When Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning actor Kiefer Sutherland made the announcement that he was releasing his upcoming debut album, Down in a Hole, it’s safe to say many people were surprised.
But I’m not talking about those of us who knew him from afar in movies like Lost Boys, Flatliners, A Few Good Men, Young Guns and the hit TV series 24. I’m talking about those that were closest to him.
“I think it might be a little bit of a shock,” Sutherland recently told me during his recent visit to CMT’s offices in Nashville.
Sure, he was tenured in the music business. Sutherland was part of a label with Jude Cole called Iron Works for 10 years. On that label, the two boasted Lifehouse, Rocco DeLuca & the Burden, honeyhoney — the exact people Sutherland expected to be shocked by the news that he himself would be taking his turn in the musical spotlight.
“I had such respect for those artists, I would never play guitar in front of them and would certainly never sing,” Sutherland admitted. “Our job was to help those artists through this massive transition in the music industry and get them going. So I was very quiet about it.”
But he was always taking notes from them, particularly in the field of songwriting, where Sutherland says he truly experienced an awakening.
“The songs I’d written before Iron Works, it’s like this massive epiphany would have to happen,” he said. “The melody, the chorus, the verse would all have to happen at one time, and I wasn’t skilled enough to figure out how to break that stuff down.
“And yet over a 10-year period of watching these great artists write in our studio, you couldn’t help but notice, ‘Ah, OK, so I don’t even have to come up with a guitar line just yet. I can just come up with a melody, write my lyrics and figure out how I want to play it.”
Sutherland says their inadvertent guidance was very helpful and that he became a lot more prolific and personal with his songwriting. Still, he didn’t share those songs with anyone.
He stepped away from Iron Works, and in the five year period he was absent, he continued to write scores of songs as he found the writing to be “quite cathartic.”
“There was a lot of stuff in my life that I was trying to figure out, that I was trying to work through,” he told me. “I’d been on 24 for 10 years, and I finally had some breathing room. And there was some stuff I had to deal with.”
When he finally came up for air, Sutherland had around 20 or 25 songs, a batch of which he sent to Cole, hoping to land them in the hands of another artist who would like to record them. It seemed sad to give them up, but Sutherland said he was keenly aware of the stigma of an actor doing music and swore there was no way he’d cut the tunes for himself.
Once you hear Sutherland’s album, it’s hard to imagine anyone else singing those songs. And fortunately, during the time when decisions were being made, Cole felt the same way.
“He liked the way that they sounded. And secretly, I did, too,” Sutherland said.
“I had to have that ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment where I admitted I liked the songs, I liked the way they sounded, and I loved the way he produced them,” he said.
And that moment gave Sutherland the clarity and plan he needed to make it happen. He wanted to play clubs, small theaters and intimate venues and share these songs with the world — the “actor-turned-musician” stigma be damned.
“I finally got to a point where I didn’t care,” he said with confidence. “This is what I wanted to do, and I would stand by the music. And if people were going to say not-so-kind things, then so be it. There was a real freedom for me in that.”
And so a tour began. Sutherland is squeezing in tour dates before his new show Designated Survivor starts up. And while the balance of both television and music may seem impossible for some, Sutherland said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I having one of those odd years in my life where I’m getting to do two things I absolutely love,” he said. “I really am enjoying that show and I’ve really enjoyed touring. I think it took me to this point in my life to get to where I can be confident enough in what I like … that if people weren’t going to be nice about it, I would be fine.”
Of course, a lifetime in the film and television world certainly helps you prepare for critics. Sutherland told me that after 30 years of working as a professional actor, he has a “strong sense” of what he feels is good versus bad. Most importantly, he has cultivated an audience that accepts him.
And though music does differ from acting, there are many parallels between the two mediums for Sutherland, the biggest being the storytelling factor. But he knows musical acceptance make take time, and he’s OK with that.
“Audiences don’t always change gears very fast, and I understand that,” he said. “24 was my first experience of television and I didn’t fully grasp that people are actually inviting you into their home. And when people get used to watching specific shows, trying to get them to try something new is really hard.
“Even 24 took a while to get rooted because people don’t want to change their pattern — and I don’t either. I’m one of those people!”
But something tells me people will follow.
“We’ll see,” he said. “No single music is for everyone. All I can say is the songs are very personal to me. I’m very proud of them, and I really do like the way they were produced and arranged, and I love playing them.”
With these songs, Sutherland is playing his most authentic character yet — himself
“These are my stories, and I’d forgotten that somehow. When I went to go play them, it required me opening up, more than I’m used to about my personal life. Once I did, it was like opening a floodgate. And there was an amazing moment at the end of a show when you and the audience realize you’ve both got a lot more in common than you both thought, and that shared experience is something I’ve found invaluable and moving for me.”
Added to his list of moving musical moments is his Grand Ole Opry debut.
“I went out for sound check and was like an 8-year-old kid testing the water,” he told me with a boyish grin. “You can’t not walk out there and be aware of the historical relevance. You think of the people who’ve been there.”
The first people that came to mind?
“Johnny Cash and June Carter,” he said. “Dolly Parton. I’m a huge fan. I think she’s just such a spectacular writer and incredible performer. I still can’t figure out how she plays the guitar with the long nails.”
Sutherland is humbled by the reception he’s received from other Nashville singers, songwriters and musicians.
“There’s a sense of community here,” he said. “I really felt that at the Opry. Everybody wanted everybody to do well.”
The importance of a supportive community had been underscored by his father, acclaimed actor Donald Sutherland.
“I have a picture in my house of Judy Garland singing at a piano, Jimmy Stewart is playing that piano, Clark Gable is holding a drink and a cigarette and laughing — they were all together,” Sutherland said. “They were a community. It was their way of surviving what was the studio system at the time.
“Then the studio system kind of fell apart, and everyone got their own agent and their own publicist and their own thing. And it just inherently became more divisive. That community that I even hear about from my father, it’s just not the same. The community that I was a part of in the ’80s, it’s just not the same as it is now.
“So it really took me aback to come to Nashville to experience this community here. The support network is extraordinary. The kindness was just intoxicating.”