Lead Me To My Own Devices: Arlo Parks Interviewed

Lead Me To My Own Devices: Arlo Parks Interviewed

Manifesting chinks of sunlight with the London artist...

Arlo Parks’ super-power is empathy – it’s something the past 12 months have tested to the limit. Absorbing so much more than she could withstand, these feelings found resonance in her gorgeous debut album, a meditative work of calming honesty.

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If you were walking along East London’s Kingsland Road during the strange, dystopian summer of 2020 you might have passed a simple, unremarkable house, not far from the canal. The windows would have been pulled wide, and stereo speakers shoved almost out into street, a soulful noise pouring out over the landscape. Arlo Parks had finished her debut album, and she wanted the world to experience it.

“I just never gravitated towards studios that feel like underground bunkers,” she laughs. “I hate that. So I wanted a place with windows, where we could go for walks. We hired this nice AirBNB in Dalston, and brought down the equipment. It felt like a heavenly environment just because I’m so used to writing songs in my bedroom.”

Everything about the way Arlo Parks approaches making art feels simple, but so right. A word is never out of place – indeed, language is her first love – while the arrangements have a purity to them, a clarity that seems to amplify the intensity of each personal. Debut album ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ is – to put it simply – a phenomenal achievement, a soulful evocation of what it is to be young, confused, and searching for a connection with other people.

In a way, it’s a record that taps into the solitary nature of the lockdown experience – the strange loneliness that the pandemic seemed to usher in. “As a human being, as a social creature, it’s been difficult to adjust,” she admits. “I think spending a lot of time by myself is something that I’m not necessarily that used to. I became very self-aware in a weird way. For me, I was also making a conscious effort to ground myself and to practise self-care because I was throwing myself into my work completely. And it wasn’t as easy as: oh, I’ll go and see my friend for a coffee. I had to actively invest in my own mental health and sanity.”

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Self-compassion is a key facet of Arlo Parks’ life – even in our short conversation, she resonates with a kind of calmness, a still joy that is truly engaging. She practises meditation, but finds herself “most at peace when I’m in motion – whether that’s cooking or going for a walk or drawing… that’s when I feel most contented.”

“I think that’s something that’s really come to light during this period of time,” she reflects. “So I taught myself to DJ… I was doing all sorts! I was doing solo sets in my room, missing the club! I think it’s been interesting to find out what makes different people feel at peace.”

Throughout it all, though, this West Londoner was working tirelessly on her debut album. Words spewed forth, a kind of automatic writing that she would then edit, a basic clay that would transformed into the verbal equivalent of a Grecian urn. “When I’m really immersed in the work I definitely feel like it’s a meditative state,” she says. “It’s weird to say, but it feels almost as if the songs are writing themselves. I’m just a vessel for thoughts and for the words. It’s almost like an emotional outpouring and I feel very in touch with myself and in touch with what I want and in touch with the messages that I want to put out there. That doesn’t happen all the time but for the songs that I’m proudest of there is this sense of feeling completely quiet and sure about what I want to say. And that’s what I chase. That state of mind.”

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That search, though, can leaves its mark. Endlessly peering inward isn’t something everyone can undertake – it comes with a price. “Of course, there are still periods of self-doubt… I think that’s in an artist’s nature, to be honest. Especially now, having a platform, I do sometimes think… oh, am I on the right track? Am I really producing good work? The idea of longevity plays on my mind. But it’s something that I work through.”

“Throwing myself back into those feelings was quite difficult. Writing songs and talking about all these very heavy and sometimes traumatic moments wasn’t an easy thing to do,” she says. “After I wrote this album I was exhausted. I was very emotionally drained, because I gave so much of myself to this story. That’s always what I planned to do. I wanted it to be a time capsule. And for that to be authentic then I guess you have to get back into those shoes, as it were.”

‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ feels like a statement that will resonate for a long, long time. Soulful, mature, and open, it’s a record to immerse yourself in. Sure, the words stand out – they are, to be blunt, never short of exceptional – but it’s a beautifully musical achievement, one that moves from indie rock templates to neo-soul while somehow transcending both labels. She’s always had a magpie taste, though – an indie kid at school, long hours spent sifting through YouTube allowed her to expand her omnivorous tastes.

“For me, my tastes have always been very broad because my uncle gave me his vinyl, so I was listening to Bob Dylan and Sade and old 90s hip-hop from a young age. And I think as I got older my tastes just expanded.”

“I grew up with the internet, so most of my musical consumption was in my room, being on YouTube and looking at different bands and finding it for myself. Throwing myself into all these different worlds – whether that’s trip hop, whether that’s South London dubstep, all of those. I discovered it by myself. And it was only when I was about 16 or 17 and I went to college that I found other artistic people to share that passion with.”

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Despite this depth of knowledge, however, Arlo Parks wanted to treat her debut album as a clean slate. “I wanted to approach it fresh,” she says. “I’ve always been very conscious of the fact that I’m trying to constantly grow. If I hear an old demo then I just feel like: I can’t connect to that person any more. All of it was written, recorded in that room, in that hour… whenever it was. It was quite an instinctive, impulsive process.”

Constructed alongside a handful of close friends, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ finds each word triggering a melody, and each melody wrapped around a phrase. It’s a remarkably unified experience, from its potent, personal themes to those gorgeous vocal performances. “I associate sounds and certain sonic palettes with certain moods. There’s a lot of mirroring and a lot of thought goes in to making sure that the relationship is whole,” she comments. “I try to look at it from different perspectives, as well. When I’m thinking about: OK, what colours come to me when I think about that song? What portraits and photographs do I associate with this? Or what directors? You look at it from a lot of different angles.”

The result is a genuine, lasting connection with the people lucky enough to approach her music. “Especially in the last few months, when the world is crumbling, I have definitely had that existential thought of, what place does art have in this world? As an artist what am I even doing right now? So for my music to come out and for it to have had a really positive, tangible effect on people’s lives… that’s something that I’ve never really experienced before. People I’d lost touch with reached out to me saying, your song touched me. It was really beautiful.”

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It’s a feeling she has always sought from her own favourite songwriter. “There are specific artists – for example, if I’m listening to Adrienne Lenker from Big Thief or Elliot Smith – who do touch that very vulnerable part of myself. I have my little record player at home, and I love sitting down and having that wash over me. Something that I’ve learned as I’ve grown is how beautiful it is to share music. I love making people playlists. I am listening to music like 99% of my waking hours. So even if it’s going for a walk and listening to an album with someone else, I do love that feeling of sharing something. Having a song become your song… with someone else. I think that’s really cute.”

As we speak, Arlo seems to reach out – even the tone of her voice is comforting, a softness of touch that draws you in. She listens to every word people tell her, a quality she learned a child at huge family functions, the noise and hubbub of conversation rolling over her like waves.

“In terms of being an empath, I definitely think that I was just built this way,” she says. “I can’t really describe it. I’ve always loved people so I try to approach them with a non-judgemental spirit. And I think that has allowed a lot of people to open up to me. Ever since I was a kid I’ve felt really connected. And I think it can sometimes be difficult, because when I see somebody in pain – even if it’s somebody that I’ve met for one minute – then I feel it so intensely… or if something is happening on Twitter or the internet, it can strike me quite hard. Being sensitive is a double edged sword.”

“There are moments where I will just feel like, this is too much,” she continues. “If I’m trying to help somebody, or if I’m feeling really quite deep and heartfelt messages, then I won’t try to open up and conceal it all… but I think with time I’ve learnt that I can’t really do that just for my own well-being.”

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Arlo Parks is figuring out the barriers. She still only 20 years old, but her voice utterly transcends her youth. Recent song ‘Caroline’ was accompanied online by a poem, and a full poetic project is in the works to land alongside her debut album. “I’m working towards a poetry collection at the moment, which I’m really excited about,” she says. “Poetry is such a big part of my process; I was a poet before I was a songwriter so I like showing that part of my process to people who listen to my music.”

But it’s not just words. She wants to be out there, performing her music to people, absorbing that reciprocal energy between artist and audience – it’s something she thrives on, and something she misses. “I think that nothing compares to being in a sticky room full of people, seeing people’s faces. There’s nothing like it,” she admits. “That’s one of the things I’ve been missing the most. Hopefully in 2021 we’ll be able to do that a little bit more.”

Manifesting some chinks of light amidst the gloom, Arlo Parks’ super-charged sunbeams are capable of injecting 2021 with some much-needed empathy.

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'Collapsed In Sunbeams' is out now.

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Jenny Brough
Fashion: Harry Clements
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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