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Kiefer Sutherland: A little more country, a lot less Jack Bauer

Kiefer Sutherland| BETH ELLIOTT

Kiefer Sutherland, country singer.

Yep, 49-year-old Sutherland, best-known for his Emmy- and Golden Globe Award-winning role as super agent Jack Bauer on the Fox series “24,” is about to release his first album, the country rock/Americana-infused “Down in a Hole” — coupled with his first-ever music tour, kicking off April 14 in Milwaukee.

Interestingly, while the 26-city road trek is hitting a few major markets, it’s steering clear of many of the usual big-tour hubs (sorry, no Chicago stop on this leg) and especially the cavernous arenas. Instead, Sutherland is set to play smaller and mid-sized bars and clubs, where he’s looking to hone his skills as a guitarist/singer.

“We stayed out of New York, Chicago, L.A., and that was entirely my choice,” Sutherland says emphatically. “I really wanted to get our show going and together, and earn the right to play those markets.” As for coming oh-so-close to Chicago, Sutherland doesn’t miss a beat: “I really dig Milwaukee. I always have. [Laughing] I had a girlfriend there for a while so I got up there quite a bit. Always loved Milwaukee.”

And he still loves acting. Sutherland will be seen this fall in a new ABC series, “Designated Survivor,” in which he plays a Cabinet member elevated to the office of president of the United States (more on that later) after POTUS and everyone in line to succeed him has been killed. He describes the show as “a most powerful, beautifully written series,” adding, “believe me, I was not looking to do another series. It was something I knew if I didn’t do it, I’d be watching it and regretting it.”

That “beautifully written” element permeates his music as well. A sampling of the EP finds Sutherland crafting tales of love, heartache and drowning one’s sorry in booze (check out the album’s title track) — the perfect recipe for country music — a genre with which Sutherland feels a strong connection.

“I have to go back to what I do as an actor,” he says when asked about the message in his music. “I’ve always loved storytelling. When I look at a script as an actor, when I played some really awful characters in the world, I still loved the stories I was in. Country music as a whole, at least lyrically, is all about great storytelling. Looking at the artists I really admire [in addition to early influences such as David Bowie, Bernie Taupin, Tom Petty and Gordon Lightfoot], whether that was Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard, God rest his soul, or Kris Kristofferson, they wrote in a way that conveyed a story for me, an image. They all wrote about the tougher side of life. Bob Seger wrote more country music-style lyrics than anybody in rock. I guess in many ways the genre found me, because that’s how I wanted to write songs.”

Sutherland’s love of music, if not songwriting, began early on. His mother, Canadian stage and film actress Shirley Douglas, started him on violin when he was four. He had to wait till he was 10 to pick up the guitar.

“My mom made me play the violin first,” he says chuckling. “I wanted a guitar by the time I was 7, but our deal was I would play violin till I was 10 and then I could get a guitar. I am so very grateful to her for making me play the violin first. It allowed me to learn theory and play properly. I guess I haven’t really put the guitar down since I was 10.”

“It was my security blanket,” Sutherland continues. “I had a couple of bands when I was 15 and then I fell in love with acting [his father, of course, is Golden Globe-winner Donald Sutherland]. But the guitar stayed with me. When I would get acting gigs, in between matinees and the evening show, I would pass the time playing guitar. Or when I was shooting ’24’ there was always a lot of waiting around for the next shot. The guitar was with me. It allowed me to pass the time and spend time by myself.”

Writing music came years later for Sutherland, and it wasn’t until his longtime friend — musician/producer Jude Cole — nudged him to record some of the material he’d written.

“Originally I wanted to just make demos and see if someone would record them,” Sutherland says. “Then Jude said, you should keep them and record them yourself. I know, the idea of another actor making an album — go ahead roll your eyes now. [Laughing] Well, the f—-r bought me a few drinks and I said, that’s a good idea!

“I never kept a journal and I certainly don’t write songs in any prolific manner,” Sutherland continues. “Jude and I started a label called Ironworks a few years back and we were basically finding [rock] bands all over Southern California that were not getting signed. The music industry was going through a massive transition and rock artists were not getting signed unless they were a heavy pop artist as well. So we were in the studio and Jude was producing all these great bands. And I was watching and learning from all of them. I watched how they wrote songs on their own and with others. I learned about formats and working on the chorus and coming up with a bridge that makes sense. Things like that. I’m forever grateful to those people for teaching me so much about songwriting.”

The lineup for his album was a “cathartic experience” in songwriting, Sutherland says, covering different times in his life, events that affected him deeply.

“The songs’ stories are quite varied,” he says. “‘Cant’ Stay Away’ was really about staring ’24.’ ‘Calling Out Your Name’ was about a breakup. I wrote about moments in my life. I like to go out and have a good time and drink. I wrote about times I probably should not have done so. ‘Down in the Hole’ [the album’s first single] is about the loss of a friend who made poor choices and didn’t live as long as they should have. … With the music, it’s absolutely me. I’m not a character in a show or a movie. The songs are coming from my life and are therefore very personal.”

Is Sutherland worried about critics who will more than “roll their eyes” at another actor fronting a band (hello Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Costner)?

“I stopped worrying about what people are gonna think years ago. The truth is I really like playing bars. The cover songs [he does two or three covers in his show] are a [plus]. It’s a huge risk to ask people to sit around and listen to music they’ve never heard before from someone they’ve never heard before. I’m not looking to sell a million records. I really just want to play these great bars. … It’s been interesting, the acting and the music, how one is informing the other. The nerves I’ve experienced playing these small clubs has made me feel alive in a new way. Working as an actor for 30 years, maybe when I was going to shoot a scene I was taking a few things for granted, maybe I was glossing over a few things. Playing clubs, I didn’t take a single thing for granted. Don’t know if it was nerves or maybe the story you tell in between songs. But I was working very hard to be aware of everything and making a show that’s worth seeing.”

But having the name “Sutherland” on the marquis can’t hurt.

“I get that. But we played about 25 shows around Southern California before I ever contemplated going out on the road. I compare it to a NASCAR race. People come out to see a big crash. And I know that’s what they were looking for at our shows. We turned them around.”

As for being president, Sutherland turned to an iconic television series for his inspiration.

“I was a huge fan of ‘The West Wing.’ Martin Sheen crafted the president we wish we all had in reality. Or at least the candidate we all wish we had. [Laughs] But the new series is really about someone who’s thrust into that position under dire circumstances. It’s such a unique situation. He has to figure it out as the show goes along because it happens overnight. The whole first season is about this guy coming to grips with the fact that he IS the president and how daunting it is and how it negatively affects his life.”

And no, there’s not an ounce of Jack Bauer in Sutherland’s president.

“He’s much more diplomatic,” he says chuckling.

Kiefer Sutherland, 8 p.m. April 14, Shank Hall, 1434 N. Farwell, Milwaukee. For tickets (21+over), visit ticketweb.com.

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