John Cameron Mitchell on “Hedwig,” New York City, Death, Love, and “New American Dream”
It Must Be Important
Jan 05, 2021
John Cameron Mitchell is a Renaissance man. The creative individual behind the indelible musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is also a songwriter, actor, and writer. The prolific artist’s mind is both wildly creative and sharp as a tack, which is no easy balance for any person to strike. Listening to the Hedwig soundtrack beings big powerful rock chords and lyrics about social dignity to the forefront. But these days, Mitchell is working on a new recording project, his New American Dream albums, one of which he released last year and the follow-up he will release in 2021. The songs on the albums pull no punches and touch on many questions Mitchell has with the current state of affairs in his American homeland. We caught up with the talented artist to ask him about the origins of Hedwig, how he first started writing, what he enjoys most about his new compositions, and much more.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first find music?
John Cameron Mitchell: I was a DJ at 13 in my basement in Kansas. I always loved all kinds of music. I was raised in full on funk because it was the ’70s. And I worshiped Stevie Wonder and Parliament and Ohio Players and then I really liked, you know, strong female singers, as young gay people do. And then rock ‘n’ roll was around me, but it was more the music of the oppressor, if you know what I mean? Until I came out and then I really got into punk and more fully into people like Bowie and Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.
When you say you were a DJ at 13 years old, what does that entail?
Yeah, I wasn’t alone! I would just have my school friends come over. And I still DJ when COVID allows. Friends and I have had a monthly party in New York for 12 years called Mattachine. So much of dance culture now is very limited in terms of what they play. It tends to be four-on-the-floor and there’s a kind of template now whereas when we were coming up, all music was dance music, you know what I mean? So, we still preserve that ethos that you dance to rock and you can slow dance a lot, all those things that have somewhat gone away.
What is Mattachine?
It was the name of an early gay rights group. We do it at Julius Bar, which is the oldest gay bar in New York, where the Mattachine Society, you know, has history.
As you got older, why decide to invest more in music—and I say that with the understanding that your father was in the military when you were growing up and the family moved around a lot as a young person?
It was just a great comfort. I would tape songs off the radio on my cassette and play it on the school bus, you know, songs of the day. I think I won my first concert tickets on a radio station, which was for the band, America. So, it’s always been very important to me. I’ve of course done a lot of musicals and written a lot of musicals. And (my new record) New American Dream was the first time that I made my own album, with a lot of friends. Since I don’t play any instruments, you know, I would have them send me tracks and I’d write melody and lyrics over them. Sometimes I’d sing the lead, sometimes my friends would. I’m working on the second half (and second disc) of the album now. I’m recording my present roommate for the lead on one song. So, it’s kind of an ongoing thing.
What made you want to release the New American Dream album in two parts?
Just because I have a lot of songs and some of them were already ready. Nine songs for some people is an album—so, in effect, this is kind of a double album that, you know, is more fun to release as we go.
I don’t mean to get too personal too quickly, but from what I understand, you experienced death early on as a child, with two brothers passing at different times when you were young. And, perhaps, with your dad’s status in the military, death may have been an ever-present possibility. Given that, how has death influenced your creative sensibilities?
Well, it was just always something that I was familiar with. Not comfortable with. But it was around me when I was young. You know, even in college, as a young man, I was obsessed with playwrights who dealt with death, like Samuel Beckett. It felt sort of like—it was just there. Anything that didn’t acknowledge death felt kind of insubstantial to me. Even fun things, you know, can acknowledge the temporariness of life. In fact, that’s what makes them fun, the fact that they can end. You know, it can’t be overwhelming. But art has always helped me deal with death. And deal with the fact that we’re going to pass. I think, in some ways, art exists to prepare you to die, which means to live. If you’re going to die well, you’ve lived well.
How and when did you start to write with real focus, purpose, and ambition?
Well, I moved around so much as a kid that, you know, being alone and being obsessed with my music and plays and whatever else made me happy—that felt natural. It really felt like my best friend, you know? So, I’ve never had a problem—sometimes I have a problem getting into the work, the beginning of it. But once I’m in it, it feels like a marriage or a good relationship. In fact, more of a wonderful affair because it’s more temporary. I like temporary obsessions, including communities like making a play, making a film. These things are all temporary communities that decay naturally before they crumble into infighting. Because you have a strong goal that gets met and I really like that kind of relationship with art and people, collaboratively.
I’ve never acted on stage or in a movie, personally. But I’ve heard from people that post-mortem after the rehearsals and performance can be really tough.
It is strange. You have to recover from it like a breakup. But it has a kind of perfect shape to it, too. It doesn’t wear out its welcome, if you know what I mean?
You rose to popularity in large part because of your musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which I just adore. When you think about the work now, what comes to mind?
Hedwig is like an ex-wife that I love, you know? And I love that other people can do what they want with it. I don’t try to control it. I don’t say, you know, that only this person can be cast. Or, I don’t say things like, “Don’t add lines!” I say, “Don’t subtract lines.” But I love people to make it their own. It’s a mask, you know. It’s drag. It’s a character who is traumatized and, through performance and drag and rock ‘n’ roll, finds themselves and actively lets go of the drag and says, “This is me. I’m unique. I’m a gender of one. I’ve had a fucking hard time.” But it actually has a kind of—what I love about it is, you know, it’s never going to be a massive mainstream thing, which I like. I like that. Mainstream tends to mean simple. (Laughs) And I like that people keep finding new things in it and I like that all kinds of people are inspired by it to do their own thing. It’s not just a gay story. I never thought of it as a trans story. It’s a story of abuse and recovery and self-creation, you know? And moving past the label of victim. Hedwig is kind of a super victim throughout the show and kind of lets go of that and moves on. Bitterness is in the air and then it kind of settles into forgiveness and that’s very important for me.
When you write something like Hedwig, it can really establish you and your name. What was it like make something and then be known so prominently for it?
I’ve always been an outsider. I’m very happy with the work I’ve made and it leads to other work and leads to direct contact with people and I get to meet amazing people because of Hedwig. You know, I can still walk down the street very comfortably without being accosted. (Laughs) But it’s always been a cult-like thing, in a good way, meaning fewer people know about it but those who do care about it more than other things. I like the idea of being 10 people’s favorite thing instead of a million people’s so-so thing. That doesn’t necessarily translate to money but I’ve never done my art for money, directly. That wasn’t the purpose. It was more the byproduct. You know, I often do gigs for money so I can do the stuff that I love. Luckily, I have a good money gig, doing this show Shrill on Hulu, which is a wonderful gig. But I’ve always been practical, you know? As my acquaintance, Ferron, who is this awesome folk singer says, “Don’t follow money.” It’ll find you if you’re doing what you need to do. You may never be rich but you’ll be okay. The idea of being okay and just doing your thing seems to be an old fashioned goal for young people who have been trained lately to get more clicks, be more famous, make more money. The idea of art for art’s sake is alien to a lot of—you know, not all of them. Of course, there’s always great, interesting artists who are doing it for the right reason. But, you know, art has become commodified and commercialized and it’s much more about, for the young people, you don’t succeed unless you’ve made a shitload of something. It’s about quantity, not quality, which I really don’t like.
You’ve played many roles as an actor over the years. What do you enjoy about playing a character?
Well, it used to be more because I was less comfortable with myself. So, it was a way to get to know myself, different angles of myself. I didn’t feel the need to play a singular role when I would do something. It felt like I was investigating parts of myself and learning to like myself. So, when I wrote Hedwig, which used up pretty much everything I knew or felt, I didn’t feel the need to act anymore. So, I quit acting for 15 years. And since then, I like to perform. But acting in other people’s stuff, I really do more for money. It’s still fun but I don’t psychically need to do it anymore.
Turning to your new record again, New American Dream. Were there any favorite discoveries, tracks, lyrics, or musical movements you particularly enjoyed producing?
I love all of them otherwise they wouldn’t be in there. But I think my favorite would probably be, “American Sickness” and “No Debt” and “Between the Water and You.” I’m writing one now with Stephen Trask, called, “Nation of One,” which I think a lot of people can relate to, they want to be a nation of one after everything that’s been going on. I wrote a jazz duet—you know, my mom passed this year (2020). And it’s kind of a duet a little bit about our relationship that I’m doing with a wonderful, established jazz singer, named, Catherine Russell. And Wynton Marsalis did a trumpet solo on it. So, these are some of my favorites and I’m sure more will—it’ll shift, you know? But I’m not rushing when it comes out because there is no deadline, you know? So, it will come out at some point next year (2021). There will be more videos, too. We’re working on two different videos right now.
What is it like for you to look to the future now, either when considering yourself, your career, the world?
It’s more of a short-term thing, which it always has been. I sort of know what’s happening in the next month, or so, especially with COVID. Because I’m staying away from New York until it gets warm. You know, there’s no point being there right now because you’d just be trapped with everything closed. So, I’m staying on the west coast, mostly. I go to New Orleans and stay with friends, which I have been doing since last March. You know, staying safe but also not becoming a hermit. So, it’s actually been a really interesting year, creatively and personally. I mean, it’s a traumatic year but it’s also—you know, I was starting to lose my love of New York. I mean, I’ll always love it. But it’s changed so much and COVID will change it again by closing many of my favorite businesses and haunts. So, it’s kind of been great to be out of the city and exploring and finding—learning how to cook and be healthier and all those things that you can do during COVID if you’re industrious. Of course, writing the album wouldn’t have happened without COVID. I’m also doing a lot of charity work because a lot of people are in need right now. So, I’m helping to raise money for various causes.
What do you love most about music?
Well, you know, my mom and dad had Alzheimer’s and I found that they both—the last things they remember are songs that they’ve known. And that’s something that’s been borne out in research. That maybe it connects to many parts of the brain to be imprinted. So, the emotional—the fact that music remains there to the end and you remember these songs and sometimes when I couldn’t talk to my mom anymore, I would just sing her old Scottish songs because she grew up in Scotland. So, it’s always something that, for me, will be vital until the end, you know? Whether I make it or listen to it or experience it. So, if the faces of your loved ones and music are the last things you remember, it must be the most important.
NEW AMERICAN DREAM – John Cameron Mitchell and Justin Craig, ft. Amber Martin from New American Dream Music on Vimeo.
Support Under the Radar on Patreon.