In the early 2010's, an unknown 17-year-old Ashton Parson moved to NYC to escape the conservative restraints of his deep south, small-town life and jumpstart his career as an aspiring--and conflicted--musician. Six years later, a record deal with RCA and the number one single "Stole the Show," the now 23-year-old pop star Parson James has just released "Only You" -- the first single off his highly anticipated debut album.
We had the pleasure of catching up with James shortly before the soulful new single dropped, where he admitted to be "extremely nervous" about releasing "Only You" to the world. The emotionally charged breakup ballad highlights James' powerhouse vocals, but this virtuosity comes at the expense of a three-year love story, and James' mental and physical health.
It has been almost two years since Parson James last spoke with OUT, but the artist on the rise still holds close the same testimonies, like the duality of human nature, an obsession with conflicting thoughts and a strong interconnection to the figures and themes of his past.
OUT: What was the writing process for "Only You"?
Parson James: I had just moved from New York to LA as sort of an escape because I had just decided that I was ending things with my partner of three years. It was such a brutal demise of our relationship that I found running away to a good place was the best option in my head. When I got out here, within a week or so of breaking up, I found the first place that I could and just settled down. It was pretty lonely and isolating, but I was still writing at the same time. In the past, I've made records that were therapeutic and usually about things in my past, like sexuality and how I grew up. This was one of the first times where I felt like I couldn't write anything else other than this person, the best friend that I just lost. In my headspace, I had convinced myself that even though he was cheating on me, and then, in return, I cheated on him too, nobody would love me as much as he would. So I convinced myself of that and then that song just sort of started taking shape. It was super emotional and it was one of the first things I had written about my ex. But time has gone on and the whole healing process took a bit. And now, for me, when I sit back and look at that song, I've regained a bit of confidence. I was a bit destructive for a bit--over eating, over drinking and over doing everything... but I've healed. I look at the song now and think that I'm actually singing to myself rather than to him. I think that I lost a part of myself in the relationship, and I've been trying to find my way back to that person. I am slowly but surely getting there.
The last time you spoke with OUT, you talked about how your past -- racism, religion-based homophobia, addiction, and domestic abuse -- strongly influenced your music. Two years, a breakup and a nasty presidential election later, what influences your work today?
Growing up in the South is such an experience. There are so many things that we can't comprehend as gay male adults. There is this mindset that I just will never understand from those places. But there are some elements of it that are inspiring in a way. Things that had hurt me in a way, I have now grown from them. For me, heartache is an inspiration, as fucked up as that sounds. My managers were equally happy for me as they were sad whenever I broke up with [my ex]. But I've also always promoted a celebration of self. And that's because I didn't for so long. I was in a place where I was a person who was wronged for just being himself. So celebration of self and finding hope and light out of any tunnel have always been my message and my platform. This still bleeds through all of the works that I've been working on currently. Love is one thing and I think that the state of the world at the moment is another thing.
In today's tense political climate, what do you feel is most important for you to talk about as a queer artist in America today?
I think that unity is pretty much the biggest thing. The period of time we're living in is so insanely troubling and scary. But me being me and trying to find some positive aspect of it, it also reminds me of a time like the sixties, where people were just standing up for peace and influencing artists to make art that were retaliations to what was happening around us. And I think that is what we should be doing at the moment. I think we have an opportunity and responsibility as artists and influencers to speak up. How do we feel? I feel fucking sad that race is still an issue. I feel sad that I have to bite my fingernails to see if Australia was going to approve gay marriage or not. I think that those things are worth talking about. There are a few songs I have written that are about not feeling safe today, but also not wanting to let all these things in the world make me afraid. There are just all these emotions that we're all feeling right now that I think we should express.
What can fans expect on your forthcoming debut album? Where does "Only You" fit?
The album's conception came from what's happening in my life at the moment. This will also bleed into what is happening to other people and what is happening in the world. The start of this record, "Only You," is only the first take on how vulnerable you can be. It was being honest about the fact that I don't think anyone can love me. I don't think that I'm worthy of that. It's about processing grief and understanding how to navigate being lonely, understanding how to adjust and regain confidence and build yourself and finding your way back to the person you've lost -- yourself. So this album is an honest story about what I am experiencing in life as it happens after losing someone so significant.
You've been collaborating with producer Joel Little, who's notably worked with Lorde, Sam Smith, and Ellie Goulding. Does this hint at new material coming soon?
Joel Little and I haven't worked directly together yet, but he curated a retreat of sorts for all of his favorite artists and writers. Joel and I have known each other for quite a bit and it's just timing and stuff that we haven't been able to work out, but I did go on the retreat with so many brilliant writers and artists in Nicaragua. Joel put together sessions that he thought would be cool, sessions that normally wouldn't happen because the pairings were kind of odd. Out of that trip, I got some incredible stuff. I wrote a really amazing song with Caleb Knotts from BROODS and got two duets as well, so yes, new material will be coming out very soon. And we've already got follow-up singles that are slated for February, so we can get that album ready before summer.