Being the president of the United States can be a daunting task, especially when you have minimal experience in politics, and there’s nobody around to show you the ropes. Literally.
KIEFER SUTHERLAND With: Rick Brantley When: 8 p.m. May 21 Where: Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport Tickets: $25-$39 Info: thaliahallchicago.com
That’s the scenario actor Kiefer Sutherland tackled this past season on the ABC hit series “Designated Survivor,” starring as Tom Kirkman, a low-level Cabinet member who becomes the Commander-in-Chief after the president, vice president and the entire Congress are wiped out in an explosion during the State of the Union address.
If nothing prepared his character for the Oval Office, the same can be said for Sutherland and his music career, which he launched in earnest last year with the release of his debut album, the country-rock/folk infused “Down in a Hole” (Ironworks). A subsequent tour, which brings him to Thalia Hall Sunday night, proved to be a massive learning experience for the 50-year-old actor, whose acting credits also include that other TV superpower known as Jack Bauer in “24.”
“I thought I was gonna be able to use 30 years’ [experience] working as an actor. Certainly that was gonna help me on stage. I was wrong,” Sutherland says with a chuckle during a phone interview. “The one part that I left out is that for 30 years I was able to work as an actor [through] a character. When I go on stage [as a singer], the songs are very personal and they’re mine. I leave myself in a more open position than I ever have before. So, the two experiences ended up being very different for me. Though in both circumstances, I’m telling stories, and that seems to be the common thread in what I enjoy most.”
Kiefer Sutherland: A little more country, a lot less Jack Bauer
Sutherland, whose been playing guitar since he was 10, says his songwriting style is influenced by legendary music storytellers on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Elton John and Bernie Taupin, even though the production of their music was really big, the lyrics and music of their songs was very intimate,” Sutherland says. “Tom Petty is my favorite American artist. I don’t think he’s ever written a bad lyric. He can go from a real rock song to country to blues. I would never put myself in the same sentence as those people, but they’re people who I’ve listened to over the years. That list is so long. When I think of writing I also think of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. They told really linear stories. That’s been my real attraction to country music.”
Sutherland says he’s loving life on the road after a year of playing gigs across the country as his “Designated Survivor” Toronto shooting schedule allowed (he and his band enjoyed a very high-profile gig at Stagecoach in April), but adds he’s still learning every time he steps out on to the stage. That learning process continues in the recording studio, he says, where his artistic vulnerability is even more intense. Adding to it, the critics who see actors-turned-musicians as a gimmick.
“I’m certainly aware of the stigma [attached to] an actor doing music,” he says matter-of-factly. “I probably wasn’t smart enough to realize the potential position I was putting myself in until I got onto the stage. It was that moment where I felt I had to explain where I was when I wrote this song or that song. When you start explaining the truth in the middle of a concert, you feel very vulnerable.”
A second album is definitely in the works, Sutherland reveals (several of the cuts are already recorded), with a release date set for next year if everything falls into place. The songs may rattle a few feathers in his personal life, however.
“When I started writing, I would draw on my personal experiences, [things like] loss of love, finding love. … I don’t know if my family will like it very much. When I stopped writing about my personal experiences, I started writing about the personal experiences of my family,” he says laughing. “I don’t know how appreciative they’re gonna be about that.”
“Designated Survivor” just wrapped up its first season and will return for a second year on ABC in the fall. For now, the hiatus will give him a chance to play more dates and work on the rest of the cuts for his sophomore album.
“The audiences have been so kind and supportive,” he says. “I am so grateful. … After 216 hours of ‘24’ and 70-some odd films and other series, I feel I’ve accumulated a lot of information that I feel very confident about. I’ve seen a lot and have processed characters who are quite evolved. Music feels very fresh and new and exciting. As a listener, I think I’m an evolved listener, but as a writer and performer I’ve just gotten started, and I have so much to learn.”