It’s a Sunday morning in early February when I reach David Duchovny on the phone. The 56-year-old tells me he’s on the freeway, heading from Los Angeles to San Diego to perform a song from his 2015 album Hell or Highwater “on a red trolley car.”
Though this might come as a surprise to casual fans who only know of Duchovny from his acting roles, what’s even more shocking is that the X-Files star — who once told multiple publications they’d never catch him singing live — is going back on his word. And not only is he flexing his vocal chops in public, but he’s doing so without a full-backing band.
“Yeah, I don’t care about that anymore,” Duchovny says when I bring up his former reluctance to perform live. “I’m never going to be that good, but I’m better than I was. So I got over myself a bit and decided it wasn’t about me.”
Duchovny has also, it seems, gotten over the deluge of bad press mocking his “dad rock” style of music and “pitchy,” “uneven” voice.
“It’s fine,” Duchovny drawls. “Everybody has a right to say what they want to say. I think that of all the organs we have, ears are probably the most unprejudiced, so if you like the music, you like the music. If you don’t, you don’t. And that’s fine.”
Duchovny, who has written two novels (with a third on the way) and who co-produced the TV drama Aquarius, never planned to make an album. It started a few years ago while filming the last season of Californication that Duchovny developed an itch to play the guitar. Though he took lessons when he was 10, he never progressed very far and had long since forgotten the little he once learned.
“If I could time-travel and talk to my 10-year-old self, I’d tell him to keep playing the guitar,” Duchovny jokes, “because then I wouldn’t suck at it.”
This time around, Duchovny was serious about learning how to play, so to guilt himself into using the thing, he purchased a $3,000 guitar because he knew it would be “just too painful for [him] not to play it.” And then he did what he calls “a very tricky actor thing.”
“I told the producers of Californication that Hank Moody should learn how to play the guitar,” he says, “so they got me lessons, and I didn’t have to pay for them. And then I did the same with Aquarius. I said, ‘Sam Hodiak plays guitar,’ so I continued my freebies.”
Duchovny started writing songs soon after, and from there, he claims it was an “organic progression” to building an album. The result is a 12-track record steeped in folk-rock and flecked with hints of country and alternative rock. Duchovny’s inspirations — R.E.M., Bob Dylan, the Flaming Lips, Wilco — are readily apparent and can be heard in the album’s arpeggiated melodies, heavy use of guitar, and character-driven lyrics.
Most of the songs center around love won and love lost, but the stripped-down, simplistic record stops short of becoming too saccharine or morose, thanks to Duchovny’s quips and humorous one-liners. “If it’s multiple choice, I got to mark ‘none of the above,’ ” he coos in the title track after referencing a “shit storm” and “rainbow sun shower of holy red wine.” Duchovny also put his two English degrees (from Princeton University and Yale University, of course) to work, filling the songs on the album with dialogue, allusions, hyperboles, and metaphors.
Because Duchovny split with Téa Leoni, his wife of 16 years, shortly before writing the album, many have speculated that Hell or Highwater is largely about her. But Duchovny is quick to clarify that it is not; in fact, it’s not even 100 percent about himself.
“It’s not ‘Here’s David being confessional or telling you what’s going on in his life.’ I don’t have any interest in that,” he says. “Songs for me are universal, and they’re not about me. They’re about what I’ve gone through or what I’ve felt that is the exact same thing as what you’ve gone through or what you’ve felt.”
Since Hell or Highwater’s release, Duchovny has already completed another album, tentatively titled Strangers in the Sacred Heart, that will come out this spring. The record will be “probably a little more current,” he says, but don’t expect it to be any less forlorn than its predecessor.
“That’s just not me,” Duchovny says. “Even when things are going really well, I’m not going to be that upbeat.”
David Duchovny plays at 8 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 15, at Social Hall. More info here.