By Mike Greenblatt
Kiefer Sutherland is the kind of very special actor who can portray a range of emotion without one word of dialogue. Thus, the video for “Not Enough Whiskey,” the first single off his Americana-styled singer/songwriter debut “Down In a Hole,” focuses on that expressive face where a rueful expression turns into total regret. He’s not acting. He was fathoming the emotion of where he was at the time he wrote the song. No stranger to the problems of the bottle, he was, ironically, being real in this self-financed video.
The news here is not another actor turning to music, it’s the depth of artistry he commands and displays. His writing, with longtime friend/producer/composer/guitarist Jude Cole, is straight from the heart. Ten of the CD’s 11 songs are true to his own experience, and he sings them in a dust bowl of conflicting emotion. The effect is powerful, almost hard to believe for a first-time music artist who’s been known as an actor for more than 30 years.
The phone rings. It’s Jack Bauer himself telling me his innermost secrets. But, because of that, he’s going to have to kill me … just kidding.
Goldmine: How did the tour go?
Kiefer Sutherland: Amazing experience. I’d wanted to do it for such a long time. We did about 80 shows. To tour prior to the record’s release is risky.
GM: What’s the difference between the kick you get from being in front of the camera to being in front of a crowd at a bar?
KS: First the similarity: I really love telling stories. It’s the common denominator between what I love about acting and what I love about music. I thought 30 years of experience as an actor on stage, television and film would help me immensely playing music in front of crowds. But in fact, it’s the opposite. I had forgotten one key factor. These songs are mine and they’re very personal. I’ve said before these songs are the closest things I have to a journal of my life. I didn’t think enough at the beginning — when I would introduce a song and explain where I was when I wrote it and what I was going through — that I was going to really have to open myself up in a way that I hadn’t even opened up in an interview before. That took me by surprise. It was something that I ultimately started to feel very comfortable with because I’m so proud of the songs I had written. When I went to shoot a television show called “Designated Survivor,” it really informed a lot of about approaching how I would play that part. So I was very surprised that the music actually informed the acting for me and not the other way around.
I’ve done a lot of theater in my life. But there’s a level of expected decorum as an actor when you go to do a play and audiences are expected to behave a certain way. Playing music in front of a crowd is almost the complete opposite. You want them to be on their feet, yell and be engaged. You want to move them in a much more visceral way. I still have not figured out just how to articulate when a show goes so well. My vocabulary is not extensive enough to convey that. This means I’m stuck using a word like “incredible.” But it is. There’s a kind of connection that I experienced on this tour with an audience that I’ve never experienced before. It was kinetic, dynamic, all of those things. One of the nice things that I experienced, as well, was when you take the time to explain where a song comes from, what it means to you and where you were at when you wrote it, and you do that over the course of 11 songs, you and the audience both start to realize that maybe we have a lot more in common than we thought before the evening started. That kind of a shared experience was something that I will value to my dying day.
GM: It was brave. I go to a show knowing I’m going to hear new stuff, but I want most to hear the old hits. In your case, there are no old hits.
KS: There are no old hits. There are no new hits. And I say it at every show. The first thing I say is, “I can’t thank you enough for just showing up.” It’s a gift when an audience gives you the time of day to listen to 11 unheard songs in a row. We do add two or three covers, though.
GM: Tom Petty’s “Honey Bee,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”…
KS: Sometimes we switch up “Sundown” with Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” When we do the Dylan, I tell the story of how my dad (actor Donald Sutherland, 81) turned me on to that tune. Then about halfway through the tour, I noticed people actually singing along to “Not Enough Whiskey” because the video was played on CMT and the Rolling Stone website. I remember the first time that happened. I was singing it and someone in the front started singing the words. It made me panic. When you play material no one knows, if you screw it up they’re not going to know the difference. So all of a sudden, there’s this kid singing the lyrics, and I remember while I was singing thinking, “Oh sh*t, you better not screw this up. This kid will know.” It was moments like that I had all through the tour that just kinda make me smile.
GM: Who knew you could sing? Didn’t producer/co-writer/best friend Jude Cole push you into singing these songs yourself when your original intent was just to make demos for other artists?
KS: Right. Singing is certainly not the thing I was most comfortable with. I’d written these songs over a period of five years. When I brought them to Jude, he said, “I really like how your voice sounds on these songs. They’re clearly yours. And you’re the only person who I feel should sing them.” I told him, “No. I don’t want to do that.” So Jude, knowing me very well, took me out that night to a bar for more than a few drinks, after which it sounded like a great idea. So we recorded two songs, then two more, then three more and there was that moment when I had to make a decision. The truth is I’m so proud of the way Jude produced them. So we just went forward in finishing up the album.
GM: You got some Waylon in your voice, you got some Johnny Cash. Most of my favorite songwriters are what they used to call “non-singer singers” like Kristofferson, Cohen, Waits, Dylan or a number of others who could put over a song because it was so real, from their own experience. You’re no dilettante, which is the first thing I thought when I heard you were dabbling in music. This is all too real for you and I realize that now. In fact, there was one show when you couldn’t get through “Truth In Your Eyes” because you started crying?
KS: I wrote the song about someone who I was very much in love with who passed away. I don’t normally introduce that song. I don’t know why I did that night and I’m not sure I was crying but I certainly had an emotional kind of moment as I was talking about it. After that particular show, a woman came up to me, who had been to a few shows, and said that was her favorite song and that she had lost her husband about 15 years ago and had never gotten over it. That song helped her by making her realize she wasn’t the only person going through something like that. That was a really especially incredible moment for me with someone from the audience. Now I introduce the song more often. But, again, these are personal songs taken right from my life.
GM: Except “Shirley Jean,” right?
KS: Exactly. Cash, Haggard and Kristofferson are my favorite writers, and they write in the first-person narrative more often than not. For instance, we know that Johnny Cash didn’t “shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” But he sings it as that character. That’s something that has always spoken to me as a listener, so I wanted to write a song that was kind of an ode to Cash and that style of writing. He also wrote about people in prison and he gave them a kind of dignity that I’ve always respected. So I sat down with Jude to purposely write a song in that vein and that’s where “Shirley Jean” comes from. The character in that song is seen on the last night of his life prior to his execution in the morning, and he’s writing a letter home to the only girl he ever knew because he went to prison when he was so young. That’s the only song that’s a crafted story. The other 10 songs on the record were from a time or an experience in my life. So this whole thing has been a very cathartic experience for me. Writing the songs was helpful for me as a person, but making the album and ultimately performing them in front of people made an imprint upon me that very few things have in my life.
GM: You rock like a bitch on the title track!
KS: I’ve done some pretty stupid things in my lifetime, yet I’ve managed to survive them. And I’ve had some friends — an actor and two musicians — who haven’t. I miss those friends very much, yet I think of the incredible things they would have a.) experienced and b.) what they would have done had they not passed away so early. It’s a heavy price to pay for being a foolish kid, and I ended up writing that song in case some other young kid is headed down the same path. Going out at that age is not cool.
GM: So did you take out your anger and frustration over the loss of your friends by rocking out so hard on that track?
KS: I originally wrote it on an acoustic guitar with Jude, who just picked up a Les Paul in the studio and came up with that riff. I was so focused on making a singer-songwriter country record but Jude maintained that the songs themselves will tell you what to do. I have so much respect for his confidence as a player and producer that I went with it and allowed the songs to be what they were. He was right. An album doesn’t have to all be in one genre or style. The fact that they’re all my stories is enough to tie them together. And it’s become the most fun we have on stage playing any song.
GM: I bet you can stretch that song out to 10 minutes Allman Brothers-style if you want to.
KS: (laughs) We’ve done that, too.
GM: I love the line in “Going Home” where you’re “singing karaoke with some drunken clown.”
KS: The difficulty for me with that line — and it always makes me laugh — is that there were times when I was the drunken clown. In the context of the song, though, I’m only watching the drunken clown. But every time I sing that line I feel a little duplicitous.
GM: The other line I love is in the closing “Gonna Die” where you sing “the ground that I’m sleeping on is getting too damn cold.”
KS: I was coming out of a bar, walked down the street to another bar where I saw a young kid getting harassed by bouncers. The kid looked up at me as I walked by and asked, “Please, I need some help. I’m just back from Iraq, just out of the VA hospital, and I think they’ve given me the wrong meds.” I believed him. I managed to get the bouncers to leave him alone, got him in a taxi, we went to the VA hospital, and they had, in fact, given him the wrong meds. Yes, he was a veteran. I wrote that song because I just felt so bad for this kid who could’ve had a future but he made this commitment to his country and paid such an emotional price for it. He was virtually homeless and I wrote it in a sad way … because he is certainly not the only one.
GM: Will we ever see Jack Bauer again?
KS: I’ve learned to say, “you never know.” He’s someone who I would’ve loved to have played forever! My only problem — and it became a real problem for the writers — is that how many bad days can one guy have?
GM: What would Jack Bauer think of today’s political circus?
KS: He was totally apolitical. He was willing to take a bullet for the president he admired in seasons No. 1 and No. 2. There was another president whom he didn’t admire but was still sworn to protect. I admire that.
GM: What do you think?
KS: The thing I find so disappointing is how divided the country is. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the middle that people are willing to agree with. The voting public is going to have to learn to live and work together. That, right there, is certainly something I hope for. GM