In November 2019, a few months before the world came to a standstill, Arlo Parks fell in love with Seamus Heaney. “I was in Dingle doing Other Voices,” the singer-songwriter recalls. “Huw Stephens [BBC Radio presenter] brought me 100 Poems by Seamus Heaney. I remember reading Death of a Naturalist. I love how he references the earth in his writing. The way he writes, it always feels very physical.”
You can feel the loam and grit of everyday life in Heaney’s work. The same can be said of Park’s music, which has seen her hailed the as the voice of Gen Z and has brought huge industry buzz. Blending R&B, indie, acoustic pop and emo, her songs unfold like the saddest episode of Skins. Whether singing about unrequited love, fumbled kisses, depression or lost weekends, the 20-year-old chronicles, with a documentarian’s eye, the ache and vulnerability of adolescence.
“I have a natural sense of openness,” says Parks from her parents’ home in Hammersmith, west London. “A lot of the records I learned from, especially debut albums, have that. I Thought I Was an Alien by Soko. Or 6 Feet Beneath the Moon by King Krule. All those albums have a vulnerability. You can tell these people are writing about situations because they can’t help but do so. They are making art out of sad circumstances. That is the art I learned from. And that I naturally tend to make.”
Parks draws on her own sadness and joy on her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. On Eugene, accompanied by a delicate groove and chiming guitars, she laments the end of a friendship caused by the arrival of a new boyfriend. Black Dog reflects on a friend’s battle with depression (“I would do anything to get you out your room/ Just take your medicine and eat some food”). If you wanted a massively reductive and incredibly simplistic comparison, it’s Lily Allen by way of Billie Eilish – both of whom are fans, with the latter name-dropping Parks in a Vanity Fair feature.
“I feel quite grounded,” says Parks. “But there are definitely moments – with Bille Eilish mentioning me in Vanity Fair – when it’s surreal. When it’s like, ‘woah’.”
Just like the rest of us, Parks has had her ups and downs during lockdown. But, true to her sweet and rather earnest disposition, she has tried looking on the positives. As Britain collapsed into stillness in spring she and her producer Gianluca Buccellati formed a bubble in a B&B rental in Hoxton, a gentrified stretch of London’s East End. There, in a room filled with candles and a feeling of possibility, they wrote the bulk of Collapsed in Sunbeams.
“I had a lot more time and stillness,” she says. “I’m quite a social person. I’d be running about with friends and doing things. There’s definitely this sense of calmness and ‘considerdness’ with the album. I had time to craft it exactly how I wanted.”
Park’s music reverberates with a defiant joy, and defiant joy is what we need right now. Last August her single, Hurt – about “the temporary nature of suffering” – was named Annie Mac’s hottest record in the world on BBC Radio 1. In October she received the BBC Introducing: Artist of the Year accolade.
That same month she put in a devastating performance on Later with Jools Holland, delivering a spoken-word piece called What Matters Most? with accompaniment from Future Utopia, aka pianist Fraser T Smith. “Crying when listening to this,” read one of the YouTube comments.
A lot of the songs are a fusion of several different stories
Poetry was one of her first loves as a shy child growing up in Hammersmith, the daughter of a Nigerian father and French mother. Musically, she was into The Strokes, Erykah Badu, the late and great MF Doom and, later, Nick Cave. She was a happy kid. But adolescence brought its challenges. At 14, she developed a crush on her best friend. Who then got herself a boyfriend. Years later, Parks poured the memories into Eugene, though she is keen to point out that the lyrics shouldn’t be read as a forensic account of what happened.
“A lot of the songs are a fusion of several different stories,” she says. “It’s not necessarily having a [romantic] feeling for your friend. It can be that your best friend is in a relationship and they’re not spending as much time with you and you having that sense of jealousy.”
Parks, whose real name is Anaïs Marinho, was still at school when she signed with Transgressive Records, the London label that also worked with Julia Jacklin, Let’s Eat Grandma and Songhoy Blues. She chose Arlo Parks as a stage name because of the melancholy sensibility of the “oh” sound – a trick picked up from Frank Ocean and King Krule.
A crushing wistfulness was similarly a feature of her debut EP, Super Sad Generation, released in April 2019. “When did we get so skinny/ Start doing ketamine on weekends... We’re trying to keep our friends from death,” she sang on the title track. Twitter soon anointed her the voice of Gen Z.
One of the things I love about teenagers and people in their 20s – they're standing up for what they believe in
As she introduced herself to the world, there was never a question of not being open about her queerness, she says. As a Gen Z-er, being someone other than her truest self would have been an anathema.
“It was very much a sense of wanting to be who I am from the get-go,” she says. “A lot of people have told me that my openness has inspired them to feel more comfortable with themselves. For me, it was something I never thought about too much. There is definitely a tendency to put people in boxes. I wanted from the beginning to be open about it. So that it wouldn’t be a massive exposure down the line if I did speak about it in the future. I’m pretty honest in my songs.”
She is honest, too, about the challenges that have shaped her as an artist. The most tragic was the suicide of a friend at school. It’s what motivated Parks to become an ambassador for Calm (Campaign Against Living Miserably), a British charity dedicated to preventing suicide.
“Moments like that shatter and change your perspective on life,” she says. “It ignited something in me. You have one life. It motivated me to spread as much good as I could and to pursue music, to pursue art. It was definitely one of the worst things that ever happened. I try and take something positive and try to use my platform and to share resources.”
This brings us to Black Dog. Depression and the places it can lead was the subject of her early single. More than any other of her tracks, it is the one to which people have responded.
“It’s essentially about a friend of mine who was going through a really difficult time. It was written from the perspective of caring for a friend who was struggling. She’s moved to a more positive place and made a lot of progress. It’s beautiful in a way that something that was difficult for both of us brought joy to a lot of people and made people feel understood. A lot of people said I found the words they couldn’t.”
She looks to the future with a sense of hope and, like the rest of us, is crossing her fingers live music returns soon. Until then, how does she feel about being proclaimed the voice of her generation? Is it a compliment? A burden?
“We’re all individuals in Generation Z,” she says. “One of the things I love about teenagers and people in their 20s – they’re standing up for what they believe in and how they feel and what they feel needs to be changed. I’m optimistic for the future.
“When you think about the young artists making music together, the young painters, the young fashion designers – the future of art is bright.”
Collapsed in Sunbeams is released on January 29th