John Cameron Mitchell, best known for co-creating and starring in both the film and Broadway versions of the rock musical Hedwig & the Angry Inch, recalls how even that success didn’t mean that everyone was willing to admit that he has songwriting talent.
“I was traumatized into thinking I couldn’t write or co-write songs because I didn’t play an instrument – though, my voice is my instrument,” Mitchell says. “But an experienced songwriter, who will remain nameless, said, ‘I’m sure you can write lyrics, but you’re not really a writer of songs.’”
But Mitchell was able to overcome that negative mindset, and now he has advice for other aspiring songwriters on how they, too, can get over being intimidated or insecure about their abilities: “Find that person who knows the thing that you don’t know.”
In his case, Mitchell found Bryan Weller, with whom he wrote a musical podcast series Anthem: Homunculus. “He said to me, ‘Okay, you’ve been traumatized by someone telling you that you can’t [write songs]. And I’m going to break that with an exercise. We’re going to write twenty songs in twelve hours.”
Weller would record a three or four minute musical foundation and give it to Mitchell, who went into the next room and, using the GarageBand app on his phone, would come up with melodies and lyrics and sing them. They would swap the song back and forth, building the track up until they had a finished product. “It was like this kind of game,” Mitchell says.
In the end, Weller’s goal of writing twenty songs proved too ambitious, though Mitchell says that they did end up with seven or eight finished tracks – and of those, two of them were good enough that they put them in their Anthem: Homunculus podcast.
More importantly, though, this exercise “really broke me through my insecurities because I just had a job to do,” Mitchell says, adding that he also learned that it’s important not to second-guess yourself too much: “Those first instincts are often very, very right.”
Now that he’s established himself as a credible songwriter – to himself as well as to others – Mitchell is releasing a two-part album, New American Dream. The first part came out on September 4, with the second half due for release in November. For this project, Mitchell worked with more than 40 collaborators in the U.S. and Europe, which provides yet more proof that his songwriting advice is sound: “Things come because you are in the zone,” Mitchell says. “And if you can’t get in the zone alone, find a partner.”