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Kiefer Sutherland takes a break from acting to pick up a guitar

Kiefer Sutherland never wanted to be one of those actors who traded on his Hollywood celebrity to start a musical career. At least, until now.

Sutherland, best known for his role as the hyper-intense, violent Jack Bauer in the hit Fox television series 24, has put down his sidearm and picked up a guitar. The trade has led to a debut album and tour featuring original Americana songs that Sutherland says chronicle different aspects and times of his life.

“The idea of an actor doing music makes my eyes roll, and I never wanted to be that guy,” Sutherland says. “But after writing songs for 10 years I have built up a good volume of material. I’ve also hit a point where I am less concerned about people calling this a vanity project.”

Sutherland, who will turn 50 this year, will launch his debut tour April 14 at Milwaukee’s Shank Hall, followed by an April 15 date at The Majestic Theater in Madison. More than 40 other cities will follow by year's end.

He says his musical style is a mix of country and rock sounds, functioning as a personal diary of experiences and emotions. Sutherland’s debut album, Down in a Hole, will be released in June on Ironworks, an indie label he started with friend and fellow musician Jude Cole, who is producing the album (Sutherland no longer holds an ownership stake in the label).

Cole was instrumental in getting the London-born Canadian actor to follow a musical path. Despite Sutherland’s background, it was never his plan to become a professional musician.

“My mom made me play the violin from age four to 10, after which she allowed me to get a guitar,” Sutherland remembers. “Once I got my hands on the guitar, I never let go. In some ways, music’s the art form I feel most connected with.”

Sutherland’s original intent was to develop songs that other country artists might be interested in performing and recoding. But Cole had different ideas for his friend’s musical future.

“Jude heard my songs and realized that they were very personal to me,” Sutherland says. “He suggested that I keep them for myself and record them.”

Sutherland recorded the album in Cole’s home studio, located on an old western film ranch in Box Canyon, a formerly remote community in Los Angeles County.

When it comes to writing music, Sutherland says some songs seem effortless, while others may take months to develop. But he applies the same method to writing almost all of them.

“I have a nice island in my kitchen where I seem to have written most of my stuff,” Sutherland says. “At the end of a work day, I will sit down, pour myself a drink, pick up a guitar and start playing chords. Then I will try to lay down a vocal melody over that.”

In virtually all cases, Sutherland’s songs begin with a lyrical concept to which he then applies those chords and melodies.

“I can easily write verse-chorus, verse-chorus, but the bridges seem to elude me,” the actor-musician says. “Jude would come up with the bridges, then I would go back and add lyrics to those bridges. That was how we created the album.”

Country music holds a special appeal for Sutherland because of its ability to paint pictures and tell stories. The style is something that creates conceptual bridges of sorts between both his musical performances and his lengthy acting career.

“What I love about country music is that the songs have a lyrical throughline with both a beginning and an end, just like a play or a film,” Sutherland says. “Going all the way back to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, they have always told great stories, and that’s what I enjoy about the genre.”

Cash, Kristofferson and Jackson Browne also rank high among Sutherland’s favorite songwriters. “(Browne’s) work is incredibly moving,” he explains.

The storytelling connection between music and acting is important for Sutherland, who has no intention of abandoning a career to which he has devoted more than 30 years of his life. In fact, his tour is broken into segments in order to accommodate filming schedules for his latest television series.

The new ABC series, Designated Survivor, premiering in September, will take Sutherland back to the White House, but in an entirely different role. The actor plays a lower-level Cabinet member who is suddenly thrust into the presidency after a catastrophic attack at the State of the Union address kills everyone above him in the presidential food chain. Sutherland’s character, purposely sequestered in the event such a catastrophe occurs, is the “designated survivor” of the title.

The fact that Sutherland’s debut tour kicks off in Milwaukee may be a matter of scheduling, but it’s a city not unfamiliar to the star and one for which he bears some affection.

“I love Milwaukee,” Sutherland enthuses. “I had a girlfriend in Milwaukee for a few years and spent some time there. That along with the Midwestern location made the city a great place to start.”

The actor also disclosed that there is a new version of 24 in the works, one that takes the former Jack Bauer out of the line of fire and recasts the role’s creator in the executive producer role.

The series, dubbed 24: Legacy, involves a returning military hero (played by Corey Hawkins) tabbed to thwart the growing threat of a massive domestic terrorist attack. This time around, Jack Bauer will be off duty and helping helm the production, Sutherland says.

“I am still involved, and they have a great script that goes in an entirely different direction,” Sutherland says. “I mean, at the end of the day, how many bad days in a row can one guy have?”

Kiefer Sutherland and his band will kick off their debut tour at 8 p.m. April 14 at Shank Hall, 1434 N. Farwell Ave., Milwaukee. All tickets are $25 and can be ordered by calling 414-276-7288 or through TicketWeb. Visit shankhall.com for more details.

Sutherland appears at 8 p.m. April 15 at the Majestic Theatre, 115 King St., Madison. Tickets are $15 and can be ordered by calling 608-255-0901 or visiting majesticmadison.com. 

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