In collaboration with
- Words Aimee Phillips
Multi-hyphenate Londoner, Arlo Parks, speaks on the experiences and emotions that inspired her debut album ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’, the importance of setting boundaries, positive pressure, and much more.
With calming, lullaby-like melodies and hushed, delicate vocals, Arlo’s Park’s music embodies a softness so penetrative, it’s easy to get swept away on the cloud she creates.
Traversing topics from repressed feelings on “Eugene” to queer love on “Green Eyes”, and a visceral-gut-punching tale of depression in “Black Dog”, Arlo Parks treads carefully where she walks, but she always leaves her mark.
It’s a real, impalpable skill to be able to discuss some of life’s most painful – and beautiful – experiences so exquisitely, but one that Arlo Parks has mastered with ease. The 20-year-old singer, songwriter, musician, and poet has an undeniable way with words; a gift for elucidating some of life’s most common yet inarticulate journeys. It’s no wonder then, that she’s found fans in none other than Michelle Obama, Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and Phoebe Bridgers, as well as millions (and counting) of others around the world.
Thanks to her unique lyrical talents and instantly-likeable pop, soul, and indie melodies, it’s been a pretty smooth, swift ride to success for Arlo Parks. Last year, she was tipped as One to Watch by countless media, featured in a Gucci campaign, performed a coveted NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert and appeared on Later With… Jools Holland. Finally, Arlo rounded off the year with a Top of the Pops New Year Special, performing “Hurt”. In 2021, the multi-hyphenate has been gearing up to share her debut album, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’, released 29th January.
Rooted in “storytelling and nostalgia”, the record further testifies Arlo’s ability to capture both the “universal and [the] hyper-specific” human experience.
Continuing her ascent, Arlo Parks has been selected as Apple Music’s Up Next artist for January – Apple Music’s monthly artist initiative geared towards identifying, showcasing and elevating rising talent. “It’s so heartwarming to be given this level of support for my art by Apple Music”, said Arlo Parks. “I feel blessed to be part of a legacy of such unique and inspiring Up Next artists”.
Notion spoke with Arlo Parks about her feelings around the album, how emotional openness comes naturally to her, relishing full-circle moments, and much more.
How did you feel in the run-up to the release of your debut album, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’?
It’s this mixture of nerves and excitement. It feels like it’s been an eternity that I’ve been sitting on these songs. There’s this mixed bundle of emotions that comes with putting those out into the world when they’ve been your own private oasis for a while.
Can I just say how beautiful the title itself is. It’s so poetic and presents such a visceral mental image; it conjures up such warm feelings. I read that it’s inspired by the words of Zadie Smith, right?
Yeah, it’s an extract from this book called ‘On Beauty’ [Smith writes how a daschund lay “collapsed in a sunbeam”]. To me, it has this really bittersweet sentiment; it has that idea of completely surrendering to emotion and you’re not sure whether that’s melancholy or elation. It feels like summer to me, having the sun as this healing force. There’s something quite nostalgic about it as well.
That bittersweet feeling is something that is carried through the album; it’s something you’ve said you wanted to capture in particular.
Exactly. I think that this album is very much about being a human being. And there are so many peaks and troughs. I think that it’s a balance of talking about difficult, complicated things unflinchingly, but also trying to highlight that possibility for joy and basically documenting the highs and the lows of growing up.
You said in a previous interview that this album is “almost like a window to my adolescence”. Writing something so personal is one thing, but releasing it is quite another. I know your existing work is very emotionally open, so has that prepared you for releasing a bigger body of work full of songs that are, in your words, “hyper-specific”?
Yeah, I think that I’ve always been somebody who is very open. So from the very beginning, I had to kind of adjust to the idea of having these vulnerable moments out in the open, and I think that what really drives me is that desire to connect. A lot of the artists that I love and look up to, are that open when you think about people like Phoebe Bridgers, or Elliott Smith, Portishead, there’s that sense of openness and that’s why I love them. For me, writing was always a way of retreating into myself and processing things. I was this open from the beginning so I think it makes it a little bit less scary, I guess.
2020 was a real breakthrough year for you. You were on countless ones to watch lists as well as BBC’s Sound of 2020 longlist. Did you ever expect your music to resonate with so many people so quickly?
No, I mean, I always thought I would do music for the rest of my life but that it would be a private thing I did in my bedroom for myself and maybe showed a few of my friends or showed my mum. I remember reading in my diary [an extract] from when I was 13 or so. I was like, I really want my music to connect to a stranger, and now that’s happening on a scale of millions. So it feels really special to have that full-circle moment.
You’re also Apple Music’s Up Next Artist for January. With so many accolades related to musical brilliance, is the pressure mounting for you, or does it not phase you much?
I think I tried to flow with it. Like, it’s a wave that you can’t really control. So when it hit me, I just thought that I was in a place, having released “Cola” and putting out music quietly for a fair while, and I was very conscious and aware of who I was and what my intentions were when it came to music, so I just clung to that. And also just acknowledging that you can never control what people think of your work, but you can control what you put into it. I think there was a level of pressure, but I think it’s healthy, because it means that it’s encouraging me to grow, and most of the pressure is pressure I put on myself anyway.
That’s a good way of thinking about it. Pressure is necessary for growth; to keep driving and pushing forwards. It can have quite a positive impact. Pressure is often thought of as a wholly negative thing, but it doesn’t have to be, does it?
Yeah, exactly. It’s something that drives you. I think that it only becomes unhealthy when it paralyses you – where you don’t want to do anything or put out any music because you’re afraid that people won’t like it. I think when the pressure is internal, and it’s more like, I want to grow, I want to get better, I want to evolve, and when the pressure isn’t to ever be perfect, just to be better than you are now, I think that’s when it’s healthy.
Something that I – and I’m sure many other people – love about your music is that you have this innate ability to mirror the feelings and experiences of so many in a way that hasn’t been done before.
I try to approach very difficult subjects sometimes. And the way that I do it is by treading lightly; trying to approach it delicately and with grace and trying to also stress that I’m only talking about what I’m seeing through my eyes. I’m not trying to tell anybody’s story. I’m not trying to dictate that anybody should think a certain way or be a certain way. I’m just talking about what I’m feeling and just trusting that.
The act of writing an album like ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ must have required so much observation and analysation of both your life and the lives of those around you. I know it comes naturally to you [see Arlo’s singles “Caroline” and “Black Dog” in particular], but did you feel an increased need to be doing this in order to get material for the record once it was confirmed?
I started writing the record during lockdown, so I wasn’t really seeing anything other than the four walls. For the album, I always had this sense that I wanted it to be a time capsule – I wanted it to be a step by step of the moments that have shaped me. So it was more a question of poring over my journals and picking out bits that felt important or bits that I was still moved by or things that felt important at the time but weren’t so much now. It was more self-analysis and analysing the past. But honestly, I never force anything. Okay, if I have to write a record, maybe I’ll write more in general, but I’ll never force myself to stay outside and watch people just for the sake of making songs [laughs]. I think it’s more an organic approach.
You manage to capture moments that would normally pass so many of us by unnoticed. In your song “Caroline”, for example, you articulated “a fight between an artsy couple escalate” at a bus stop into something beautiful.
I guess that’s something that comes quite naturally to me. I’m somebody who journals most days so I always have that time at the end of the day to comb back through what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced. I’ve always got my iPhone notes at the ready to keep up with things that I’ve seen. Even from films, the lines that struck me, or things from books or photographs that I loved and why I loved them. I think I’m just somebody who likes to dig deeper in terms of the things that I absorb on an everyday basis. Especially because we’re inside now, I’ve been taking active steps to inspire myself.
There’s a song on the album inspired by Haruki Murakami’s book ‘Norwegian Wood’. I read that in 2019 and gobbled it up, sparking a bit of a Murakami obsession for me. The song is inspired by Hatsumi, right? The long-suffering girlfriend of Nagasawa, the narrator’s university friend. What made you want to focus on this character in particular?
It’s that idea of her being so long-suffering and being hurt over and over again until her demise. There was something so moving about it, the fact that she was being so consistently mistreated. It sparked in me the idea of setting boundaries and how important that is. And, and the idea of removing toxic energy from one’s life. That’s definitely something that I focused on across the album, like in “Blueish” and “Just Go” and “Too Good”. There’s that thread of sticking up for yourself. I found that character very powerful.
It’s interesting why people focus on different characters. It feels nice that Hatsumi – a character that because she wasn’t so central, may be glossed over by some readers – had a light shone on her in your song.
You’re right. I like the fact that in all art – take an album for example – different songs on a record will mean different things to different people. That’s the beautiful thing about books and films – everybody’s drawn to different parts and textures within the pieces of art.
As such an avid reader, you must get through countless books. Are there any in particular that stick out as some of your favourites?
Probably one of my all-time favourites is ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith. I will never get tired of that book. I’ll never get tired of the romance and the depictions of New York and the struggling artists and the way that she built herself up and the whirlwind of drugs and parties and self-expression. I read this book called ‘Chelsea Girls’ by Eileen Myles that I really loved. It’s quite brutal – in all senses – but it’s about like the queer experience in New York and her as a poet and the way that she grew up. Right now I’m reading ‘Man and His Symbols’
by Carl Jung. It’s about dreams and the unconscious. I am also about to start this book called ‘Blueberries’ by Eleanor Savage, which is a collection of essays on pain and love, trauma, travel.
Can we expect any written work from you in the future? Perhaps a poetry book or novel?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a novelist. I’ve wanted to write poetry collections. I really am drawn to that idea of being a little bit of a polymath like Sharon Van Etten. She does her acting, she does scoring… There are so many different avenues that I want to explore, including directing, curation, acting and writing. I think it’s really exciting how the arts are so intertwined; how you can go into so many different parts of that. So definitely, I’d love to.
Lastly, what do you want your legacy to be?
I think at the crux of what I do is the idea of helping people, taking care of other people, and creating safe spaces for people. I want to be remembered as somebody who made active efforts to be a positive force in the world. In the future, I want to do a lot more work in terms of mental health and partnering with charities – just basically using my voice and my work and my gifts for good.