Photo by Adam Bradley
David Duchovny began playing guitar a few years ago while still working on the now-defunct Showtime show Californication. When I visited Duchovny on set, twice, he wasn’t looking to make an album because as he put it at the time, “I may be learning guitar, but I’ll never be able to sing. So I would say no, there are some things that God has prohibited from the beginning.”
A few years later, though, Duchovny is releasing his debut album, Hell Or Highwater. So what changed? “These are my songs and I’m telling my story, so I should be able to put them over. I should be able to make you feel them,” he says.
That he does on the impressive debut, an album marked by both his sincerity, evident on songs like “Stars,” and the diversity, from the country-esque tinge of “Stars” to the crunching finale, “Positively Madison Avenue.”
For Duchovny, Hell Or Highwater is the next step in a creative renaissance that also includes a recent novel, Holy Cow; and of course his continuing acting career that includes a return to the X-Files with a six-episode arc and the upcoming Aquarius on NBC. Yahoo Music spoke at length with Duchovny about making music, meeting Mick Jagger, and why Fox Mulder will never play guitar.
Yahoo Music: What was the moment in making this album that you realized you would put out music?
Duchovny: It was working with Keaton [Simons] and hearing what they can do with compressing your voice a little bit and making it sound better than it does when it comes out of my own head; and hearing that even if I don’t have the range of this person or that person or the melodic quality of this person or that person – these are my songs and I’m telling my story. And since I wrote them I get to sing them first. If anybody else wants to sing them now that’s cool, but I get to sing them first.
Were there any moments in the writing that surprised you?
Totally, the act of sitting down and writing a novel or a song is really the act of trying to figure out what you’re thinking or what you’re feeling, in many ways. You don’t sit down because you have something to say, you sit down to figure out what you want to say, what you need to say. So the songs were surprising to me as they came out.
Were there any songs in particular that really surprised you?
Honestly, they all kind of surprised me. The first two songs I wrote were “The Things” and “Stars,” so “The Things” kind of started like, “I want to just keep repeating ‘The Things,’ see what kind of song that makes.” Like, “The thing is, the thing is, the thing is, these things.” And it was like, “That sounded like a song.” So I wrote that, but then “Stars,” the idea that these stars are dead that we’re looking at, that the light is taking so long to get to us that that the star has died. Then I just thought about love and life that way. I get emotionally affected by that song still when I sing it or listen to it. It’s a very kind of apt human condition to me, that song.
Will you be able to play this stuff live?
I gotta be. I’ll be on The Today Show playing live, I’ll play the whole album live on May 12. I’ve been rehearsing with the band and I keep saying, “It’s gonna be the live experience, you’re gonna get all the sharps and flats you want. You’re gonna get the songs, it’s not gonna be the record, you’re gonna get the songs.” I’m not the kind of guy that when I go to a concert I want to hear the album, I want to hear the band.
Songs will change on a nightly basis.
It’s like doing a play. I’ve only done one play in my life and it was very interesting because the audience will kind of tell you which play they want, ‘cause the play had some funny stuff, but it was mostly dramatic. It had kind of absurdly funny aspects to it and you could hear when the audience wanted to laugh, they would push you, like, “We want the funnier play today.” And I think music is similar, not in terms of funny or not, but the audience kind of tells you, and that’s a beautiful thing ‘cause it’s like, “It’s only happening now, I’m only doing it live now this time today, this is it.” And I love that aspect of it. So who f**king cares if I went flat?
If you were going to tour behind this album, who would be the dream artist to tour with?
I’d say Tom Petty at this point, I know that’s not so current and hip, but I just think he’s such a brilliant pop songwriter I’d love to see him do his thing. I’d love to see how he makes those songs live, those perfect pop songs.
He is always relevant though, even if he doesn’t have to care about the charts today. And I’m sure one of the nice things for you as well is you can approach this album as a labor of love, you just did the novel, you can explore artistically now.
In a way I do have a lot of freedom because I don’t need this album to go platinum – obviously that’d be fantastic, but I’m not going to starve if it doesn’t. So I’m performing with a safety net, which makes it very easy for me to make the album I made, which is completely sincere. I didn’t try to have any hits, I didn‘t try to make it a certain way, each one of those songs just came out and I wrote them and they are what they are. If you don’t like it, it’s okay with me ‘cause I wasn’t trying to pysch you out in any way. I wasn’t trying to find an audience, I was merely saying, “Here’s what’s in my head and now it’s out here. Now you can listen to it, and if you like it that’s fantastic and if you don’t I wouldn’t have done anything any differently.”
It’s the same with my prose writing, I’m not working on any angle. It’s not like being an actor where you want that big audience so you do things certain ways, and sometimes you look back and those are the things that you’re most embarrassed of.
Photo by Adam Bradley
Have you already heard from fans that are making connections with the music?
Yeah, I’m not great with the social media stuff, I don’t know how to find that out. But what I’m told from the people who are doing music is there’s a devoted core audience and they’re into it and they’re listening and they love it. They get what I’m doing and if I had people that really kind of understood what I’m doing and got something out of the music that’s fantastic, that’s really all that I care about.
What was the first album you had a connection with as a fan?
Probably The White Album, hearing a song like “Dear Prudence” seemed so emotional to me. Or “Julia.” The Stones did. Whether or not they were sincere I don’t know, but I took it sincerely.
I’m sure you’ve gotten to meet a fair amount of musicians over the years, and they are different than maybe what you imagined from the music.
I did get to sit down and ask Mick Jagger a couple of things once; lyrics I could never make out ‘cause the lyrics were so buried in the mix with the Stones songs. And that was interesting cause I think there was one Mick didn’t even remember. It is funny when I think of how into it I was when I was a kid, poring over lyrics and making it mean so much to me. And then to have Mick tell me, “Yeah, I don’t really remember.”
A band like Steely Dan, which I love, their lyrics were completely obtuse and yet I could make them mean something to me. I’m not sure their lyrics mean anything, but yet they’re kind of brilliant in their own roundabout way.
Could you have ever imagined as a teenager meeting Mick Jagger?
No, never, ‘cause I grew up in a world where I didn’t think about meeting famous people. I didn’t know any actors, I didn’t know any musicians, I grew up in Manhattan and my parents were not in show business, I didn’t know anybody in show business. It wasn’t even a thing I thought about. But when I was sitting with Mick Jagger – this was years ago because he was producing movies and we were talking about some projects – all I was thinking about was, “F**k, that’s Mick Jagger, I want him to like me, I gotta say something smart.”
You said Fox Mulder will be different this time around on X-Files. Does that mean he’ll play guitar?
The guy in Aquarius plays guitar so I gotta stop it, I can’t have Mulder play guitar, otherwise it’s too shameful.
When you listen this album from start to finish, what do you take from it?
I feel like there’s somebody trying to figure some stuff out as honestly as he can. I really do think of it as the songwriter or the singer or whatever, I don’t really think of it as me. This guy is searching, the guy is asking a lot of questions, the guy is being hard on himself, he is being hard on other people. I just get the feeling of somebody actively, imaginatively, honestly trying to be a real person.