While Katey Sagal may be best known for her roles on Married with Children, Futurama and Sons of Anarchy, acting is actually a long detour from her first love, singing. Sagal had a successful career as a backup singer, working with artists such as Bob Dylan, Etta James and Bette Midler, before her embarking on a long and successful career in television.
Sagal recently set aside some time to return to her first love. This week will see the release of Covered, her first album in nine years. We talked to Sagal about the collection of covers tunes, which includes her takes on songs by Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty, Steve Earle and Jackson Browne.
Many people don’t know that you used to be a backup singer for Bob Dylan and Bette Midler. What was that like?
That was how I made a living! I was a background singer for years.I started singing when I was a kid, really. I taught myself to play the piano. I wanted to be a Laura Nyro-type songwriter, but instead I was one of the [Staggering] Harlettes [who sing back-up for Bette Midler]. Now, the Harlettes are mostly dancers, but in the old days, when I worked with her, we sang behind her. Most of my gigs were on the road, though, and I was always trying to get my own thing going.
What made you decide to leave music for acting?
In my late-twenties I realized that I had to be open to other things, because I was living paycheck to paycheck. My father was a director and he always thought I had natural talent for acting. So I got an agent and started working. Things went pretty quickly, which was fine by me, because I had put in my struggle in my twenties, you know? While I was on television, it was on-the-job training. But I always had a band and I just kept thinking that singing is my real job and I had better keep that going just in case this whole acting thing doesn’t work out. I’m really grateful for all the opportunities and work that I’ve had, and now I’m going to do music too. Singing is something that I always do and I would do it regardless of whatever else is happening in my life.
I think that’s definition of a true passion.
I always have a band or I’m making a record. It’s the thing that I most really love to do. I will never stop doing it, it’s such a great energy to have.
Is it a different energy that acting?
Yes, for me it is. Acting is extremely vulnerable as well, but in a different way. I’m really enjoying what I’m doing right now as an actor. I’m constantly learning and it keeps me very interested. Music is something that I don’t even think about really — I just always do it.
For something you’re always doing, it’s been nine years since your last studio album. What took so long?
Life happens! I started it two years ago. I’m a working mom. I have three children. Everything stops when something has to happen there. And something is always happening there. [Laughs]
You’re album is called Covered, were these songs that you had always wanted to cover?
No, not really. I was going to write everything, but that wasn’t happening. Between writers’ block and a real busy schedule, it was just taking way too long! I couldn’t wait on myself anymore, so I decided to cover songs. I did a Laura Nyro song that meant a lot to me when I was 16 and a Ryan Adams song that I loved. I covered Steve Earle, although I could have done a full album of Steve Earle songs. I wouldn’t call it a nostalgia record at all, though, I chose songs that fit my voice and were something I related to emotionally. I do hope that the album will introduce people to artists that they may not have known before.
Do you have any plans on touring in support of the album?
I will, but I’m not sure how it will all unfold. I played at the El Rey, which was great, because it was the first time playing there after having driven by my whole life. And we played at Stagecoach. I love playing live, so schedule permitting, I definitely want to. I am now on hiatus, so hopefully they can put together something. I love to play live.
What is it about playing live that you love?
It’s the personal connection with people. It’s something that I really liked about doing a sitcom and when I was doing theater. There’s just something about the energy going back and forth — the immediate response.
Sons of Anarchy is really not a sitcom. Gemma seems like a hard character to carry around with you. Does she affect your singing at all?
No, not at all. Playing Gemma is a really emotional experience, but I leave it at work. I don’t think it affects my singing at all.
So we’re never going to see Gemma sing?
No. I think every show I’ve done, there comes a point where someone asks if I would sing, even though I’ve never played a character that would sing. I remember when I was on Married.. with Children, at one point, they wanted Peg Bundy to sing. For me, it just wouldn’t make sense that Peg would have a good voice. In my mind Gemma would never sing.
And you’ve contributed tracks to the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack each season.
Yes, I do. [Sons of Anarchy creator and Sagal’s husband] Kurt [Sutter] writes a lot with music in mind and he and Bob [Thiele, SoA music supervisor and composer], will approach me and ask say, ‘what about this song?’ ‘what about that song?’ They come up with great covers for me to do. I was on that track, doing covers on the show, so when I wanted to do an album, I thought I would continue that.
This year you’re not the only SOA cast member to contribute to the soundtrack, though.
Yes, Maggie [Siff] sang on last night’s episode. I had never heard her sing before. She told me that she loved to sing and wanted to sing, but I had never heard her before. She has a really sweet voice.
With three children, a hit television show and an album, how do you do it all?
It just gets done! My TV show shoots five or six months out of the year and then nothing. We started the record the hiatus before and this last hiatus, I did a little movie and then I focused on my album.