The High Mass with Parson James

The High Mass with Parson James

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While praying at home in my dark bedroom has never been an issue, getting me to go to church has always been a bigger challenge, unless you can guarantee that it will involve some sort of exoticism (hence why I’m always more inclined to attend the mass when I’m abroad), originality and/or good music. When Charley from Sony Music suggested to have a look around Parson James’ parish a few weeks ago, I have to admit that I was a bit sceptical, as I had honestly never heard of him before. But it only took one sermon to convince me: Stole The Show, the acoustic version, without Kygo. Sinner Like You and Temple quickly followed, as well as a documentary which deeply moved me. I was a convert.

My little quickfire quiz with Parson James, if you haven’t seen it yet ;-)

On D-Day, before he even started to teach me his doctrine and tell me about the genesis of his career, the man who goes by the name of Ashton in his daily life asked me to confess to him about my origins, guessing right away that I was mixed race myself. One thing leading to another, I realized that we were somehow in communion with each other, sharing common traits such as our journalism/communication studies, our opinion on religion or our phones which both got stolen the very same day. « Maybe there’s a connection there… », he thought out loud, immediately building trust and a sense of belonging. I was entering Parson James’ temple, a place where everyone is celebrated for who they are and where the pastor doesn’t boast about spreading the « good » word, but just a simple but strong message, coming from the heart.



You’ve got a pretty conflicted childhood, growing as a gay and mixed race person in a small and religious town. How did this shape you into the man and/or artist that you are today?
I grew up between two sides: I had a single mom and she was very young — she was growing up with me; by the time that I was 5, she was only 21 and it’s still kinda crazy to me. So on her side of the family, her father kicked her out at an early age and there was a huge race issue there. But on my dad’s side, there was one as well! So I think that confliction really stuck with me in some way. I remember there were like different phases in my life where I did not know who I wanted to be, because it was like ‘Okay, I’m this color but they are this color, these people at school are this color…’. So I found myself sticking to one side or the other. But I think as I got a bit older, my mom… People turned their back on her because of the decision she made with my father so she started to tell me and feed into my brain ‘You’re perfect, you have the best skin color, you have the best eye color! Don’t listen to them. You don’t have to go to church: you can do it at home and be spiritual here’. So I started to realize that her thought process was coming from somewhere so there must be some truth to it. So it kinda opened my mind and then I got to an age when I knew for sure that I was gay and I was like ‘This is not gonna fly here but I can’t be wrong! I’m such a great person!’. I think the hypocrisies within the confliction really just drove me to the point where I was like ‘I can only live for myself! And these opinions around me are only opinions. I am who I am’. And I think I wanted that when I was about 16 or 17. I moved to New York straight away…

That’s when you decided you won’t try to fit in anymore but you would stand out, right?
Yes, absolutely, as cliché as it sounds! Cause I’d be so mad at myself if I conformed or just listened to people — it would be a horrible life to live as someone that’s not you. That’s not possible. I couldn’t be straight even if I tried (laughs)!

What triggered that move to New York?
I went to visit. My mom had never been on a plane until she was, I guess, 34? And I was 16. How old are you right now, by the way? I’m 24. We went to visit one of her friends who had moved there. It was the first time I’d seen gay people on the train, I saw drag queens, I saw live jazz— I saw everything that I had never seen in my little town! Cause over there, it’s so sheltered and anything that is different from us is bad and you gotta push it away. And I saw all these people just truly doing what they wanted to do. I immediately told my mom I was going to move to New York. And I did (laughs)!

So you enrolled in a college?
Yes. I first went there for the summer, just staying with my mom’s friend, learning my way around… Then my mom told me I need to enroll into school so I picked the first one on Google! What did you study? Journalism! I studied Journalism & Communication and just used it as a way to be in New York cause my mom was only going to allow me to be there if I was going to school. So I gave it a shot for about four semesters and then ultimately I was like ‘No! I’m gonna learn only by immersing myself in the city and the scene’. Then I got restaurant jobs and worked at different open mics, performing at restaurants where I would be on the stage singing in front of people eating! I did this for a period of time and then, you know, all of a sudden you meet one person, then another… And I got to the point where I started writing my own music.

When did you develop that interest for music? Obviously, your grandpa was a famous gospel singer but you didn’t grow up with him…
I don’t know, maybe 5 years old? I think I was inspired by the church in general — the choir and stuff like that; the passion in that kind of world does still inspire me! I think it’s really, really awesome, there’s a lot of energy and power. So that was like my first taste, I guess. And then I’ve just started singing. I don’t know, I just remember myself always singing as a kid then I think when I was about 9 or 10, I was doing small regional competitions and then I was just doing shows or whatever. By the time I was 16, I was really writing. Or at least trying to! When I went to New York at 17, I noticed there were so many people with great voices and I had to do something to distinguish myself. So I started integrating that into my story and started being honest with myself. That’s when I came out to my mom — that was it the same period of time where I was really open with myself and my lyrics.

So are you the one who came up with that image cause there is a big religion theme in your music and this is somehow an irony that your real last name is Parson?
Yeah! As I started getting into that headspace of writing for this particular record, I noticed that things were so heavy on South (ed.: he comes from Cheraw, in South Carolina) and religion. I didn’t mean for it, it just happened! Then I realized ‘I must really be inspired by this world’. It was at the time Lana Del Rey came out and I was obsessed with her! I was like ‘It’s so cool, it seems like this Lana Del Rey thing makes sense with everything that she’s writing about and this character!’. I don’t think Parson James is a complete separation from Ashton Parson at all. At the time, I was just like ‘Parson as a first name is cool’ and I chose James because of James Dean. I’ve always thought that he was interesting with this whole conflicting thing and I write about confliction a lot. James Dean is bisexual and he also has two sides: a good boy and a bad boy side. When I paired Parson with James, it was sort of a conflicting creature.

I know that you’ve also tried out for American Idol… What was it like?
Yeah (laughs), a bunch of times! I did it when I was 16. I tried two times that year. Then I went back maybe… the next year? Two times. And then the year after. And I never got through. I got to the judges round once, but that’s so weird, it takes so many months to get through the process of these reality shows. That’s crazy. I’m glad that I didn’t make it. At the time, I was devastated (screams). You know, you start second-guessing yourself, wondering if you’re good enough… This is for… particular people (laughs).

You have a lot of contacts in the industry. You’ve managed to find your ways somehow… How did you do it?!
I don’t know, I just love talking to people and I moved to New York for a purpose. I thought ‘I’m making a big leap so I have to make things work’. I put myself out there all the time, I was in every social situation that I could put myself in and I’ve just always been good at… I just wanna know people. Anyway. So if someone happens to be in the same industry as me, I’m still more interested in that person, their story and what their life is all about rather than ‘I wanna be friends with you because you’re whatever’. And I don’t know, I think that, naturally, I just ran into a lot of people that I’ve connected to. It’s cool to have so many good — actually, great! — friends who are in this industry, who are doing really amazing creative things and it’s just a natural connection!

How long did it take for you to really get in the industry once you got to New York? Did you make any specific encounters? What started it all?
Yeah, there are some funny stories (laughs)! So I had started doing a show at this place called Duane Park which is a burlesque restaurant. I was doing their soul nights and from there I met so many people! The owner had so many contacts and afterwards I’d meet people like this guy who played the trumpet for Lady Gaga, still does now, and he’s been one of my best friends for a long time! I got to meet her through him and she had a vocal coach and I worked with him! This vocal coach introduced me to this producer. That producer and I produced an EP that got the attention of a manager — she was a high profile manager and she introduced me to L.A. Reid so I was in L.A… and then she screwed me over so I was mad at the industry! I was so young, I think 19. Then I started writing songs for other people so I was going into a lot of sessions with my current manager Dave who used to be a publisher. He was setting up these sessions for me to write with other producers cause he was like ‘You’re young and the best way to meet people, if you wanna be an artist, is just to write cause you know, when you’re writing things for other people, there’s a potential for money’. And many producers want to do it because there is a potential for money so I got to meet a lot of people that way, but then the labels started to get interested in whose voice was on the demos coming through. So labels started reaching out to me for my voice…

Did you get any placements with these songs you wrote for other artists?
Yeah! I did a song for Pixie Lott, her second single (ed.: Lay Me Down, out of her third studio album). I also did a song that Max Martin produced for a finalist from The Voice US (ed.: Soldier by Damien Lawson from season 7).

Did you actually work with Max Martin, in the same room?
He came into the studio and I didn’t know who he was! I remember I was arguing about something in the song and I didn’t know who he was cause I didn’t recognize his face. And afterwards I realized ‘Oh, I’m just arguing with Max Martin!’. He came and played around on the piano and stuff, he listened to what we were doing, and in the end, when they chose the song key, he kinda went back and reproduced it.

By the way, what happened to that EP you recorded in New York?
I think it’s still floating up out there… Really? Cause I was looking for it… Well, I hope that it’s gone (laughs)! That’s what I thought: maybe they’re just trying to hide it! It’s nothing that I’m not proud of. It was great for the age that I was but I think it would be a bit confusing at this point for it to be out at the same time as a new material.

How did you feel about being introduced to the world as a featured artist on Kygo’s Stole The Show?
You know what? I think it was such a cool way to be in front of an audience that I would never have the opportunity to be in front of otherwise. Kygo’s fans are such different types of people: they live all over the world, from young to old, to male or female, and I think it’s amazing! I saw what happened to Jessie Ware, Sam Smith… So I just said ‘As long as I’m not losing anything, any part of my artistry, then it would be great to combine our worlds together!’. And I still have the original version of the song and I get to perform it as well. Then I get to have the Kygo’s one too so it’s the best of both worlds: it’s so much fun to perform with him and do those shows. Honestly, I wouldn’t be talking to you if I didn’t get that song so I’m just very proud!

Would you say it was also reassuring somehow to share the stage with someone else?
Yeah… I mean, it’s so hard to be a solo artist. There’s just a lot of pressure on you and there are so many different people doing so many things. I think, for me, it was cool to have… to come into this world and Kygo’s. The success is really crazy to him too so we get to share this moment and be like ‘Wow dude!’, and kinda be in it together. You kinda feel secured and it’s easy! You sing for 2000 people or whatever but you guys have each other. It was good for my first introduction to a larger crowd.

You’ve never written any ballad before Stole The Show, which is originally a ballad. What used to make you uncomfortable about this?
I don’t think I was uncomfortable. I was not conscious that I was not writing ballads. I just think that I didn’t realize. And then one day, somebody I was working with said ‘We need to have a ballad’. And then you think about it and it’s so hard cause you have to be really emotional and put everything into it. It’s hard to get into that headspace. But so for Stole The Show, I had the melody and the chorus and I left it for five or six months. Then came back and probably wrote the rest of the song in two hours, an hour and a half, and recorded it. And I had the flu, I wanted to leave, so I rushed through everything. But it’s the original demo for the vocals of the song, I never redid the vocals on that.

So tell me, are you currently working on an album and/or EP?
Yeah, the EP comes out on Friday (ed.: it’s available on iTunes/Spotify/Google Play/Amazon since February 5). It’s called The Temple EP. It’s five songs and I’m really excited about it! And the record is nearly done. I guess I’m gonna write maybe a few weeks in February just to finish up some things and I think that by the end of February the album will be done.

What is your writing process? Because you use a lot of metaphors but does that come naturally?
Yes. Sometimes, I’m writing on a train and I get a melody or words in my head so I’m on my voice recorder like (sings). Then, a lot of the times — which is weird and kinda hard to explain but — I like to go in the studio and the producer I’m working with who would just play an instrument or whatever and I just love to vibe right there. It’s been a case for a while that certain notes would make me think of certain words, so then I go from one word that the note made me think of and then the rest of the song would just happen really quick. And I’m walking around — I don’t write things down. I’m walking around just singing the entire song and I remember it and sing it back! It’s weird. It’s different every time but most times it’s that way.

Whom did you collaborate with on that album?
Man, lots of people! Elof Loelv, a Swedish producer that I really love… There’s a guy whom I worked with named BOOTS. On the album, I’m working with really cool people! Justin Tranter, Tobias Jesso Jr — he just did the Adele record.

I saw that you were in the studio with Nicole Scherzinger…
Yeah, she’s a really good friend of mine! We wrote a song. Both of her voice and mine are on it but it was intended for her album. But I’ve heard two versions: one with my voice singing the whole song and one with hers so I haven’t talked to her about it. And I haven’t caught up with her since… I’m going to Munich tonight and she just left Munich so we just missed each other! Maybe I’ll see her in L.A.

Do you know when your album is going to be released?
I’m not sure. Definitely this year but we’re first gonna do this whole Temple radio run, all this press and stuff…

Is there a music video coming up?
Yeah! Actually, we’ve already shot one (ed.: for Temple) in October and… it was a really terrible experience (laughs)! So we can’t use that video. We’re reshooting now cause I’m performing on Late Night With Seth Meyers on Monday (ed.: February 8) and it’s gonna be my US debut as a solo so we have to really hurry to think things out and stuff!

You performed in the Ellen DeGeneres Show and the Nobel Peace Prize, you’ve just got a Song of the Year Award at the Norwegian Grammy’s… Congratulations, by the way! So what’s been the most surreal or rewarding experience so far?
Oh man, every time something happens, this is amazing to me! I’m soaking in every moment! Nobel Peace was something that… Just the energy in the room and surrounding the entire performance was… I hadn’t felt anything that way. We (ed.: along with Kygo) played Barclays Center in Brooklyn which is a huge venue. I used to live next door and I watched it being built. I remember, I was taking vocal lessons with that guy that we talked about and he lives maybe one street behind Barclays Center and I remember while I was going to that house and he was like ‘It’s gonna be such a mess that Barclays is gonna be put up there cause there’s the parking’ and he was worried and I was like ‘I’m so excited for Barclay to be built, blah blah blah’. And now, I was there and I got to be there with all my friends in New York, it was sold out, it was really amazing! So Nobel Peace and Barclay Center are, so far, the most… WOW!

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