Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
David Duchovny pc Ekaterina Gerbey 1
Nine Songs

The Golden Globe award winning actor, novelist and songwriter David Duchovny takes Ed Nash on a lyrical tour through the pivotal songs in his life.

06 November 2023, 08:00 | Words by Ed Nash

Given his rich acting career, it shouldn’t be a surprise that David Duchovny is a master at remembering a line.

Even so, his ability to recall lyrics is the most impressive I’ve ever experienced in a Nine Songs interview. The previous owner of that title was boygenius’s Julien Baker, where she quoted lines from Bruce Springsteen and Paramore like they were Shakespearean Sonnets. But Duchovny takes it to another level, reeling off entire lyrical passages from the likes of Warren Zevon, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.

Duchovny’s love of detail has defined his artistic path. Having made his name as an incredible lead actor with The X-Files and Californication, his smaller roles, from Twin Peaks’ Denise Bryson to J.P. Prewitt, the reclusive hand model in Zoolander, revealed both his playfulness and a natural ability to steal the show.

In the last decade he’s been spreading artistic wings even further, writing six novels and three albums. 2015’s Hell or Highwater was followed by Every Third Thought in 2018 and his latest record Gestureland was released during the pandemic, which he’s finally able to take on tour and brings him to London this week.

“We’re demoing some songs for a new album that maybe we're going to record early next year” he tells me, “I have a new one called “London”, it has very little to do with London, but I was saying we should play it when we’re in London. And I rhyme ‘oven’ with ‘London’, which I'm pretty proud of!”

Duchovny's initial forays with discovering music was a form of rebellion against his Dad’s love of jazz. I tell him the same thing happened with me and my father, who used to play John Denver songs endlessly. He laughs and says, “There was no John Denver in my household, you're a lucky man. I dare you not to be moved by “Rocky Mountain High”, it’s beautiful song.”

His Dad listened to jazz on reel-to-reel tapes. “We didn't have a phonograph until my brother got into Rock and Roll, but before that it was my Dad's reel-to-reel, I can see it spinning in my mind now. And of course, being a son, I rebelled against whatever he was listening to. I hated jazz. I hated listening to what he wanted to listen to. I wanted to listen to Rock and Roll.”

When he reflects on his journey as a songwriter, he explains it reminds him of his formative years of musical discovery. “It brings me back to a very young place, which I love. I'm not writing songs lyrically like I'm eighteen, I'm still who I am now at this age. The first song I wrote was in A Minor and the chorus was in A, you don’t know you’re not supposed to do that, but those were the only chords I knew. It's a great artistic experiment and a way for me to keep on butting my head against what I don't know.”

When Duchovny started writing songs, he was working with his friend Keaton Simons and recalls an early writing session where Simons told him, ‘You remind me of the songs I wrote when I was 16, because you don't know the rules. And you make mistakes that are cool.’

“For me, writing songs is like a journey into a black cave, because I'm not a great musician, I'm a relatively new musician” he explains. “It's an exercise in how limitations are the guardians of art and necessity being the mother of invention. It’s ‘OK, I've got this limited voice - how do I sing with it? I've got this limited musical experience - how do I write songs with that?’”

David Duchovny Photography copy

I mention a Nine Songs interview with Damian Lewis, where he spoke about juggling being a musician and actor, but both are a different way of telling a story. I ask Duchovny how he finds doing both artforms.

“I know what Damian's talking about it. When I write a song, I'm very wary of it being too personal, because at the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I don't like the personal information that goes into the music machine right now - where we know so much about not only the people who are making the music, we even know the beef they're having in the lyrics.

“There's something supremely icky about that. I get that it's box office and it works, but as a fairly private person in a public position, I'm always looking for the point of view that's truthfully informed by my experience, but I try to make it as universal as I can, because that's the glory of songwriting to me.”

“It’s ‘How do you write something that’s observed personally and therefore true, yet loose fitting enough for you or somebody else to put it on and go, ‘Hey, that's me.’” The great songwriters are able to do that, people like Tom Petty, Lou Reed, The Beatles. So I think what Damian said, I totally get that with each song that I write. It's almost like a different character is writing that song, even though, obviously, I’m the character behind that.”

When I ask how he decided on his Nine Songs selections, Duchovny says he went with his gut rather than overthinking it. “My caveat is that I really do believe it'd be a different Nine Songs every day you asked me, so I didn't feel any pressure, it was whatever popped into my head.”

This gut feel for his choices mirrors the way he approaches his own approach to music, with each song revealing an admiration for classic writers, artists who pushed the envelope.

“The way I chose these songs is the way I think of songwriting, which is, if you're going to write a song today this is the only day that song is going to come, tomorrow it's going to be a different song.”

“Grazing in the Grass” by The Friends Of Distinction

“Grazing The Grass” was the first '45 that I remember buying. I bought ‘45’s because albums were too expensive, and when you're young, you only want the hits anyway. Young kids aren’t like, ‘Give me the deep cuts! Give me the B-sides!’ They want the hits, this was a hit and it just made me happy.

I remember putting that little wonderful thing you put on the turntable to make a “45 play instead of an album. I forget what it's called but I’d put that on, drop the needle and listen to that song over and over again. It was like it was mine, my dad didn't like that song and it was probably too poppy for my brother.

I didn't know it was probably about drug use. It's like “Stoned Soul Picnic” by Laura Nyro. People don't talk enough about Laura Nyro, she was a great songwriter.

BEST FIT: How old were you when you discovered it?

Probably late 60s, maybe 1969? I was a preteen for sure.

What did you like about it? Was it the music or just being different to your dad and your brother?

I think it was that “Grazing The Grass” felt like mine, possibly because nobody else in the house wanted to hear it. There was a certain kind of power that it had, of ‘This speaks to me, this is me.’ When you're little, you're defining yourself through your clothes, your music and all these outward things.

It was up-tempo, and I certainly wasn't going for ballads at the age of nine. It just sounded happy to me, and they spoke fast. It's really weird to think about what you liked as a kid, but they did this thing with these singing noises, and it was fun to try to do them. It wasn’t easy to try to sing along, they were doing something weird, and I liked it.

“Desperados Under the Eaves” by Warren Zevon

Lyrically it's amazing and even the form of it is amazing, it ends with a symphonic, orchestral, swelling melody. It’s him turning his back on LA, he’s singing, “Look away down Gower Avenue, look away”, which is a nondescript place, it’s not even Hollywood Boulevard.

Then it goes off in this huge orchestra. Zevon had serious musical training, he probably could write orchestral music if he had to, and probably did in this case. It moves from this dark, very personal and very witty song.

In the first verse he sings, “I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel / I was staring in my empty coffee cup / I was thinking that the gypsy wasn't lying / All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles / I'm gonna drink them up / And if California slides into the ocean like the mystics and statistics say it will / I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill.”

To me, that's great lyric writing. Zevon’s the only guy, and maybe Dylan sometimes, who can make me think and laugh at the same time.

BEST FIT: When did this is song appear in your life?

I got into Zevon when I was doing Californication. I didn't know him before that, I just stumbled upon it. Before we were doing the pilot there was a great moment of serendipity. I was talking about him with the showrunner Tom Kapinos, who didn't know about Zevon either.

We were both blown away by how great the songs were, but also how similar he was to Hank Moody, Warren Zevon was a frustrated artist in many ways. Hank would be frustrated he wasn't a best-selling novelist and Zevon was jealous of the Eagles, Jackson Browne and people that had a greater top 40 presence.

He was a hard drinking, hard loving kind of a dude. And it was like, ‘How did we miss this? This is the musical version of Hank Moody.’ We ended up using a lot of Zevon’s songs in the show, and Tom befriended his son who was a musician. So for me, Warren Zevon became the patron saint of the show.

“The River” by Bruce Springsteen

Springsteen is inescapable for me because he was important to me from the age of 16 to 20. I can't say I still listen to him - and I don't say that dismissively - but there was a period of my life when his songs were very personal to me.

He seemed to be giving voice to something in me, even though I'm not from Jersey, I'm not from the suburbs and I'm not into cars. Which is funny, because I saw his show on Broadway and he said, ‘I didn't get a licence until I was 28.’

So in a way he had created a character, and the Springsteen character was not based in the reality of who Springsteen was - this car culture stuff. But there was a message, the feeling of ‘We’ve got to get out of here, there's another place for us.’

When you're 16 it doesn't matter where you are, you want to get somewhere else; that's what his songs spoke to me about. Lyrically he was baroque and for an English major like me there was a lot to chew on. He's not about brevity, he wanted to be Dylan in many ways.

It was like easy listening Dylan in a way, it was easier. I didn't love Dylan until I was in my 30s. I think Dylan was almost too difficult for a 16-year-old to get into, but with Springsteen I could understand the yearning in it.

BEST FIT: Bruce Springsteen was the first concert I went to when I was a teenager. It was at Wembley Stadium and about two hours in I thought, ‘I'm getting pretty tired now.’ And he played for four hours. I had to go and sit down.

Did he play “The River"?

He played everything!

He's legendary for that and he's still doing it, he’s still playing for three hours.

I was reading about “The River” and it’s based on his sister Ginny, who's still married to her husband, they’re the characters in the song.

I don't know any of the backstory but for me, it was a very moving song with the lyrics, that I took on face value about a life lived in a way that matched very well with the melody and the feeling of the song. It moved me.

When the harmonica starts, you know it’s going to be a melancholic story.

I had a manager who would always make fun of my music taste. He’d say, ‘You listen to music to kill yourself by’ and I was like, ‘No, it's the opposite.’ It's a bloodletting, where I feel better. I do feel bad when I'm listening to it, but it's like it's letting it out. It's giving me a receptacle in the moment to feel how I'm feeling.

“Satellite Of Love” by Lou Reed

I've just been reading a new Lou Reed biography, so he was on my mind, and I could have chosen a number of Lou Reed songs.

What I like about “Satellite of Love” is that it's a poppy song in the Lou Reed oeuvre, it's got a nice melody and Lou actually tries to sing the melody, which he doesn't always try to do. Bowie produced it and you can hear Bowie in it, with the finger snaps and in the background vocals.

It has this weird little bridge, “I've been told that you've been bold with Harry, Mark and John”, which I feel like he just grabbed from another song. I'm not sure what it has to do with “Satellite of Love” at all. But I don't care, it’s Lou Reed, he forces you to make it make sense. He's not going to do it for you.

BEST FIT: He originally recorded it with Velvet Underground for Loaded, but it was left off the final version. The original line was “I've been told baby you've been bold with Winkin, Blinkin and Nod”. Apparently they were real names, and he decided to change them for the version on Transformer.

Reed’s lyrics are very interesting because they bounce between being pretentious and trying to be poems, like in a Delmore Schwartz mode. Having just read this biography, and I'm not an expert, but I think it's true, he was the guy who was like, ‘Let's try to write real poems, set them to music, and see what happens.’ Like he did on Magic and Loss, which is a great album, I think it works really well.

But on a lyric like “Satellite of Love” he has access to an almost savant point of view. Like, “I like to watch things on TV”, to throw that into a song, it’s so vulnerable, it's a very Being There I guess. I just like the idea of “Satellite of Love”, its love, but it's not quite joined, or working, so it's my kind of a love song.

I went down a Lou Reed rabbit hole yesterday. I’d never seen or heard it before, but he did a duet with Anohni of “Candy Says” and to hear Anohni sing, that person has the most amazing voice. They duet it, Lou speaks / sings in the smallest, almost jaded voice you can find and then there’s this voice that is nothing but feeling, that’s all vulnerable feeling. You should check it out. It's a beautiful, beautiful piece.

“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” by Sly & The Family Stone

I love the bassline. I had to get some funk in here because I'm a fan of the funk. I don't really play it, but I love it. I love Parliament. I love Sly, I love Ohio Players and bands like that from the ‘70s. But to me Sly is the best. I always thought Prince should be writing him a cheque every week, because I think so much of Prince comes out of Sly.

And lyrically he's really interesting, because he's kind of an Afro-American hippie in a way. Hendrix kind of straddled that vibe and it's really a late ‘60s, early ‘70s vibe. Maybe Lenny Kravitz has tried to farm that land a little bit, but I find it really interesting. His band was super interesting, it was multiracial, it was men and women.

He was really ahead of its time in many ways, he was like a funk hippy. And “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”, the message – thank you for letting me be myself again - who can’t get behind that?

BEST FIT: Apparently this was the first song ever to feature slap bass guitar.

Well, to me it was. I don't think I’d heard Bootsy Collins before that, but as soon as that bass came on, it blew my mind. It was, ‘What is that sound? What is that?’ Some sounds just get in there and they never go away, like The Beatles organs and George Martin’s strings.

I'll be trying to arrange a song and I’ll say, ‘Let's go there’ and I realise I'm just trying to find some memory of hearing that kind of stuff for the first time.

“The Cross” by Prince

I feel like it's a really unique song from Prince. It's obviously a devotional song, a religious song, and I think there's a place for that in my list. Some songs are like three-act plays, and actually, I think “The Cross” is like a five-act play. It starts in one place and by the end Prince is improvising and howling, it's a real surrender of a song. And, you know, you don't have to be a Christian to love it.

BEST FIT: He changed the title to “The Christ” when he became a Jehovah's Witness.

Did he? That still works. I never heard him perform that version, but I can see that, “The Christ.” I love the idea too.

Prince had such a deep catalogue of songs, why did you choose this song in particular?

I think I chose this Prince song because it moves me. I love the other songs, “When Doves Cry” is another one, but I feel like it's cliché to say you love that song. When I heard the sound of that song, that was another moment where I was like, ‘Oh, that’s hooked me’, whatever was going on between the electronic percussion and the synth pads was super hooky to me. And the lyrics have always been super weird. Prince’s lyrics are certainly his own, but “When Doves Cry” is obviously nonsensical.

But it's a hell of a tune, right?

It's a hell of a tune. But also, it sounds like when doves cry, it does actually cry, it's what it sounds like. There are other Prince songs that I love, like “Anna Stesia” from Lovesexy, that no one ever talks about.

And he was such an asshole you couldn't just play that song, you had to play the whole album every time you listened to it, the CD didn't skip tracks and “Anna Stesia” was the fourth song. I didn't love the album so much, so I’d have the album playing in the background and when I knew “Anna Stesia” was coming on I’d turn up the volume.

I also love “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, that’s one of my favourite Prince songs. I was at an audition for a commercial once when I was very young and they asked me to sing. I tried to sing “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”

Was your version of it good?

No! I didn’t get the commercial either.

“Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan

This was during my Springsteen phase in high school. “Deacon Blues” spoke to my existential despair. It’s this kind of hipster, alive at night persona - the artist I imagined that I might be - with the lyrics about learning a new instrument, learning the saxophone, dying behind the wheel and all the other cliché’s in it, but somehow you get through Steely Dan's arch irony.

And still today, I can cry when I hear that song, like the line in it “I cried when I wrote this song / Sue me if I play too long.” I’ve been into them for a long time, and I'm kind of gratified they're almost hip again.

BEST FIT: Why do you think Steely Dan have always been pigeonholed as not being particularly cool? I did a Nine Songs interview with Simon Armitage and he said it was because they were really good musicians.

It's because they're like jazz fusion, and people are assholes about the purity of form. Especially critics – it’s ‘ersatz this’ or ‘ersatz that.’ And sure, I get it, they're not as good as those jazz guys, and they're not as rock and roll as those rock and roll guys. I get it. But they were doing something that was really interesting to me. And I think lyrically they were great.

What did you like about the lyrics?

They’re absurd, surreal, and yet there are moments of connection that you can find as a listener. They're obscure and they don't make a lot of sense, so they leave you to do the work. But they're smart enough to throw shit at you that’s going to inspire you to find some kind of meaning.

“Cortez The Killer” by Neil Young

This is another five-act play like “The Cross.” He establishes the scene - “He came dancing across the water.”

It's like this beautiful image, “He came dancing across the water with his galleons and guns / looking for a new world and the palace in the sun / on the shore lay Montezuma Woods / with its cocoa leaves and pearls / In his halls, he often wandered with the secrets of the world.” He's setting up Cortes as this explorer of beauty and a navigator of new worlds, but he ends up being Cortez the Killer, destroying a whole way of life, destroying Eden… and I guess I relate to that! (Laughs)

It's all of Western civilization condensed into a great fucking guitar riff, it's just the one riff, it’s D, Em7, the whole damn song. He’s getting in the mind of Cortez, getting in the mind of a colonial conquer going crazy. It’s a hall of mirrors, about this idea of primitive Eden being destroyed, and it’s like America, except it takes place in Mexico.

BEST FIT: “Cortez The Killer” was meant to be a longer song than the nearly eight-minute version on Zuma. Something went wrong with the mixing desk and they accidentally wiped the last verse. When the producer told Neil Young he reputedly said, “I didn’t like that verse anyway.”

It's like when “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” had that extra verse The Beatles released on Anthology. It didn't make it any better. I could have put “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” in here, that's one of my favourites. I could list nine Beatles songs that would be all my Nine Songs, but there you have it, that was yesterday, not the song “Yesterday”, that was the list yesterday!

Neil Young keeps going, he’s just announced a new album.

I once saw Neil Young in concert and it seemed to me that he was wrestling with the guitar, trying to make it make sounds the guitar doesn't want to make. He's in mortal combat with the guitar and I love that about him. He's for real, he's a real musician and he's not interested in doing anything else. He's still got shit he wants to do, so I'm here for that.

And you've still got shit you want to do?

Exactly. I'm probably talking about myself!

“Blind Willie McTell” by Bob Dylan

I guess yesterday I was in the mood for five-act play songs. “Blind Willie McTell” was again, I think, the history of civilization in a song. We go through the lens of one man trying to sing unsuccessfully, like Blind Willie McTell. It's really a song about limitations. It's the song I would write if I could actually sing like this guy, or if I could write like this guy.

Tenacious D has a funny version of that with their song “Tribute”. It's like “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, where he wakes up from a dream in which he’s composed the greatest lyric poem of all time, but all he can remember is Kubla Khan, which is what he gives us, but he's telling us, ‘In my head, I had composed the key to the universe, but I ran out of opium.’ Tenacious D make fun of that, with ‘I dreamt the greatest song in the world but I forgot it, so this is just a tribute to the greatest song of the world.’

With Blind Willie McTell, each stanza is mythic, it could take place anywhere - it could take place in the American South, because there's references to slavery - but he's jumping back and forth in a dystopian way. And yet he’s doing it with hope, there's a young suitor, there's an arrow on the doorposts saying, ‘This land is condemned’. It’s this biblical way of getting into a story that he's so good at.

And then at the end he uses the first person, and he says, “I'm gazing out the window of the St. James Hotel / And I know no one that can sing the blues like Blind Wille McTell.” So it's really a song about a feeling of limitation, and if Bob Dylan is telling you about his limitations, then I'm going to listen.

BEST FIT: It was nearly never released, he originally recorded it for the Infidel album, but it was taken off the final track list. It was finally released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 box set.

The version that was left off Infidel I don't really like, it's the Bootleg Series one that I like, the piano one, the other one is a little more up tempo.

I got to ask him about it once, because I used to run into him. He has a boxing gym here, he's a big boxing fan and I used to box in his gym. He was kind enough to engage me in conversation a couple of times, I don't know why, but he wanted to. And when I had a moment I asked him, ‘Why didn't you ever release Blind Willie McTell? I think that's one of my favourite songs of yours.’

And he said, ‘I never got it right.’ I said, ‘I disagree. I think you got it right.’

David Duchovny is on tour in European this month, including shows at London’s Cadogan Hall on 8 and 10 November

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