Most people would be thrilled if Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-writer and star John Cameron Mitchell performed an intimate Bowie cover just inches from their faces. But on Hulu’s Shrill, Mitchell is an alt newsweekly boss trying to recapture his “cool factor,” not a musical theater god, so the audience reaction at his “salon” is a little less than enthused.
Mitchell’s “Moonage Daydream” cover is one of the most awkward/affecting moments of season two of Shrill, a TV series based on journalist-comedian Lindy West’s memoir, which tells the tale of aspiring writer Annie (Aidy Bryant) and her various romantic and professional foibles. Mitchell is her boss, Gabe, a cranky creative who at turns inspires and stifles Annie’s fledgling prose. During episode seven of the new season, which dropped January 24th, Gabe invites Annie to an exclusive salon at his home, at which he performs the Bowie cover as an attempt to look cool in the eyes of his boss — who may or may not be considering replacing him.
Mitchell and the Shrill crew landed on a Bowie track for the standout moment because, as he tells Rolling Stone, “we have similar singing styles. The great trinity — Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop — are my spirit gods.”
“I had sung ‘Moonage Daydream’ once in a birthday video for my boyfriend back in the Nineties,” he adds. “It was fun to get to come back to it in this desperate, but credible, rendition. At first, everyone’s rolling their eyes and then the character of Gabe really gets them. I tried to find a good balance of trying too hard and doing it well.”
In order to craft the sad, slinky version of the song, Mitchell reached out to friend and collaborator Chris Slusarenko, whose production company AikaMusic makes music for commercials, TV, and film. Slusarenko hooked Mitchell up with Jay Gonzalez from the Drive-By Truckers to help rework the song on guitar.
Slusarenko’s band, Eyelids, previously recorded a Lou Reed tribute record with Mitchell. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck produced the EP, Turning Time Around, the proceeds from which went toward treatment for Mitchell’s mom, who has Alzheimer’s disease.
“Lots of guitar players would have just mimicked Mick Ronson’s style, but Jay was able to create this very fragile yet strange interpretation that John was looking for,” Slusarenko tells Rolling Stone. “It came together pretty quickly and sounded so beautiful out the gate.”
“I believe John suggested that we take a slower, more sultry approach and for me to play the accompaniment as if Cole Porter wrote it. Once we headed in that direction, it came together pretty quickly and naturally,” Gonzalez tells Rolling Stone. “I treated it like I’d imagine a cabaret pianist would — just transposed to a somewhat dirty-sounding electric guitar.”
“Being the old rocker that I am — or fake rocker because I was always a theater guy playing a fake rock star, but I guess I’ve lived long enough that I am an old fart rocker — it was really fun,” Mitchell adds.
The actor-musician has a busy year ahead of him as he continues to tour with his Origin of Love show, which details the creation of musical/film Hedwig. He’s also hoping to hold live listenings of his podcast Anthem: Homunculus — and, perhaps, write a sci-fi novel.
“I’ve been directing and writing for a long time and only getting back to acting and performing and touring the last few years. The pressure is off now that I’m older. Now it’s just fun,” he says. “Let’s see what this aging body can do. Make sure to crowd-surf at every concert. Teaching the kids to put their phones away because that could be dangerous for crowd-surfing.”