Music Hall of Williamsburg
Parson James, Fletcher

Parson James


Fri, December 9, 2016

Doors: 8:00 pm / Show: 9:00 pm

Music Hall of Williamsburg

Brooklyn, NY


This event is 16 and over

Parson James
Parson James

South Carolina-born, Brooklyn-based singer and songwriter Parson James likes to call his music “conflicted pop gospel,” and one listen to his debut single “Sinner Like You” and the description feels entirely apt. The infectious and uplifting song marries James’ soulful, church-honed voice with shimmering pop production by Swedish producer Elof Loelv (Rihanna, Mikky Ekko), while its lyrics address the duality of human nature. As an openly gay, bi-racial son of the South, who experienced a rocky childhood marked by racism, religion-based homophobia, addiction, and domestic abuse, James has frequently found himself drawn to trying to make sense of his past and how it has shaped his identity. Even the professional name he has chosen for himself alludes to his obsession with conflicting thoughts.

“Parson is actually my last name and a parson is an independent parish priest,” James explains. “He’s separate from the organization. People follow him if they choose to. And James is a reference to James Dean, who I had read was a closeted bisexual. He struggled with being seen as both a good boy and a rebel. I liked the duality of pairing those two names. For me, it adds up to a conflicted preacher. I feel like all of my songs are like sermons, so this is my conflicted pop gospel.”

Ashton Parson was born in the small, conservative town of Cheraw, South Carolina (also the birthplace of jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie). His white mother was a 16-year-old high-school cheerleader when she became pregnant by a black member of the school’s basketball team. Her father discovered the pregnancy seven months in and became so enraged that he physically threw her out of the house. James’ mother never returned to the home and raised Ashton (with the help of his paternal great-grandmother) while working three jobs — at a restaurant, a bingo hall, and a discount clothing store — to provide for him. She kicked James’ abusive father out of their tiny apartment when he began using drugs and stealing from her. “I remember it all so vividly,” he says. “I knew how to call 911 when my dad was in the house and pretend I was speaking to my grandmother so he wouldn’t know I was calling for help.”

James’ mother was his constant. “Both sides of my family were racist, and I had a hard time understanding my place. The only cool person was my mom,” he says. “She always made me feel perfect.” James came out to his mother when he was 18. “She had never, ever questioned my sexuality. I said, ‘You didn’t know?’ And she said, ‘Maybe I did, but when you’ve had the experience of being judged by your own parents, that's a feeling that you would never want to put on anyone else.’ I think all the experiences I dealt with still linger, and they are definitely what has inspired me to make music. That’s what got me here.”

“Sinner Like You” was borne out of James’ fear of coming out to his mother. “Telling her was easy, but beforehand, thinking about how I was going to do it, was not,” he says. “I had this image in my head that I couldn't do it because we have this whole community and congregation of people who are constantly judging us. They did it to her. She was shut out by everyone. So on ‘Sinner Like You’ I’m asking, ‘What are we going to do?’ and recognizing the hypocrisy of the people in the community. The lady who drove me to school had a drug addiction. The preacher was caught sleeping with his wife’s sister. And somehow my being gay trumps that?”

The longing for love and acceptance can also be heard in Norwegian DJ Kygo’s single “Stole The Show,” which James wrote and is featured on. “Sometimes I long for things that I know are not going to work out and I don’t pay attention to the signs,” he says. “I think I can change someone. I was dating this guy and it’d be amazing for a few months then he’d disappear for weeks. At that point, I'm pretending that I have a boyfriend. I'm pretending that it's cool. ‘Stole the Show’ came from that realization that we should stop acting. We did the best we could. We stole the show. It was a great performance.”

In many ways, music was James’ savior. He grew up hearing Otis Redding, Bill Withers, and The Supremes at his paternal great-grandmother’s house and Johnny Cash, Elvis, and Wanda Jackson via his mom’s side. At age six, he began singing in church, “because where I’m from, everything is centered around church,” he explains. “I got kicked out of my Christian school because I'm too expressive. I had a Britney Spears photo they told me I couldn't have. I was like, ‘I'm not taking this out.’ I was in fourth grade. I was like, "There's no way. I love her.’ They said, ‘You're worshipping false idols.’ I was like, "She's not false! She is my idol." At the same time, he began noticing the duplicity of the so-called pious souls in his community. Those experiences stayed with him. He was incredulous that he could be judged by people who were in no position to judge.

James’ song “Temple” came out of a moment he had while sitting in church. “I thought, ‘No one here would like me if they knew who I was,’” he says. “It's kind of this, ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ thing. As long as you're quiet, everything is cool. ‘Temple’ is about sitting in a pew and bursting at the seams wanting to yell, ‘I'm this way! I'm this person!’ I just want people to open their eyes and wake up."

When James was 17, he moved to New York City to escape the constraints of his small-town community. He attended college, worked as a waiter, and sang at various karaoke and open-mike nights. In 2011, he released an independent EP, which caught the attention of one of his current managers, who was then working at a publishing company. “He liked my writing and thought I could get a foot in the door writing songs for other people,” James says. “It only took two months before the labels were like, ‘Who is the voice on the demo?’”

Now signed to RCA Records, James is currently working on the songs that will make up his debut album, due later this year. “I want people to think a lot when they hear the music,” he says. “I want them to know that it’s coming from a real place and find some way to relate to it, even though some of it is so personal. Some of the songs are sad, but there’s always hope. I never leave off saying, ‘This is the end of the world.’ There's always some sort of optimistic element.”

Venue Information:
Music Hall of Williamsburg
66 North 6th St
Brooklyn, NY, 11249