Known for his hits on both the big and small screen, Emmy-winning actor Kiefer Sutherland is currently embarking on a whole new adventure. While fans of the iconic actor are excited to have him back on their TV screens as he stars in “Designated Survivor,” it might come as a surprise to hear he’s also been exploring a career as a country singer-songwriter. With a love for music that dates back to childhood — he picked up his first guitar at age 10 — Sutherland only recently made the choice to take center stage in the musical arena.
This past summer he released his debut album, “Down in a Hole,” which contains a myriad of personal songs on the independent record label “Ironworks,” which he formed with good friend Jude Cole almost 15 years ago. Their intentions from the beginning were to help other artists make music, and in the process guide them to a place where they would sign with a major label.
This past May, Sutherland experienced another monumental moment in his illustrious career when he made his debut at Nashville’s famed Grand Ole Opry. BELLA sat down with the actor/musician to learn more about his foray into country music and how he feels about his latest journey.
In the process, we discovered a completely different side to an already amazing talent.
Your fans know you as Kiefer, the actor — what prompted you to add another layer to your career as a singer/songwriter?
Music has been part of my life for many years, and this [album] took a lot of time; it wasn’t an immediate idea. I took two songs I had written out of 25 and shared them with my friend Jude Cole. My interest at the time was really not to do an album. I was aware of the stigma of an actor doing music, and I never wanted to be “that guy.” My intention was to send them to [Virgin] EMI or Sony Music to see if they would have another artist do the songs I had written.
Jude really liked the way they sounded and the way I had played them and tried to convince me I could go and do a couple others. He thought the songs would be better served by me performing them because they were so personal. He took some time with me and we recorded a few more, and then a few more after that, and I realized I liked the way they sounded. I said to myself, “I want to make an album.”
The process took about a year — I didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I want to make a record.” It was a series of circumstances over a long period of time that got me to this place.
Do you feel the need to work harder to prove yourself as a musician?
We went on tour and did about 70 dates throughout North America. And I’m a realist; I know people came out because they knew me from “24,” “Lost Boys,” or whatever, but I was just grateful they came out at all. You tour in front of your first record and people come out for all different reasons, and I’m aware of that. But I’m so grateful for the audiences we had; they gave us a real shot at playing our show and they judged us based on that. I personally felt it was really successful and the audiences were amazing. They gave us the opportunity as a band to put our music forward and I will be forever grateful for that.
With the release of your debut album this summer, how does it feel to share these extremely personal pieces of work?
I went into this experience thinking I would be able to take from 30 years working as an actor on stage and film and use it for performing as a musician, and in fact it was quite the opposite. What I hadn’t counted on was that I wasn’t hiding behind a character, which is probably not a fair description of acting, either. But the truth is these stories were very personal, and performing live required me to open up in a way I wasn’t very comfortable with and certainly not used to.
I had to explain this is where I was at when my heart was broken at this time in my life and that’s why I wrote this song, or a friend of mine passed away and died too young and this is where I was at when I wrote this song.
It required a lot more openness than I was used to, and that took a minute to be prepared for. What was interesting is I was shooting my new show, “Designated Survivor,” at the same time and when I came off the tour it reinformed how I wanted to perform the part. I wanted to add a little bit more of myself into this character. So in the end, what I thought was going to help me — that working as an actor was going to help me as a musician — was in fact the opposite. That 70-date tour actually made me feel comfortable being more open with this character than I normally would have been.
Why didn’t you pursue music sooner?
Acting was one of the first things anybody ever told me I was good at, and I grabbed onto that while I was quite young. I started working professionally in the theater in Canada when I was about 15 years old, and had always planned on doing music as well. I think at 25 years old I probably would have been way too sensitive about the stigma of an actor trying to be a musician. At this point in my life, if someone is going to make fun of me or not have something nice to say, I’m much more prepared to handle that.
All I’ve ever wanted to do is play small bars and clubs, and that’s what this record has allowed me, and what I’ve had the most fun doing. I did not get into this to sell a million records or play stadiums. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to — that would be fantastic. But that wasn’t the goal.
Were those closest to you surprised by your decision?
When I ran it by my two daughters and explained I was making a record, I could feel them go, “Oh no, this might be a disaster.” When I played it for them, one of the nicest moments was when they were relieved it wasn’t going to be a disaster or embarrass them. That made me laugh — it was a highlight for me. If it could pass that test, then I was fine.
How does performing your music live differ from any other production you’ve done?
It’s very personal for me. Standing up there, you say, “Look, I know you’ve never heard any of these songs, so thank you for coming out.” When I was 25 years old I went through a really bad breakup and it stuck with me for years. I finally wrote a song about it called “Calling Out Your Name,” and it somehow healed me. Now all of a sudden there’s a group of people in the audience who go, “Wow, I had a similar experience,” and hopefully over the course of 10 songs you start to make them realize there are certain things you go through that are common human nature — heartbreak, loss, love, envy, all of these things I’ve written songs about. And at the end of the night the real benefit is hopefully we all realize we are not that different from each other. That’s the nice part of all of this. The hardest part was getting used to sharing those kinds of personal things in the first place.
What’s next for you musically?
We’ve been working on the second record. This has been a slow process, but we’re actually five or six tracks in. Again, one record success was not predicating my interest in this. I’ve written a lot of songs and there are some I’m really happy with. Those I want to record, and I’ll just keep doing that.
In the Blink of an Eye
Fans of Sutherland, the wait is over. He’s back on primetime with his new drama series, “Designated Survivor,” airing Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on ABC.
Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a low-level cabinet member who is suddenly appointed to the role of president of the United States following a deadly terrorist attack on the U.S Capitol during a State of the Union address. As the only cabinet member still alive, he’s thrust into a role he must rapidly prepare to take on.
In this powerful drama, Kirkman struggles to keep both the country and his family from falling apart, while navigating the highly volatile political arena and searching for those responsible for the attack. The show is based on the real-life concept that a member of the U.S. presidential line of succession must always be absent from political gatherings in the event of an attack on the president and all other members of that line of succession. There must be a “designated survivor.”
The show also stars Maggie Q, Kal Penn, Italia Ricci, Adan Canto, LaMonica Garrett, and Tanner Buchanan.