Grammy-nominated singer Arlo Parks: ‘I need brain food, I need dream fuel’
Words are Arlo Parks’s primary creative currency, her artistic ammunition. She uses them as windows into her adolescence and the emotions and memories that shape the narratives in her diaristic songs. Since keeping journals in her teens, penning poetry and scribbling down lyrics, writing has been the London-born singer-songwriter’s way of processing experiences. “I’ve always wanted to find the right words to express complicated feelings. Journaling has been something I’ve turned to, especially when my life feels in constant flux,” she says.
Parks, 21, speaks to me on Zoom from Los Angeles (“Let’s just say I’m working on things,” she says elusively) a year after releasing her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, which catapulted her to stardom. Praised for its vibrant and vulnerable songs, the record condenses complex emotions into poetic stories that speak to the anxieties of her generation. It reached number three in the UK charts, receiving widespread acclaim and a string of accolades, among them the UK’s annual Mercury Prize and two Brit awards — plus she is nominated for two Grammys this year. It also earned her legions of fans (among them Taylor Swift, Glass Animals and Lorde) and sellout tours of the UK and US. Next week she begins another North American tour, followed by support slots for Billie Eilish at London’s O2 Arena and Harry Styles at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium this summer.
As the singer, real name Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, put it to her Instagram followers at the end of last year, the album “swivelled my world in a million different directions at once”, and the feeling remains. “It’s a very particular feeling when something you’ve dreamt about since you were a kid comes to fruition in such a big way, so I feel like I haven’t wrapped my head around it yet,” she says of the avalanche of recognition. “But [the past year] has reaffirmed that music is what I’m meant to be doing.”
The album was written and recorded at an Airbnb in east London during lockdown in 2020. Having nowhere to go, Parks found herself looking inwards, poring over journals she had written aged 15 and mining them for “nuggets of conversations, details, phrases” that could yield something creative. Delicate vignettes about heartbreak, loss, loneliness — things most of us have known, especially in youth — are sprinkled into hazy indie-pop songs with flecks of 1990s influences: Portishead’s moody trip-hop, Erykah Badu’s smooth neo-soul. The lyrics are both consoling and discerning. “I’m talking about situations in a way that hopefully feels nuanced and compassionate, but also honest,” she says.
Her new single “Softly”, which she recorded last autumn with producer Paul Epworth, follows similar themes — a wistful, upbeat track about yearning and lost love. The title is also an apt descriptor for the way Parks expresses herself: in person she speaks quietly, her responses meditative; in recordings her vocals are velvety and laid over mellow grooves. With songs such as “Sophie” and “Super Sad Generation” depicting feelings of inadequacy and disenchantment in your twenties (she sings of “killing time and losing our paychecks” in the latter), it’s little surprise that Parks has been heralded as a spokesperson for Generation-Z. She takes the title grudgingly, describing it as “reductive” for failing to acknowledge the many nuances of young people’s experiences and identities.
Yet she recognises that there is resonance both in the specific encounters she sings about and her empathetic reflections. In an age when public discourse has become frequently and openly confrontational — particularly on social media, Gen-Z’s digital playground — a compassionate voice is welcome. “When you’re going through growing pains and figuring yourself out, music can be such a refuge, and a place where you can feel listened to and understood,” she says. “So being that for other people is really special.”
Parks grew up in Hammersmith, west London, on an eclectic musical diet, listening to her uncle’s record collection and discovering bands on YouTube. “There was a lot of jazz playing in the house from my dad’s side, a lot of Diana Ross and David Bowie from my mum’s.” She began learning classical piano at seven and gradually taught herself to produce music on GarageBand in her teens. Demos she uploaded to the BBC Introducing website in 2017 drew the attention of industry executives and she was soon signed to the respected independent label Transgressive Records.
Her childhood was also filled with literature. She recalls long summer road trips to France, where her mother is from, during which her British-Nigerian father would play audiobooks of Moby-Dick, Treasure Island and The Old Man and the Sea. “I remember the words washing over me and ever since I’ve always loved storytelling.” That hunger for cultural enrichment never waned. When I ask what’s nourishing her at the moment, she becomes animated. “So much!” she says, reeling off a list of books that includes All About Love by Bell Hooks and The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, as well as musicians such as Mitski, Fela Kuti, Prince and Dorothy Ashby.
“I’m like a little sponge, I need brain food, I need dream fuel . . . I need to discover new things every day,” she says. “It’s like I’m a prism and I need all these beams of light to filter through and to feel like I’m being refreshed.” I picture a bright light of inspiration shining into her from one side and becoming a spectrum of colourful emotions and euphonious songs.
Like journalling, Parks’s need for “brain food” reflects the introspective way she has approached her career so far: absorbing, processing and expressing, always on her own terms. “When I think about how I made the record, it’s very personal and private,” she says. “It makes me feel like the way I make things and think about things is enough, and that’s really comforting.”
North America tour begins on February 16, arloparksofficial.com/tour