As part of the Charlotte International Arts Festival, actor, singer, composer, DJ and artist John Cameron Mitchell will perform with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in “Blackstar Symphony: the Music of David Bowie” on the Belk Theater stage at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, September 16-17.

The presentation, a live staged homage to Bowie and his final album, will include music from “Blackstar,” as well as some of his earlier recordings. 

Photo by Matthew Placek

Mitchell is a gay man who also identifies as non-binary, but usually only when asked and typically with a slight chuckle. “Somebody asked me if I identified as non-binary, and I liked the way it sounded, so I said sure. The quote just kind of took off from there,” he says with a laugh. 

A man of many talents, Mitchell captured the world’s attention and was thrust into the spotlight with his lead role portrayal of a transgender female rocker from East Germany suffering from botched bottom surgery in the film “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

The success of that film has allowed Mitchell to explore life and creativity on his own terms. 

“I just got back from Canada where I commissioned a stained glass piece of my favorite gospel singer Mavis Staples,” he explains.” 

“I did a crazy road trip because I couldn’t really fly it because it is so delicate. The artist is one of the best stained glass people I’ve ever heard of – his name is Haydyn Butler. He also did a David Bowie Black Star piece, independently from the video, and I bought that from him too it’s pretty amazing.”

David Aaron Moore: Where are you? What part of the planet are you on?

John Cameron Mitchell: I’m in my apartment in the West village of New York. It’s a little one bedroom rent controlled unit, thankfully because real estate is destiny especially in New York. But I also bought a house in New Orleans last year and I’m kind of collecting things for that. That’s what the windows are for. I’ve been traveling a lot and I am heading to USC to do two Hedwig theme concerts called “The Origin of Love.” That will be the end of that tour. 

DAM: What other kind of trouble are you getting into?!

JCM: (Laughs) I’m starting a tour called “Cassette Roulette” with a friend called Amber Martin who is a wonderful singer. The premise is we spend this giant cassette to choose the songs we’re going to sing. We might do a residency here at a club in New York about once a week in early 2023 with this wonderful singer named Jay Horde during his show. I’m also still DJing a long-running monthly party at Julius bar in New York called Mattachine. It gives me an opportunity to play a very eclectic mix of music there. I play a little bit of everything from different styles and different time periods.

DAM: Tell us about that house in New Orleans.

JCM: It used to be a cult church and I like that it’s got a lot of energy in it. It’s got a ballroom and I want to have salons and I want to have events there that are not necessarily money making, not money making at all I’m sure, and just add some community. It’s just a very special place. New Orleans is one of the few cities that really still has its soul intact. It’s definitely affected by all the same housing shortages we have everywhere else, but it’s almost like its own city state and it has so many elements of the old French, the Spanish, the Cajun, the Caribbean and the Creole. It’s just it’s exactly the melting pot that everything else was supposed to be. In many ways it’s kind of falling apart or being held together by hair pins, but it’s very livable in certain ways. 

DAM: New Orleans is a vibrant place. What made you want to live there, too.?

JCM: It attracts a lot of creative people. New York is about making it. LA is more about fame, looks and money. In New Orleans you get people who are making art for art’s sake, which is the right reason to do whatever it is an artist wants to do. I’m looking forward to doing things in that house and in New Orleans that really are art for the sake of art. That’s a concept that I think is ruly being lost on today’s youth. Instead of things being done for all the right reason, it’s about getting the highest number of clicks and being famous as fast as you can and making as mucj money as possible. That’s all going to end in tears and all of those other bad things that comes with worshiping the ephemeral.

DAM: I agree with everything you’ve just said, but don’t you think art, in some cases, is ephemeral, too?

JCM: Of course, some art is ephemeral, but a lot of it is for other people’s joy, and sometimes your own joy. I always find this useful when I’m creating something: I think of it for myself and for my closest friends whose taste I admire. If you start going wider and start to think about what is the larger population going to think about it, it’s already starting to get watered down. You kill the baby in the womb, so to speak, It’s less original and it’s less unique ‘cuz you’re going, “Oh how do I sell it?” And granted we all have to pay our bills, but there is something very healthy about having this thing that is pure. I think when money comes into the subject, with art, it can corrupt, if it’s given too much priority.

Bowie influences Hedwig: Mitchell in a promo shot for a 2018 Australian tour. Photo by Mick Rock

DAM: How did you come to be involved in the Bowie project?

JCM: Steven Handel, who is a Broadway producer reached out. He’s just a very pure producer. He realizes the work is much more important than the money. It’s exciting to be doing the music of David Bowie. I’m not trying to imitate David Bowie, I’m doing them my way, but I am definitely Bowie inspired in the way I perform.

DAM: Did you know or work with David Bowie previously? 

JCM: Actually, Bowie asked me to look at “Ziggy Stardust” before he died to adapt for the stage, which I stupidly did not pursue because I had just finished “Hedwig” and I was kind of burned out on rock and roll. I did reach out to his estate later and they were very sweet, but they said that they felt his intentions were not to do that.

DAM: Tell us about some of your own earlier musical influences. 

JCM: Well, I grew up in a military family. We moved around in the states and in Europe, so we didn’t have regular American TV or music or what was in the theater. We got some top 40 pop music now and then and that was my way in as a kid during the seventies. There really was an eclecticism that was welcome. Anything could sort of be a hit. I had this very soulful funk side, which was just part of growing up in the military and being exposed to so many different kinds of music. But by the end of the decade people were starting to draw lines and started movements like Disco Sucks and Rock Rules. There was a lot of homophobia involved in that. Now rock is out and dance music is in, even for the straight kids that might have called you a fag when you were a kid! I love all kinds of dance music but with contemporary stuff, lazy use of electronics feels like fascism to me. My dance music comes out of funk and soul and disco and Brazilian music.

DAM: When did you discover the music of David Bowie?

JCM: I think coming out in the early ’80s really connected me more to performers like Bowie and Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, but I lived in Scotland in the ’70s during the glam era and I was allowed to watch this show called “Top of The Pops.” I remember back then seeing all these performers like Bowie, Marc Bolan, Sweet and all these other bands, but Bowie was head and shoulders above them all because he was an artist. In 1979 I [saw] Bowie was on Saturday Night live and Klaus Nomie and Joey Arias were singing back up in this insane performance with clothes by Thierry Mugler. Bowie was doing “Boys Keep Swinging” with a marionette body, and “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” That was it for me – the beginning of finding my way through Bowie. 

For more details on The Charlotte International Arts Festival and Blackstar Symphony, visit their website.

David Aaron Moore is a former editor of Qnotes, serving in the role from 2003 to 2007. He is currently the senior content editor and a regularly contributing writer for Qnotes. Moore is a native of North...