Arlo Parks on her debut album and the importance of staying vulnerable
The 20-year-old London musician reflects on her career so far as she prepares to release ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’.
Photography Alexandra Waespi
By now, you’ve likely heard the emotional wizardry that is Arlo Parks’ music. But did you know that her storytelling started with a spate of fiction writing? Arlo’s imagination at around eight years old was extremely vivid, and she’d regularly produce epic tales filled with heroism, espionage, robbery, and long, perilous journeys. “It was always very action-packed,” the 20-year-old Londoner reflects. “A lot of it was about escaping. I think it was because I was living in quite a quiet part of town and not that much was going on.”
Twelve years and a number of beloved break-out singles later, the young poet-turned-songwriter is right back where she started, noodling around on her guitar in the West London home she shares with her family. But while coronavirus thwarted her first headline tour around Europe last spring, simultaneously scuppering her plans to open for Hayley Williams while the Paramore frontwoman toured her new solo project, Arlo’s star rose against all odds. And when your music gets picked up to soundtrack Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and frequently appears on Billie Eilish’s Instagram story, there’s no question as to whether you’ve made it.
The past few months alone have seen Arlo win an AIM Independent Music Award, become an artist in residence for BBC 6 Music and collaborate with Phoebe Bridgers on a series of beautiful live sessions for Radio 1. Through it all, she has been putting out hit after hit from her impressive debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams — the name taken from a line in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty — written during the pandemic and due for release 29 January.
When we last spoke to Arlo, in February 2020, she was on the verge of setting off across Europe, eager to engage personally with her new global fanbase -- which she did, until it was cut short. “That was my first time being in these rooms where the space was completely my own,” she remembers. “Just hugging people and having them tell me their stories, and feeling like I'd created this sense of family and connection.”
Though she’d only been making music for a few years, the impact of Arlo’s work was already palpable in the conversations she was having with fans in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Paris; they told her that, because of her music, they had started writing poetry, setting up hip-hop ciphers, joining local youth clubs. “Now that we're all isolated and separate from each other, I really miss that human element,” she says. “Music is meant to be shared among people. There's something very different about listening to a record in your room, to like, listening to it live with hundreds of other people around you.”
It’s perhaps the universal urge for human connection right now that makes Arlo’s emotional work all the more integral. Spanning themes including depression, lost love and jealousy, Collapsed in Sunbeams is great company for those needing something to get in their feelings to. The album track “Caroline” tells the story of a break up which Arlo extrapolated from an overheard argument; the intimate song exemplifying just how well Arlo’s runaway imagination meets her notable powers of empathy. “That song is almost like an amalgamation of what I saw, what I've seen in my friends, and what I feel like I would have done,” she says.
Storytelling is at the heart of an Arlo Parks song, and something she defines herself by. When asked about her tendency to focus on certain foods in her music -- notes of dragon fruit and peach in the wine described in “Green Eyes”, Taco Bell abandoned by a sobbing friend in “Eugene” -- she explains that the aim is to build a cinematic sort of experience: “I usually gravitate towards quite sensory and physical writing. I try to create this holistic world with different tones, colours, textures; I think it makes for a more 3D picture of what I'm talking about. For now, that feels like the core of my identity as a musician.”
Arlo’s album is a strong assurance of that identity -- one led by sensitive emotion and image, entirely unconstrained by genre. This is a particular sticking point. “I know that [genre] exists, but I feel like those boundaries have very much dissolved now, and that really excites me,” she says. “There's a sense of freedom to not being locked into a certain sound or certain sonic palette. When I think about the artists that I look up to -- people like Radiohead or Frank Ocean -- they’ve always been so fluid in the music that they made, but it was still very much them at their core.”
Arlo’s reference points as a fan are key to her artistry, and the influence of those idols has played a large role in conceptualising Collapsed in Sunbeams as the foundation of her musical oeuvre. “When I think about the [debut albums] that I love, like King Krule’s 6 Feet Beneath the Moon or Dummy by Portishead, or that first Soko record -- it's a statement of intent, almost.”
So what statement is Arlo is aiming to make with Collapsed in Sunbeams? “Vulnerability and fluidity sonically,” she announces. “I want to maintain those two things throughout my career -- creating quite a broad umbrella of what the Arlo Parks sound actually is, but always making very personal and sensitive music.” Although set on that path, Arlo is very much open to how her goals may change or where her mind might take her next, having recently started to experiment, she notes, with more electronic sounds and a new emphasis on melody. “Allowing yourself and your tastes to evolve without clinging onto what's familiar is really important,” she explains. “I think I've got to the point, where I'm like, ‘This album is a time capsule, and it's the best that I can do at the time, but there's still space to grow.’”
The album track Arlo is most excited for fans to hear is “Hope”, with its spoken word verses and singalong choruses. “It’s like all my favourite elements of this album rolled into one,” she says. “And I think it’s probably the cornerstone, in terms of the message. It’s essentially about pulling yourself out of a dark space, and the story of a character who is living life without enjoying it… drifting through filled with this sense of self-doubt. Then the chorus is a reminder that you’re not alone.” Looking to the future, to a post-pandemic world where Arlo is able to get back out there and resume her first headline tour, she can see it all play out in her head. “I can imagine that moment at shows, where everybody’s singing that chorus, looking around the room and realising that they’re truly not alone. I think that’ll be beautiful.”
Collapsed in Sunbeams will be released via Transgressive Records on 29 January