- 15 Jun 23
Returning after her Mercury Prize win with her boundary-pushing second album, My Soft Machine, Arlo Parks discusses drawing inspiration from Fontaines D.C., her creative connection with collaborator Phoebe Bridgers, and her special relationship with Ireland.
Last June, Arlo Parks stepped into a stadium for the first time. The London-raised singer-songwriter – who had been honoured with the highly coveted Mercury Prize for her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, less than a year before – was opening for Harry Styles, at his sold-out Aviva Stadium show in Dublin.
“It was definitely a huge moment for me,” the now-22-year-old, born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, tells me. “That was the first time that I’d been in a stadium, let alone played one.”
The support slot also kicked off a remarkably busy, and wildly star-studded, four days for Arlo.
“It was the Harry Styles show, and then it was Glastonbury – by myself, and then with Phoebe [Bridgers],” she recalls. “Then the next day was with Billie Eilish at The O2, and the day after that was with Lorde and Clairo on the Pyramid Stage.
“So it was a pretty intense four days,” she laughs. “But you do get into the swing of it. You end up just having to trust in yourself, and your abilities – and the fact that the people around you love your work and trust you. That’s why they’ve brought you on to share the stage with them. But you don’t really even have time to think. You just throw yourself into it.”
Less than a year later, Arlo, who’s now based in Los Angeles, has continued to build on that success, with the release of her new album, My Soft Machine.
Of course, the second-album-scaries are one thing, but you’d expect that scoring a Mercury Prize and a BRIT Award, as well as two Grammy nominations, in the wake of your debut LP – at a time when you’ve barely entered your 20s – would increase the follow-up pressure exponentially.
“The way that I avoided that sense of pressure was just by going back to the roots of writing, and creating things – which is something I’ve done since I was a kid,” she explains. “I very much approached it like, ‘I’m just going to start making songs again. I didn’t really set out specifically to start on the second record. I just went back to the studio, and started tinkering, and working with people I love. I ended up, almost unconsciously, with a group of songs – and I was like, ‘Okay, there’s some cohesion there. I can whittle this into a record.’”
She had already marked herself as one of the most compelling lyricists of her generation, thanks to songs peppered with achingly empathetic but often starkly candid reflections on friendship, love, pain and mental health – which resonated particularly powerfully with listeners over lockdown. But My Soft Machine, which features big-name producers like Paul Epworth, is her most sonically adventurous project to date, with Arlo incorporating more of her life-long influences.
“It’s the artists that I’ve always listened to, but maybe haven’t made their way fully into the music yet,” she says. “When I think about some of my favourite artists, I think about the Pixies, Deftones and Yo La Tengo. But I also think about James Blake, Aphex Twin and Jai Paul. I really wanted to show the breadth of my tastes on this record.
“I didn’t feel bound to what I’d done before in any way,” she adds. “That’s why the approach was a little more free and felt very much like a kaleidoscope of different influences. It wasn’t something that I even intended to do. It just came naturally.”
Among those influences are some groundbreaking Irish artists.
“Fontaines D.C. and My Bloody Valentine are two of my favourite bands,” she enthuses. “A big influence for the drums and the energy of my song ‘Devotion’ was ‘Nabokov’ on Skinty Fia, which I really, really love. I’m a massive fan of the drum tones on that record. I’d watched a fair few of their online performances, and was super energised and inspired by them. I feel very inspired by the intensity and the freedom of their sound.”
She got the chance to perform with Fontaines D.C.’s drummer, Tom Coll, back in March, when she brought him out her track ‘Sophie’ during her first ever festival headline set, at BBC 6 Music Festival in Manchester.
“I reached out to him,” she tells me. “I really wanted him to contribute his playing to the music and it was amazing. He smashes those drums so hard! We had a great time, and it brought a new dimension to a song that’s usually quite soft. It brought it into a heavier space.”
Like Fontaines D.C., Arlo’s approach has always transcended the boundaries of easily categorised genres and labels – but that hasn’t stopped people attempting to put her in a box.
“I still get people saying that I’m a hip-hop artist or whatever,” she reveals. “It doesn’t bother me though, to be honest. I just think that it’s silly! I’m just going to keep making what I make, and try not to pay attention to people around me that want to reduce what I make.
“When you start with that sense of being genreless, and being influenced by music from everywhere, you start with a sense of freedom,” she adds. “No one can really affect how much you experiment.”
Her deep pool of influences also includes Phoebe Bridgers – who features on My Soft Machine’s track ‘Pegasus’. The Californian star first landed on Arlo’s radar around the time of her lauded debut album, 2017’s Stranger In The Alps.
“I must have just turned 17,” Arlo reflects. “The first song I heard was either ‘Funeral’ or ‘Demi Moore’. I was so struck by the softness of her vocal and the storytelling. And the fact that it felt so surreal at times, but also so personal, like: ‘I hate you for what you did / And I miss you like a little kid.’ Lines like that, that are so arresting, and cut into you so unflinchingly, but the instrumentation had this kind of folksy, Elliott Smith kind of texture to it. I immediately fell in love.
“She is so individual in the way that she writes, and the way that she is, but I definitely find that we, vocally and creatively, have a connection,” she continues. “We’re part of the same kind of ‘sensitive’ songwriters group! My work wouldn’t exist without hers, in a way. I feel like I’ve soaked up so much of her wisdom over the years.”
Arlo has always “gravitated towards lyricists that have that softness”, in terms of exposing their own vulnerabilities in their work. Her deep, natural empathy has also been a constant in her own songwriting.
“I started writing stories and writing poetry as a way of taking note of the world around me, and the characters that I came across in my life: the friends, the lovers, and the people that I had lost,” she says. “It’s always been about soaking up the world around me.”
Her new album also finds her exploring “the idea of the subjective – and the fact that you can never really see yourself as other people see you.”
“Only you know your inner landscape,” she posits. “Only you can access certain deep wounds, or experience the way that you love, or the way that you think. There’s something really interesting about talking about reality through your own eyes, because that perspective is completely individual.
“But also, there’s that feeling that, everywhere you go, there you are – and the fact that sometimes you have to deconstruct things within yourself, because you’ll never really be able to escape yourself in that way,” she adds. “It’s kind of beautiful, but kind of sad. A mixture of the two.”
Back in September, Arlo posted a statement online announcing that she had to cancel a string of gigs, in order to focus on her mental health – which, she wrote, had “deteriorated to a debilitating place.” Does she reckon the industry needs to address the issue of overtouring, and its impact on artists, in a bigger way?
“Definitely,” she tells me. “Some of that pressure comes from the outside, from people’s teams or whatever, but a lot of it comes from the inside. A lot of it comes from the sense of feeling so lucky to be in this position, and wanting to honour that with hard work – and that sense of having to catch some wave that won’t come around again.
“I feel like changing the culture around artistry to be one that’s, of course, about hard work, but also about taking your time, self-care, and looking after the human being that makes the music. And not centring your whole life around the work that you do. It’s about providing people with a bit more support, and a bit more of a sense that not everything is going to collapse if you play a couple less shows a year.”
Her own self-care rituals on the road include regular exercise, reading in the outdoors, chatting to friends, watching films and listening to podcasts.
“Just making sure that I’m nourishing my mind!” she remarks. “I’m at my best when I’m being a student, whether it’s learning about woodworking, psychology, nutrition, or whatever it may be. I take care of myself by learning about things that are completely outside of music.”
Following dates in Asia and Australia, Arlo is set to kick off the European leg of her My Soft Machine Tour in Dublin’s 3Olympia Theatre in September. Ireland has played a special role at various moments throughout her career, she tells me.
“I remember the first show I played when I was supporting Loyle Carner all those years ago was in Dublin,” she notes. “I stood outside having chats with people, and everyone was just so lovely, generous and welcoming. I feel like there’s always this real energy there.
“And then the last time I played Dublin was with Harry Styles!” she adds. “So there’s been a series of landmarks in my career associated with that city. I’m excited to come back.”
Those who witnessed her Other Voices performance in 2019 – whether live in St James’ Church or on the TV broadcast – will also remember her powerful celebration of Dingle in her poem penned and recited specially for the occasion.
"My hands smell of Hunky Dorys and an old couple are dancing quietly" ❤
When @arloparks played #OtherVoices in 2019 she left behind the most beautiful gift, inspired by her time in #Dingle 🇮🇪
See 'A Poem For Dingle' tonight at 10pm on BBC Four. #ArloParks pic.twitter.com/9qBxOodMt8
— Other Voices (@OtherVoicesLive) March 18, 2022
“I remember as soon as we got in, I was just walking by the coast, and looking out to the sea,” she says of the Co. Kerry town. “I had been taking notes on the little details I’d noticed about the place, about the way the people were smiling at each other, and the weather, and the grass. And the connection that Ireland has to poetry.
“Whenever I’m moved by a place, it’s almost like a stream-of-consciousness, and it just brought that out of me. Poetry for me is very instinctive and random – I see something that moves me and I just start writing!”
• My Soft Machine is out now. Arlo Parks plays 3Olympia Theatre, Dublin on September 5.