For Kiefer Sutherland, a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor, music is just another way to tell stories. But this time, they’re his own. Stripped from the comfortable mask of portraying a character, Sutherland has found profound intimacy in performing his own stories, accompanied by a bluesy, southern rock sound.
Sutherland recently visited the MusicRow offices to chat about his newest record, Reckless & Me, and to reflect on his entrance into the country music community, and the world of difference between acting and musicianship.
Reckless & Me, Sutherland’s second record, released in late April 2019. As with his first album, Down In A Hole, Sutherland worked with long-time collaborator and friend, Jude Cole. The Lifehouse producer and collaborator, and artist himself, opened Ironworks Studio and Ironworks Records with Sutherland in 2003. Together, they signed acts like Billy Boy on Poison, Ron Sexsmith, honeyhoney and Rocco Deluca and the Burden. Ironworks Studio is where Cole fanned the flame that led Sutherland into finally making a record.
Cole nudged Sutherland into starting a cover band after hearing him play the guitar in the studio. After hearing some songs he’d written, Cole suggested the actor make a record.
“He started hearing some of my songs and he was like, ‘You should do it. You should make a record.’ I was like ‘Oh my God, no. Never.’ I mean the stigma of an actor doing music is just…no time in my day for that. And he knew me well enough that he took me to a bar and we had a couple drinks and all of a sudden it sounded like a better idea, so I made a deal with him that we would do five songs. And then at the end of those five songs, I really loved the way he made them sound,” Sutherland said.
“And we made the record; we really didn’t think much of it. And we put it out there, ” he continued. “But there were some writers that were really generous about it. I remember the first review I ever saw—and I’m not one for reading that stuff, but given my fear of the stigma of being an actor and doing all that shit—and the first line of the review was: ‘You have no idea how much I wanted to hate this.’ It made me laugh, and he said, ‘But I don’t.’ I was grateful for that. I can go play on a corner and I’d be happy. We’ll do this as long as people will let us.”
The music came out country because Sutherland was drawn to the genre’s tendency for directness; he was fascinated with the honest lyric of Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and the comical narrative of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.”
“’A Boy Named Sue’ is a perfect example,” he said. “There’s no metaphor there. This is a story. There’s no confusion about the dilemma of this young man searching for his father who he feels fucked him over from day one. And then this fantastic resolution in a fight between the two of them that has an outcome of mutual respect. It’s a story. There’s no two ways around it. I just love the narrative that country music offered.”
Songs on Reckless & Me like “Saskatchewan,” “Song for a Daughter” and “Something You Love” display that intentional writing style. One about a burying a loved one, one about a father’s love for his daughter, and one about not being complacent and following your true passion. The second record is also strongly influenced by touring, a facet of the industry Sutherland has found most enjoyable.
“A lot of the second record was written not because I wanted to make a better record than the first one or that I was thinking in any terms of that. We’ve been playing live so much that I knew what songs we needed for our set. We needed a ‘This Is How It’s Done,’ we needed an ‘Agave,’ we needed ‘Something You Love,’ we need a ‘Blame It On Your Heart,’ even though that’s not one of my songs. The album is really comprised of songs that were written to where we’re going to have a hell of a show. That was really the direction that I started writing to.
“The touring is something that completely caught me off guard. I made the terrible mistake thinking that 35 years of working on stage or in front of a camera was going to serve me when I would go on stage to play music; I had made a horrific miscalculation. On a really good day, I am not Jack Bauer [his character from 24]. I’ve always had a character that separates me from an audience. I’ll be honest, the first few shows you play, you’ll play three songs and some guy is in the corner yelling ‘Jack Bauer!’ And I’m like, ‘He’s not here tonight!’ And then I just watched it change; and I was really taken by that. It’s been really evident to me that if you’re honest and sincere about what you’re trying to do, you can have a good response.”
Sutherland and/or Cole wrote every song on the record, except for one: a cover of the Harlan Howard and Kostas Lazarides-penned hit for Patty Loveless, “Blame It On Your Heart.”
“That was Jude’s idea,” Sutherland admitted. “But I responded to it immediately. I think the sign of a perfect song is if a boy sings it or a girl sings it, it doesn’t matter. It’s one song that early in our set that gets people out of their chair; and they start moving. It’s really one of my favorite songs of all time.”
Another, more surprising, co-writer on Reckless & Me is legendary rocker, Sammy Hagar.
“Well, actually, I wrote it with Jude,” he says with a smirk. “We were playing at a bar that was owned by the Grateful Dead and the night before we had dinner with Sammy Hagar, which might have been a mistake. I had written “Not Enough Whiskey” and other songs about whiskey and he said, ‘You gotta write a song about tequila!’ Because he’s got the tequila company and everything else, and he said, ‘I can see it on the album now, ‘Agave,'” Sutherland said, framing it in the air with his hands, mimicking Hagar.
“Jude and I kinda laughed about it, and Jude had a guitar riff that ended up being the guitar riff in the song, and we just started messing around with it. We had an idea of what of what the chorus would be and then in the first verse I spat out that it would be so much cooler if it was a guy but on the run and Agave was actually a girl and not just tequila or whatever, she embodied the whole sense of what that was. But it was his idea to write that kind of a song, so. Thank you, Sammy Hagar.”
Although Sutherland feels that music has altered his acting practice, he doesn’t see his acting and performing roles combining any time soon.
“I would say Tom Kirkman [from Designated Survivor] is a character that I allowed certain physical traits of mine that are mine into the character. That was informed by the storytelling, not the playing particularly but the storytelling, through the show. I felt more comfortable with myself, so I allowed a little bit more of myself into that character than I probably would normally have done had I not have this experience for the last five years. Oddly enough, I thought 35 years of working [as an actor] would influence the [live] show, it was the opposite so I’m dumb as paint,” he quips.
Sutherland sums: “I’ll be an actor until the day I die, it’s in the marrow of my bones. I made that choice when I was 14, 15 years old. And I played then! The excitement of finding a new way to express myself and on a more personal level, not having a character separating me, is something that I cherish right now.”
Read more of the conversation in the upcoming MusicRow print issue.
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