- 28 Jan 21
Ahead of the release of her debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams, Arlo Parks – the 20-year-old poet and singer-songwriter currently taking the world by storm – has a conversation with Tanis Smither about drawing inspiration from unexpected places and honing her voice. Photography: Alexandra Waespi
Arlo Parks has had a serendipitous day. On the discussion table at the moment is Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids – equally precious to us both, we’ve discovered.
“My friend gave me this book only a few days ago, called The Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying,” says Parks.
“It’s about how to meditate and take care of your mind, how to be compassionate and find a sense of inner centring. I was telling someone else about it and they said, ‘I ordered that on Amazon 5 seconds ago.’ This is a good omen, I’m with it.”
She chuckles, a full-throated sound that reaches through the phone and nearly makes me believe we are in the same room.
We are not, of course. The 20-year-old artist – whose rise in popularity has been phenomenal, even in the midst of the pandemic – is in her hometown of London, lamenting the grey skies.
“I miss those alpine fresh, blue days. Even when you’re inside, it makes everything a bit better.”
She speaks like this often, weaving colourful imagery with 20-something-isms. The habit creeps onto her staggering debut album, Collapsed In Sunbeams, more than once. Parks is obsessed with poetry and description, often saying that she prefers descriptive writing to plot – it’s part of the reason she loved Just Kids so much.
“I remember reading it and needing to share it,” she enthuses. “It immediately made me feel like everybody I knew who operated in some kind of artistic sphere, or had an interest in arts, would get something from that book. I found it so emotional.
“I knew her music already. The first song I heard was ‘Redondo Beach,’ or maybe ‘Birdland’. It wasn’t actually that long ago that I read Just Kids, I was probably 17 or 18. I discovered it quite late.”
Parks even gives credit to the iteration of Robert Mapplethorpe portrayed in Just Kids for partially inspiring ‘Portra 400’, the closing track on her album.
“That song is about the idea of substances, and someone’s unhealthy grieving process, breaking a relationship down,” she says. “I wanted to feel an intermingling between this self-destructive character, but then this unrelenting assuredness that things will get better. That’s where ‘making rainbows out of something painful’ comes from. Who you’re surrounded by can really affect your behaviours and how you see yourself. That song is interwoven with all these different stories... It’s also about how experimenting with drugs and booze can get unhealthy and how important balance is.”
Parks’ discovery of the punk rock poet’s work coincided with the beginning of her music career.
“I found so much romance and pathos in it,” she reflects. “And when I recommended it to all my friends, they came back to me and we started sharing our favourite lines. Mine is riddled with annotations," she laughs. "I got a new copy so I could read it back.”
I’m not surprised by any of this. The pages of Just Kids often seem to act as a haven for the artistic misfits of the world – much like 1970s New York did for creative types.
“I found it so interesting to see also how the communities were all interlinked,” Parks says. “You see her puttering around and then Andy Warhol’s there, and then Jimi Hendrix is sitting on the stairs! I can’t imagine being transposed into that period of time. Living in London especially, there is a community feel to music here, but it’s a bit different. You get pockets, different collectives, people who collaborate across mediums, but it’s definitely not the same.”
Parks wouldn’t necessarily label herself a ‘misfit’, at least not in the lonely sense of the word. A self-professed empath, she finds it easy to put herself into the shoes of others.
This is another hallmark of Parks’ album. The record succeeds in achieving one of art’s trickiest and most rewarding goals: one can see their own stories reflected in the characters and their experiences on Collapsed In Sunbeams.
“I’ve had moments where somebody’s told me a story, and it’s almost mirrored the perspective of another person in one of my situations,” says Parks. “And it has sometimes shone a light on something I didn’t deal with so well. For me, being empathetic it is a double-edged sword – because you do absorb other people’s pain, and I think people do have the tendency to offload onto me sometimes. But it’s also a beautiful thing, because it opens you up to those different perspectives.”
One such instance is ‘Black Dog’, an early single from the album about watching a close friend struggle with debilitating depression. Plaintive and hopeless, Parks pleads with her friend: “let’s go to the corner store and buy some fruit. I would do anything to get you out your room”.
Later in the track, she switches narrative voice, opening the second verse with: “I take a jump off the fire escape, to make the black dog go away.” The song resonated with many millions of people, and Parks often gets messages saying that hearing it talked someone down from suicidal thoughts, or saved marriages.
You must get good at setting boundaries for yourself.
“It’s really important,” she agrees. “For a while, I wasn’t doing that very well, and you do get quite drained. I wanted to help people out and listen, and be there as a friend.”
In fact, Parks often says she got into music for that very reason: to help others.
“It’s important, especially during this period of time. But I’ve definitely become more conscious in practising self-care and listening to my body. If I’m feeling too anxious and scattered to be on social media, I’ll delete it for a few days.”
The self-care and mindfulness in the wake of renewed lockdown is paying off, despite the fact that Parks no longer has an album to finish.
“I’ve actually felt quite inspired to write, so I’ve been making a lot of demos,” she says. “And I’ve been getting back into photography. I’m reading a lot of philosophy and psychology (she’s currently hard at work on Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols), trying to keep my mind active. I’m more into fiction, but I think lockdown is giving me a chance to expand my horizons.”
Parks describes herself as being productive in short bursts, but is trying to write as a daily practice.
“It’s something that’s slightly unfamiliar to me,” she says. “I was reading this very short book by Rilke called Letters To A Young Poet, and he was talking about not waiting for inspiration to strike, not blaming your life for being uninspired, and mining into memory, making it something that you regularly explore. That’s not really how I work, as a human being. I’m definitely someone who rides off instinct and impulse, and there always needs to be some sort of lightning strike.
“But I’ve been doing it!” she laughs, slightly surprised with herself. “It’s definitely unlocked some interesting work. I feel like I’m honing my voice, and getting comfortable with the idea of not making something excellent every single time, just being completely honest.”
I shouldn’t be shocked that she can recognise that improvement in herself at such a young age.
“It can happen unconsciously,” she says, seeing personal growth even when listening back to her breakthrough singles, ‘Cola’ and ‘Super Sad Generation’. “I’m not saying that it’s bad work,” she posits, “but I feel like I know myself a lot better now. There’s more precision, and I think progress can be incremental.”
Collapsed In Sunbeams was written mostly by Parks revisiting her old journals, which she has kept on and off since the age of 13.
“I wrote most of the album during lockdown, so it was unintentionally rooted in nostalgia, and trying to find the conversations and the moments that shaped me, or moments that felt like they defined me in some way or another,” she says. “It’s interesting to look back on those ‘end-of-the-world’ situations, and now I don’t even remember them happening. I like getting this perspective.”
This kind of 20/20 hindsight extends to her writing style, too.
“The journals from when I was 13, I’d try to make them so poetic,” she recalls. “I would have been the only one reading them, but I was so dramatic! It took me a while to just make it honest, and write like a normal human being without trying to sound really deep.”
She’s certainly succeeded in finding the balance on Collapsed In Sunbeams, which doesn’t sacrifice striking language for simplicity, yet remains profound in its honesty.
“I think it’s impressive to convey emotion in three words, or three paragraphs, having that economy of language,” she says. “When I was a kid, I’d just read words that I found in the dictionary and use them even if I didn’t understand their meaning, because I liked the way they looked. I’ve tried to whittle that back and be a little bit more selective with how I write.”
But does Arlo Parks have bad days?
“There have been times where I’m not enjoying what I’m writing. It doesn’t feel good, I don’t feel in touch with my voice. And it probably is no more than a week or so, because I try to write even if I feel like nothing is coming out. But there are times when I feel uninspired, for sure.”
Parks is a bilinguist, born of a French mother and Nigerian father. She learned to speak French before English, although she has lived in Hammersmith for all of her life. She’s interested in – but hesitant to – incorporate a different language into her music.
“It’s something I’ve thought about a lot,” she says cautiously. “I’m not very well-read in French, and I think there’s a difference between speaking conversationally and creating something that feels like a piece of art. I’m delving into poetry right now, reading some Jaques Prévert and Baudelaire, and trying to wrap my head around it. A language is so nuanced – turns of phrases, or idioms, or even the humour sometimes, when you translate it, doesn’t work.”
What about the looming spectre of Brexit, considering that Parks’s parentage is rooted in more places than the UK?
“I mean, just because I’ve been sitting in my house, I haven’t felt the effects directly,” she says. “But in terms of being a musician and having to get working visas, the cost that is going to add, and the way it will prevent a lot of artists – especially emerging ones, for whom touring can already be very expensive – it’s stopping that flow of an artist being able to build up their audiences, and see their fans in other parts of the world.
“I’m definitely not happy about it. I guess the only way to think about it now is: ‘it’s done, how are we going to reverse the damage? How are we going to protect people?’ As much as I’d like to turn back time, I feel it’s important to be practical in the way we approach it. Especially because we are already in a pandemic. There are a lot of knots to undo.”
The Londoner’s calm, steady eloquence about the state of the world has me slightly taken aback. Parks has been labelled the voice of her generation by many. It’s a pressure she doesn’t necessarily enjoy, as someone who is trying to figure out her own life, never mind everybody else’s.
But Parks has acquired this stamp – which hovers between burden and accolade – in part because of her powerful ability to distill large problems like Brexit, or loneliness, to a universally accessible feeling. She already has that aforementioned ‘economy of language’, even if she doesn’t quite realise it herself.
• Collapsed In Sunbeams is out tomorrow (January 29).