Parson James finds himself hanging out in Brooklyn the day after the Grammy Awards. He’s in recovery from Grammy-related events and parties he attended throughout the night.
“It was fun,” he says. “It was super, super great.” Take a listen to any Parson James song and you’d think you were sitting in a church service. But not for that day’s sermon, rather, strictly for the choir fronted by James himself. In fact, if you were to ask him about his music, he would tell you it sounds like “conflicted pop gospel.”
“I think it makes perfect sense because that first project I put out is very much a record based off a confliction I experienced as a kid, but also this lover of pop music with this heavy inspiration for church,” he says. “Church is not something I really connect to what the sermons are about but the energy and the vocals and vibe of the music that sort of stuff inspired me as a musician.”
“That first project” he’s referring to is his 2016 EP, a five-song release holding true to his signature conflicted pop gospel showing James’ vocal pipes belting lyrical religious references to praying, heaven and hell meant to detail his life as a homosexual outcast growing up in his small conservative town of Cheraw, South Carolina.
“Whenever I was a kid I could pick up on the facts that gay was deemed to be wrong,” he says. “At that age, I was fearful. I look back now and it’s kind of sad but I think [I] was quiet instead of speaking up because I thought that’s what I had to do.”
His mother was a 16-year-old high school cheerleader when she became pregnant with James. After finding out of the pregnancy seven months later, her father physically threw her out of the house and left James’ mother to raise her son by herself, along with the help from James’ paternal great-grandmother. While working three jobs at a bingo hall, clothing discount store and a restaurant, she made James’ father leave after he stole from her and abused drugs.
“I watched my mother be shunned from her family and I was like, if family can do that to you what will everyone else do? It was a very scary thing but at a certain age I don’t think I had the ability to hide anymore or the ability to stay silent; I just had too many questions,” he says. “I’m so inquisitive and I’ve always been that way and at a certain age, I had to go.”
Growing up, James constantly watched the 1997 movie Selena, a biographical film about singer/songwriter Selena Quintanilla’s life through stardom and who was often referred to as the “Queen of Tejano music.” She was shot and killed by Yolanda Saldivar in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1995. Her last performance of her life at the Houston Astrodome in February 1995 was something he repeatedly watched as a child.
“I would watch it every day,” he says, adding he has a tattoo of her on his arm to this day. “I watched that and I thought I want to do what she was doing on stage. I opened my mouth and sang for the first time during those moments.” He grew up listening to anything from Britney Spears to Johnny Cash. “I was all over the place,” he says.
After a childhood spent experiencing racism, religious-based homophobia, addiction and domestic abuse, enough was enough. He told his mother he wanted to graduate from high school early and moved to New York at age 17. “I had to get to a place where I could express myself,” James says. “Growing up was hard. I kind of just coasted along knowing in my head the whole time that I was going to escape. That’s the best way I can describe it. I felt like my childhood was very much looking forward to escaping.”
Born Ashton Parson, he changed his name to Parson James after making the move to New York. Parson, which means an independent parish priest, was moved to his first name and James comes from James Dean, an American actor. He says he found out Dean came out as bisexual after reading American-British actress Elizabeth Taylor’s biography.
“I was intrigued by that sort of duality he must have been facing as this sex symbol of his hey day. Parson with James created this conflicting character that really inspired my writing for the first projects and just felt right for how it came about,” he says, adding he faced heavy adversity from being an outcast homosexual as a teenager.
While James attended college, worked as a waiter and sang at local open-mic nights, he also dealt with a string of struggles. Yet, he never lost sight of the main reason he moved out of that small conservative town.
“At times when I was homeless or that I was sleeping on couches or didn’t have heat or couldn’t afford the train I would never really tell [my mother] that sort of stuff,” he says. “I never also doubted the fact that I was just always going to be fine; I always told myself I was going to be fine. So I learned that I had this sort of flight or fight instinct within me to just push through. Looking back now it’s super surprising the way the conditions I lived in and how I got past those things.
“It just felt like there was no possible way what I was trying to achieve was not going to happen,” he continues. “It was not even a stressful thought in my head. I can just remember going at life at ease and it just kind of worked out.”
And success followed.
James found himself featured on Kygo’s “Stole The Show,” which catapulted the artist into the earbuds of people throughout the globe and appearances on “NBC’s Late Night With Seth Myers,” “Today Show” and on “Ellen Degeneres.” More recently in November 2017, James released his newest “Only You” via RCA Records, a soul, pop breakup ballad after ending a three-year relationship.
“I moved to LA and I thought it was going to be good for me because I thought I could escape everything but within a month or two I was there I [thought I] had made the wrong decision even though he cheated or we were cheating on each other. I started feeling like I wasn’t good enough for anyone else. It comes from a really sad place and after a few months of healing and getting to know myself again I realized that maybe I had lost a part of myself in that relationship,” he says. “’Only You’ to me now means I’m talking to that person that I lost which is myself and I’m trying to figure out how to love myself again and get myself back to that person. It’s very much at coming to terms and coming to peace with a situation that was bad.”
While he’s writing his debut album, “Only You” is an indication of what the release will include. In the meantime, he’ll continue what he initially set out to do: To write music from the heart.
“Having the ability to express myself lyrically through performances and stuff is honestly the greatest gift I could have ever been given and it’s the one thing that’s never really failed me or made me question anything,” he says.
“The second I’m on stage performing and making a genuine connection to the lyrics that are pretty much stories and therapy for me that I’ve written down and singing about to help me get over something and watch another person get over something because they can connect to it that’s just indescribable. That alone really pushes me. I can’t really think of anything more rewarding than that. That will forever push me, I think, to continue to make music.”