Emmy-award winning actor Jim Parsons plays one of the funniest characters on TV, the genius, albeit neurotic, physicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. In his Guest DJ set, Jim gets "hopelessly deep" over Steely Dan, proclaims his admiration for Elvis and explains the therapeutic nature of piano playing, all while sharing personal and poignant stories about his life. Parsons just signed on to executive produce a new series for TV based on the YouTube program, Prodigies.
DW: Hey there, it’s Dan Wilcox from KCRW and I have the distinct pleasure of sitting here with actor Jim Parsons, who’s best known for his Emmy-nominated role as the genius, albeit neurotic physicist, Dr. Sheldon Cooper on the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Welcome Jim.
JP: Thank you for having me.
DW: Today we’re going to be playing excerpts of songs that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. So Jim, what do you have for us today?
JP: The first one I have is “Suspicious Minds,” by Elvis. I found Elvis, musically, in my grandmother’s house through albums that they had. And my image of Elvis, that I knew from my grandmother’s records, was of a guy that managed to be both cooler than I could even fathom being and a better son at the same time. He was just such a good mama’s boy and bought his mom that house and what have you. And I thought, how are you doing…you’re outdoing me in both ways!! But anyway, the reason “Suspicious Minds” sticks out for me is because when I first heard that, or when it first came into my consciousness, I could not believe the theatricality about it. And between the back up singers and the horns and whatever, it was…I guess this is much more judging –‘what do you mean you couldn’t believe Elvis had theatricality? - but, like I said, I had the younger one in my head…
DW: That doesn’t sound like the Elvis I know.
JP: *laughs* But I identified with that. I was like, ‘I get that. That is an Elvis I do have something in common with.’
This song gives me the feeling of a show that I REALLY want to be a part of.
DW: That was Elvis, with “Suspicious Minds.” Ok, this next one, you’ve got some explaining to do, what gives…
JP: Are you upset that Madonna’s on the list?
DW: No, not at all. I’m just…it’s interesting. Not only just Madonna, but this particular song.
DW: I’m very curious to hear.
JP: My relationship with this song “Don’t Tell Me” is very… it was an odd confluence of events. I was in grad school for theater and my best friend in the program was a big Madonna fan. I had been young and I enjoyed Madonna, like the “Borderline” stuff. But I hadn’t really thought much about Madonna much since then. I knew she was there – how could you not –
DW: Yeah, it’s kinda hard not to…
JP: Exactly. But he was a fanatic. And, keep going in time, we’re about to graduate, we’re working on our thesis projects, which were these one man shows and we’d all perform them in about an hour period, me and my class. And while we’re in the middle of working on them, or towards the end of it actually, I find out that my dad passed away in a car accident.
And, life is just completely turned upside down as far as what’s happening. And, very specifically for me, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’m about to graduate from grad school -- what does my family need from me? What does my mother, what does my sister need from me as far as this life-changing event that has occurred? And at some point it just hit me that I will only be of service to my family by doing what I need to do and my path. And that all that other kind of things of how we’re going to help each other, that’s all going to work out.
So I went back and I decided I’m going to do my thesis project, I’m going to graduate and we’re going to go from there. And when I got back, my class is like, ‘you get to pick the song we’re going to bow to.’ And so I picked “Don’t Tell Me,” by Madonna, which I really liked and thought it was a good idea. The only thing I’ll say is that the beginning part, that stuttering in the music, really kind of came back to bite us in the ass, because when you are taking a bow and music starts up and then it’s out, the audience is very confused as to what’s happening and they think the sound system in the theater is going out. And so, I’m still happy I picked it, but I don’t think I’d do it again because it wasn’t really the best thing to take a bow to.
DW: Ok, that was “Don’t Tell Me” by Madonna. I’m sitting here with Jim Parsons, the actor, who’s going through some music that means a lot to him. And we are moving on to our next pick. Why don’t you tell us about it?
JP: Classical song, it is “Sheep May Safely Graze,” by Bach. I first got to know this song through the piano. I was taking lessons. I went through a few different teachers and the final teacher I had, Mrs. Griffiths, we really connected at a very soulful level. The lessons were good and we got a lot of work done, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something therapeutic about them. But it mostly came out through the work. And this is a good example. We played “Sheep May Safely Graze” as, I believe they call it “four hands, two pianos,” where she would play a part and I would play a part, that’s how the sheet music was laid out. And it’s kind of unsurprising, looking back, that this was such a good fit for me because there was a touch of acting in it, in that we had to relate to each other, we had to answer each other and talk together basically through the piano in this song. And it was just as close to a spiritual experience, really, playing that song with her.
Several years after she and I played it together, on my own, I did take out that sheet music again and, for the first time ever, looked at her part. And I played her part. And there was an odd sensation for me because you’re so, or I was, so focused on learning my part of it. And to go back and try and play her part,…not only did you find it, difficult, but, also, so beautiful on its own. And I’d never heard her part on its own because I’d never practiced her part. And it was that feeling of something somebody was doing for you that you didn’t realize at the time, you know. And there was something kind of bittersweet in discovering that, mostly sweet, cause you’re like ‘awwwww,’ which is kind of odd to explain I guess, because she was just doing her part. But we were a team playing it.
DW: That was Sheep May Safely Graze, a piece by Bach. Let’s move on to our next pick. What have you got for us?
JP: This is off the Pixie’s “Doolittle” album, it’s called “No. 13 Baby.” This album - in particular the “Doolittle” album - was very much a soundtrack to a certain time in my life. And that would have been during undergrad, when I was just getting back involved into doing theater again. I’d kind of taken time off from acting after high school. I didn’t know if I wanted to do it. And I was very fortunate to become quick friends with a couple of people, a guy and a girl who were dating. And got a lot of work done, both in the way of becoming better actors - or at least attempting to - literally doing a lot of theater shows together, we were just getting cast in shows together and stuff, which was really fun. And we were doing a lot of work just growing up as very young adults. And we played the heck out of this album. It’s funny because I listen to this album, I don’t listen to it a lot anymore, and partly it’s because it kind of makes me a little sad, for what’s gone, and oddly a little anxious. Not in a bad way, but there’s a quality to so many of these Pixies songs on this album that the words, and the songs themselves…this one very much so I think exemplifies, kind of going back to that melancholy thing, and there’s a little hint of…it’s not haunting, but there’s, it’s almost once again something’s kind of not all the way right.
DW: And that was the Pixies with the song “No. 13 Baby,” and we are moving on to our next pick. Why don’t you tell us about it?
JP: “Deacon Blues,” by Steely Dan. One of the things it reminds me of, it’s reminiscent of the theme from “Taxi” -- “Angela’s Song.” There’s something that that does to me too that this one kind of does. It allows me to feel I’m kind of cool with things, in a way that I don’t really by nature. I don’t just mean that I’m not that cool, but I’m not that cool with things. There’s something about this, they seem ok with it all. It’s not all good, it’s not all going to work out, and that’s ok. And there is a ‘must go on despite all the melancholy’ about it. You know, there is a driven force, the heartbeat if you will, that goes not just ‘life goes on,’ but ‘the fight continues.’ I mean, talk about hopelessly deep on the Steely Dan song, but you get what I’m saying. It is, once again, not as much the words as just the quality of that sound of music.
DW: Jim, thank you so much for coming down here and sharing these songs with us.
JP: I appreciate it very much. I had no idea how close to therapy it would be and I don’t have to pay you at the end of it. So this is wonderful.
DW: We’ll talk about that later. For a complete track listing and to find these songs on line, go to KCRW.com/guestdjproject.