Parson James is a regular fixture in my work with the community. He is a biracial gay singer from the South. He has known judgment and shunning, exile, and everything else one could experience in his situation. Not only has he survived, he has thrived. He is now a board member of LOVELOUD, and thus, I see him at any of the events. He has just released a single “Dirty Laundry” with one of his closest friends JoJo, written about a relationship in quarantine. His insights are powerful, his story is inspiring.
JH: Hey Parson, Thanks for taking the time. I’m not sure if you remember me, but we have met many times over the years, I sent over the photo from Encircle to your publicist of us.
PJ: Oh yes, I remember you, I remember exactly where we were standing actually in that photo, at the Adobe building. Your wife took it.
JH: Yeah, I passed that photo to Ty Herndon and he had a good laugh at it. He said, “I love both of those guys”.
PJ: Yeah Ty is a good friend, I actually just saw him sing recently. I moved to Nashville a little while ago, it was maybe the first “stepping out” gig, there were like 5 performers on it, everyone felt good to get back into performing, it felt good.
JH: So, I was talking to Daya last week, and I asked her how she got on to the bill at LOVELOUD, and she said, “Well, my roommate Parson James was on the board at LOVELOUD”, and I just laughed, because, well, in this industry, I don’t think there is anyone who does not know you. I mean, I’m on the phone with Ada Vox she says she knows you, or Peppermint, and then David Hernandez, one time you called in the middle of the call with him. But, Daya that was funny.
PJ: Yeah Daya, she is like my little sister, she moved in with me just as she turned eighteen, and it was so sad when I moved out in February, we had to say goodbye, but she is doing great, expanding her wings, got a house of her own. Yeah, I have known so many people over the years, and Peppermint, I’ve known her since I was 19.
JH: Yeah, the circles we both run in are pretty small, but everyone speaks very highly of you. I have only met you all at these events. So there is a lot of depth to your backstory and I said I wanted to talk to you about it one of these days. And, well, today is that day. So, remember when I said at Encircle to you, “You are a biracial gay man, wearing a satin shirt and a cowboy hat, playing guitar… Just when I thought I had seen it all.”
PJ: Yeah, I remember that. (Laughing)
JH: So, your song, “High Tide”, the lyrics, “I’m falling for you, losing sleep because of your ghost, too close to let go”. And there is the crab toking on the beach, a cartoon crab, but, what was the symbolism of the “high tide, low tide”?
PJ: That was a song about a guy that I met right as quarantine was starting, and as everyone knows, we didn’t know what this whole pandemic was about to be. At first, when the murmurs were happening, on March 10th, we go on a date, and we have this beautiful experience, a great night. He was the greatest guy, we stay up all night. I don’t smoke weed but he did, and we were having a good time. Then suddenly two days later, the whole place is shutting down. And I said, “Well, if LA is locking down, I am not going to see anyone else, do you wanna just keep hanging out?” So I quarantined with a stranger, and when you decide to quarantine with someone you don’t really know, all of your demons and whatever come to the top. So, he had some trauma, and some issues with sexuality, things that I have been through as a gay person in the South. I felt this sense that I could really help him, and we were into each other, and then put the pandemic on top of it all, you have this real hodge-podge of emotions. His sexuality and frustrations, the way he felt about being, he acted in this way that he would give me so much passion and attention, and the next day, it was nothing. It was this insane push and pull, and nothing was open so we would just go to the beach, and smoke weed and sit there. And he was obsessed with the ocean, he only wanted to be around the water. So that is where the imagery of the tides and the water came from, and there was so much back and forth. It just felt like the high tide, and low tide. I’m an empathetic person, and that is why the first line of the song was, “My empathy is killing me”, because I will find myself in situations to help people, and get hurt.
JH: Well, you obviously have a big heart to have been in this situation like that. So, which one of you was the smoking crab?
PJ: Yeah, it was him, it’s because he is a cancer.
JH: See, in my life experiences with the sea, the Navy, and shanties, I have heard a million metaphors of the sea, but never one of the “high tide, low tide” like that, so, that’s very good image, you described it well.
PJ: At the time, I didn’t have any ill will or anything. I wrote that at the moment, as I was fully swept up in it at the time I was writing it.
JH: You do know it’s still March 2020 right? It has been the longest March on record. So, when I met you first backstage at LOVELOUD in 2018, I remember you were wearing that purple jacket. And the rest of us were dying in 98 degrees, and you were in long pants, a full shirt, and that jacket, I was wondering how you weren’t dying of heatstroke.
PJ: I have to mentally tell myself, “It’s not hot, I have to look good”, at that phase of my life I was so into extravagant clothing, that I just focused on thinking I wasn’t hot.
JH: Oh is that it? (Laughing). So remember when Grace Van Derwaal did her song “Clearly” that day, that video for that song was a lot like your song “Temple” with the imagery. There she was standing outside, singing, and there was this whole choir behind her singing, but they were still in the church she was leaving. Your song temple had a lot of the same elements, but it was really heavy. But, what I saw in it was with you singing, and they had their backs to you, and you were being shunned. This is based on the story you told about the people at church all being hypocrites, but was I weaving that into the visuals of this song. There was so much in that song, lyrically and the visuals. Did I get the symbols right?
PJ: Actually you were spot on, the choir was an LGBTQ choir, and their robes were pastel colors of the rainbow. That particular scene of their backs to me, and I was so silent for so long, I was afraid to be myself. Then they turn around and there is this amazing choir of LGBTQ people there and it’s this celebration, and there is the person in the pink fur coat. That is the outcast, that is the person that is me, who I was trying to speak to. That outcast who rides his bike through town, and is chased, and has things thrown at them. Then it ends up in this safe space, not the church itself, from specifically my story, from someone who grew up in the bible belt in the South. I know that when I tell my story honestly the connection can be much stronger for LGTBQ people, but for anyone who dated someone outside their race, or preferred gender. It could also be as simple as wearing something crazy, or a rough situation with the family. But for me, it represented being judged and shunned.
JH: So, that beautiful line, “Grace ain’t been amazing for me” and there was the kid on the bicycle wearing the pink feather boa jacket, getting pointed at, and all the bullies running after him with squirt guns. That is how it is in the south the same as it is in Utah. Which is how you and I met, cause you got involved with LOVELOUD, and the stigma here with all the violence and hatred for the gay kids. Now forgive me that I didn’t notice the colors of the robes in the choir because I’m colorblind.
PJ: Are you actually colorblind?
JH: Oh yeah, it’s embarrassing, my wife wishes I could be just “A little bit gay” so I could be a better dresser.
PJ: Oh my…
JH: So, there you are with those beautiful people, but then there you are with the shattered church, and everything collapsed around it. Were you saying, “This has failed us, and this is where are now, we have found each other, and we are happy.”
PJ: Yes, the church was this broken institution, when used in the way that it was for my personal experience, and so many other people have witnessed why I joined LOVELOUD. Because you know, it’s the broken institution, you can’t just throw people out and shun them. But its not just from the church but in life, but when I found out what was happening in Utah, that immediately moved me, and I knew I had to be a part of it and do something. Because kid’s should not feel that way just because an archaic belief system says so. So, yes it is representing that this is a broken system. And you can find your family wherever you want to find it. Chosen family is a very real thing, and I think that having those people around all within that broken-down church, and having each other, I think that is simply beautiful because you know that you are not alone and you are understood. So, yes that represent those ideas. Those archaic beliefs that cause kids to kill themselves, that is it. I had to say that I had been hiding it for so long and lying to myself, that alone will give you enough trauma for the rest of your life.
JH: So you can see that I love the artistic vision and stories in your videos, and dissecting them. So, the reason why I got involved with LOVELOUD and Instinct is because of how often it is happening. So every time that I hear about a suicide here, I ask myself, “What could that child have given us, what SHOULD they have given us?” So, how did you get involved and connected, I mean, did Dan (Reynolds, of Imagine Dragons) just call you up? Cause, well, we all know you can’t say “No” to Dan, it’s just not possible.
PJ: That’s right, can’t say “No” to Dan. I actually got invited to a screening of “Believer” with Vincent, and we are both hyper-emotional people and….
JH: So then you were probably a sobbing mess halfway through.
PJ: Yeah ten, maybe twelve minutes tops we were looking at each other all teary eyed, by the end of it we were bawling, and went up and said, “WHATEVER we can do, how can we help.” I had no idea that was happening in Utah. We got a call two days later, and there I am, on the board. So, there I was going back and forth for the festivals, and then Encircle got involved, with their houses for the kids. It’s been rewarding in so many ways to meet these kids, and hear the stories. Or survivors, and how they don’t want this to happen again. Because you are at these events, you can see what it feels like to be in these safe spaces and just feel that unconditional love we all have.
JH: Yeah, Daya mentioned that in her interview. I told her I remember she came out in like October or something, and then she was on the bill for LOVELOUD shortly after. I said, “Man, that was quick” and she talked about how wonderful it was to be with fifteen thousand people all in one place with so many people coming together with love and acceptance. She hadn’t expected that. I remember that 2nd LOVELOUD I went to when Dan got that kid Stockton’s parents to come out of the crowd, and nothing planned, they just came up and talked for a minute, about losing their son, and that everyone there is loved. I was just there in the press pit hugging those kids in the front row crying. Yeah, Dan knows how to make it a very emotional experience. *Stockton was a young gay teen boy who died by suicide a year earlier.
PJ: That year Daya got to perform that song we wrote together with Wrabel, and that became the charity single for LOVELOUD that year, and we had the Encircle Choir of children singing with us. I can’t say I remember anything so beautiful in my entire life.
JH: Yeah, Wrabel, that guy can get you really wound up emotionally, he is really intense and can get you crying pretty quick. So, your song “Only You” just came out, that was probably an easy shoot because there was no movement, but everything was focused on your facial expressions. That was well done. And lyrically, was an introspective piece, it sounded like there was a distance between the two of you but might not have been really a physical span.
PJ: Yeah, it was about an ex of mine, I wrote it originally like that, but then after my songs get released they belong to other people and take on different meanings. I had a relationship with a guy who cheated on me, it was my first “Big” relationship, I moved from New York to L.A. then I was by myself. I was being harsh on myself, I was convincing myself that maybe I’m unlovable, or maybe this is my reality. I wrote this song that in hopes that if he heard it that he would see that I really only wanted him. It was at a time when I really didn’t know my own worth. And I was covering up my gifts so I wouldn’t be too much for someone. It was a move in desperation, and over time I have changed the way I view myself in that song. And I am talking to the person I was, I am not getting back to loving myself and knowing that I have worth. It is something wonderful now, like every day now I get tagged that someone used it as their wedding song.
JH: Oh you know you’ve made it then if someone has your music as their wedding song. So let’s talk about the new single “Dirty Laundry.” This song feels like you are saying, “I want to help you, I want to let you trust me.” Is it your version of Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally”?
PJ: Yeah, the point of the song is about that guy “high tide, low tide” was about, so if ANYTHING good came from that, I got some good material.
JH: You got to sing with Jo too, she is amazing by the way.
PJ: Yeah Jo has been one of my best friends for the last seven years, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t grow up worshiping the ground she walks on. I remember seeing her on TV and thinking, “Wow, there is no voice like her.” My mom jokes about this to her saying, “I paid for your fan club Jo.” The universe put us into each others lives, and we connected through a mutual friend, and we have been close friends ever since. We talked about working together for so long, and she saw all that happened with this guy. She saw what a tailspin it put me in. So when I wrote this at the beginning of the pandemic, and there was a coin shortage, and he started to bring all of his dirty laundry to my house. He still was self-sabotaging, not accepting himself. It is unfathomable that he could tell his family anything, and he was leaning on me as a crutch. I wanted him to know that I saw that look in his eyes, of shame, and I wanted him to know that I knew what that felt like. So, I wrote this song, and it came from that space, there is no dirty laundry hanging on the line, don’t feel dirty, you are safe with me. So when I played it for Jo, she loved it and said she wanted to be part of this one. And it’s also our friendship, there is no filter, nothing we have been through the worst and the best. You don’t see the platonic love between a gay man and his best friend.
JH: Yeah, every woman needs a gay man for a best friend, my wife has a couple of them. Anyway, I was going through the song, was that “You can trust me”, not like “I’ll be there on time”, but I will let you trust me, no secrets, so I can trust you, with no secrets, like Katy Perry’s song, “I will love you unconditionally.” So, please tell Jo that I consider this song a masterpiece. You nabbed the best vocalist for that one, you hit the jackpot, but I didn’t know you were a fan since age 12.
PJ: Oh yeah, I know and cherish that.
JH: So, that “Sinner Like You” monologue, I got all of that, the Confederate flag reference, the people at church, that was a very in your face prose, that was a rough story. But it is your story of being a young biracial gay kid in “Redneckistan”, and your mother in there, she was beautiful. I have to say, when races mix, the kids are beautiful. There you are this heart-throb, I’m sure you broke some girls’ hearts when you came out, but, talk about coming out.
PJ: Oh I remember having a crush on a boy I was 5, and I had a hyper-awareness of the community. I grew up knowing what was accepted or not. Then I was able to come out when I moved to New York when I was seventeen. “Sinner Like You” was based on the letter to my mom about coming out. I feel lucky to have been in New York. But I know my mom experienced so much disapproval for having a black boyfriend. So she knows what it is like to be shunned for who you love, so she wasn’t going to do that to me.
JH: So, now look at you, you are very successful, you have everything in the world to be proud of. Wonderful stories man, your videos are inspiring. So, I have the final question, I know you have already kind of answered it, but you get Utah and what is going on. What would your message be to the young gay kid who is afraid.
PJ: Keep going, there is nothing wrong with you, outside opinions are never unanimous, you have to believe that you are beautiful, because you are, and there is someone out that loves you completely, you are far too beautiful.
JH: Wow Parson, thank you so much for all of that. I hope to see you perform these songs in the future, and I wish you all the best with the new work.