David Duchovny picked up a guitar for the first time when he was 49 years old, and according to him, he spent a good five years sucking at it before he decided to release Hell or Highwater, his first album, out today on ThinkSay Records. Inspired by classic rock from the ’60s and ’70s, on Hell or Highwater, Duchovny acts as a sort of roadside troubadour with a rusty voice busking for change off of Route 66. Even though he’s not a trained singer or musician, he performs these songs with confidence, which gives each of them a charming sense of honesty. (Duchovny wrote all of the music himself.) Earlier this year, Duchovny’s debut novel Holy Cow became a New York Times best-seller; his character on The X-Files, FBI agent Fox Mulder, is one of the most memorable on television, and a reboot is confirmed for January; he’s an accomplished television director; and later this month, Duchovny stars in the new NBC procedural Aquarius. What's more, he's playing one-off shows, including a set tonight at Manhattan's Cutting Room, in support of the new record.
Duchovny called in one recent morning to talk about the new album, X-Files co-star Gillian Anderson, and his dream of carrying Gatorade for Tom Petty.
Hell or Highwater is a pretty straightforward singer-songwriter record. It’s a well-worn sound.
Well, it’s my favorite type of sound, and it’s what came out. When I sat down to write the songs, I wasn’t coming up with dance tunes and I wasn’t hearing any drops. I wasn’t composing any beats. I was really coming out of the music from when I grew up, and what I’ve always listened to my whole life. That’s how I started playing guitar and singing along with the bands I like, and playing the songs that I like, and that’s kind of what comes out. If there’s anything, it’s just what’s natural to me. I like songs that are lyrically dense, with depth, that are powerful. It was important for me to have songs that have words that were just as important as the music.
You’re already an actor and an author. What made you want to release a record?
It was all one-step-at-a-time stuff. First it was learning guitar, and then it was, well, maybe I’ve got some melodies I could come up with, some chord progressions, and then lyrically, it always came naturally to me because I’ve always written, and then it was, “Oh, somebody’s interested in recording. Okay, I’ll try that. I’ll try to sing my own stuff.” You know, if you had said five years ago that this was going to happen, I would have said, "That’s a leap," that it’s never going to happen, but as I look back, step by step, it kind of made sense. It was one little step at a time, and now I find myself here with an album.
What other tricks do you have up your sleeve? Do you paint?
No, no, I cannot do anything. I cannot paint. I’ve tried to storyboard my own stuff when I’m directing, and my stick figures are illegible. So I don’t think that will happen. It’s really, you know, I feel like I’m just trying to express the fact that I’m on the planet and that I’m looking around and thinking and feeling, and I hope that other people who are thinking and feeling will find something worthwhile in whatever it is or however I choose to express whatever it is I’m doing. I mean, I’m not making any kinds of claims for myself. I’m just saying, “Well, here’s some songs, here’s a book, here’s a TV show, here’s a movie," or whatever. I don’t see that there’s necessarily a difference. We’re just human beings trying to express ourselves.
What are some of the bands you listened to growing up? What kind of music influenced Hell or Highwater?
Well, I grew up a while ago so, I grew up in the classic-rock stage of human history. You know, Beatles, Stones, Who, Zeppelin. You know, middle-aged white guy stuff. And I would think like Dylan, Lou Reed, Tom Petty, the Kinks, but then, on the other hand, I also like a good amount of ’70s punk. I’m not in a good enough position to play it or to write it, but I hope to get there. Sly and the Family Stone to me is one of my musical heroes, both musically and lyrically. I pretty much love all kinds of music, I’m just not able to play or sing all kinds of music myself.
When you picked up the guitar for the first time five years ago, who was your teacher?
I didn’t have a teacher at the time. I just thought, Well, I’ve always wanted to play guitar, and I didn’t want any homework at this point in my life, you know what I mean? I didn’t want anybody giving me assignments. I thought I would rebel against that. I feel like I’ve done enough homework in my life. So I thought, Okay, this is going to be a thing that’s just for me, and I’m going to play it when I want to play it, and I’m going to get as good as I’m going to get, and it’s not going to matter, and any of that shit. And I wanted my kids, at the same time, to see me try something new, and be bad at something new, and struggle through the phase of being bad at it in order to get decent, in order to get better. It’s something I’m always talking to my kids about: Yes, worthwhile things are difficult to get good at, and there’s a long time when it’s going to kind of be painful. So I wanted to put my money where my mouth is with them. I did that with guitar. I did it a little bit with skiing, too, which I had never done before. It was just like, “Hey, watch Dad suck,” was the idea.
Are there any veiled references to your work in television in the lyrics?
Just one. It’s in the last track, “Positively Madison Avenue.” I say, “Chasing spooks on Fox I made my bones.” That’s the only one, I think. I’d have to go through it again, but I think that’s the only one. I generally don’t really like that kind of meta, self-referential stuff, but it kind of made sense there.
What’s your favorite song on the album?
It goes kind of cyclically. I don’t know. I’m in the midst of rehearsing the album to play it live, so I don’t know. The rockier ones are probably more fun to play live, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily like them better. I couldn’t say that I have a favorite one. I’m sorry.
What’s your least favorite song on the album?
Probably “Unsaid Undone.” It never quite became the song that I wanted it to be, although I think it’s good. I don’t know, maybe it needs a bridge. It needs something. I mean, I like the lyrics. There’s just something not quite working for me.
You just finished a new show called Aquarius?
Yes, we’re done with the first season. Hopefully just the first season, and not for good. John McNamara, who’s created the show [and is] running it, has envisioned five or six years of 13-episode years for that. So, you know, I hope we can execute the fullness of his vision. We have 13 this year that we shot, and it’s done, and we’ll start airing on May 28 on NBC.
Charles Manson, a central figure in the show, was, like you, a troubadour. Have you heard his music?
I have heard his music. Music is an important part of the Manson story. Partly his inability to get going with his music career, I don’t want to psychologize him, but it obviously led to a certain amount of frustration for him. I didn’t make him murder anybody, but it didn’t put him in a good mood either, I’m sure. And it’s an interesting part of his story, like Scientology as well. These are things not a lot of people know about Manson.
Fox has just announced its new six-episode revival of The X-Files.
Yep. We start shooting in June. It’s something that we’ve been working on behind the scenes for quite a while. It took a lot of planning to get the three of us — Chris Carter, Gillian, and I — to be able to commit to being in the same place at the same time for as long as it’s going to take to do the show. This is something we’ve all been talking about for a couple of years.
Do you think you and Gillian Anderson will still share the same chemistry?
The chemistry I think is good. I mean, we haven’t done it in a while. Hopefully it’s still there. Chemistry is something that I don’t think you can create, and I don’t think you can lose it. It’s either there or it isn’t. It’s been said that it’s there for us, so I imagine that it’ll still be there.
In addition to filming X-Files, you’ll also be going on tour in support of the album?
No. You know, I’d love to tour. I think I’d love to tour, but I haven’t really performed live yet, so, I might hate it. I might pull a Sia and see ya. I might turn my back on you. So I don’t know. If I had her voice, I could also turn my back. I don’t think I can quite pull that off.
You’re a Sia fan. What other younger artists do you listen to?
I am. I’m actually a Sia fan. I’m amazed at her voice, and her melodies are beautiful. I think she’s a really gifted pop songwriter. They’re catchy, you-can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head-type songs. I like Ed Sheeran. See, I only know these things through my daughter. She’s only 16 and she likes Hozier. I like Hozier. The Kooks. She likes the Kooks.
See! I didn’t even get that one wrong. That’s how hip I am. I like Alt-J. You know them?
Do you ever listen to hip-hop?
I don’t really. I’m kind of stuck on the pop side. My daughter does listen to hip-hop, but I only listen to it through the bedroom door.
If you could have any band open for you, who would it be?
Open for me? Oh gosh, I don’t know. I think I’d be opening for other people, but I’d love to play with Tom Petty. He certainly wouldn’t open for me. I’d like to carry his Gatorade.