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Kiefer Sutherland saving the world with his guitar

Actor known for anti-terror agent role emerges as roots-rocking singer-songwriter
Kiefer Sutherland performs during Stagecoach Music Festival in Indio, California.

Kiefer Sutherland has built a notable career as an actor whose work includes his critically acclaimed stint as counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer on the TV series 24. But Sutherland has recently stepped onto a different stage as a roots-rocking singer-songwriter.

He released his debut album Down In a Hole (Warner Music Nashville) last August. It’s an impressive collection featuring country-rock tunes (the crunchy Rolling Stones meets Sheryl Crow number Going Home) and plaintive ballads (the soul-baring Calling Out Your Name). He’s a fine vocalist with an intimate, weather-beaten tone.

His foray into music has given new inspiration to his acting life. “On a creative level, it’s affected me in such a positive way,” Sutherland says in a phone interview. “It’s affected my excitement in how I look at my work as an actor.”

Sutherland’s songs are resonant and personal. The bittersweet My Best Friend is about moving forward in life and believing in yourself. “Goodbye to the past/it’s time to start again,” he sings. “I’ll find a way to make me my best friend.”

“There was a point in my life where I realized that you can’t expect anyone to love you if you can’t love yourself,” he says. “It took me a long time to learn that. Life is a work in progress for everybody. I wrote My Best Friend as much as a reminder to myself as I wrote it for anyone else who might be going through
a similar thing.”

The touching Calling Out Your Name is a beautifully performed heartbreaker. The lyrics excavate the details of a devastating breakup. “You never said goodbye /and I never got to cry,” he sings.
“Everybody has that first big heartbreak that really changes your life,” he says. “All of the innocence and naiveté is destroyed. You are much more guarded the next time you become intimate with someone. You’re scared that it’s going to end.”

The song was inspired by a youthful relationship that ended badly. Writing it allowed Sutherland to sort through old emotions and put a piece of his past to rest.

“It’s something that had been in the back of my head for 30 years,” he says. “It wasn’t until I wrote the song that I realized I wasn’t mad at the person. I didn’t hold anything against them. It was just that thing we all unfortunately go through. We were both very young at the time. It ended in a way where there was no discussion about it. Writing the song ended up being really cathartic. It put the experience into proper perspective in my life. It wasn’t this big thing in the back of my head anymore. In that way, writing the song was really helpful for me.”

The album features a soulfully layered mix of acoustic and electric guitars, pedal steel, organ, bass and drums. Musically, Sutherland was drawn to the country genre because of its strong lyrical narratives.

“It goes back to the storytelling,” he says. “When you listen to Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, they tell linear stories. There’s a beginning, middle and end, very much like a film. So just from a writing style, I love the genre. I think my voice lends itself to that kind of music. It doesn’t mean you can’t rock out a bit with it, because you can. There are so many great country-rock songs.”

Sutherland, 50, is the son of Canadian actors Donald Sutherland and Shirley Douglas (daughter of Tommy Douglas, the late Saskatchewan premier who introduced the country’s first universal health-care program). The couple divorced in 1970. His father is a bona fide movie star who has appeared in a plethora of films including Klute, Ordinary People and The Hunger Games franchise.

Following in his parents’ thespian footsteps, the young Sutherland made his movie debut in 1983 and went on to star in The Lost Boys, Young Guns, Flatliners and A Few Good Men.
In 2001 he was cast in the TV drama 24. That gritty role earned him an Emmy in 2006.

Although he’s only recently gone public with his music, Sutherland began taking violin lessons at age four. “For some fantastic reason, my mom decided I was going to be a violin player,” he recalls. “When I was seven, I really wanted a guitar. She said: ‘If you play the violin until you’re 10, I’ll let you get a guitar.’ So I played violin until I was 10. Then I got a guitar and never picked up the violin again. I played that guitar until it fell apart. I’ve been playing ever since.”

As his acting career blossomed, he always kept the instrument close by. “Whenever I was working on a set, I’d go back to my trailer and play my guitar. It was a way for me to clear my head and unwind. In that regard, it was one of my best friends.”

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