She is best known for her many television acting roles, such as Peg Bundy on Married…With Children and Gemma Teller Morrow on current FX series Sons Of Anarchy,for which she won a Golden Globe.
Yet many people don’t realize that Sagal is also an accomplished singer, and has provided backing vocals for a diverse list of artists, including Bette Midler, Bob Dylan, Gene Simmons, Tanya Tucker, Olivia Newton-John and Etta James. Sagal has also released three solo albums: Well… (1994), Room (2004), and her latest, Covered, available this month on the Entertainment One label.
Covered features Sagal’s take on compositions by Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, Steve Earle, Laura Nyro, Ray LaMontagne, Gillian Welch, Jackson Browne and more. Sagal also duets with Browne on Earle’s heartbreaking ballad “Goodbye.”
Sagal is backed on the album by the Forest Rangers, a band led by Sons Of Anarchy music supervisor Bob Thiele, who helped write the lone original composition on the new record(“Follow The River”). The Forest Rangers also perform live gigs with Sagal.
The day after completing work on the sixth season of Sons Of Anarchy,Hollywood native Sagal phoned me to discuss her latest record, music that inspires her, and how she balances her singing and acting careers.
First of all, congratulations on the new record, Katey. Can you talk a bit about how you came to choose the songs you covered? I take it they are all tunes or artists that mean a lot to you personally?
Yes, and the lyrics all have some type of emotional impact on me. I think it’s a pretty good group of songs. Some of them remind me of when I was younger. Laura Nyro was someone I thought I wanted to be when I was a kid. The last few records I wrote most of the songs, so that was a different experience. This time I was deciding how we could interpret the songs a little bit differently than the original artists presented them.
When recording other people’s material, how challenging is it to bring something new, and part of your personality, to the tunes?
Some of it’s really challenging. I really wanted to record a Fink song, or one by Joshua James, but it just didn’t work out. I like some of these younger songwriters; but with some artists, their versions of their songs are so much their own, that for me as a singer trying to interpret it, I felt it didn’t work. Sometimes it just wasn’t there. And you don’t really know that until you try working with the material.
I’ve seen you refer to Jackson Browne as one of the greatest songwriters. You not only covered one of his songs, but got to duet with him on “Goodbye.” What was it like to work with him?
I’ve known him socially for years from being in L.A., and around the time I was making the record, I kept running into him. I had just recorded the Steve Earle song, and I thought it would be perfect if Jackson sang on it and the song became a duet. Jackson is great and is a super nice guy. And I do think he is one of the great songwriters. I also cover his song “For A Dancer” on the album, which is an amazing tune.
You picked some great artists to cover, but not a lot of commercially successful songs. Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” is probably the only really well known selection. I find it cool that some people might be experiencing these songs for the first time through you.
Yeah, and I really like that! I think people probably know Ray LaMontagne at this point, but you’re right. I think some people who would buy my record wouldn’t necessarily know those artists other than Tom Petty. “Free Fallin'” was the only one that was a huge hit, but it was just so much fun to record. And it’s really fun to play live.
It seems like you’ve released your solo albums about every 10 years apart. Is it because your acting career kept you too busy, or did you simply not intend to focus on music much more than that?
I think it’s because the acting kept me so busy. This album took me about a year and a half to finish because there were so many stops and starts during recording, due to other projects. Ever since I’ve been an actress, I’ve always been playing music whenever I can. But it seems that the “whenever I can” part is sometimes infrequent, between my other jobs and also having children—I have three kids. So, I didn’t plan on going 10 years between records but it’s the way it happened. Plus, time goes by so quickly!
Although your latest record is mostly covers, your previous releases featured a heavy amount of original material.
My last two albums, I wrote most of them myself. I was trying to write new songs for this one too, but at the end of the day, I didn’t want to put anything on the new album that I didn’t feel 100 percent great about. There are so many good songs, and I love singing probably more than I love writing, so I just took that route with the covers. I felt if I kept waiting for me to write enough good material to make a new record, it was going to take too long. And it kind of was born out of playing live gigs, and me wanting to sing some different songs. But I do still write.
You recently played at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. Being an L.A. gal, was that always a dream of yours?
I love the El Rey. I had never played there before, and I have to say it was a great experience. The sound system was amazing. The audience was great. In Los Angeles, I had played the Troubadour and House Of Blues, but the El Rey is an amazing old theater.
I find that many people aren’t even aware of your singing career, especially as a backup singer for legendary artists like Bob Dylan, Etta James and Bette Midler. Do you have special memories of those times?
I have some good memories of all of it, for all different reasons. Bette Midler taught me how to work hard. And her show was really theatrical—I had to sing and dance at the same time. I got to travel all over the world with her, so that was a great experience. With Bob Dylan, to be standing in a room with him singing “Just Like A Woman,” I was just stunned most of the time. I still put Bob on my resumé, but he fired me before the tour! I only worked with him for a couple of months, but I was only about 19 years old, so just being around him was amazing. And with Etta James, that was a great gig because she was musically where my head was at the time. She would let me open her show and I’d travel around with her. She was just amazing to watch.
In your acting career, you’ve managed to create some pretty iconic characters: Peg Bundy, Leela of Futurama, Gemma on Sons Of Anarchy. How does it feel to be so well known for particular roles?
It feels great! It feels like a blessing. They’re all very formidable characters. I’m not sure why, but they’re characters that have really stuck with people. I think what people relate to in any type of art form is what they see in themselves. We laugh at what we see in ourselves, we feel compassion for others through that. So, I’m not sure exactly why my characters resonated, but people must feel connected somehow.
Are you very particular about the roles you choose, because it seems to me you stick with doing high quality projects?
Usually, it starts with the fact that they want me! (Laughs)
That’s always a good start!
Yeah, the best place to start! I’ve definitely turned down some things, but usually it has to be a mutual thing where they want me and I think, “Yes, I really want to do that job.” It’s not like I’ve designed my career a certain way. I do what’s in front of me to do, I would say.
It seems like you get to sing one or two songs per season on Sons Of Anarchy. Do you choose those songs?
No, my husband [series creator and producer Kurt Sutter] and Bob Thiele select them and then ask me how I feel about it (laughs). If it’s something I feel would work, then we do it. “For A Dancer,” which is on my record, will also be on the show. It came about mostly from my record, and we felt it would work well on the show, too, so it was a hand-in-hand kind of thing. But with most songs on the show, they pick them for me. My husband writes a lot of music, so he hears in his head what he wants to have in the show.
For Sons Of Anarchy, you just wrapped up shooting for the current season. Is the show definitely returning for a seventh season?
Yes. We’ll be back!
Katey Sagal’s new album, Covered,is available now from Entertainment One Music. For more information, visit kateysagal.net.