“Obviously, this is a year that will always be remembered for a lot of reasons, the biggest one coming up in November,” says John Cameron Mitchell, calling from Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he’s currently riding out the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Mitchell (best known for co-creating and starring in both the film and Broadway versions of the rock musical Hedwig & the Angry Inch) wasn’t about to let 2020’s tumultuous times stop him from creating. After going into lockdown in March, he began working on New American Dream, a two-part album that he co-wrote with collaborators from around the U.S. and Europe, including his Hedwig co-creator Stephen Trask, as well as Leland, Ezra Furman, Our Lady J, and more than 40 others. The first part was released on September 4, with the other half coming out in November.
“I was bored and depressed, as we all were in the beginning of this lockdown, and as many people were, I was reaching out to friends I hadn’t talked to in a while because the speed of life had slowed and you could take a breath, for better or worse,” Mitchell says. “I realized that my musical friends were still doing stuff. So I said, ‘Send me a track, I’ll throw a melody and lyric on top, and then you throw something else on top until we have a song.’”
Mitchell, wanting to use this project as a fundraiser for worthy causes, asked his collaborators to volunteer their time. As a result, all proceeds from album sales will be divided between the Transgender Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice Project (a San Francisco organization working to end human rights abuses), Burritos Not Bombs (which distributes food to the hungry in Mexico City), and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund (a Connecticut-based fund established in 1968 to assist African-American students).
It was, Mitchell says, easy to choose these three charities as the beneficiaries. “After the Trans Lives march, I knew I wanted do something. A trans friend in San Francisco suggested the Trans Justice Legal Group. I’ve been money raising money for them through Hedwig merch [sales], as well. Then there was Burritos Not Bombs, which is an old friend that I’ve been helping who runs a food bank in Mexico City. And Stephen Trask brought in the MLK scholarship fund.”
It was also easy to convince everyone involved to work on the project for free, because “Everyone’s got a song lying around, so there was a great pleasure in checking in the bottom of their purse to see what they had,” Mitchell says with a laugh.
For his own part, Mitchell says, “I’ll still use my theater instincts to play a role when I’m writing a song. Sometimes they are about me. The song “Picaflor” is about an ex-boyfriend and how it ended. It’s actually the first song I ever wrote after a break-up, depressed in a bath, into my phone. I was so insecure about it that I left it there for fifteen years – and pulled it out for this [album].” For help with this track, Mitchell reached out to a stranger – Izae, a French artist who had done a Hedwig cover that Mitchell liked. This leap of faith worked, and the pair ended up writing two songs for New American Dream together.
Other songs examine others’ plights, such as “Say Their Names,” which Mitchell says “is a tribute to a trans person who has been murdered.” He worked on that song with non-binary singer Qya Cristál, who was Miss Gay USofA Massachusetts 2018 and 4th runner up for Miss Gay USofA 2018, as well as recently crowned winner of the Boston Drag Idol 2019.
While “part one” of New American Dream tends to be more introspective, and includes several ballads, Mitchell says the second part coming in November will showcase uptempo rock songs. He is pleased at the variety on display across both halves of this project: “I’m hitting all the genres that I love that I think I can do.”
Mitchell says his “very eclectic taste” informs his songwriting. His interest in a wide range of styles comes from “growing up with funk and then discovering punk and David Bowie and Lou Reed and being a huge soul music fan.” For lyrics, he draws from a large store of ideas he has amassed: “Over 20 years I’ve been writing down snatches of prose poetry, overheard things, jokes. Periodically when I’m looking for lyrics, I’ll skim through and go, ‘Oh, that’s a line that I heard somewhere that I can adapt.’”
New American Dream fits in with the rest of Mitchell’s work, which is known for giving an empathetic and empowering voice to overlooked or misunderstood people. Hedwig & the Angry Inch, for example, addresses gender identity with heart and humor, and the 2001 film version (for which Mitchell was both the director and star) won numerous film festival awards around the world. The show’s 2014-15 Broadway run won four Tony awards (including one given to Mitchell for reprising the starring role).
Mitchell’s successful career as an actor, director, and songwriter comes out of what he terms his “outsiderness” during an unsettled childhood. “I moved every year because my dad was in the Army. Plus, I was gay,” he says. “Outsiders gravitate toward performance because if you don’t like who you are, you can be someone else. When I was younger, I really wanted to play very different roles. I don’t necessarily feel the need to play other people too far different from myself because I like myself now.”
Although he’s now comfortable with himself, Mitchell says there is something of a silver lining to growing up as an outsider: “When you’re young and you’re judged for how your look or you’re hiding something about yourself, you understand metaphor because you understand that things have a surface and then a deeper meaning. And that’s a gift,” he says. “You can use it and understand that art and justice are linked because it’s a way of looking at the world that is realistic.”
In contrast, Mitchell says, “When everything is handed to you, metaphor and art don’t make as much sense. You’re literal when you’re in charge: things are what they are. The ruling class never has the opportunity to see nuance, depth, and complexity.”
Similarly, even in the midst of a pandemic and political and social upheaval, Mitchell sees the possibilities for people who have been treated badly: “In this damage, I see seeds of good things happening, like people demanding healthcare when everyone’s out of work. This is the time when people actually do change.” In the end, he says, “I think I’m a worried optimist. And I hope I always will be.”