For 30 years, David Duchovny has been on screens big and small with roles ranging from “Tess’s Birthday Party Friend” in 1988’s Working Girl to beloved characters like The X-Files‘ “spooky” FBI agent Fox Mulder and writer Hank Moody in the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll-riddled Californication. In recent years, though, Duchovny has dabbled in other areas of entertainment. He’s written two books and has another on the way, and in 2015 he released his debut album, titled Hell Or Highwater. On Feb. 9, Duchovny will release his second full-length album, Every Third Thought, which he’ll begin supporting with a handful of tour dates in New Zealand and Australia.
Duchovny spoke with Billboard to discuss his process as a songwriter, the importance of music education, and what might be on the horizon for him and his band.
Tell me a bit about your connection with music and where that first began.
I grew up listening to the radio. My dad was a big music lover, although I didn’t love the music that he played around the house: big bands, jazz. He did love Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian. He was a big music lover, not a player of music. My tastes were more informed by my time, which was late ’60s/early ’70s Beatles, Stones, The Who. Maybe a little earlier, because I had an older brother who got me into the Dead, Allman Brothers – I also liked ’70s funk like Sly & The Family Stone, Al Green. I guess pretty wide-ranging.
And it was actually just shortly before your first album that you even started to work on music, right? Where did the urge to create your own come from?
I’d always wanted to play an instrument and it was always a regret of mine that I hadn’t taken… I took recorder when I was in grade school because that was the only instrument that I could play. [Laughs.] I always told myself, “I have all this down time as an actor in a trailer, just sitting on my hands. Why don’t I?” I remember I wanted to learn how to play the harmonica because I was driving so much, you know? Just like play it in the car. So it was play the guitar in the trailer on my down time. So I just started learning chords [and] teaching myself songs that I liked. Just really going at it haphazardly like that. At some point I was looking at these songs that I was playing and I was like, “You know, they’re not that complicated – at least the way that I’m playing them. I wonder if I could throw some chords together. And if I did that, would I hear a melody?” I knew I could write words, but I didn’t know I could hear a melody. And that started happening, and I found that somehow, even though I’m not a natural singer, I was hearing melodies over chords. And then it just kind of progressed from there.
I think by the time I was watching Californication, I just assumed that you played because of Hank Moody’s involvement with music in the show, occasionally playing guitar and such.
Well Tom Kapinos, who created the show, is a huge music lover and a good guitar player himself. By the fifth or sixth year of the show I had started to become interested in playing guitar, so of course I said, “You know, Hank should take guitar lessons,” and I got guitar lessons for free.
On that note, how much of a Warren Zevon fan are you in real life?
Oh, big fan. But that just happened coincidentally. I started listening to Zevon right as we were thinking about doing Californication, and I got Kapinos [into him], who should’ve known about Zevon because he’s a big music guy, but didn’t know of him. Then Zevon, he became… He’s very much like the patron saint of the show for me. It’s a real California point of view. It’s really the right point of view. Hank and Zevon have a lot in common temperamentally I think.
Being even remotely in the limelight as a musician, let alone becoming successful, is no easy feat. What have been some of the challenges for you getting started in a whole new industry in your fifties?
Well, I have a head start because I can get people to come see me. They’re not interested in the music – at least at first – but I knew I’d at least get a listen. Of course, I get a lot of shit, too, but it’s two sides of the same coin; you can’t get one without the other. I accept both of those things. So, it wasn’t as hard for me. I didn’t have to put a demo outside people’s doors, or however they do it now. It was easier for me to get a play. But conversely, it’s harder for me to be given a fair shake critically because of that.
Do you feel that because you were well known going into this that you had more to prove as a musician?
I don’t know. I don’t know how to prove myself as a musician. I’m never going to be a good enough player to prove myself as a player. I started way too late and I’m mostly self-taught, and therefore I have terrible habits that are going to inhibit my ever getting any better. [Laughs.] I think the worst thing you can do is try to prove something with music. It’s like trying to prove something with acting. I don’t like to see actors acting, hard. I’m like, “Jesus, fuck, slow down.” Like maybe I come out with my symphony. Is that how I prove I’m a legit musician? I don’t know. That’s not the kind of music I’m interested in making.
Duchovny’s magnum opus.
So how do you feel you’ve evolved as a musician or songwriter since Hell Or Highwater?
I got much more confident as a singer because I had to keep singing. I think one of the reasons that my guitar playing has gotten so stagnant is that I’ve spent my time working on my voice every day. So that’s really the instrument – I hate to talk about my voice as an instrument; it sounds so pretentious – but that’s really been my focus because I’ll be playing live. I don’t necessarily have to play the guitar live but I have to get out there and sing these songs. It’s a matter of getting secure so that I can put over something that’s reasonably close to what’s on the record. Becoming a better singer allowed me to also open up melodically in my head as I start to write new songs. So places that I wouldn’t try to go before, I’m liberated now to try to do that. I don’t know that I can repeat it every single time like a natural singer who has great pitch, but I do know that I can get it one time.
Is there anything about the writing or recording process that you found to be easier this time around?
Yeah, it was way easier to stand in a booth and try to sing. The beginning of the session for Hell Or Highwater was like a self-immolation of self-loathing. By the end of the first day I was just lying on my back just saying, “I’m sorry. This was a big mistake.” By the time we got to Every Third Thought I knew I could do it and I knew the process. I knew it wasn’t going to be like a live recording and I didn’t have to get every moment of every song great on just one take.
Going into Every Third Thought, did you have a specific process for how you brought your ideas together into songs?
I have a notebook with phrases or ideas for songs that I like. In the same book I’ll also just have chord progressions that I like or that I haven’t used yet that I want to do. So I’ll just screw around with those on a day and see what’s attracted to what. If the music’s on the left, what I find on the right or in the margins is written down in words. Or a phrase will appear in my mind with a little melody and I’ll try to write a song around that. But I don’t have a set way of going about doing it.
Would you say that you derive inspiration from sources differently as a songwriter than you do as an actor?
Oh, for sure. It’s funny – I think if I have a conscious inspiration as an actor I think it’s more specific because I think my vocabulary as an actor is more sophisticated than as a musician, so my influences musically are really unconscious or intuitive. And they come out more when it comes time to produce, because all my songs are just written on a guitar – it’s just me and a guitar – so they’re all gonna sound like country or folk. I’m not playing electric guitar, you know? So when it comes time to produce, I’m going to hear, “Oh, that feels like a Petty song,” or, “That feels like a Bowie song.” So at that point I’m going to bring the bare influences on me – just the sounds that I like.
You started a PledgeMusic campaign for Every Third Thought to give fans some perks and opportunities, but part of the proceeds are going to the D’Addario Foundation. Why was that the charity you chose to donate to and what do you feel is the importance of music education programs?
There have been charities over the years that I’ve been connected to but being that this is music I thought it lined up well. Statistically it’s factual that music education is not only good in and of itself, but it bolsters all kinds of other learning. So if you start to educate kids musically at a young age they’re going to be better learners of everything – reading, writing, arithmetic – for the rest of their lives. But unfortunately because of the way politics have gone – well, obviously in the last year, but even before that – music education is something that gets cut as being arts education or being superfluous to education, when in fact it’s like a master key to the whole of education. So that’s where I’m coming from with that.
You’ve got two kids at either end of the teen spectrum. It’s probably pretty cool to say that your dad’s an actor, but kids tend to be a lot more elitist about their music tastes. Do you know how they feel about the stuff you’re creating?
I don’t know what they think. I don’t ask them. [Laughs.] My daughter has seen me play live, and about a month ago I was working on a song, and my son, who’s already a way better guitar player than me – I was kind of strumming away and singing and he was like, “What’s that?” I had it on the iPad and he looked at the chords and picked up a guitar and just started playing with me and that was cool.
The new season of The X-Files is well underway. You’ve got the new album coming out, which you’ll also be touring. You’ve got a new book on the way, and I read that you might be working on directing a feature film adaptation of your last book. You’re spread thin across all media. How do you balance it all and when the hell do you rest?
There’s been a lot of rest; it’s weird. Maybe I work quickly – I don’t know what it is. The thing about music is that it’s very collaborative for me. I’m not a guy like Prince who’s gonna play every instrument and be producing and arranging. I have the luxury and the good luck that I can write songs as they come to me and then I can work on them with my band. Then all that’s left is for me to record those songs and then tour them when I have time. Writing is more all-consuming and in the moment. If I start to write a book, I have to make sure I have the time to do it. I can’t do that in my spare time. You just have to be in that head space all the time I find. It’s the same with acting. It’s hard for me to do something else while I’m acting. So I just have to budget my time that way.
Is there a long-term goal for this project or are you living it moment to moment? Do you already have ideas for another album?
It’s moment to moment but I have been talking to the band. I’ve never set aside time to write with them. I haven’t set aside time to write period. That goes against exactly why I got into it, which was like, “I don’t have to do this. Nobody’s asking for it. Nobody’s gonna give me any money for it.” That’s the best part about it. But once I start working with the band… They’re all really good musicians and we have musical ideas that are different and interesting. I was like, “We should actually compose together. Rather than me bringing you material and us working on it, let’s just sit in a room and bounce shit off each other and see where we get.” So that’s the next thing I’m looking forward to: really trying to write songs as a band and seeing what happens there.
So there is most likely another record coming down the line.
I would think so. I hope so. I hope it doesn’t just dry up. [Laughs.] I think a lot of people at my age are drying up, but I think because I started so late I’m actually writing music like a 17-year-old and I’m hoping I get inspired, that because I’m so new at it I keep having that new stuff coming out.
I think the first album flew a bit under the radar because not that many people realized you were a musician, but it seems that people are catching onto that a bit more with this one.
I think so. It’s a different business for me. If I have a television show or a movie coming out there’s going to be a lot of money behind it because there’s going to be a studio or a network and they’re gonna throw it in your face. With me and music, I’m not with a big label. There’s no money behind it. I just make the album and then I do what I can to make people aware, but I certainly don’t have the force of these mega-corporations behind me.
David Duchovny’s upcoming tour dates:
Feb 20 – Auckland, NZ
Feb 21 – Wellington, NZ
Feb 23 – Melbourne, AU
Feb 24 – Sydney, AU
Feb 25 – Wollongong, AU
Feb 28 – Newcastle, AU
March 1 – Brisbane, AU