Music

David Duchovny: 'I dare you not to be moved by Puff, the Magic Dragon'

The Music That Made Me – The Big Issue's video series exploring the influences of your favourite artists – is back! In the first of the second series, X-Files star David Duchovny talks folk, drug-enhanced prog and lessons from Leonard Cohen

David Duchovy in a white t shirt

David Duchovny is a surprisingly big fan of Peter, Paul & Mary. Image: Ekaterina Gerbey

Between his era-defining role as Fox Mulder in The X-Files, ahead-of-its-time portrayal of trans FBI officer Denise Bryson in Twin Peaks, and Golden Globe-winning turn as writer Hank Moody on Californication, David Duchovny has been shaping our television landscape for decades. His acting legacy assured, in his 50s Duchovny picked up a guitar and started to teach himself to play, relying on free tablature website Chordie to find his way through songs by The Beatles, Robbie Robertson and The Flaming Lips.  

“It was really a labour of love,” he says. “It wasn’t for anybody else. It was really just for me.” But once he got started, he began to feel his own musical voice coming through. “It was like… OK, well, I can put together a few chords and I can put together lyrics. So why the fuck can’t I make a song?” 

Duchovny released his first album, Hell or Highwater, in 2015. At 63, he’s about to head out on the road across the UK in support of his second, Gestureland. But first, he sat down with The Big Issue to explain his journey on The Music That Made Me.   

David Duchovny: The Music That Made Me

Puff, the Magic Dragon and the end of childhood 

Kids have kiddie tastes in music unless they’re really precocious, and I don’t think I was. Songs that were made to get into little kids’ heads, I was not immune to. I mean, Sugar, Sugar, by The Archies – you know, real bubblegum stuff. Chewy, Chewy by The Ohio Express.  

When I was very, very young, I did listen to a lot of folk. Puff, the Magic Dragon, by Peter, Paul and Mary, was an important song for me. I wouldn’t say that’s a bubblegum song at all. That’s a very deep song. It is about the end of childhood and it’s devastating. Still devastating now. I can barely listen to it. I didn’t get it when I was young. But listen to it later today and I dare you not to be moved by the fact that he has to leave his dragon behind.

High on Yes’s Topographic Oceans 

I got into Yes in high school. I was smoking some pot, and that was a good place to be to listening to those 20-minute songs. I remember listening to Tales from Topographic Oceans at a friend’s house and being high and just looking at the artwork. It’s very interesting to a stoned kind of consciousness. I spent a lot of time getting lost in it.  

How Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan helped David Duchovny work with his vocal limits

I was attracted to Leonard Cohen’s music in the same way I love Bob Dylan or Lou Reed. I knew where I was coming from with my voice, so I was looking at these guys leaning heavily on lyrics and inhabiting the songs with a point of view, and kind of struggling against a lack of range. I listened closely to them.  

Necessity is the mother of invention. Knowing your limits is a very good thing. You know, we live in a world that tells you, you have no limits. And sadly, it’s a lie we tell each other. I’m not saying that you can’t get better, or you can’t push your limit a little bit. But, you know, sitting down into whatever gifts you’ve been given and not wishing for other ones… there’s something to be said for that.  

Peter, Paul and Mary around microphones
Peter, Paul and Mary performing live in concert in Central Park in New York in 1978. Image: Ra Berger / Alamy

The White Album, and Ringo on a plane 

The White Album was a big album for me. I was old enough to buy that. I grew up in on [New York’s] Lower East Side. It was very hippie area. So I headed down to Free Being Records with my $3.99. You can’t get more Sixties than that, as a record store. They had bootlegs, which was always very seductive to me because, as the cheapskate I was, I wanted all the songs together in one place. Then I’d get it home and it sounded like it was recorded in a toilet. 

I met Ringo on a plane once. I remember he was sitting two seats in front of me. And he had his head against the window. I just kept on looking at the back of his head thinking, ‘that’s Ringo’s head’. It was weird for me, because I know people react to me in a certain way sometimes and it was kind of comforting to me that Ringo was there. 

Lou Reed, Anohni and the power of hope 

I’ve been reading this biography of Lou Reed that just came out. I knew he had worked with Anohni, whose voice is miraculous to me. They did a version of Candy Says. So I went on YouTube and looked that up yesterday and that’s the last song that moved me.  

Those two voices couldn’t be more different. You know, you have Lou kind of spoken-singing. And then you have this voice that transcends gender, in a way. I find it haunting and beautiful. It was nonspecific in terms of male, female, whatever. It was human. It was just transcendently human. I find that idea hopeful. 

David Duchovny plays Edinburgh Assembly Rooms on 6 Nov, Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket on 7 Nov and Cadogan Hall, London on 8 & 10 Nov. davidduchovny.com

Watch previous The Music That Made Me features here.

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