Arlo Parks: I need to be around people just to recharge
In August 2020, Michelle Obama shared a playlist of songs that had inspired her during a recent project. Among that list were Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar and one Arlo Parks from west London. Aged just 20, the British singer and poet’s inclusion by the former first lady of the United States was a testament to how far her music had travelled whilst she had remained put, at her parents’ house, during the pandemic.
“It’s one of those things that is inconceivable,” she says over the phone, her conversational voice as lilting and soft as her singing one. “It still hasn’t really sunk in.”
Her debut album, Collapsed In Sunbeams, was recorded during the first months of the pandemic. Parks booked an Airbnb to create a blank space and worked with Los Angeles-based songwriter and producer Gianluca Buccellati remotely. It was released in January 2021 shortly after the UK was plunged into another lockdown, reaching number three in the charts. So while Parks has been tucked away at home, her profile has grown to previously unimaginable levels.
“Honestly, because I am not really going out that much I haven’t felt this seismic shift,” she says of getting noticed in the street. It happens occasionally if I am going on a walk with a friend. But it hasn’t felt like my world has expanded or contracted in any big way. I spend most of my time where I have always lived, just at home with my parents.”
The experience has been “interestingly grounding” because while her music may be reaching further and further she is still at home doing the chores. “I have got to hoover after this interview,” she laughs brightly. “It is genuinely very humbling. I don’t feel like a superstar.”
Collapsed In Sunbeams is steeped through with Parks’ own identity, she is bisexual and has Nigerian, Chadian and French heritage. She is also a Londoner in the purest sense, inspired by the hustle and bustle of the city. “The thing that was kind of terrifying me slightly was that sense of, ‘Oh my goodness, will this resonate with people? Will this bring people joy?’ But the fact it has is super comforting.”
The album pivots between sweet-natured ruminations on love and life, and darkly poetic pieces about depression and domestic strife. Black Dog sees her contemplating a friend’s depression.”It’s that sense of honesty and the fact I am just talking about somebody I know and love,” she says after a pause. There is no sense of judgment surrounding it. I like to think that I approach it in a way that is empathetic and tender.”
Empathy is a theme that runs throughout Parks’ work and much has been made of her acute emotional sensitivities. “I guess it is towing that line between trying to create some thread of hope while also being completely honest and unflinching about how difficult things can be and just balancing those two things,” she offers. “I hope it is because people see it is coming from a place of pure intention and I wrote it because my friend was going through something and I wasn’t really sure what else to do.”
Parks has also found herself positioned as a flagbearer for Generation Z, if reluctantly. “The reason I shy away from the idea of being the voice of whatever generation is that although there are certain things that tie us together, I feel it is comprised over very different individuals. If I held up two 20-year-olds from across the world, maybe they would both have a phone or something like that, but I feel like you wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh yeah, they are same person’. It’s not as clear cut as that.”
However, her music is undeniably Gen Z in one way, it mixes, matches and draws inspiration from influences in a way only possible in the streaming era. Pop names such as Harry Styles, Frank Ocean and Solange, trip-hoppers Massive Attack, dance music auteurs Floating Points, Four Tet and Caribou, they all feed into her work. “I genuinely feel like almost all genres of music have somehow diffused into my music,” she asserts.
Lockdown has, understandably, been hard for Parks. She was on the cusp of success when coronavirus hit. But it has also offered her a chance to focus on being creative. “For me it has been about finding ways to inspire myself,” she says. “That has been a lot of exploring film and exploring photography and exploring production, sending letters and having a lot of phone calls and FaceTime moments.”
Yet as a writer who draws inspiration from what they see and hear, has a lack of human contact had a negative impact? “It has definitely been difficult,” she admits. “As a human being I also need to be around people quite often just to recharge. That’s just my personality. So that has been quite difficult. But on the flip side it has been interesting to be inspired by other things and just to find other avenues with which to write.”
Parks has therefore has been gravitating towards film, photography and music that is “very human”. She read I’ve Seen The Future And I’m Not Going by 80s New York visual artist Peter McGough, watched the 2019 French historical drama Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and engaged with the work of German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. Time spent wisely, you might think, before she finally heads out on tour to play her album live.
“I definitely want it to be an experience,” she tells me. “I know that sounds very vague but I want to find a way to incorporate the central themes of the album – the idea of sunlight and the idea of growth, and my love of flowers. I want to incorporate that in some visual way. What I did last time when I was reading poems halfway through the set and giving them to the audience, just having that idea of creating a safe space with my concepts is something I really want to pursue.”
Created with Amazon Music as a part of its developing artist program Breakthrough, Tonight With Arlo Parks is produced and presented by Up The Game, in association with Transgressive Records and is available now on Amazon Prime Video.