This past January, a lifetime ago, David Duchovny was ensconced in a Catskills, New York, recording studio, working on his third album, Gestureland, the follow-up to 2018’s Every Third Thought. When Rolling Stone dropped in on him, he was recording the anti-Trump song “Layin’ on the Tracks,” which laments America’s fate at the hands of a “stupid orange man in a cheap red hat.” That track officially drops Tuesday — and it’s even more timely now.
At the beginning of the year, the actor-musician-writer was relishing a few days off upstate to work on his new music at Outlier Inn, a 12-acre property that boasts an alpaca farm, glamping facilities, and a slowly decaying deer carcass that the studio dog, Buella, feasted on between takes. She gallantly gave up her bed to Duchovny’s pup, Brick (a fluffy German Shepard–Corgi mix with more than 15,000 Instagram followers). Both dogs cuddled behind the soundboard as Duchovny tested out the lyrics to “Layin’ on the Tracks” in the booth: “This civil war we’ve been fighting in/Since before the flood/Yeah, there’s part of us that’s always been/At home in the blood.”
Nine months later, quarantining in his New York apartment, Duchovny regrets how prescient the song now is. “I probably wrote that song with [bandmate] Colin [Lee] well over a year ago,” he says. “Sadly, it’s a little prophetic at this point — I’m not happy about that. [The song wasn’t] going off of any specific activities; it wasn’t a comment directly on any specific actions. It was simply a snapshot of, for me, my state of mind, and then what I saw as the state of mind of the country. My approach to lyrics is kind of vague in that way, as much as I love [Neil Young’s] ‘Ohio.'”
Duchovny says he decided to release the song before the election intentionally. “I guess I just kind of wanted to go on record,” he says. “I mean, not that it’s any act of bravery at this point. … I can’t change anyone’s mind. I understand people that vote for Trump. I understand people that vote for Biden. … I really don’t understand [the undecided voters]. I don’t know how to speak to somebody that hasn’t made up their mind at this point. I mean, to me, that’s a fascinating state of mind to be in. Like, ‘Wow, really?'”
Back in the winter, though, the song was relevant, sure, but far less dire. This was before the Covid-19 pandemic, before the episodes of civil unrest, before, even, Joe Biden was chosen as the Democratic nominee. Seated in the studio — Brick stretched out across his feet like a hearth rug — Duchovny seemed at ease. For an actor with decades of experience under his proverbial belt (and epic novels in his brain), Duchovny seems content to see music for what it is at its purest level: fun.
“I started playing guitar 10 years ago,” Duchovny told me that winter as sunlight filtered through the studio’s massive windows. A gaggle of photographers had dissipated, their cameras full of images of the actor perched on a stool above a sea of pedals. “Finally, we’re alone,” he breathed, then continued with his origin story. “I should be a way better player than I am. It’s like a language; if you don’t learn it young, you’re at a great disadvantage to ever get really fluent. I focus more on singing and using that as an instrument, so my guitar playing has probably gotten worse over the last four years. It’s good enough to throw chords together. I’m never going to be a great player, but I wanted to be good enough to have access to a bunch of chords and play them in a way that then I can write songs over.
“Music is for anybody,” he added. “Making music, at this late stage in the game, I get asked, ‘What makes you think you can do this?’ It’s music. It belongs to everybody. Anyone can do it. If people don’t like it, it doesn’t matter.”
Duchovny started learning guitar as a way to kill time in the trailer between takes and was delighted when all those chords he was practicing gave way to original songs. His first was the simple rocker, “The Things,” off 2015’s Hell or Highwater. “I didn’t want to write anything personal, because I didn’t want anyone in my business — or anyone asking me what the song was about,” he said. “So I just wrote a song called ‘The Things’ because it couldn’t be more neutral. It’s just about things.”
It’s not a surprising stance considering that Duchovny has had his share of tabloid coverage over the years. As such, the actor-musician seems almost allergic to personal details when it comes to his music. He’s even a self-professed fan of clichés, he says, like, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
“You say that in real like and people go, ‘You dumbass.’” Duchovny aped a sneer as Brick snuffled off to find Buella. “But you sing it, and it takes on a new meaning. That was interesting magic to try to capture.”
It follows that his lyrics are often plain — in contrast to his novels, like his upcoming Mormon epic Truly Like Lightning, which was obviously penned by a man with a master’s in English from Yale. (At first, he wanted to be an English professor, but after studying under literary critic Harold Bloom, he decided there was nothing he could add to the profession.)
“I think we’re in a weird place with beefs between artists and reading into somebody’s breakup,” he mused as an assistant spirited water bottles into our hands. “To me, that’s so uninteresting. I know I’m in the minority. I don’t want to be learning about someone through the song.”
Sure, Duchovny is private — up to a point. When it comes to love, he’s pretty open with his role as father to two teens. He even admitted to writing a slightly more emotional track for his upcoming album, “Call Me When You Land.” Inspired somewhat by his favorite love song of all time, the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” the new song is about the love of a father.
“There are so many different kinds of love,” he said, stroking Brick, who reappeared like a fluffy ghost toward the end of the interview and lay on Duchovny’s boots. “I have a different stance toward love songs as I got older and became a father. If you played ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ for me when I was 16, I’d be like, ‘Ugh.’ Now, I bawl every time I hear it.” Then, as if reflecting on the evolving meaning of “Layin’ on the Tracks,” he added, “It’s funny how songs … they’re patient. They wait for you.”