They may have grown up on opposite sides of the world - South Carolina and Auckland’s North Shore respectively - but Parson James and Randa have a lot in common.
They're both headliners: Parson James at Sunday’s Big Gay Out Festival, Randa - winner of the Critic's Choice Award at the 2014 NZ Music Awards - at The New Normal, another upcoming Pride Festival event. They’re both proud and vocal LGBTQI performers making waves in the music community. And they both have a ton of mutual respect for one another.
RNZ’s Music 101 team put Parson James and Randa together one lovely afternoon. They jammed. They chatted. And yes, they bonded.
*Interview transcript edited for brevity and clarity.
Randa: That was awesome, that was incredible.
Parson James: Thank you! No you, I said it before but your tone is like, incredible, so cool hear you, in front of you. It's really awesome.
R: Oh thank you, that means a lot. I feel really blessed because I only knew this was happening as of the last few days, so it's like this super cool experience that I didn't even get to anticipate for that long.
P: That's awesome though, no I'm so glad that it got to work out this way. It's super important for me to meet someone like you, doing such awesome stuff and, you know, just being yourself. That's kind of what I stand for and stuff, so to just be on the other side of the world and see it, from another artist's point of view as well, it's just really beautiful.
R: Aw that's so cool, thank you. How is New Zealand treating you?
P: So far, so good. So I got here yesterday but I've been here before, last July. I stayed for only like a week last time so I didn't really get a chance to explore. This time I made a point be here with my family, have some time to perform and do all that which is amazing, and then have at least a week fully off.
R: Cool. You played at St Mary's [Church] last time you were here, right?
R: Yeah I saw the video; that was awesome.
P: That was crazy.
R: What did that feel like for you?
P: I think my biggest fear before was, like, nobodies gonna come. [laughs]
R: Why was that?
P: I don't know, I just had this fear. I was on the other side of the world, I wouldn't expect anyone to know or care to come to see the show or not. But I was so hoping that they would because, you know there were 50 LGBTQ singers standing there and singing and, you know, some were Māori, some were from other places in New Zealand, some from a little bit out of New Zealand, but everyone was so far away from where I grew up and to just experience the love and unity on stage like that, I really wanted other people to witness it.
And luckily people came and I kind of blacked out during. I only did five songs and it was acoustic plus the choir, the Gals choir, and I don't know. I think that anytime that amount of voices are hitting you anyway it's really powerful, but I started internalising and thinking about everyone's story and how much we probably had in common in our just our navigation through life and stuff, so I think that it all just overwhelmed me so much.
And I really, really have clung on to that night as one of my favourite nights ever and one of the most important things I've done.
R: Cool, that's so special. That's cool that you mentioned there were singers from smaller towns and not just from the big city, you know. ‘Cos you're from South Carolina originally right?
P: I always think about this, like whenever I was growing up in Baptist churches and stuff - which you know [I was] kind of forced into - I've heard some of the best singers in my entire life come out of those places, but they're just kind of stuck there, which is sad.
If you think about how much talent is in the world, how many greater voices than even what we're confined to in radio or just what's exposed online or whatnot, it's insane to think about.
R: Absolutely. Was that a big reason as to why you moved to New York?
P: Yeah, well I mean I moved to New York because I think I saw so many people that have potential and everyone was very comfortable. I think the second that you're comfortable it's really hard to break yourself out of changing the pace and trying something different.
I had really crazy experiences with how I grew up with my dad and my mom and the racism and abuse and stuff and I guess most people there, what I've noticed, a lot of people have those same problems but they internalise them and they're really angry about it.
I took that all as, like, learning experiences. So I was very conscious and aware that I wouldn't make those same mistakes and the only possible way was to exit the situation and the community and New York was this big place from my dreams.
Because I was kind of the only singer in my area, I always thought I was pretty good. And then you get to New York and there's all these people that have escaped from different situations that are coming, singing their heart out trying get towards their goal too, so it was beautiful, overwhelming, and it really was a reality check of like, "wow, there's a lot of voices to be heard".
And you know, those that do get the platform and opportunity to use it for a greater good, I think are awesome. That's what I try to do. I mean I'm not in a position to be the spokesperson for anything but I try to promote it as much as possible.
R: That's so cool, I guess it kind of puts this responsibility on you right? But it's also one that you've chosen but you're happy to represent that.
P: Totally. I mean I don't feel it's any pressure, it's just necessary.
R: Do you think about kids in small towns finding you online and how there will be kids like you and they can discover your music?
P: I have this thing as well where I'm very - and I've always been this way - I think I'm a huge empath, is that the word?
I feel everyone's pain and I've always been that way and can't just meet a person that's been through something and just let it go. If they're telling me something that's that important and that's detrimental and that's affected them I can't just be like "well that sucks, I'm so sorry". I can't help but I could offer something, I don't know.
I think with the songs that I've put out and the messages I've put out, which were all therapy for me, there were just songs that I had to write ‘cos I was hiding so much for so long. I get messages from kids from all over the place and they're going through similar situations and stuff and I find myself just online, just like always talking back and forth.
The saddest things, like if you get kids that are questioning that they should be living or not and that sort that sort of thing, it gets super intense but it seems like a duty almost to talk people through. Everyone that is alive, I think, has a purpose but you can realise that by just learning to love yourself and finding that there's no problem with who you are if you're a little different or whatnot.
You can't give one piece of advice to everyone at all, ever. You can just kind of try to sympathise with their specific situation, and for me the first step has always been love yourself, and know that there's nothing wrong, and if other people are going to love you they're going to love you, if they're not they're not.
No opinion is going to be unanimous on you, so don't think that way and I try to do that the best I can, it is overwhelming cos' I just wish that we could all help everyone.
R: Yeah, absolutely. When I was a kid I had some friends at school, but I didn't identify with most of my fellow students and I found that kind of hard. I found music and just like watching TV to be this big escape, so I wouldn't really concentrate at school and then I'd just, like, float away and put all my energy into other thoughts and dreams.
And then when I left school I kind of just started meeting people who were like me, and I kind of didn't think it would ever happen. Is that what it was like, were there people you connected with at home and then when you went to New York did you meet a lot of people who you felt like you knew forever?
P: There definitely were connections that I had with certain friends and stuff back home and there are still a few that are dear friends and stuff now and realistically though in the end - now I'm an adult and I'm looking back - we were friends from when we were growing up so, you know, we really don't have anything in common.
We all live very different lives but there's some sort of “we grew up together and we know each other's darkest secrets” sort of situation. But we couldn't put ourselves into each other's lives because we can't wrap our heads around it.
When I went to New York, I had never met a gay person, or an openly gay person. There's probably plenty. I had never experienced that, I never experienced the confidence of someone that can just dress thinking about what other people are gonna say and all that kind of stuff, so that was really refreshing.
My best friends that are in there and that have led me to the career that has taken me to other places in the world to meet other people that are also expressing themselves, and identifying with groups of people that are like them, it's been really beautiful to see. I feel like I always kind of bash the South so much and you can't speak for the whole. I guess there are a few people that are ok and they know because you're their friend, but I don't think that they really truly relate, they just want to be, like, I'm ok with you because I've known you for so long sort of thing.
Where did you grow up again?
R: I grew up on the North Shore, so I grew up in Auckland. The North Shore is pretty suburban, I went to Catholic school my whole life, but then in saying that my parents, like my family, were always quite open minded. My family, my parents, were born into being Catholic and, you know, we still go to church sometimes but at the same time I've got a lot of family members who are gay and I identify as trans so I don't know, I guess I was super lucky in that I never felt like I had to be - I mean I felt societal pressure to fit to my assigned gender.
P: I think that probably just comes with being young, huh? When I think about now and I have really high hopes for the millennials and the people of the next generation, just ‘cos what I've seen in the elections in the US, I think that actually the crueler people are those older, that are still backdated to views that they were totally conditioned with. It's really refreshing to see how many young people are so supportive and just like "oh this is this person, this is their life" like they don't even question. I can't wait for a time when there is just that.
R: Yeah, when the 11-year-olds of today are like 80. Right?
P: Yeah, and it was something so - last time I think I was here it had just happened - you know I'm from South Carolina. North Carolina had the trans bathroom debacle and then here, total opposite was a school kid that didn't identify with their assigned gender and they installed a bathroom for that child, which I was like "man, that's epic". And the kids weren't bothering the kid or anything. I don't know, that sort of stuff gives me super high hopes, especially coming out of the grim situation where I'm from, which I do think will find a light in the end.
I think that that's uniting us in a way and the whole, not just the nation, but the world is coming together on this particular situation.
R: Cool, I'm glad to hear that. One of my friends, she just got back from America. She kinda grew up in Milwaukee and lived mainly in New York but I think she wants to get there ‘cos she kind of wants to fight, you know.
P: Of course, it's empowering to see the women's marches pretty recently. I was on a vocal rest, I had a little issue with my vocals, but I did find myself getting out of the subway straight into the march like *woosh*. It was awesome to see, and how many places, even Antarctica.
R: Cool, Antarctica!
P: Yeah there was like six people. But they were totally there for it, there were signs and everything.
R: That's awesome.
P: It's awesome to see. I wasn't alive, obviously neither one of us was during the ‘60s, but it reminds me of that time where the people, the progressives, just rebelled. [There was a] coming together of all the people that were outcasts and whatnot. That's what it reminds me of. And a lot of great art came out of that time period too so, we could be onto something.
R: Does that influence you a lot when you write as well?
P: The times? Like what we're going through as a world and stuff? Yeah, I think a lot. At first whenever I was writing it was very personal and for me and for therapy, but as I wrote more I realised that I wanted people to just have stories and songs to be able to cling to and have hope for, because every song that I write I try to insert a message of 'it's not the end of the world'.
Everyone hurts and everyone goes through something really terrible and that's just kind of how life goes, life is never on a constant up-curve or down-curve. But there's always a light at the end of the tunnel if you want there to be. So that's my main influence, to keep remembering that for myself, ‘cos you know, when you're in the slums and stuff it's easy to drift off into terrible thoughts, but just trying to keep that mindset of 'this is not the end of the world.