Rising star Parson James made his debut last year when he wrote and lent his voice to Norwegian DJ Kygo's hit single "Stole the Show." Following this splashy debut, he released the soulful EP, "Temple," and now - signed to RCA Records - he is currently working on his first solo album.
James knew exactly what he wanted from a young age - a career in music. However, his journey from a small South Carolina town to the bright lights of big city stages was paved with hurdles.
“Being mixed race and knowing I was gay at a very young age and having a passion to move to New York and pursue music, that was against everything my community stood for," he told NBC OUT.
James said his identity also presented issues within his own family.
“Being biracial was like – I had two sides of my family, and they were both racist," he explained. "I found myself trying to find where I fit in in that spectrum."
Despite the challenges thrown his way, James is focusing on the lessons those difficult situations presented. “You can’t let the fears of the other people around you deter you or hold you back."
James admits the internal and external conflicts that have been part of his life have influenced his work.
"I grew up thinking something was wrong and now having a different view, I find that conflict bleeds into the writing and is therapeutic."
He said his hometown of Cheraw, S.C., for example, fueled his love of music. “[It] is a very small place, like 5,000 people or so, and the only thing the town is sort of known for is jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, so there’s a lot of jazz festivals and that sort of thing."
And he said his parents, who have very different musical tastes, contributed to the his distinctive sound. “On my mom’s side ... she was listening to a lot of 90s R&B, Tupac ... My dad’s side of the family listened to Bill Withers, Otis Redding and Elvis Presley. Even some country music, like Johnny Cash."
"I would say that my early work really was a bit dishonest, because I was writing love songs when I wasn’t in love, writing what I thought people wanted me to write."
His biggest influence, however, was the Baptist Church. "Growing up, by the time I was five or six, I found myself always singing - in and out of the church - and it became who I was," he explained.
When his mother took him to New York for a visit at 16, James quickly realized he had found his future home. He graduated from high school early, and at 17 flocked to the Big Apple to begin his musical career.
"I would say that my early work really was a bit dishonest, because I was writing love songs when I wasn’t in love, writing what I thought people wanted me to write. A friend of mine, who knows who I am and my life experiences asked me why I wasn't writing about my own life, and that struck a cord with me."
James said his writing became more honest after he began writing in a journal, and he used the first song he wrote, "Sinner Like You," to explain his process to NBC OUT.
"It started out as a story. I just went back to the moment when I was coming out to my mom, and I did that over the phone. I was super afraid, even though she is the most understanding and most loving woman ever. I was scared because I had been raised around these really set ways, so I knew my coming out would result in a series of disappoint. I wrote that fear, and I put myself back in that place. I wasn’t just coming out to her, I was coming out to this whole community who would look at us differently. Just the way they did to her when she was 16 and had a black boyfriend, and she had me. She was cast away.”
"Sinner Like You" and the rest of the tracks on "Temple" are all about different experiences and memories from the singer's journey, which culminated in coming to terms with his true self.
James is now working his debut album, which has not yet been named, and he said he's excited for people to hear his new music.
“There are things that happened in my life recently, regarding love and adjusting to new things that have happened in the last year and a half. My music’s become accessible, and things have gone well for me. There’s just so many stories that I have to share ... I hope people can connect to those.”
His most important accomplishment to date, however, goes beyond music: "I learned to celebrate who I am and love who I am as a person."