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Embrace Your Inner Sinner With Parson James’ “Sinner Like You”

This rising star discusses growing up as a gay, bi-racial kid in South Carolina, what he learned from his teen mom and his drug-addicted dad, and how fleeing to NYC at 17 saved him.

It's a trusim that conflict creates the finest art, and let's just say Parson James has dealt with his fair share in his short 21 years. But what's known of James up till now is this: he is the singular, powerfully soulful voice on Kygo’s smash “Stole The Show,” which dropped this past March and has had 14 million plus YouTube views since (it went to number one in Sweden). He's an overnight success—albeit attached to another artist's beat—and RCA swiftly snapped him up, but Parson James is no better than you. In fact, if you’re a sinner (and let’s face it, you’re on Noisey so you 100 percent are), you’re equally “bad” in the eyes of God, which, along with the judgedment-laden gaze of his 5,000 neighbors, stared down heavily on James while growing up in the highly religious town of Cheraw, South Carolina. As a bi-racial homosexual, James’ personal identity was shaken and rattled, his emotions ping-ponging between extremes, never fitting into the limited and constricting molds his hometown held as acceptable. Eventually, with a loving mother, nascent talent, and never diminished dreams of escaping this environment, James moved to New York and dove headfirst into the world of music.


Premiering below is James’ debut solo single, “Sinner Like You.” The track's lyrics are immediately compelling—with the singer confessing to his mother that he's sinned, having gone to bed with another man—they carry isteners through animated verses to sweeping, upbeat choruses with highly emotive melodies, fueled and furthered by the talent's powerhouse voice. We talked candidly to James about mixed identities, his relationship to religion, his fractious childhood, and how Britney Spears is the true idol worthy of worship. He calls his songs “conflicted pop gospel”—and you’ll soon see why this catch-all is entirely apt.

Noisey: You moved to New York when you were in your teens. Why’d you want to get away from your hometown so badly?
Parson James: There’s 5,000 people there and my mom had me when she was 16, so I grew up with a young mom. I don’t know if it was because I had a young mom that I was exposed to more. She would tell me about places because there are some people in my town that don’t know the difference between Manhattan and Long Island. I was always like, “I’m going to move somewhere. I’m going to move somewhere quick.” Also because my dad was just a crack addict, and he had such a promising career in basketball when he was younger, and let drugs take over that, I think I’ve always been very attentive. I always paid attention and watched, so I saw things that I shouldn’t do. Instead of turning it into a negative, I’m like, “OK, well dad fucked up. That’s not what I’m gonna do.” Instead of me meeting whoever and going off and doing drugs, I’m going to leave as early as I can, because if I’m too comfortable, I’m going to stay.


Long story short, I just had it in my mind forever that I had to go as soon as I could, and I graduated high school early. I moved right away at 17, the summer before I started college. I just started working at burger places but was on an immediate grind. I knew what I was here to do.

How did you take to New York when you arrived?
I try to explain this to people and I don’t really know. It feels like the past few years have sort of flown by because I had my head so deep into one thing. My whole focus was music, but I worked in my random restaurants and did open mic and booked the most random gigs at burlesque places downtown that would put me on their soul night.

I guess I have good people skills [laughs]. So I met a lot of people and every person I would meet would introduce me to another person. I ended up having a lot of successful friends around me and a really high profile manager by the time I was 19. These people just kind of fall into your lap, but then I watch some friends that are signed already and how their labels are treating them, or if I go to a friend and I’m backstage I see what I need to pay attention to. I’ve just always been attentive.

Since your childhood involved drug abuse, amongst other issues, did you avoid that scene in New York?
I went through a period of drinking and going out, but I’ve never touched a drug. I can say that, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. I don’t have any desire to attempt messing with something I’ve seen people getting addicted to. I don’t know why I would try cocaine when I have hypochondriac anxiety—I would probably flip out and drive myself to the hospital. I’ve avoided a lot. I’m pretty careful. I’m careful with people, careful with those types of choices. I do have a good time and I do go out, and I’m always cautious. I’m not going to say I don’t trust anyone, because I trust people and I have best friends and people that are in my corner that I really can confide in, but I’m just aware. With my own father and my own grandmother on that side, they were not to be trusted.


What is your relationship with your father like now?
There’s never been any hatred. My dad not only was a crack addict, but he was abusive. He beat my mom up all the time in front of me when I was a kid, or beat me up. This is a man that’s clearly sick, and you know, his mom had him when she was 13. His dad is a super famous gospel singer, to the point where Whitney Houston was his children’s godmother, so that’s my aunt and uncle. But my dad doesn’t know them because his dad’s estranged and never did anything for him. So my dad didn’t know how to be a dad and I can’t hate him because his mom also wasn’t a mom. So he just had nothing to go from. He was super-talented and he had a lot of potential, but he’s just an angry, angry man now.

In my period of life between five and 15, I saw him physically maybe twice. Phone calls sporadically. He’s turned into this stereotype now. He’s constantly hitting me up and asking for money. I’ve paid his rent before. Just because I feel bad. But then I didn’t give him money once and he said I thought I was better than everyone and that I was a faggot and disgusting, and he can’t believe that God made me a man and I would decide to do this with myself. I mean, I know he sucked dick for crack. That’s why “Sinner Like You,” is just saying, “Yeah, I’m me. I’m unapologetically me because I was born this way.” But people are doing things that are crazy, like my dad will still preach the bible. And it’s like, that’s the type of shit that I don’t understand.


What were some of the hypocrisies and conflicts you saw as a child that affect your work?
My childhood was super weird because my mom, she was physically ejected from her house when her dad found out that my dad was black. She was 16 and her father just threw her out—she never went back. He threatened to kill her; he burned crosses in my grandma’s yard, all that shit. And so there was that. These people are bible thumpers but they’re also calling my dad a nigger, or going to my great grandmother’s house where my dad was living and burning the cross and knocking on the windows. But again, still preaching the bible and going to Church and all that good stuff.

When I grew up, I didn’t see any of that with my grandpop. He had kind of come around-ish by the time that I was old enough to have memories of him. But the community in general, because my mom is a beautiful white woman, and my dad was away, it was almost as if my dad was a little mistake that she made, and she shouldn’t make it again, and she’ll be OK. Her son is a cute kid, whatever, so we’re going to accept him into this white community.

I grew up super confused because I had that white side of the family and that black side of the family, but with both sides racist. The black side was pretty racist against my mom’s side. They would drive me to get dropped off at my grandma’s house and they would say, “Do you see your grandpa’s truck? He has a Confederate Flag—it’s because he hates you and he calls you a nigger.” Then I’m walking into my grandma’s house like, “Hey, does Grandpa call me a nigger because…” You know, how confusing?


What did that do to your self-esteem?
I don’t know if I processed it so much because honestly the only person that mattered to me was my mom. She’s not anything like that. She is the most open, loving, and accepting person that I could have ever met. She was never that way, but she had to work three or four jobs so she couldn’t watch me all the time. She had to be out working because we were broke, and then I was just forced to be in these situations between the two sides of the family. I was confused because I definitely remember I felt like I had to choose one side or the other, like I have to be white or I have to be black. I remember sometimes I’d be embarrassed because my cousins were black and I didn’t want to go to Walmart with them because people at school would see me with black people. And then I had a period where I didn’t want to be with white people. [Laughs].

In what ways was your mom helpful to you during your childhood?
My mom always just sort of—she would always sit me down and tell me, “You have the most beautiful skin. You have the most beautiful eye color. You’re perfect. You’re the future.” All that stuff. She was that medium that kept me level.

Continues below.

When did music and performance start playing a bigger role in your life?
Back home, I was always just doing talent shows and random competitions. I would always singer covers. It wasn’t until I got to New York that I realized I’m not as good of a singer as I thought I was. Because my town was so small and that area was so small that I probably was the best singer there. But I get to New York and every singer that was going up, I’m like, “You sound like Whitney Houston! Holy shit.” It was intimidating. Not only that, but they were singing their own songs. So I knew I had to write. But what do I write about? I met this vocal coach randomly, he messaged me through MySpace or something, and he was doing Lady Gaga’s vocal coaching. That was his thing. He invited me over so I went there and sang for him. He was like, “How much money do you have?” I told him I didn’t have any money, so he was like, “OK, I want you to keep coming. I’m not going to charge you.”


So he would vocal coach me for a while. At that time, I didn’t like it, but only because I had so many insecurities. I knew he was blatantly gay, the vocal coach, but I had still had discomfort with being gay. I was insecure in so many different ways that I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. He put me in with the weirdest people, like these random producers who did that song “Who Let the Dogs Out?” And they were telling me I need to be disco, like Robyn meets Sam Sparro. I kind of went into that, but it didn’t feel right. You feel it in your stomach. It’s kind of a growing thing. You really have to be honest with yourself.

Where did things begin to turn around for you?
One guy walked into one of my lessons or whatever looking for demo singers. He liked my voice and was like, “Come to Long Island. We should talk about music and work.” So I went there and he asked me what kind of music I want to make, since I’d been hearing from my vocal coach that I should be disco. I started telling him about my life story and he was like, “I don’t understand the connection. Why would you want to sing that kind of music?” He was like, “What do you like?” My favorite singers growing up on my mom’s side were like Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson, and Elvis Presley. On my dad’s side, we listened to true Gospel like Donny McClurkin and Yolanda Adams. There was all this soul and all this country. Then we started dabbling. My country influences starting coming in, my gospel influences starting coming in.


For some reason, I was always using biblical references when I wrote, but I didn’t notice it until the vocal coach was pointing it out to me. It makes sense to me because I grew up so heavily consumed by the Baptist church and that community, and my biggest problem with the whole thing was the hypocrisy and the conflict of self that I had in my head, knowing that the preacher was preaching something to me without necessarily being sure if he practiced what he preached. You know, everyone in the church, I wondered if they really went there to go to church and worship or were they going to be seen since they’d been fucked up the week before? I think those elements about how dark church could be were in my subconscious, and it started coming out in the writing.

Did you eventually become more open and comfortable with your sexuality?
I had been a little bit uncomfortable with the whole gay thing, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be gay in the music industry or if I want anyone to know about it. Ron Perry is this guy who owns SONGS Publishing, and he was like, “You should just be very honest. The more honest you are, the more relatable you’ll be.”

I call what I do “conflicted pop gospel” because everything I write about is really based on conflicting thoughts. Like, “Why is this OK but this is not OK?” It’s genuinely just asking questions because I don’t understand how a person wouldn’t see that I’m the same as them. I feel like I’ve begged my father’s family to come to grips and think, “I know that you’re a blackout alcoholic and you do drugs and do this, but you can preach and you’re going to go to heaven but I’m damned because I’m gay.” It doesn’t make sense.


Religion, the way I saw it growing up, is that it’s very fear-based. Nobody wants to die thinking they’re not going somewhere. They just put everything into this one thing and that’s it. But me, I don’t know that, so I have to ask the questions.

At the same time, you’re wearing a dangling cross from your ear. Is there still a connection to religion?
It’s because it was the biggest part of my growing up. And there are elements of the church that I love. Like I loved the choir. I loved that shit. I love the colors inside the church, like the stained-glass windows. I loved things about the church that are just cool aesthetically and sonically. The Bible though… I can’t bring myself to go to a church and sit through a sermon knowing that that Bible says I’m damned. There’s no way I can do it, so I have a hard time understanding gay Christians because the book clearly states something: You’re not wanted there. And there are great people in the world and there are people that are Christians that are definitely very open and would love you to come to their church, but I don’t want it to be a pity party. I don’t want these people welcoming me somewhere with the mentality like, “I know he’s gonna burn so let’s just treat him really nice while he’s here.” I’ve been disappointed by a lot of people, not saying I’ve only been disappointed by Christians. But almost any time people were saying something negative to me, it had a biblical connotation to it.

I wear this cross because I think of the conflict and how this was the biggest part of my childhood and this is everything to me. But realistically, who knows. I can dangle it from my ear, because who knows.

Speaking of idols, a little birdie told me you once got in trouble for having a Britney Spears poster in Christian school.
At one point, I was a Jesus freak—I was all in. Some anonymous person—and I still don’t know who did it—but this tuition was really expensive and I still don’t know who paid for me to go there. So I went, and academically, I’ve always been great. I had all As always, but they had conduct points there, so if your behavior was a little off, it counted towards your actual academic grade. I’d always get like a 28 out of 100 for my conduct. Major F.

One day, this teacher came to my desk and picked up my binder. I thought she was maybe going to check for homework or something. I had this clear binder and so you could see my Britney Spears poster. She opened it up and was like, “This is not allowed. It’s against the rules. You give me that binder.” She was like, “Britney Spears is not an idol. She’s a false idol. God is our only idol.” I was like, “This is my idol. I love Britney Spears and I’m not taking this out. My mom bought this for me.” She was like, “Well, you can’t bring it back to school.”

On a closing note, is there anything you’d like to say to our readers before they listen to the premiere?
I think it comes off pretty aggressive when you hear it. The message is very full on and in your face, and it sounds a little personal because I’m talking about myself. But I just think that the way that I felt growing up and coming out, I came out when I was 19 and my mom was fully accepting of it, but there’s this whole other world of people that I grew up with that might not like me for me. I had to stop thinking that way because everyone has something about them that’s just not like anyone else. I grew up and I was born homosexual and that’s just been me, forever. I just think when listening to the song, it can be applied to a very general and broad range of topics. If you want to think you’re better than me, well, the Bible says no one sin is worse than another one. So I would love for you to open your eyes and see that I’m just a sinner like you.

Follow Mathias Rosenzweig on Twitter.