South Carolina-born, Brooklyn-based singer and songwriter Parson James likes to call his music “conflicted pop,” and one listen to singles like “Sinner Like You,” “Temple” and “Stole The Show” (his 2015 collaboration with Norwegian DJ/producer Kygo, which he penned) and the description feels entirely apt. His infectious and uplifting songs marry James’ soulful voice with shimmering pop production. His lyrics often address the duality of human nature and he has frequently found himself drawn to trying to make sense of his past and how it has shaped his identity.
Ashton Parson was born in the small town of Cheraw, South Carolina (also the birthplace of jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie). His mother was a 16-year-old high-school cheerleader when she became pregnant. 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.
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. 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?’”
James is currently working on the songs that will make up his debut album. “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.”