After I got to a certain age and started forming my own opinions about how the world is, I realized this isn't the way I want to live my life.
Who doesn’t appreciate a good underdog story? Parson James has stories to tell. This past December, Kygo became the fastest artist in history to reach one billion streams on Spotify. That milestone took just over a year to realize, in many thanks to the DJ playing a key role in the “tropical house” phenomenon that’s caught on like wildfire. Kygo’s two hit singles, “Firestone” and “Stole the Show,” gobbled up 300 million plays each, with the latter track providing James’ “conflicted gospel pop” its massive platform. And if Kygo’s milestone was fast, James’ share of that pie was meteoric by comparison. James has stolen the show—from Kygo even—laying bare his soul on Seth Meyers and Ellen, and shooting up sparks at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert.
Given his good fortune and rising star, James’ against-the-odds journey deserves closer inspection. You could say that he was born to escape Cheraw, South Carolina. Growing up in a highly religious town fraught with conflicting ideals and fractured by racial tension and unchecked homophobia, it’s not hard to imagine what that was like for James who’s bi-racial and once closeted. He’s matter of fact about it now: “I grew up super confused because I had that white side of the family and that black side of the family, but with both sides racist.” There’s a frankness: “I can’t process the Bible and say I can go to church and feel comfortable there because…[the] word does say that [a] man can’t live with a man.” At 17, James moved to New York and everything would be different.
So this is what a meteoric rise looks like. Is this what you dreamed about back in Cheraw?
It feels like it’s totally beyond what I dreamed. I never would’ve thought I would perform at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert, for one. It’s one of those things you don’t think about because it seems unreachable. It’s totally beyond my realm of comfort. It was one of those “holy shit” moments doing that show. It was so incredibly special. My dream has always been to be able to just sing for a living, you know? That would’ve been good enough for me to have. That’s what I’m doing now, but to be able to do all these other things on top of that is like, “What?” [Laughs]
You’ve spoken very candidly about your past in interviews, including some very unsavory details. How do you think that kind of upbringing shaped your worldview at large?
It was down my throat every day. It became one of those things that felt normal for the longest time. It’s what the community was doing and what was happening around me. I didn’t have a dad—that was normal. There were people who were racist—that was normal. After I got to a certain age and started forming my own opinions about how the world is, I realized this isn’t the way I want to live my life. I’ve been forced into these situations and told that this is the way things are supposed to go. I was told never to ask questions because it’s an abomination or whatnot. I couldn’t digest that and I always had a lot of questions. I think my mom was very similar in that way. She’s been on her own since 16 and she worked for everything she ever got. She raised me, pretty much solo. She always encouraged me to explore and always reminded me of my color—all that good stuff. As I got older and decided to leave Cheraw, I saw all these different shades and textures of people in New York. It made me think about how close-minded, small, and odd my town was. So I started writing about that because it really affected me. Stepping out of it was the only way to really appreciate and reflect on what I’d been through. In a lot of ways, it shaped almost every aspect of my sound because that was my life. Now I’m writing it down.
Do you feel resentment looking back? Do you have resentment when you work on music?
I think I would be lying if I said there wasn’t even a little bit of resentment, but I try not to hold that stuff too heavily on my mind. That stuff will drive you absolutely crazy. I’m in a different place now. And if I hadn’t grown up the way that I did, I probably wouldn’t have the same views I have now. My experiences shape the person that I am and still becoming. Initially, when I started writing songs like “Temple” and “A Sinner Like You,” it was this look-at-me-now sort of thing. I’m just not in that place anymore. I’m more about sharing stories and connecting, knowing that there are so many people out there who’ve dealt with or going through similar things in their lives.
What’s the earliest memory you have where you connected to music for the first time?
People think this is funny for some reason, but do you remember the movie Selena? I remember my mom renting it and at the end of it, it shows the last performance of her career—the real footage of Selena. I watched that repeatedly. So we kept the movie and ended up buying it from the video store. I watched it every day and I was singing the songs in Spanish. Remember: This was me at 5 or 6, crying all the time watching the movie because I loved it so much. That’s probably the first moment that sticks out to me as like, “That’s what I’ll always be doing.” [Laughs]
Now I’m curious… What’s the first album you went out of your way to purchase?
I’m pretty sure it was Mariah Carey’s Butterfly. But the first album given to me was really weird. Again, my mom was young when she had me so she had all these young friends around. I was 5 and my mom and her friends were 20 and 21. Do you remember that song “Freak Like Me” by Adina Howard? It’s literally this disgusting R&B song and my mom gave me her CD.
Tell me what those first years were like for you in New York City.
Well, I was still in the closet and dating this girl. She was actually just one of my really great friends. In high school, I felt like I had to have a girlfriend so people wouldn’t make fun of me. I was scared about being picked on and being the outcast for the longest time. This girl I dated was a great dancer and she moved to New York the same time I moved there. Immediately, she booked this crazy gig that was going to take her around traveling, so we of course broke up. That was a relief to me because I could explore the city on my own. But through her, I met all of her dancer friends and they showed me everything. I went to my first gay bar, saw amazing things, and met different people. Then I started being active with open mics around town and that was an eye-opener. In my small town, I felt like the only singer. In New York, there were amazing singers on every corner. That was the first time where I was like, “Wow. My voice alone isn’t enough. I have to start writing and figure something out if I want to compete.” So I started tapping into writing, meeting this person and that person, and getting shows and residencies. One thing led to another and these series of events unfolded. It took years of hustling around to get even here.
Is that what “Waiting Game” is literally about?
It’s definitely about this whole process. I never doubted that this would work out. I’ve always known that this would somehow work out. “Waiting Game” is from a time when I was probably writing the most and had the most label and publishing attention. But nothing was solidified. I was living in this apartment on the Lower East Side, a rat den with no heat in the winter kind of place. It was one of those things where I’m covered up in bed because it’s too cold to even walk around the house. I couldn’t work a job because I had to write and there were commitments to be at this or that place. I wasn’t doubting anything, but it’s still like, “Fuck.” You’re waiting for that email or text or something telling you they want to sign a deal or “It’s not going to happen.” That’s how “Waiting Game” came about. In the second I put my voice recorder on, I sang out the lyrics within 30 minutes. I didn’t even write it down. It’s one of my favorite songs.
Writing songs from a deeply personal place as you do, is it hard to be that open all the time?
I’ve been a talker my whole life. I’ve always been honest. I’m not a good liar because you can see it all over my face. [Laughs] Everyone will tell you that. I’ve always felt like I needed to be honest and that was hard growing up where I did. I’m sure they saw right through me. Even though I had a girlfriend, it’s like, “Yeah. Right…” I couldn’t play it off, really. Once I got out and found my new confidence in New York, I just felt like I had to tell my story, my true story. There are so many people who like to sugarcoat things. I feel like if you don’t tell the whole story, then it doesn’t really resonate the same way. The more honest you are, the more people will relate to what you’re talking about. So it’s not hard for me to be honest. I can’t see myself doing it any other way.
You’ve expressed admiration for Sam Smith for being open about his sexuality. He’s an openly gay, mainstream artist singing love songs. Was there ever a question that you might not want to be so open about that side of yourself when you were first starting out?
I was told not to be that open. I was told to be ambiguous. They were like, “Let people guess” and whatnot. Honestly, that’s tacky to me. It feels like a gimmick, a ploy. There’s no gimmick. There’s no separation between Parson James and me in my everyday life. So I don’t feel that’s necessary. I admire people like Janis Joplin and Otis Redding and all these people who were the same on and off the stage. It disgusted me that people would suggest I do that. It made me lose faith in the industry for a little bit. It made me want to be more independent and solo, and even more frank.
You address your mom directly on “A Sinner Like You.” What was it like to have her listen to that track, hearing you open up like that with music when you have this shared past?
I wrote it like a poem first, actually. It didn’t have music to it and I sent that to her. She’s very much the light of my life. She has a huge heart and moved me so much. For us to sit and talk and think about how things have unfolded in the last few years and our whole lives, it’s like, it’s emotional to talk about anyway. But when I shared that with her, she was kind of overwhelmed. She’s always been very accepting and open and loving about who I am as a person. That was the least of her worries. Her biggest worries were whether I was getting enough sleep or if I had anything to eat. She was always looking out for my well-being. We share a special connection.
There are few formulas to making it in this business, but one big part of that equation is obviously talent, and also meeting and surrounding yourself with the right people. What big lessons have you learned in the industry and in life in general that you can parcel out?
I think this is cliché to say, but timing is everything. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is patience. If I had let go all those times I thought I was supposed to let go, none of this would’ve panned out the way that it has so far. So patience is a big one. There are a few things that I do follow every day: Stay humble, work hard, and be grateful for everything. There’s no need to walk around and act like a rock star or treat people a different way. I can’t understand why that’s necessary.
Are you currently working on a full-length?
What’s funny is that some of the songs on the EP are almost two years old now, so I’m way past that. As an artist, you finish one thing and you’re ready for the next thing, always. I’m so glad that the EP is finally out. I’m in California for the next two and a half weeks or so, working with some incredible people in the studio. I already have such a huge catalog of songs anyway, but we’re just working with some folks up until April to finish the album. I’m looking forward to a late summer/fall release, then it’ll be great to take that on the road and whatnot.
If Britney Spears—
There’s always a Britney question. [Laughs]
Well, this here might be a good one. If she asked you personally to rework one of her past singles for you to both sing on, what would you choose and how would you rework it?
Oh man… Shit! I’m going to say “Everytime.” I want us to do “Everytime” with a fucking orchestra/choir sort of situation. She takes verse one and I take verse two, we sing into the chorus, and then we cry. We lay on a bed of roses… That’s it. I’m pretty sure this is going to happen. You know what’s funny? I met her manager the other day and I was freaking out so much just because he knows her so well. I couldn’t look him in the eyes. It was almost like looking at her.