If there is a contemporary equivalent of the solitary artist in the garret, beavering away at a masterwork by candlelight, it might well be Arlo Parks writing her debut album during our plague year of 2020. Over that summer, the 20-year-old singer-songwriter from west London eschewed a draughty attic for an Airbnb in Hackney (“I like the more human ones, with the weird little paintings, little trinkets everywhere”) where she set herself up with notebook, candle, tea and “ambient, soundscapey” background music and wrote through the night.
“I don’t think I’ll experience anything like it ever again, to be honest,” says Parks over the phone in December, back home in west London now, where she lives with her parents and her younger brother. “Just the fact that the world was collapsing, and I was just writing poems and staying up till six in the morning and going a little bit crazy… but in a good way.”
By August, she had a completed album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, which was released at the end of January. How did she celebrate? “Not gonna lie, I probably just had a massive nap.”
“Arlo Parks” is the performing name, inspired by those of Frank Ocean and King Krule, of Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho (“I respond to everything, except my mum would never call me Arlo. She would literally never!”), who first dabbled in songwriting in her teens, locked away in her bedroom with “my little £30 mic, doing my thing”. When she was 18, with the encouragement of her friends she released a song, “Cola”, which got critics’ attention (and Lily Allen’s, who said the song “knocked me off my feet”). A contract with esteemed indie label Transgressive Records followed, plus a spot on the Introducing stage at Glastonbury in 2019, and another widely circulated song, “Black Dog”; later that year, she was longlisted for the BBC’s Sound of 2020.
“I would say I’m an outlier,” says Parks about her chosen career path. “Nobody in my family does anything creative, though my dad loved jazz and my mum likes Prince and 1980s French pop.” As for her own music — warm, delicate vocals and a mellow, trip-hop mood — her website states, somewhat resolutely, that her songs are “mainly inspired by Portishead and Earl Sweatshirt”. “Those were the influences I had when I was finding my feet as an artist,” she says now, “but I loved those kinds of crunchy textures, and how playful they were with their words. There was that sense of depth and darkness.”
Her honest, empathetic lyrics about love and friendship and mental health have also earned her praise, as well as a fair few “voice of Generation Z” tags (sample lyric: “I hold your head back when you’re too lean / I hold the Taco Bell and you cried over Eugene”). “I understand why it’s been applied in terms of my age, and the fact that I’m speaking about what it’s like personally to be a teenager,” she says, patiently. “But I think it is reductive in the sense that I’m not really speaking for anyone or making sweeping assumptions or assertions about everyone who’s 20.”
Had Parks still been leading the regular life of a 20-year-old right now, she might have spent last year at university (or given the pandemic circs, not at university) studying English Literature: “That was what I was going to do until only a few months before you have to confirm your place.” But by then her ascent was well underway, and she was booked up for a “pretty live-heavy” year, including a headline tour, 36 festival bookings and a supporting tour in the United States.
But of course, 2020: no dice. In the summer, however, she was able to appear in a short film for Gucci, co-directed by the brand’s creative director Alessandro Michele and the American film director Gus Van Sant (“an improvisation taster in front of Gus Van Sant — quite stressful!”). In the film, Parks can be seen hanging out in a café with various angular fashion types, before whizzing past the landmarks of Rome in the back of a little red car. In reality, though, Covid protocols meant the sightseeing options were limited; no throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain this time.
“We drove past the fountain and opened the window a little bit to see it better, but that was basically all we had of it,” she says. “I would just stare out of the window wistfully…”
Assuming 2021 gets a little brighter (it must, surely?) Parks plans to do some travelling, hopefully back to Rome, “just for fun” this time, and she hopes she’ll be able to catch up on all those live performances she had to miss. “There’s nothing that compares to actually being in a room and having that sense of collective experience, feeling the music in your body and having all these people around you,” she says. “Especially with this new album, I think it really lends itself to being sung together. And I think…” A tiny moment of Gen-Z worry lingers, then passes. “Yeah, it’s gonna be amazing.”
Collapsed in Sunbeams by Arlo Parks is out on 29 January. Her European tour begins in April, pandemic permitting; arloparksofficial.com
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