Kiefer Sutherland
The Designated Survivor and 24 star Settles Into Singer-Songwriter Mode

By Lee Valentine Smith

He's played the president on Designated Survivor and the irascible agent Jack Bauer on the popular series 24 but Kiefer Sutherland's newest role has been his most nerve-racking. With the release of his debut album Down In A Hole and a string of live appearances with his band, the veteran actor has fully entered singer-songwriter-musician mode.

Yes, that risky road has been traveled by a number of respected actors to often-unexpected acclaim and a wildly varied spectrum of results. Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon, Juliette Lewis and Robert Downey, Jr have had moderate successes with music while Leonard Nimoy, Telly Savalas and Goldie Hawn, not so much.

Sutherland is well aware of the stigma. But the London-born performer is so proud of his often-personal storytelling that he's taking it on the road on an ambitious tour to support the new release. While traveling the country in Dora, a Prevost bus that also serves as his dressing room when Designated Survivor films on location, Sutherland stops in Atlanta this month.

Did your considerable experience as an actor inform your stage persona?

Well I thought I was going to be able to use 30 years working as an actor. I was certain that would help me on stage but I was wrong. When I first started thinking about it, I realized that for 30 years I've been able to work as a character. When I go on stage with music, the songs are personal and they're mine. So I leave myself in a much more open position than I think maybe I ever have before. So it ended up being incredibly different for me. It's almost impossible to compare the two now - except for the fact that in most circumstances I'm telling stories. And that seems to be the one common thread of this thing that I'm enjoying the most.

Touring is the real litmus test for any music. To take it out in front of a live audience, many of whom have never heard the songs before, is a real challenge.

Yeah we ended up playing 75 or 80 shows last year and it became of the most exciting things I've ever done or ever had the opportunity to do. I think it's because it required me to open up in a way that I haven't done before. And by that I mean in the context of just explaining where I was when I wrote a certain song, or what I was actually thinking.

It's rare for a songwriter to be that candid and vulnerable. How did the first few shows go?

At the very beginning, in the first few shows that we played - and by that I mean maybe 20 - it was the most scared I think I've ever been in my life. But for a variety of reasons it ended up a whole new way for me to relate. Storytelling really is the driving force of what excites me about working as an actor, but there was just something about the excitement and the newness of it. In many ways it has transferred over into the acting is well. I think I approach Designated Survivor with maybe a more open sensibility than I have before, so it's kind of re-energized me in a creative way.

Who were your earliest musical inspirations?

I was listening to Elton John when I was eight or nine and then later Tom Petty was a big inspiration. I don't think he's ever written a bad song, and he's all over the place with different styles. The Band, certainly and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash because they told really linear stories. I got into country music in the '90s when I was doing rodeos. We'd all travel together and that was what we heard. The linear stories of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings became a style of writing I really respected.

Songwriters, including many of your favorites, often assume a variety of characters when they write. But for the majority of the record, these are your own personal revelations.

Yeah I've just had a lifetime playing characters so when I started writing, I would draw on the personal experiences that I've gone through. And like with anybody else, they were all kind of very general things. Like loss of love or finding love. Unfortunately, over the course of my life I've lost a lot of friends way too early so I would write about that. It just became the easiest thing for me. I think the only song on the album that's not personal is a song called "Shirley Jean" which is about a man's last night before his execution. But everything else was just what was right in front of me. Maybe I wasn't - or I'm not yet - evolved enough as a writer to spend a lot of time trying to craft a story. I never kept a diary in my life and this ended up maybe becoming that for me.

Is it a little scary to open up the diary for everyone to see and hear?

Yeah, well that was the thing I wasn't expecting. All of a sudden when I would start to say, "I was in this place when I wrote this song and this is what I was writing about," I realized I was talking about my own life. So I put myself in the position to really open up in a way that maybe I wasn't prepared for - and that took a little bit of an adjustment. But I have to say, when I finally did and I came clean with it, it was a really freeing experience for me. I think that's part of why I enjoy doing this is much as l do. I was dealing with things in my 40s that I hadn't resolved from my 20s. So ultimately it becomes a shared experience, like a great novel, a great film or a song. With any of those, you realize you might not be the only person going through those emotions. And there's a real comfort in that for me.

Are you still delving into your diary for song material?

My family's not gonna like this too much. Whenever I'm looking for inspirations and I've gone through a lot of my own personal experiences, I start writing about personal experiences of my family. I don't know how appreciative they're going to be of that, but it's true. We've got six new songs that we've got bed tracks for. Then after this tour I'll go back to Toronto and start Designated Survivor again and then after that we'll start finishing up the second record. Hopefully it'll be ready by spring of next year.

Do you enjoy the touring experience?

The first few shows, it was not easy. I had to force myself to get out there and do it. I think I was very nervous and I didn't know what the outcome was going to be. But I pushed through it and I think that's something I've done all my life, to just push through things. Then I got to the place where I really enjoyed it. I can't say enough about the audiences that we've played for over the last year and a half. I started to really feed off of it and I've learned that if I task myself to do something, I'm going to follow through - for better or for worse. By the end of the show, whatever preconceived ideas they might've had about me or whatever preconceived ideas I might've had about them, we find we probably have more in common than you would normally think. That shared experience has been truly amazing. The writing and recording was enjoyable, but touring really woke something up in me. So right now that's what I want to be doing. It's still a very new kind of thing, very fresh. It's interesting that for me - after 70-some-odd films and 215 hours of 24, and the other series as well - I'm excited that I've still got so much to learn. I'm certainly aware of the stigma of an actor doing music. You can never control what the press is going to say or not say. But I do think you can control the conversation. Over the hour and a half that we play, I feel we really get to have a conversation and a connection. I think that really started at a show in Ann Arbor, it became as much of a conversation as a concert. By the end of the show, I think the connection becomes much more honest than it was before the show started. We'll all see that for better or worse I'm not Jack Bauer.

Kiefer Sutherland plays May 17 at Terminal West. For more information visit terminalwestatl.com.

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