1.    EXT. LOS ANGELES HIGHWAY

FADE IN. SOME SWEET, CLOYING 90s SONG PLAYS

FRAN has tried calling twice, but there’s been a bit of a technical issue getting on the phone for an interview with PARSON JAMES, the singer-songwriter best known for the single “Stole the Show” which he co-wrote with KYGO. In the past year, Parson’s signing with RCA Records has jet-packed his career the way it does in movies. You can almost hear his newfound confidence when he finally gets on the phone — a strong wind and a girlish chatter in the background of his Southern drawl.

Fran immediately imagines Parson driving around, somewhere along the 5. He’s just got out of Barry’s Bootcamp, Parson says, so picture him in chic gym clothes and sunglasses in the backseat of a convertible filled with some of his girlfriends, who now laughing about something, the sun shining in their hair. Parson has a cell phone pressed to his ear with one hand, and with the other he’s likely holding a wide-brim preacher’s hat — one’s that’s now a bit of his trademark. He was wearing this hat when he shot with Hello Mr. a little over a week before in New York. He was wearing it taping for JIMMY FALLON, which he had to run off to right after. That day, he’d said he was “so nervous,” but you couldn’t detect any of that in his voice then, and you still couldn’t now.

FRAN
So, the day before we shot together in New York, you told us you were recovering from a long night out with friends. Care to share what that looks like?

PARSON
I hadn’t seen any of these guys in like a month, and all my friends are down to go out no matter what, like — there’s always something to celebrate. Everyone came out, we went to drag shows — we went to Boots & Saddles — all these places. We were out til 5, and ended up at a 24-hour diner. But, yea I made it to your shoot the next day, somehow.

FRAN
I mean, a 24-hour diner can really cure everything, can’t it?

PARSON
Seriously. But I’ve been eating so healthy in L.A., as one does here, and the second I got back to New York, I was on a quest the whole night to find hot wings.

FRAN
“The Quest for Hot Wings” should be the title of your album.

PARSON
Or it should be my bio-pic.

FRAN
Brilliant. Speaking of which, do you want tell us a little about this album? Just talk candidly about it.

PARSON
Yea, it’s been a process. I’ve been working soooo many years on it. It feels like everything I’ve worked on has built up to this moment. It’s a reflection of my childhood experiences: who I was as a human being, discovering love, discovering my darknesses, the energies within myself — everything from overdrinking to anxiety. Now I’m at a place where I’m facing these things head-on, putting it on paper. I took out a lot of influences from my past, and one of those is Southern Gospel. To me, it’s such a weird, mesmerizing, hypnotic music. To me, [gospel] is like being fearful about whether what you’re singing is true or not — or that’s kind of what I get out of it. So I wrote with that fear-driven sort of passion in my head. I bring a lot of those elements in with large choirs, just shouting. (laughs)

FRAN
You’re always so open about where it all comes from. Why do you think you’re so honest and transparent about your background and your story?

PARSON
I think because so many years, I wasn’t. If you ask me a question, I’ll answer it honestly. There are some artists who are good at being an enigma, or remaining a mystery. But I feel like the artists I loved so much growing up had everything on their sleeve. Like Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding — all of these people had issues that were never really — they never played it down at all. They were heartbroken, and they told you they were heartbroken. They were doing drugs, they told you they were doing drugs. I latch onto honesty.

FRAN
Absolutely, and all those artists you just listed, as well as yourself, are products of their environment, and you talk a lot about that. I’m wondering if you could describe your hometown, Cheraw, to me. Not necessarily the emotional qualities, not what happened there, but physically — the stuff in it — the buildings, the textures, the environment.

PARSON
It’s a gorgeous place. Super small — 5000 or so people. There are a lot of houses up there — old, plantation-looking houses — I mean I’m sure the history of those are really fucked up but, really gorgeous old houses, old churches.

 

2.    INT. OLD SAINT DAVID’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH

FADE IN, GOSPEL MUSIC

Cheraw is a town that mainly comprises football, buffets, and Episcopalians, as Parson might say. The prettiest town in Dixie, his MOTHER was “the talk of the town,” after being thrown out of her house at 16 for sleeping with a black man — then pregnant with his son, ASHTON — who we now know as Parson James.

Parson specifically describes a church that’s also featured in his music video-mentary “Sinner Like You,” a church where he first sang in a gospel choir, yet never felt accepted. This was a somewhat whitewashed community — the kind with confederate flags flying behind pickup trucks. Being a part of a broken, interracial family brought burning crosses to front yards, death threats, and slurs thrown at them on the street. As Parson’s FATHER walked out when he was 4, an entire community turned on his mother — a community that included the church. But that doesn’t make Parson spiteful.

“I don’t resent the town at all, I just learned a lot from it,” Parson says in the video. “It’s definitely shaped me. I take all of it.

Parson vaguely recounts a story he heard about how during the Civil War, General WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN lead his violent and ruinous March to Sea through the entire state of Georgia, capturing and destroying military bases, as well as industry buildings, transportation networks, and civilian property through Savannah and Atlanta. At the tail-end of his blood trail, Sherman arrived in Cheraw. He took one tour of the town and did very little pillaging. Sherman and his boys instead took that time to relax, essentially deciding Cheraw was too charming to destroy.

 

PARSON
And it kind of is that. Really pretty, really quaint.

FRAN
How often do you get to visit home? What’s that like?

PARSON
It’s not that often anymore. It use to be pretty frequently, but now I go maybe three times a year — I mean I guess that’s still a lot. I do pretty good. I have a little sister now, and she’s everything. It’s my first sibling I’ve ever had and she’s 24 years younger than me.

FRAN
I’m sure you’ve been told this before, but you’re a great storyteller. A word I could use to describe your life is “cinematic.” You have a lot of carefully-detailed stories from your past. I’m wondering if you could tell us a single story, start to finish, from your home or from moving to New York. Describe it as a scene.

 

3.    EXT. A MAIN STREET IN CHERAW, SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE A RICH WHITE LADY’S HOME

DAYLIGHT, BIRDS CHIRPING ON A HOT, HOT DAY

Parson says his mother was granted an apartment for free as a single mom — part of some Section 8 outreach he doesn’t quite recall. One of his first memories involves his great grandmother on his dad’s side, “a big black lady” who lived with his mom for the first few years of his life, a woman who’d sit on his mother’s porch in a bra and a skirt, known by the entire neighborhood for being a fun-loving septuagenarian who sold bootleg liquor out of her house on Sundays, where in South Carolina it’s illegal to buy booze on the Sabbath.

His great grandma, Parson says, cleaned houses for rich white ladies. She never learned how to drive, never learned how to read, so Parson would walk with her, as she hummed, for hours at a time, to the houses to help her clean houses for extended periods you can only imagine would be exhaustingly boring for a four-year-old. But she liked the company, and would always slip Parson a fiver from her own $60-per-house wage. He remembers one woman in particular, a woman named KIMBRELL, wrote his grandmother into her dying will, and when the woman passed, she shared it with Parson and his mother.

PARSON
I think the whole situation — with mom running from her family – my great grandma and my mom made sure I never saw it full on. They protected me and guarded me from it.

 

4.    EXT. NEW YORK FREAKIN’ CITY

DRONE SHOT OVER MANHATTAN, TAYLOR SWIFT’S “WELCOME TO NEW YORK” PLAYS

Parson moved to New York when he was 17, and in between the time his flight landed and the time he signed with a high-profile manager was a series of open mics in dive bars, a collection of awful living situations, and a realization that the girl he was dating just wasn’t going to work out.

FRAN
Was there a moment in your journey from there to here where you were like, “Oh shit, I think I just made it?
\

PARSON
I feel like Barclays Center.

FRAN
What was that like?

PARSON
I get really weird before shows. I’m sure I was super strange, pacing around before. My friends were there so they got to stand in the crowd. It was the first time people were asking for pictures because they knew who I was and I thought that was pretty strange. I don’t remember anything from the performance because I kind of black out on stage.

FRAN
What do you mean by you “get really weird”?

PARSON
I’m short, I pace around, I smile a lot. I can’t hold a conversation for very long, I have to keep going around and talking to people. And then I wanna be alone for a second, and I put my in-ears early, like an hour before I have to, and then I pace around.

FRAN
You’re like a shark – you know how if it  stops swimming, it’ll die?

PARSON
Yea, yea, yea!

FRAN
When you’re at a high-profile party, or when you’re doing something huge, like Fallon, what kinds of things are going through your head?

PARSON
I’m always like, “Thank you to whoever made this happen,” like right before, I’ll say that outloud on stage, like, “whoever made this happen, allow me to do the best that I possibly can. I don’t know why this is happening to me, but, Thank you, whoever.” (laughs) I get pretty emotional and think about how it all started. For the most part I try to be gracious and thankful. But when I’m at parties, I just get nervous and drink.

FRAN
Nervous like, socially?

PARSON
Yea, I’ve had a few experiences in the past like at the Grammy’s — I was at a weekend South Beach party, or something like that. I don’t know how to act there, so I’m pretty awkward. I’ll go up to the One Direction guy and be like “congratulations on your baby!!!” Like, I did that.

 

5.    INT. A SHITTY APARTMENT IN CHINATOWN

FADE IN, TAYLOR SWIFT’S “WELCOME TO NEW YORK” PLAYS, IRONICALLY

Before he signed with RCA, Parson was living in the apartment of his best friend, ELENA, in an unheated basement in the dead of winter. He’d started recording with some promising music industry types, but no one was biting and he couldn’t land a job, dirt-broke and hopping the turnstiles of the MTA. He describes the crushing feeling of the waiting period — waking up every morning wondering, “Am I gonna get an email today? Am I gonna get a text today?” regarding his record-signing.

”We were freezing our fuckin asses off, sharing a bed, using fur coats as extra blankets,” he says.

 


 

6.    INT. ON SET WITH HELLO MR., A STUDIO IN SOHO

 

RIHANNA IS PLAYING ON SOMEBODY’S IPHONE SPEAKER

 

Fran figures out later that this friend Parson shared a bed with in Chinatown is evidently the same woman who did the makeup and grooming while shooting this cover story, a week before their call. Upon entering with a posse that included two managers, a few friends, Elena, and very small French bull dog, Parson swept over to the clothing rack and picked up a black hat with a retro zipper on it.

 

“Elena, look at this.” It was unclear as to whether the hat was good or bad, but they silently agreed on whatever their opinion was. Throughout, Parson would try on an outfit, and look to her for an assuring two cents. The two were like Mary & Rhoda, exchanging rapid inside-jokey banter, chatting nonstop on set and cracking each other up.

 

FRAN

Do your friends ever say stuff like “you’ve changed?” Do they ever point out a difference between Ashton Parson from Cheraw and Top-40, Barclays-filling Parson James?

 

PARSON

I think the only thing would be — or what my boyfriend would say — is “Parson’s a diva.” It’s not that though! I’ve never had an opportunity to own nice things before.  If you asked me, and if you asked my best friends what I’ve done differently in the last year is — it’s stay at nicer hotels. Like, I have a little bit nicer clothes, that’s it.

 

FRAN

Tell me a little more about [your boyfriend] — you guys are all over Instagram, lookin’ cute.

 

 

 

PARSON

He’s an amazing hairstylist, and that’s how I met him. I heard his name a lot, he heard my name a lot. And then we finally saw each out at Westgay — remember that party?

 

FRAN

Huh-huh, oh, yea I do.

 

PARSON

I was like, drunk and twirling off somewhere, and we started talking. I thought to myself that he was too attractive for me. But then we saw each other again and again — it was sort of a natural thing.

 

FRAN

Is there a boundary you have to be careful of in terms of a work/personal relationship?

 

PARSON

We’re learning! It’s new and we’re learning. It’d be amazing to travel together all the time, but we both have separate careers that we have to think about.

 

FRAN

Do you ever have fans that reach out to you asking for advice?

 

PARSON

Yes. Actually a lot — a number of fans from Europe and other countries. There’s one guy in particular who I remember talking to for a period of time from — it might’ve been Russia. He wanted to come out, but couldn’t. His parents would disown him. I don’t know how crazy the situations are over there, so I can’t be the one that’s like “go get your damn lay at night.” But I can say, make sure you don’t think there’s anything wrong with you. This is just who you are, you need to be comfortable, you need to be proud.” I can usually only give that kind of advice.

 

FRAN

So, now we’re gonna list a few heroines, both yours and ours. With each one, can you share a sentence, memory, or opinion about them?

 

PARSON

O.K.

 

FRAN

You ready?

 

PARSON

Yes.

 

FRAN

The first is Whitney Houston.

 

 

 

PARSON

Unmatchable voice. A truly sad story, and I dunno — it’s a tragedy. My aunt and uncle — I’ve never met them — Whitney Houston was their godmother.

 

FRAN

Wow! So, the next one is The Dixie Chicks.

 

PARSON

Um, “Earl Must Die.” I just think about being at my Grandma’s house with my aunts, all of us screaming that song. They’re amazing women. They stood up for what they believed in when everyone turned against them, I hope that they come back.

 

FRAN

Ok, so we have to talk about Selena.

 

 

 

PARSON

Oh my god. (laughs) INCOMPARABLE. Everything about her. I felt so connected to her story, and her as an artist, for my entire life. I mean, she’s the background on my phone. She is everything to me. This is the month of her death, actually. We went out the other night and had a memorial because this was the month of her last show. Her story means so much to me. She is Number One to me. Number One.

 

FRAN

What about Mariah Carey.

 

PARSON

The Queen of Shade.

 

FRAN

How about Dolly Parton.

 

 

 

PARSON

I named my dog after her. Dolly Parson. She’s the sweetest, so cuddly. I got her at Citypup, after brunch. We saw her and fell in love. And I thought “Oh, I’m gonna be traveling too much.” My boyfriend and my friend Stephanie were like, we’re never gonna speak to you again if you don’t get this dog. But it was the best thing I ever bought, ever.

 

 

 

FRAN

The last one is Your Mom.

 

PARSON

The epitome of strength, independence, beauty, grace. She always knows exactly what to say. She’s hot-headed at times, but that’s the charming thing about her. She believes in what she says. She’s taught me every way of life — every way of life. How to survive, how to talk to people, how to remove the crazy things that ______. Unparalleled from any person I know. She’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met.

 

NEW SCENE INVOLVING MOTHER

 


 

7.    EXT. BACK IN CHERAW, A SUNDAY, SOMEWHERE ALONG THE MAIN STREET

 

ENTER ELENA, LOOKING FRANTIC

 

When Parson was filming the video for “Sinner Like You” in Cheraw, it goes without saying a population that small is gonna notice when a film is being produced around town. While they were shooting, a button or fastener of Parson’s outfit had broken, and they needed a safety pin to hold it together.

 

 

 

Elena says she took to finding a safety pin, but everything was closed — even Walmart, she found, wouldn’t sell her a pin.

 

After all the searching, Elena met a woman from Cheraw who she thought to be a weird stranger. But after a short conversation, it became clear that the woman recognized her from the film crew, saying she knew who they were, and knew what they were up to.

 

In the context of Cheraw, South Carolina — knowing Parson’s upbringing and stories from home — it would be easy to assume that this lady meant trouble. The film reckoned with Cheraw’s Southern fundamentalism and at this time, Parson James had publically established himself as an out and proud music artist, news that assuredly had reached the town by this point. Here, over something as small as a safety pin, Parson’s efforts would once again be confronted by his past. But instead, the woman reached down to her waist and carefully removed the safety pin holding her own trousers together, handing it to Elena.

 

“I know Ashton,” the woman said.

 

FRAN

What does spirituality mean to you?

 

PARSON

I think there has to be some sort of higher power, some sort of energy that you put out, you know, you get back. I think that everybody’s version of what that is gonna be totally different — I can’t believe that it’s one book or one belief or one teaching, but I think that spirituality is finding a sense of peace in yourself — putting out good energy and just do good, you know. I think it kind of comes from the core principles of what we’ve always known: kind of like, be grateful, be humble, love each other — that sort of thing. I think it’s been dependent too much on what not to do, and how bad you are — it’s confusing and based out of fear. I think that’s not spirituality, I think spirituality is a peace in yourself.