If you don’t know the name Parson James, you’re bound to hear it again soon. This young queer artist has built a career around his soulful vocals and intimate lyrics. With his 2016 debut EP, Temple, and his 2017 summer hit, “If You’re Hearing This” featuring Betty Who, he’s steadily claiming his place in the music industry.
The South Carolina native recently dropped the video for his single “Only You,” a breakup track that touches on the toxicity and codependency that he experienced in a particular relationship. The song resonates for many, striking all the cords of a broken heart. And the video illustrates that beautifully with the choreography of Lindsay Blafarb performed by Kupono Aweau and trans femme artist, Neon as a young lovesick couple.
In addition to creating new music, James is also busy with SugarCube, an immersive performance experience taking place at Public in New York. We recently caught up with James to find out all about his southern influences and the heartbreak behind his music.
What was it like coming of age as a queer artist in South Carolina?
You know there are the obvious internal struggles of being considered the “outcast” or the “different” one in the community you are raised in. I was hiding a part of myself for so long because of my fears of disappointing those around me and when you’re caught in that bubble, it’s easy to feel that there is no way out, and at times, you begin to limit what you are actually capable of. I found my ability to sing and write at a very early age, and when I had discovered that, it gave me a feeling of some sort of power, this thing that I was actually good at that no one could take away from me. No matter what others thought of the way I looked, carried myself, or whatever, I still had this talent that hadn’t even begun to see its full potential.
So, even though I was struggling with hiding my sexuality and true identity, this thing I had gave me some sort of spark and excitement because it felt like I was meant to use it for a bigger purpose. It felt like I had a way out. I looked around me and saw so much potential in so many people but more often than not it was never self-realized. I wanted to make sure I didn’t follow the lead of the examples I had around me, so my artistry fueled my desire to do something much bigger with what I had.
How did gospel influence your music?
I have always been a fan of voices. I love unique voices. I love voices that allow you to hear every ounce of emotion tied to the story they are telling. There is something to be said about authenticity, and when I first was going to church, though I never was able to resonate with the sermons so to speak, I could always feel the hurt, power, passion, and fear in the vocals in my Baptist church. Gospel choirs, the instrumentations, grit, soul, the musicality of it all inspired me deeply.
So, when I initially started to write my project, I injected choir elements, organs, and tried to keep the music that I was making organic as possible. Sometimes my early work could almost sound hymnal. Lyrically, I liked the idea of creating hymns that I could finally relate to, and that embodied my story rather than make me question who I was as a human.
I know you have a tattoo of Selena and a cross earring as tribute to George Michael. How did they and other artists influence you?
Selena is an artist that I genuinely give the most credit to opening my eyes and giving me the cathartic realization that I wanted to be an entertainer. I wasn’t aware of her work before the film on her life was released. But I was about age five or six or when it came out. At that age, I thought that films were happening in real life, and I was an emotional kid just due to how tumultuous my childhood was. I watched this woman’s story, and I can’t explain how connected I felt in that instant. It really hit me when the bonus footage of her actual last live concert played at the end. I cried, I danced, and I sang her songs phonetically perfect. I think her charisma, grace, southern charm, exploration of genres, and vocals really influenced me heavily. Her perseverance in becoming a force within a male dominated music space as well, connected to me because I knew as a gay kid who was going to sing, I was gonna have some battles. So, she means the world.
George has paved the way for artists like me and any other LGBTQIA artist to do what we’re doing, period. He fought for what he wanted and for what was fair. He embodied a cool confidence and wrote with his heart on his sleeve. He’s impacted my work greatly, especially in songs like “Temple”―that was heavily influenced by “Freedom.”
You released a very emotional video for the song “Only You.” Tell me about the relationship that inspired that.
You know, it was my first real relationship, I would say. My first time I co-existed in the same space as another person and the first time I told a partner I loved them and truly meant it. Timing is a bizarre and fragile thing. We met when I was without a place to live and became best friends, and then four months later, I was closing out Coachella. Life moved in a really quick way. It was my first taste of this career and first taste of love, and I didn’t want to lose either. Ultimately, after a few years and the demands of what I do, what he does, and the attention that is required to keep a unit together, it just went to a dark place and a lot of resentment came about.
So, it ended, and I retreated to L.A. initially on a break, and I wrote this song almost immediately. I felt I had made a mistake and that I wasn’t deserving of being loved by anyone else, that I should just swallow the pill, deal with the terrible things we were doing to each other and just call out for him. That was the initial “you” I’m referring to in “Only You.” After a few weeks/months, I had this realization. I was giving to nearly everyone, including him, so much of myself and not giving anything back to me. I was questioning music and everything I had known to make certain things stay afloat. I lost a part of me. That “you” in “Only You” suddenly became apparent, that it was actually the part of myself I had lost in order to keep something that came at the wrong timing alive. So, it’s quite an emotional one for me.
What other themes does your upcoming debut album explore?
I’m always going to tell stories as I experience them. A portion of this record is associated with the end of my relationship and adjusting to living on my own in a new environment and learning how to love myself. I’ve been hard on myself, on my body, on my mind for a bit now in this whole coping process but have luckily come out on the other side, and I am proud of that. I think this process has made me more vocal and honest about my fears, those in the world around us and in my personal life.
I think the main theme here though is coming out on the other side, learning that nothing is too hard to overcome, acknowledging how fucked up you are, how fucked up the world is, and speaking on it in a way that embraces it but searches for an answer to change it; self-love, self-deprecation, balance, celebration of self, change, and overcoming. Natural confliction, per usual.
The video for “Only You” features trans femme performer, Neon. Do you have plans to collaborate musically with her or any other queer artists?
I just ran into her in the street yesterday. She’s remarkable as a human, as a performer, as a light in this world. I want to make sure she is included in this project a bit more. I’m brainstorming on the next few visual elements she can be a part of, and I’m excited about wrapping her into this record. I would love to work with more queer artists, writers, producers, and performers in all mediums. I feel that there aren’t enough of us, especially in music, doing work together and I think that given the times and the platforms, it’s the perfect opportunity to do so. I want like a full-blown Coachella-style festival for all the queer performers all over out there to come together it would be major.
You’re launching SugarCube in New York this year. How do you hope it contributes to the artistic landscape of the city?
I just hope it creates a space where people feel free to express their individuality, share their art and connect with others to grow, create, love, and share. It’s all about love and all about acceptance.