Parson James

Parson James

Parson James



Photography: Katie Mccurdy

Text: William Defebaugh

With a soulful voice and powerful message, listening to Parson James sing is akin to going to church. This was apparent at his first official New York show this past week at Soho House, where audience members like Orange is the New Black's Taryn Manning were raising their hands to the ceiling after five minutes. He is a preacher, but his message is one of acceptance, and his journey to find it as a kid growing up gay and biracial in the South. This is his sermon.

Where in the South are you from?

PARSON JAMES Cheraw. It’s a small, 5,000-person town, very religious. Dizzy Gillespie is from there but otherwise there was really no music. The town is just church, football, and buffets.

And when did you leave?

PJ When I was 17. I never traveled when I was young because my mom was a single parent—she had me when she was 16—so she was always working two or three jobs. She had no money, so we would crash hotel pools. We'd get to the ocean and clean our feet off at the pools. I never went anywhere until high school when she had enough money to take me to New York to visit one of our friends. I gasped when I came here. You know, I had never seen people different than my community, in which everyone was white… And if they weren’t white they were super poor. There was no inbetween, because the community just separated people in that way. So when I got to New York, knowing that I was gay since I was like four, seeing people so open…I was amazed and infatuated with the city, people doing whatever the fuck they wanted to do. I was like, I’m going to move here. I signed up for the first school that I could Google.

What was life in the city like for you when you moved here?

PJ I was living in the Bronx. I would go downtown all the time and do random open mics. I booked my own shows. I had a weekly thing that I was getting $30 for in TriBeCa. I was really social, and I was good about introducing myself to people, lying about my age. One person to another person led me to so many different opportunities. Vocal coach to producer. I had my own EP eventually. So I just kind of worked it up and quit school, and I moved to Bushwick, and I was living with like, six lesbians and three dogs in the basement beside a staircase. No real room, just like, my bed was beside a staircase. My mom came to visit me and started crying. She was like “This is fucked up.”

So when did you know that you wanted to be a musician?

PJ I've never seen any other path for myself. I think it’s just always been in my blood. Both sides of my family are very musical. My grandpa was a famous gospel singer, but I don’t have any relationship with him because my dad left when I was four, and his dad was never in his life. On my mom’s side, her dad was a big redneck. When she was pregnant with me, because I was mixed-race, he physically threw her out of the house, then went on a rampage of trying to kill my father, burning crosses in my grandma’s yard. When I got old enough, I would go over there. He was still a redneck, so I would hear a lot of Johnny Cash, a lot of Hank Williams. I’d go to my dad’s side, and he was also racist, but against the white side. They were fueled with hate, but they were all bible thumpers, and always in church, but talking shit about everyone. Selling illegal liquor on Sundays. My grandma had a bootleg ring coming out of her house.

So was your mom not as religious?

PJ I think that she is spiritual, but she won’t go to church because of all the intolerance. That’s where a lot of my writing comes from. Within the church there were those people that were supposed to be so loving and accepting—and she grew up thinking that—but they were the first to turn their backs on her. The whole community. It was her best friend who told the whole high school that she was pregnant by my dad. And everyone’s like, “Nigger lover!” She was forced to drop out of high school.

And how did she handle you coming out?

PJ I stayed in the closet all through the whole period I lived in the South. I was always the same person. I’ve always been effeminate but my mom just thought that was because I was surrounded by so many women growing up. She never asked me questions about it, never made any assumptions or made me feel weird. But when I moved here, I knew that I had to say something. I moved here with a girlfriend, but when I came here I met some gay people for the first time. It was life-changing. So I called my mom when I was black-out drunk one night and told her. I was so afraid she wouldn’t be proud of me. She booked a flight for me to go home the next day but it was just so she could make sure I was okay. She said, “For me, watching my parents pass judgment on me, that’s the worst feeling in the world. So I would never question anything that you do. I’m loving you for it, because to be forced out of your own family is the worst feeling.” So she didn’t. It set me free. I didn’t give a shit about anyone else. I was like “Okay, she’s the most important person in my life, if she’s okay with me, then clearly I’m okay.” So, I kind of got this new confidence after that. I didn’t feel the need to come out to anyone since, and I haven’t.

Well that’s the goal of the gay rights movement, isn’t it? It’s not just to be able to come out, it’s to not have to.

PJ I think that’s why I chose my first single to be the way it is. “Sinner Like You” is the story of how I felt about coming out to my mom, knowing that a congregation or community of people were going to have to be witnesses and have to judge me for this too. But it’s a story, it’s life, this is how it is. But it’s not like “I’m gay, look at me.” I just always wanted, when I was a kid, to hear someone say things honestly and openly and to be accepted for it. That’s why I admire Sam Smith and anyone that can just be honest and not make it an issue, just be. When asked, he answered, and that was cool. I thought that was really awesome for the current state of music, to listen to a gay man singing love songs.

Do you consider yourself spiritual?

PJ Obviously as a kid, if you’re fed this thing, you just don’t know. You’re confused. There were times I thought I wanted to be white. I remember telling my mom I wanted to paint myself the same color as the wall because I wanted to be white like my other friends. Then sometimes I wanted to be black. As a kid I went through so many phases of religious belief. Now, I can’t process the Bible and say I can go to church and feel comfortable there because, regardless of what anyone says, that word does say that man can’t live with a man. And it’s an abomination. And I don’t feel that I am an abomination. I definitely believe there’s a higher power, though. I don’t know what it is, or if it’s something to do with the universe or what, but I do believe that something is out there.

And you write all of the music yourself right?

PJ Yes. When I was first with my managers, the conversation was like, “We have this girl Lorde and she might be pretty big. We don’t have a staff, but maybe you should go to the UK and Sweden, and just write your record. We’ll set you up with writing sessions.” So, then Lorde blew up, and then there was me writing this record. I got to do all this without a label, make the music that I wanted, find my niche. I wrote everything and worked with this Swedish producer Elof—he did the Rihanna song “Stay.” He’s doing my whole record.

And how did your song with Kygo, “Stole the Show,” come about?

PJ I wrote “Stole the Show” like a year and a half ago, and it was just a ballad. Everyone was begging me to write a ballad, and I was not trying to write one because I didn’t think I had been in love before. But I wrote this ballad, it was about this guy that I was not in a relationship with, and pretended like we were. We would just be with each other when it was convenient. “Stole the Show” is sort of that thing like, Okay, we don’t hate each other, it’s fine, but this is going nowhere. We’ve put on a good act, but I think it’s time for us to close the curtains. It was everyone’s favorite song. RCA—where Kygo was signed—had been trying to sign me forever, and they obviously have achieved it. Kygo’s manager played it for him, and he was like “I have to have it.” He started reached out to me on social media, he was really was trying to work with me. So we did, and then it came out the way it did, and I couldn’t be happier.

And when is the album going to be out?

PJ Well there’s two singles first. We’re shooting the video next month. For the first two singles, “Sinner Like You,” and “Temple,” it’s like a mini-movie. “Temple” is just the time I was sitting in church and realizing that if I spoke up about who I was, that everyone around me totally like, turn their back on me. “Temple” is about standing up, saying what you want to say, as loud as you fucking can, and going for it. I know that there are kids out there just like I was, sitting there in a town, hiding. I would hate to be a person who’s 40 years old, married to a woman, knowing that you want be with a man. If you feel a certain way, just be it. Don’t be quiet for too long. Don’t be anything other than what you are.


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