Kiefer Sutherland discusses ‘very personal’ songs, inspiration ahead of Pittsburgh-area show
When Kiefer Sutherland was on the verge of releasing his debut album “Down In A Hole” a few years ago, a lot of people might have assumed he would be delving into alternative rock, heavy metal or grunge. After all, while he has shown tremendous range over his decades as a stage, film and television actor, our enduring image of him tends to be as a fiercely independent, bad boy hero.
“I completely get that,” says Sutherland in a phone conversation from Nashville while gearing up for a Pittsburgh-area show June 28 at Jergerl’s Rhythm Grille. “Certainly growing up I listened to everything from Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder to Elton John, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC.”
But there was a 10-year period in which Sutherland took a break from making movies and focused a good deal of his time on being a professional rodeo rider.
The pros he would travel with, like team roping partner John English, would listen to country music. They brought along tapes of original outlaw country artists such as Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings along for the ride and Sutherland fell in love.
‘The direct lyric’
“What I loved about it was the direct lyric,” says Sutherland. “When I listen to Johnny Cash sing ‘A Boy Named Sue’ there’s no confusion for me about what he’s singing about. There’s no metaphor there. It’s not like a Led Zeppelin song where I’m having to go read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ to try and figure out what they’re singing about. Johnny Cash was absolutely direct and honest about the lyric.”
When Sutherland, perhaps best known for his award-winning action role as federal agent Jack Bauer in the TV show “24,” decided to try his hand at songwriting, he knew the approach he wanted to take.
“I will be an actor to the death. It’s what I absolutely love to do, but it’s the storytelling. It’s getting together with a group of actors and the director and the cinematographer and we all talk about the best way to tell this story” says Sutherland. “Songwriting is very much the same thing. I found a genre of music where I was allowed to write a pretty direct lyric. It’s the way I wanted to write.”
If you’re seeking a live music performance full of honesty and directness, you can check out Sutherland in concert Friday at 8 p.m. at Jergel’s Rhythm Grille in Warrendale. He’s touring with a newly released sophomore album called “Reckless and Me.” The album contains 10 songs that showcase a smoky, weathered and pleasing voice that perfectly fits his Americana and country rock infused singing and songwriting style.
Baring his soul on stage
Some of the songs are deeply personal. “Saskatchewan” is a poetically heartfelt meditation on coming to grips with his mother’s mortality after she suffered three strokes in one year.
“The songs that I write are always going to be very personal, whether it’s “Song for a Daughter” or “Saskatchewan,” they’re going to be stories about things that are happening to me,” says Sutherland. “And one of the nice things about being able to play live is you get to say ‘this is where I was when I wrote this song. This is what was happening in my life, this is what I was going through and maybe you have gone through something similar.’ ”
Sutherland says that, at first, baring his soul on stage with autobiographical songs was daunting. He’d always been a performer but this wasn’t acting.
“I always say that on my best day I’ll never be Jack Bauer,” says Sutherland. “I’ve always had a character that separates me from an audience. I found the first show that I was doing, I was standing in front of 500 perfect strangers and I’m about to tell them these incredibly personal things about my life and I wasn’t ready for that.”
He says it took him 15 or 20 shows to get to where he was comfortable being himself on stage.
“It was a real process but once it happened it was one of the most freeing experiences I’ve ever had.”
Equally challenging was gaining the confidence to record his own songs.
“I was very aware of the stigma of an actor doing music,” says Sutherland.
He had written some songs and wanted to send them to record labels to see if any artist would be interested in recording them. Sutherland asked his longtime friend, singer-songwriter, Jude Cole, if he would record them as demos. Cole really liked the songs and suggested that Sutherland make an album.
“I said: ‘Absolutely no way.’ But he knew me pretty well. He took me to a bar and we had a couple drinks and all of a sudden it sounded like a better idea,” says Sutherland. “We recorded five songs and I liked the way they sounded and I had my ‘come to Jesus’ moment and I thought ‘well, if someone is going to make fun of me for it and I can’t take that, well that’s on me.’ ”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].