as well.
Learn more about Kiefer’s new album and pick up your copy now at kiefersutherlandmusic.com!
Featured Photo Credit: Beth Elliott