Inside the world of Arlo Parks: the singer celebrating the power of female sensitivity

·7-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy of Polaroid, photo by Adrian Lee
Photo credit: Courtesy of Polaroid, photo by Adrian Lee

One rainy evening on the 12 May, Arlo Parks found herself sandwiched between Dua Lipa and the Haim trio at a table at the 2021 Brit Awards. They all clapped and applauded each other’s respective award wins at a ceremony that was marked by female achievement. The 20-year-old went onto scoop Breakthrough artist, having released one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year with Collapsed in Sunbeams. “I was just sat thinking, ‘what is going on?’ I tried to play it cool, but I was not chill,” Parks laughs. “The Brits was such a moment. It was just beyond my wildest dreams. I didn’t have a secret hope to win, I was just so pleased to be there.”

In just over two years, Parks has become one of the most foremost new singer-songwriters in British music. She stops short at the term ‘voice of a generation’; the reality is, while Parks might speak on behalf of Generation Z, her poetic musings and delicate, soulful sound also speak to those far beyond her age group. Her 2019 debut EP Super Sad Generation explored the mental health crisis felt among her peers, an issue that she has continued to highlight with her first full-length album largely written during lockdown. In Black Dog, she warmly and clearly verbalises the helplessness at watching someone you love struggle with their mental health: “I would do anything to get you out your room. Just take your medicine and eat some food… It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason.”

“Maybe this past year, people have looked for music that makes them feel held, that feels gentle and soothing, music that talks openly about the things we’re feeling,” she says on a Zoom call from Mexico, where she is flying through to reach LA for work. “It’s been such an emotionally intense year. I’m just trusting my intuition and my taste and writing it quickly – I’m glad people are gravitating towards feelings.”

Photo credit: Polaroid
Photo credit: Polaroid

Her music doesn’t just talk about mental health, it offers reassurance to those experiencing them sending out the message that they’re not alone. “There is still a fear about talking honestly about these struggles,” she says. “Sometimes you can feel like the only person in the world to have struggled in a certain way and there is a shame around that. The way we deconstruct it all is by talking about it, by listening and even within our circles of friends and checking up on each other, making sure that if someone is going through something, they have someone to talk to. We need to let the people around us know that they’re loved.”

Like all good artists, Parks has always been sensitive, and, on top of that, an empath. She grew up in Hammersmith, West London, to a Nigerian father and a French mother who encouraged her to be open about how she felt. She grew up listening to a broad array of music, from Al Green and Fela Kuti to Prince and Duke Ellington. When she was a teenager, her uncle gave her a record collection leading her to hip-hop, rock and folk and a love for Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and the Pixies – artists who weren’t afraid to feel. Her school English teacher introduced her to Sylvia Plath, who would become one of her greatest influences. “I loved how specific her voice was,” she says. “Sometimes that poetry was opaque, strange or even disturbing, but she was honest and true to herself. Ever since I read those first few poems in Ariel, I’ve also tried to hang onto that sense of being yourself and not trying to cater to what someone else thinks is palatable cool or sharable.”

Parks was around 15 when she started writing her own songs in her bedroom, taught herself to make beats on Garageband and to learn how to play the guitar. Music became an outlet for self-expression and the challenges of growing up.

“For me, music was at first something I did by myself for myself,” she explains. “I was very open because I didn’t think anyone would ever hear it. To be a good artist, you need to be sensitive to the world around you, you need to be curious, you need to listen, you need to be willing to learn from people. A lot of great art is about people being moved by something or seeing something that stops them dead. To achieve that you need to have your eyes open and be willing to experience things. Art comes in so many different mediums, whether fashion, music or photography, but the commonality is that you need to feel things in order to make anything good."

Photo credit: JMEnternational
Photo credit: JMEnternational

Her creativity isn’t limited to music; she has experimented with journaling, poetry, painting and photography, recently collaborating with Polaroid on its Go Create campaign, in which creators have used its famed camera to showcase their creative process and the everyday moments that spark their imagination. “The visual arts and photography are a big part of what I do and what inspires me,” she says. “Polaroid has been a big part of my life since I was a kid. It was a way of capturing moments that feel accessible to everyone. It made me stop, think and look more. You need to do that as an artist.”

Photo credit: Polaroid
Photo credit: Polaroid

Rare for a 20-year-old, Parks describes herself as a “grandma” when it comes to technology, which is maybe just as well given how damaging she thinks social media can be. “Mental health and social media and the way that those interact is a massive issue for young people,” she says. “It encourages self-comparison and a sense of not being productive enough. Mental health problems go beyond social media of course, but navigating the challenges of social media almost defines my generation. Children now grow up on TikTok – isn’t that weird?”

It’s all about finding a balance, she says. “When you feel you’ve been on the internet for too long or that you’ve gone down a rabbit hole and it doesn’t feel good, that’s when it’s time to just trust yourself and do something else.”

The past 12 months taught her to slow down. She learnt that she likes to cook (chicken fajitas and enchiladas are her speciality), embraced the joy of podcasts (Song Exploder is a favourite), took up painting (although she claims not to be any good at it), and wrote letters to her friends to remain connected. Amid writing her debut album, she also made sure she built rest into her daily routine. “I factored in those moments where I let myself do nothing without feeling bad about it.”

With a Brit Award and a widely popular album under her belt, Arlo Parks – a sunny, thoughtful poet with the ability to articulate what so many can’t - is right to aim big. “I’m a massive dreamer, I have so many. I’d like to write a book; I’d like to direct and act. I’d like to collaborate a lot more, especially with people outside my genre. I just want to travel the world and do this for the rest of my life – that’s my ultimate goal, to be a creative person forever.”

Photo credit: Polaroid
Photo credit: Polaroid

A poem by Arlo Parks:

This year, I will let good things seep in, like azure rain.

This year will be pots of ginseng tea and deep looks.

Sitting on the ground, dazed with love.

Watch the light bounce off the pomegranate ruby around my throat.

We will approach our trauma as something to be reckoned with, not inhabited.

Hawks slashing the sky.

Go Create with Polaroid sees Arlo Parks and other global creators reveal their individual take on creativity on the go this summer to celebrate the launch of the world’s smallest analog instant camera, Polaroid Go.

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