Photos by Adam Bradley
David Duchovny’s new album, Hell or Highwater, is a vanity project of impressively modest proportions. It’s the Wildflower of celebrity midlife crisis dad-rock. Its mediocrity runs so deep that it’s almost kind of beautiful.
Oh, wait, you didn’t know? Yes, David Duchovny makes music now. Honestly I can’t say I’m surprised, considering the 54-year-old actor has long had a somewhat unpredictable streak. Get a load of that mysterious, playful, sometimes totally crazy look in his eyes. Or check out the roles he chooses. If a guy can spend years battling TV aliens on The X-Files only to turn around and revivify his career on Californication as a sleazy, womanizing Bukowski wannabe—and in the mean time stick roles as a pot-smoking “Goat Man” and a transgender FBI agent—then certainly he can pick up a guitar to strum out a few tunes.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he’ll be doing anything too innovative. On Hell or Highwater, Duchovny sports a sub-Tom Petty croon and a penchant for grad school-level metaphor. He’s backed by a band from the Berklee College of Music, who are doing their best not to ruffle any feathers as they channel the American heartland with glossy Wallflowers guitar parts and polite 4/4 drums. This is well-trod ground we’re talking about. Not only have actual musicians spent years making music like this, but so have other actors—Billy Bob Thornton, Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, John C. Reilly...
Yes, rootsy American music is such common ageing actor fare that when I was writing this article, I accidentally typed Jeff Daniels’ name instead of Jeff Bridges. And then on a whim I plugged “Jeff Daniels music” into Google, and discovered that, holy shit, even fucking Jeff Daniels makes folk music!
But it’s not all bad for The Duke (a nickname I just made up). Something sets Duchovny apart: his refreshing down-to-Earth-ness. Here’s a famous actor who doesn’t rely on heavy-hitters like T-Bone Burnett and Marc Ribot to sound better, as Bridges did on his self-titled album from 2011. He’s a guy who doesn’t aim for solemnity à la poor Tim Robbins, who clearly can’t sing but still gets credit for being the son of an accomplished folk artist. No, Duchovny the Musician is just a humble celebrity who writes rock songs on his guitar because that’s literally all he knows how to play.
“It’s really a function of my barely basic competence of the instrument,” he tells me. He’s speaking by phone from his home in Manhattan on a recent Wednesday afternoon. It’s a few weeks before the May 28 premiere of his new show on NBC, Aquarius, and he’s explaining to me why he was drawn to rootsy American music in the first place.
“Roots music—it’s the people’s music, right? It’s not school music. It’s not taught. It’s like somebody picking up a guitar and teaching themselves how to play,” he says. “The chord progressions, they belong to everybody. It’s part of our heritage. Somebody wrote ‘G-C-B’ at some point, but now everybody’s written it. Nobody can lay claim to it. It’s a basic form of music, and that’s all I’m capable of at this point.”
Duchovny got into music in the early 2010s. According to reports from Grantland and Rolling Stone, he’d hit a career plateau and was in the meantime going through a very public split with actress/producer Téa Leoni. Because they had joint custody of their two kids, he had a lot of time on his hands to sit around and strum his guitar—a Martin Dreadnought acoustic that he’d purchased for $3,000.
To some, this might come across as the case of an ageing rich guy eager to live out some misguided rock star fantasy. But Duchovny insists to me that this is not the case. “I’m too old. I can’t just decide that I’m a rock star at my age,” he says. “You know, there’s a certain limit to the kind of ways I should be moving my particular body at this age.”
Instead, he sees his music as a natural expression of his artistry—a new role to play and story to tell.
“It’s almost like this is a role of a guy singing to you, and these songs, they have stories and they have characters. They have a point of view. And a song is like a movie—it has a verse, a verse, a chorus, a bridge, a chorus, and they build. I learned a lot writing these songs about how a song builds like a movie, like a story. I think it’s all part of the same thing.”
In Hell or Highwater, Duchovny is clearly taking on the role of a working-class everyman. But there’s also something innately Duchovny about this album’s 12 tracks as well. Duchovny’s liberal values and celebrity frustrations—as well as his dry, somewhat schlocky sense of humor—certainly show through in the anti-corporate anthem “Positively Madison Avenue,” in which he mocks Bob Dylan for appearing in a car commercial while dissing “voyeurs, critics, bloggers, vultures” and environmentally-hazardous corporations that “give Mother Earth a facial” (easily the best/worst line on this whole thing).
Duchovny isn’t afraid to bare his soul about more personal stuff, either. With the glum guitar strums of “Stars,” I can almost picture the actor lying alone late at night, shedding a single tear as he gazes up through the sunroof in his trailer, ruminating on how a faded love so much resembles a dead star that you can still see shining in the sky because it’s located thousands of light-years away. “When the fire is dead,” he sighs, “how can it be that the sparks still fly?”
Hell or Highwater doesn’t seem to be as painful as Duchovny’s recent novel—a satiric sociopolitical farce called Holy Cow that NPR’s Michael Schaub described as “one of the most half-baked, phoned-in books I've ever read”—but it’s not particularly special, either. The fact remains that the only reason we’re hearing this music at all is because it’s attached to the name “David Duchovny.” It’s a classic example of celebrity arrogance, a guy who thinks he’s ready to go pro just because he has the resources to do so. Yet there is some small kernel of value you can take away from Hell or Highwater. TV and movie stars are strange figures in America, scandalized as often as they’re idolized. But really they’re humans like the rest of us, doing everyday human things. And if anything drives that reality home, it’s music as dull as this.
Duchovny admits as much, telling me he was as surprised as anybody that he was able to write 12 full songs.
“I’m not a real musician,” he says. “I mean, I can play guitar well enough to write some songs on it, but I’m not a player. I didn’t even play on my own album. I’m not good enough.”
Peter Holslin is obviously a huge fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' album Californication. Follow him on Twitter.