Written by Joe Vitagliano
Throughout his career, Kiefer Sutherland has been known for quite a few things.
In the ’80s and ’90s, he had an impressive run of appearances in major films like Stand By Me, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, A Few Good Men, and more. In 2001, he took on the leading role of Jack Bauer in the hit television series 24, becoming a household presence for its 9-year run. Video game fans know him as the English voice of Venom Snake in the beloved Metal Gear series; pop culture fans know that he’s the son of Donald Sutherland and Shirley Douglas and that he’s been no stranger to tabloid headlines. More recently, he was the star of the political thriller series Designed Survivor.
Through it all, Sutherland’s been more than meets the eye—celebrated for his skills as an actor, his skills as a musician and songwriter never got their due recognition… until recently, that is. On January 21st, he unveiled Bloor Streethis third full-length album—and, for the first time, he’s getting radio airplay.
But his musical journey began years ago, when he was still a kid—his mother started him off on violin, eventually letting him “graduate” to guitar when he turned 10. At the same time, his older brother introduced him to a diverse collection of records, turning him on to everyone from Marvin Gaye and The Beatles to Elton John and more. “I was probably the only kid in first grade with an Aerosmith t-shirt,” he jokes now.
In his teen years, he began writing songs as an emotional and creative outlet—one of his earliest efforts was a brooding, punk-esque song with the refrain Mother, won’t you leave me alone? As he got older, his subjects began to diversify and mature, along with the range of writers who were inspiring him.
“I didn’t have a Les Paul or a strat, which kinda dashed my heavy metal dreams… but I did have this acoustic guitar,” he said. “That was the beginning of me finding my way into the storytelling kind of songwriting—everything from Jim Croce to James Taylor to Harry Chapin, songwriters like that. Acoustic guitar was something that you could actually kinda form and structure a song on, much easier than an electric—which, without drums and a rhythm section, doesn’t sound as good. So, the acoustic helped me immensely. By the time I was 15 or 16 years old, I had a few songs written.”
Then, as his acting career took off, music went onto the backburner—he still wrote songs and brought his guitar to sets as a way to let off steam between takes, but there were no plans of actualizing his talent into anything more than a hobby .
That changed when he met singer-songwriter Jude Cole, who’s been a friend and frequent collaborator ever since.
“He’s a real gunslinger,” Sutherland said. “He’s a great guitar player, great singer, and great songwriter, and he had a deal at Warner Brothers. One day, he pulled out an acoustic and I told him that I played, so I played a little bit for him. He was like ‘Oh cool!’ He said something nice about my finger-picking, like, ‘That’s pretty good—I don’t know a lot of guys who can do that.’ But then he picked up the guitar and played… and I was like ‘Oh man!’ It was like watching the Hindenburg come down… he was so good! I just thought ‘Man, if you’re not going to play like that, then don’t bother.’ And I really didn’t seriously play guitar again for a few years.”
But that wasn’t the end of the journey… far from it. “He and I became good friends,” Sutherland continued. “I was around him when he made his albums, and then he had other friends who were making records too, so I felt like I was part of a scene. I got to hang around, watch and learn, and it was a really valuable time for me.”
From there, the seed of the idea to expand his relationship with music was planted, but it still took some time to sprout. Ultimately, his next move was to co-found Ironworks, a record label he spearheaded alongside Cole. “That was around when I was 30, and it was when everything got turned on,” Sutherland said. “We had a huge flow of really great artists from all over the country coming through the studio. I got to see how different artists wrote songs.”
With a growing familiarity with the nitty-gritty of songcraft, Sutherland began adopting some of the strategies of his Ironworks peers. “I picked things up, like, ‘Oh, that makes sense to me,'” he said. “I like the process of finding a melody by humming it, then figuring out the best way to play it. You don’t have to actually have the chord structure written in your mind to start formulating the song. Writing with others, someone could come up with a lyrical idea, and that can steer the direction of the song. So, you kinda just start to pick and choose. The biggest aspect of that, for me, was just having the access to people who were already doing it, who I thought were really good songwriters. We had a lot of different people around, and all of them had different styles. Rocco DeLuca is a great songwriter; we had a band called HoneyHoney with Suzanne Santo, who is a great lyricist, singer, and songwriter. So, it exposed me to learning the methods that worked best for me.”
All of this momentum came to a head in the early 2000s—with the confidence of fellow songwriters on his side, Sutherland finally got comfortable enough to take a crack at it himself. “There was a song I had written that was one of the first ones I actually felt comfortable with,” he said. “This was in 2001 or 2002, and I thought ‘You know what? Everybody else is using the studio… I want to record one song.’ So, before the proper session was going to start, I went into a vocal booth with my acoustic guitar and I started to play the song. Before you know it, I had a bass player show up, and then someone who was like, ‘Oh, I wanna play drums on that.’ So, it ended up that we made a little version, and then Jude came in and was like, ‘What are you guys doing?’ Someone said, ‘Oh, Kiefer had a song.’ He said ‘Okay, let me hear it.’ We showed it to him and he said ‘Okay, now sing the vocal.’ So, I sang it and he said ‘Alright, you’re done—now get out, we have a session to do.’ But he ended up mixing it and it ended up becoming the impetus for a whole project. Years later, he said ‘I just heard that song we did in the studio… and I really loved it! We should do an album.’ That’s how the first record started, and that first song ended up on it—it was called ‘Gonna Die.’”
Ultimately, that first full-length project—titled Down in a Hole—debuted in 2016, marking the onset of a new phase of Sutherland’s creative life. Since then, he’s put out two more records, including this year’s Bloor Street, which, as aforementioned, has been his most successful to date. Begun before the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, he finished it during the pandemic, allowing that time to influence its sound and overall theme. Despite that—or, perhaps, because of it—Bloor Street is a fundamentally hopeful album, one that embraces the multiplicities of life for what they are, and finds a silver lining within them.
One of the principal vehicles for that dynamic is the rich element of nostalgia that runs through the songs. “I wrote the title track ‘Bloor Street’ before the pandemic when I was shooting Designed Survivor in Toronto, which is where I’m from,” he explained. “Bloor Street intersects with Yonge Street, which is in the first line of the first verse. Those four corners are where I grew up. My first job was at the food court at the Hudson Bay center. My first meaningful kiss was outside the Bloor subway stop. It was the first place I ever got beat up because I tried to buy pot when I was too young—all kinds of stuff happened on those four corners. I’m finally at an age where I get to look back on that and feel really nostalgic about it. I’ve realized that that’s where a boy became a young man. So, I wrote ‘Bloor Street,’ which comes from that nostalgic place.
“Nostalgia is sweet, nostalgia is kind,” he continued. “Everything looks a little nicer when you’re looking back on it, compared to when you’re going through it.”
Likewise, as quarantine necessitated that folks isolate, Sutherland found himself reflecting on the love and gratitude in his life, resulting in songs like “Two Stepping In Time,” “So Full of Love” and “Lean Into Me.” “Those songs were all more positive than anything I had written before, both melodically and lyrically,” he said. “I think that came from the fact that I had been on the road for 10 years and then, all of a sudden, I was forced to stay home. I couldn’t help but notice, like, ‘Oh, this is a really nice home… and I’m not allowed to go see my friends, but gosh, I’ve got really good friends. And I can’t see my family or my kids… but I’m so grateful for them.’ It just afforded me the time to kinda be still for a moment and honestly take stock of how fortunate I am. I’m acutely aware of the incredible loss of life and what people have had to endure through this pandemic. I also know that, economically, this has been so devastating for so many people. So, I just felt really lucky. These songs kinda just came out—they were very pure.”
To that end, Sutherland proved just how pure they were by telling a story that illustrated the power of music to transcend the elements of modern identity and speak to something deeper. “With ‘So Full of Love,’ I woke up humming the melody,” he said. “I was singing it in the shower, which is where I came up with the lyrics. I found myself moving… like, actually moving like a child. I was like, ‘Oh my God, who the fuck is this?’ Because that’s not who I am… but I let it go, I let it be. So, I just kinda opened up—it’s alright to be happy, you know? It kinda overrides my pessimism and cynicism. I just ended up falling in love with the songs.”
Maybe that’s one of the greatest qualities of music—it can alleviate troubles and light a flame of inspiration, regardless of circumstance. Along with that, the best of songs find a way to express the writer’s experience while at the same time sharing a universal message—Sutherland’s songs embody that element to a tee. His love songs illuminate the essence of love, his deeper songs—like “County Jail Gate”—speak of the hardships of his life while sharing themes that nearly anyone could connect with.
“Love, falling out of love, living and dying, heartache and joy—those are the big themes, and we all have them in common,” he said. “If James Taylor is going to write a song about joy, it’s going to be his personal joy. I’m allowed to experience the same thing because it’s such a universal kind of tone. We all listen to those heartbreak songs because we’ve all gone through them. There’s a shared understanding. I think the more that we share that all of us are going through these things—the more we understand that we actually have these things in common—then the more we can come together. Not only our country, but our world is incredibly divided. We need more of that connective tissue to realize we have more in common than what we don’t have in common. I think music is a necessity in order to move forward in that way.”
And with an evocative and emotionally resonant record under his belt—with, not to mention, a great deal of positive response from folks from all around the world—Sutherland would have good reason to feel pretty alright about his contributions to music and its vital role in society at the moment.
Nonetheless, he remains steadfast in his humble approach to the craft—the same humbleness that guided him through his early years, into the Ironworks years, and into the record-making endeavors of the past half-decade. When asked if things like radio airplay or a triple in preorders boost his confidence or assurance in his own abilities, he frankly answered “No.”
“The only thing that means is that you’ll be able to go play a venue and people will actually show up—having played venues that were only half-full, that’s pretty exciting,” he continued. “But it doesn’t change my approach as a songwriter or why I write songs. If something happens in my life that moves me to a certain degree, I write a song about it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s walking down the street and seeing a sign that sparks my memory—like ‘Bloor Street’—or if it’s something as dramatic as losing a loved one. That will always be the approach. Period.”
Photo courtesy of Clayton Cooper