David Duchovny Reveals His Hidden Talents with Guitar in Hand

June 3rd, 2015


This is an excerpt from the all-new JULY/AUGUST 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Les Paul and his 100th birthday celebration, Warrant guitarist and now winemaker Erik Turner, traveling through Maui by motorcycle, chef Troy Knapp of Austin’s The Driskill, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

SUPER NATURAL: Actor David Duchovny suppressed his musical ambitions until a guitar brought out his hidden talents as a singer-songwriter.

By Mac Randall | Photos by Jimmy Hubbard

For more than two decades now, David Duchovny has been more or less a known quantity. Without a doubt, he’s most famous and respected for his acting work in two long-running TV series: The X-Files, in which he played extraterrestrial-obsessed FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder, and Californication, in which he starred as the dissolute writer Hank Moody. Duchovny has also appeared in a dozen other television shows and more than 30 movies where he often specialized in bringing quirky, off-center characters to life.

In the past few months, however, Duchovny has unveiled artistic dimensions previously unsuspected even by many of his biggest fans. First he wrote a novel—an adult fable about vegetarianism called Holy Cow that Farrar, Straus, and Giroux published in February. Then he stepped out for the first time as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist and recorded his debut album, Hell or Highwater, a surprisingly solid collection of straight-ahead rock songs. As if that weren’t enough, he also has a starring role in a new TV show, Aquarius, and he’s gearing up for the long-awaited and recently announced return of The X-Files. Is he auditioning for the role of Renaissance Man 2015?

Sitting at a satin-finish wooden table in a downtown Manhattan photo studio, the 54-year-old Duchovny smiles, laughs, and shakes his head in answer to that question. “The novel was actually more unsurprising to me than acting,” he says. “If you’d asked me when I was 12 what my dream job was, I probably would have said writing. Being an actor was something that happened out of the blue, in a way. But nothing could be more out of the blue than being a musician. Music was always very important to me, but I’d given up on the idea that I was going to be able to make music a career. I was somebody who’d been told to lip-synch in choir. And I wasn’t tone-deaf enough to think that I was singing well. I had enough of an ear to know that I was off, which was the worst part. I think sometimes tone-deaf people are luckier.”

Duchovny’s 2011 separation from his wife of 14 years, actress Téa Leoni (from whom he would be officially divorced three years later), led him to re-evaluate many things, including his long-deferred musical dreams. “All of a sudden, I had a lot more time alone that, if I didn’t fill it, was going to feel really empty,” he says. “I’d always wanted to play guitar, so I just said, ‘Fuck it, go get one.’ I ended up buying that one.” He gestures across the room to a gorgeous sunburst Martin D-18GE Golden Era 1934 reissue.

“I told myself I had to buy something expensive,” he explains, “because that way I’d feel like shit if I didn’t play it regularly. In the price range I was at, everything sounded good—it ought to! So I bought it because of the way it looked. I’m a sucker for dark wood and sunburst finishes.”

The plan worked. Duchovny did play the guitar regularly. At first, he went at it alone, paging through a chord book and checking out a bunch of online lessons. “All I ever wanted to do was throw a few chords together and play songs that I liked,” he recalls. “That’s how I taught myself. Thank God for the Internet. I mean, I’m sorry that I didn’t have to pay for any sheet music, but it made it awful easy to just sit in my living room and look up a song.”

Eventually, Duchovny began to get his favorite Beatles, Stones, Dylan, and Petty tunes under his fingers and to hook up regularly with musical friends Matt Warshaw and Jimmy Capuano (the latter, a senior VP at Thomson Reuters, lost a long battle with cancer last year; Hell or Highwater is dedicated to him). “We’d get together every Sunday and play guitar,” Duchovny says. “We called it the Guitarmy. I was shy at first because I was so clearly the worst player in the room, but Matt said, ‘It doesn’t matter, you’ll get a lot better just by playing with people who are better.’ So that’s what I did.”

By now, Duchovny was spending so much time playing guitar that he felt the need to try working it into his regular job. “I managed to get Tom Kapinos, the show runner for Californication, to make Hank Moody a guitar player,” he says with a sly grin. “That way I got free guitar lessons, courtesy of Showtime.”

Duchovny also found himself falling prey to that most dangerous of illnesses: Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. “Guitars are such beautiful objects,” he says. “They’re hard to resist.” His current collection includes dreadnought acoustics by Guild, Martin, and Taylor, and he also owns a Baby Taylor, a five-string cigar-box guitar (“I thought I’d be like Keith Richards and do the five-string thing”), and a Fender Telecaster (“I like it, but I don’t play it that much because I live in an apartment building. I won’t be taking any leads in the near future”). Although he hasn’t delved into the vintage market yet, it seems to be only a matter of time. “I’d like to have a guitar with some mileage on it,” he says. “There’s something mystical about a guitar that’s been around the block.”

The more Duchovny played, the more he encountered a strange phenomenon: melodic ideas kept entering his head. “I was totally surprised that I could hear them,” he says. “And then the words came easy.” Before long, he’d written several songs, and realized that he liked them. He contacted singer/songwriter Keaton Simons, the son of a close friend, and asked if he could record some demos at Simons’ home studio in Los Angeles. From there things escalated swiftly.

“Keaton took a lot of time with me,” Duchovny says. “He played all the instruments on the demos, and he was so encouraging. It was pretty much impossible for me to play something the same way twice—my right hand literally did not know what my left hand was doing—but he wouldn’t correct my mistakes if he thought they were interesting. Again, I was never thinking of any kind of public performance. It was all just for me. I thought, I wrote these things and I think they’re songs; they’re close to songs anyway, and I’d love to have them on my phone somewhere. But then Keaton asked me to sit in with him during his set at City Winery here in New York.”

At that show, Simons accompanied Duchovny on one of the latter’s new songs, a brooding folk-rock ballad with strong spaghetti-western overtones called “Stars.” In the audience was Brad Davidson, head of the Boston-based ThinkSay label, who spoke with Duchovny afterward. “Brad asked me, ‘Do you have any interest in recording?’” he remembers. “I was like, ‘No. But why not?…’ ”

This is an excerpt from the all-new JULY/AUGUST 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Les Paul and his 100th birthday celebration, Warrant guitarist and now winemaker Erik Turner, traveling through Maui by motorcycle, chef Troy Knapp of Austin’s The Driskill, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

  • Dan

    Another actor who thinks he’s a singer-songwriter!! Quick!!! RUN FOR THE HILLS!!!!

  • David

    I actually sold him that Guitar back when I worked at Guitar Center in Manhattan. Probably one the best people I sold to. It really makes me proud that he is still loving that Guitar.

    • Airton

      Hey, man, nice to share that with us. Thanks.

  • BarrettK

    I am so happy to see that Keaton Simons was able to help David out and get credit for it! Bravo David…. Keaton is a amazing guitarist and musician…

  • Fred Chapman

    An actor who actually IS a singer-songwriter deserves our encouragement and support. Duchovny is making music for all the right reasons, and he’s off to a great start!

  • Fred Chapman

    P.S. Unlike the vast majority of musicians, Duchovny doesn’t get the luxury of honing his musical skills in obscurity. He’s already famous for his acting, which shines an unfair spotlight on his early musical journey. Any other musician at this same stage would still be unknown and therefore free to experiment, learn, and grow without being judged harshly.

    Let’s be fair to David and give him the same chance to grow that every musician deserves!