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British musician Arlo Parks’ debut album is an ode to her Gen Z experience

WORDS BY MAGGIE ZHOU

“Whenever anything happens, I’m always going to write about it. It’s my way of processing the world around me.”

Late last year, I interviewed the musician whose music essentially got me through lockdown: Arlo Parks. This London-based artist spins indie-pop tunes that are tinged with soul and R&B. Her voice simply drips with honey – but don’t just take my fangirling words for it, she was also named BBC’s Introducing Artist of the Year and one of Billie Eilish’s favourite artists too.

She creates music that moves. It moves emotionally, through tracks like ‘Black Dog’ which tackles the pain of declining mental health, where she searingly opens with the offer to “lick the grief right off your lips”. And physically, through songs like ‘Hurt’, which has an undeniably danceable beat while promising that “it won’t hurt so much forever”.


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This month she releases Collapsed in Sunbeams, a 12-track album that’s bursting with poetry, introspection and her breathless, lilting vocals. From her home in London, Arlo tells me that she wrote most of her debut album during lockdown.

“[I] spent time in an Airbnb in East London going through my old journals because we were living in a period of time where everything was standing still, as it were,” she tells me, a nod to the wild year that was 2020.

“I wanted to find a way to create a time capsule and represent my teenage years and all of the things that have shaped my journey. It was quite a beautiful time, weirdly, because I could really get on with the record and I didn’t really have any other things to do.”

Rightfully so, in a moment in time defined concurrently by chaos and stagnancy, Arlo thought to look inwards towards her past. “My album is a series of vignettes and intimate portraits surrounding my adolescence and the people that shaped it,” she explained in a statement.

Growing up in South London half Nigerian, a quarter Chadian and a quarter French, Arlo describes her childhood as idyllic and coloured by her imagination. “I was a pretty happy kid; I was very in my own world. I mean, I was writing since I was about seven or eight, so that was a big part of my life,” she says.

Poetry and storytelling are essential, nay indistinguishable, to Arlo’s music. She grew up on the work of Patti Smith, Andrew Moore and Pat Parker and it’s undoubtedly fed into the way she strings words together.

It’s a thread not just seen in her music, but also in the way she interacts with the world. She shares her poetry recommendations on her Instagram, she read out Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese in a Zoom call with her fans, and the opening track on Collapsed in Sunbeams is spoken word poetry. She isn’t your typical 20-year-old singer-songwriter.

 

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“I’ve always been a bookworm,” she says. “I started writing poetry when I was about 12 or 13… Poetry and books were something that I could get lost in. I loved that I could get completely immersed in somebody else’s world… I’m not sure where that drive came from, but I guess I’ve always been fascinated with words and creating my own little world.”

After Arlo casually slings off a list of famous poets and obscure authors I have never heard of, she reassures me that she also grew up enjoying teenage reads like the Cherub series by Robert Muchamore and A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

When her head is not stuck in a book, Arlo absorbs inspiration from all around her. Her latest release ‘Caroline’ was the product of voyeurism and curiosity.

“I was literally just watching a couple having an argument at the bus stop near where I live,” Arlo tells me. “I only saw them for a few moments, but I was really struck by [the] idea that sometimes love isn’t enough to make a relationship healthy and functional.”

“I wanted to make something that felt quite observational, [a] step-by-step story. It was written in under an hour, it was very much an outpouring… I really enjoyed writing this one because it felt visual. I like the idea of people being able to follow a story as they listen in their head.”

While Arlo proves she can narrate the outside world with ease, she can just as easily spin gold about her personal experiences. Being so vulnerable and honest about one’s life isn’t something many of us would put our hand up to do. In a way, it’s the equivalent of broadcasting your diary entries to the world.

“That fear of being exposed… there’s always going to be that fear because you are opening your chest and your soft points of you for the world,” she muses. “That opens up the possibility of being hurt but the art that I love and connect to is art that is vulnerable. That’s the type of art that’s helped me. That desire to help others outweighs the fear of being exposed.”

Arlo reveals that ‘Hope’ and ‘For Violet’ are her favourite tracks on Collapsed in Sunbeams. She points to how both grapple with heavy topics where emotions are difficult and compressed. But like a nut that’s hard to crack, the end result is always sweeter.

I ask whether songwriting is cathartic for her, considering a lot of her music is based around trauma and mental health issues. “For me, when a song is one of my favourites it means that I’ve encapsulated my experience in a way that feels true and in a way that feels beautiful. And in a way that I feel a little bit lighter after I’ve written about it.”

After a pause, she continues, “But yeah, it is cathartic. Whenever anything happens, I’m always going to write about it. It’s my way of processing the world around me.”

However modest, you can tell that Arlo is immensely grateful for the growing community of loyal fans she has amassed over this short period. “The most beautiful thing about this journey that I’m on is the people and the stories I’m told and the fact that I can have this real, tangible, positive effect on real people,” she says.

“I remember somebody from Brazil telling me that their mum was terminally ill and didn’t speak English but, when you played her ‘Black Dog’, [though] she didn’t understand a word of it, it made her feel safe and made her feel better. I think that was a really beautiful thing,” she tells me.

There’s a grounding energy to Arlo. I could feel it even on the crackly cross-continental phone line. From a 16-year-old girl recording DIY Soundcloud demos in her bedroom to a 20-year-old ticking off her own markers of success, Arlo is quietly fulfilling her childhood fantasies.

“I remember finding an old journal of mine and it was like, ‘My one goal in music was to have strangers say that my songs connect with them’ and now I have that on a massive scale,” she smiles.

Arlo Park’s debut album ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ is out January 29.

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