In her debut record, the singer-songwriter approaches everyday struggles with grace—and pens poetic coming-of-age anthems that rise above their subject matter
When we talk, Arlo Parks is in the midst of packing for a move. “I’ve lived in my family home my whole life, so I’m excited to have my own space,” she tells me. “Early in quarantine, I taught myself to DJ and was, like, loudly DJing techno for a good three weeks—my parents were not pleased.”
It’s hard to picture the soft-spoken singer loudly DJing techno. Even over the phone, her demeanor is quiet and collected; she mulls my questions over before she answers them with the same introspective candor I’ve come to expect from her music. Parks (real name: Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho) started writing songs as a teenager, and hasn’t strayed from the intimate lyrics and soulful indie-pop sound that has earned her fans ranging from Michelle Obama to Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, and Phoebe Bridgers. Even now, after a rollercoaster year in the spotlight—going from having her tour shuttered to performing on The Late Late Show and winning the Breakthrough Artist award at this week’s BRIT Awards—she possesses a sense of quiet poise that makes it hard to remember she’s only twenty.
In her debut record, Collapsed in Sunbeams, Parks seamlessly integrates lines of spoken word poetry into resonant coming-of-age anthems that rise beyond the scope of their subject matter. Alternating between abstract sensory metaphor and naturalistic detail, she invites the listener into an intimate space where the personal and universal coexist, punctuating granular description with moments of direct address (“I hold your head back when you’re too lean / I hold the Taco Bell and you cried over Eugene,” she sings in one track; “We’re all just learning to trust our bodies,” she intones in another, speaking directly to the listener.) The resulting songs are simultaneously understated and romanticized: unexpected observations add a sense of charm and intimacy (“I’d lick the grief right off your lips / You do your eyes like Robert Smith”) while blanket statements of affirmation (“You’re not alone like you think you are”) and the inclusion of countless names (Caroline, Millie, Eugene, Alice) serve to diffuse the importance of any one plotline. It’s this interplay between personal experience and universal struggles like mental health, identity, and self-acceptance that makes Parks’ first album feel more like a self-aware mythology of adolescence than an excerpt from her own. Rendering the story of her own journey in poetic terms, Parks consciously elevates emotional growing pains to the level of art—providing a slice of life that is profoundly ordinary and humming with potential.
“I wanted to speak about the first times; the first times I was setting boundaries, or the first breakup, first moments of feeling comfortable in my skin… Kind of grappling with humanity and growing up and the joy and despair that comes with all of that.”
Camille: I first discovered your music last year when you covered ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ with Phoebe Bridgers, and I was like, ‘Why isn’t this on Spotify!?’ and looked you up and started listening. Was there anything you set out to capture with this first record?
Arlo: I guess I wanted it to feel like a journal, I wanted it to document the key moments that punctuated my adolescence and my coming-of-age story. I wanted to speak about the first times; the first times I was setting boundaries, or the first breakup, first moments of feeling comfortable in my skin… Kind of grappling with humanity and growing up and the joy and despair that comes with all of that. I think it’s just about growth, to be honest, that’s what I wanted to explore and I wanted it to feel completely me.
Camille: Yeah, that really comes through in the songwriting. You’re very publicly passionate about literature and poetry, is there any writing you’ve found inspiring lately?
Arlo: I’ve been reading a collection called Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan, and what I really loved about that is that she has this really sensory approach to writing… Creating this visceral, vivid world, which is something I enjoy. And I’m also about to start reading Swann’s Way by Proust. That may be ambitious, but reading books from all different kinds of countries and eras has been really inspiring to me—just seeing how things change over time and how cultures impact the way people write and think about things.
Camille: I’ve noticed a similar quality in your work, balancing abstract visual metaphors with narratives that are very personal and autobiographical. When you’re writing about things in your life, are you usually speaking from your own perspective, or do you sometimes shift to embody someone else’s?
Arlo: I feel like I always write about what I’ve absorbed from the world around me. There are moments where I am telling a story about something I watched unfold—but, for example, toward the end of my song ‘Caroline,’ I’m just watching my own imagination pulling from the experiences that I’ve had in the past. Or for example, when I was writing ‘Portra 400,’ I was inspired by the book Just Kids by Patti Smith. I just imagined these people in a relationship in their apartment, kind of grappling with how two people who are locked into a relationship can kind of feel each other’s toxicities, but also lift each other up. And I think that helping each other out of a dark space can really strengthen the bonds between people.
Camille: In a weird way, it seems like the pandemic was a good time for your music to gain a broader audience—so many of your songs manage to talk about mental health struggles, but in a way that feels uplifting.
Arlo: You know, all of that happened so serendipitously because when I wrote the songs, there was no sign of the pandemic. And the fact that ‘Black Dog’ kind of hit when people were feeling at their lowest, that it resonated with people and the fact that I was able to bring people some joy during that time was so special and unexpected.
“I just value honesty and authenticity in the music that I listen to, and so when I’m feeling confused or someone I love is in pain, then I just can’t help but write about it.”
Camille: How was your quarantine, did you learn anything new or develop any weird idiosyncrasies?
Arlo: Yeah, I taught myself to DJ. I was like, loudly DJing techno for a good three weeks—my parents were not pleased. [laughs]
Camille: I can only imagine! What’s the role of physical space in your creative process, and did that change during the pandemic?
Arlo: Almost all the songs I’ve put out have been recorded in apartments, not studios. It just felt comfortable and homey to me, I like to be able to take a break and make some pasta, watch some cartoons… I find studio environments quite sterile sometimes, so I found myself wanting to be in a house. I recorded this album in an Airbnb I rented in London, because I wanted it to feel like it was its own world.
Camille: Did you ever send the Airbnb people the record you made in their place?
Arlo: No, actually, they had no idea what I was doing there! Maybe I should.
Camille: I’m curious what the process was like for your music videos from Collapsed in Sunbeams.
Arlo: The visual universe is so important to me, I’m really into films and photography too. Usually how it works is that I’ll have a coffee—or now, Zoom—with the director and we’ll speak about the colors, the images, the words that come to mind when I think about a song, and share the things that have been moving us visually in the last few months. For example, with ‘Caroline’ we were talking a lot about nature, we were talking a lot about Russian films, photographs by Ren Hang and Nan Golden.
Camille: That sounds great. Are there any visual inspirations that come to mind for you, looking at the past few months? What would you share if you met with a director tomorrow?
Arlo: This could go one of two ways! I’ve been really into like Japanese films lately. I just watched one called Funeral Parade of Roses by Toshio Matsumoto, and that’s about ’60s Japanese drag and queer culture. It inspired a lot of Kubrick’s stuff, it’s quite dark with these really intense portraits. I love that, and all these playful horror movies with distinct aesthetic styles, like Suspiria—the ’70s version. Or I would go the opposite direction and talk about how I’ve been watching very naturalistic films like Frances Ha or A Colony—really human films that just follow a person moving through the world.
Camille: That reminds me a lot of your work, in that it addresses very real human subjects through a personal lens.
Arlo: Yes, talking about those things came about very naturally for me. A lot of the artists I look up to—people like Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Phoebe Bridgers—all have this sense of candor when it comes to going through difficult times. Everybody has low points, moments of feeling confused or hurt… and engaging with that side of things as much as the joyful side of things is important, I think. I just value honesty and authenticity in the music that I listen to, and so when I’m feeling confused or someone I love is in pain, then I just can’t help but write about it.
Camille: I like the idea of using these experiences to create or connect. Did you set out to create a specific narrative arc through the way you ordered the tracks?
Arlo: I spent a lot of time thinking about the story of the songs, listening to [the album] in different environments, and getting different members of the team to listen to it. I played it to Paul Epworth and he was like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t notice the time passing!’ because the songs melded into each other in a very comfortable way, and that’s what I really wanted—like it was all kind of connected by some kind of invisible thread. So I guess it was just chasing that feeling.
Camille: It sounds like your process is really intuitive.
“A big part of being a creative person is also absorbing and living, and that is a form of productivity in itself.”
Arlo: Definitely. I’m just like, let’s do this if it feels right and let’s take this out if it doesn’t. I think that’s the fun of music, that you can make something that is exactly how you envision it and that is exactly to your taste. And that’s what I love about it.
Camille: Has that changed or evolved over the course of your career? Your music has obviously really taken off lately, and I’m curious if knowing your audience has impacted your process.
Arlo: I genuinely don’t think it’s changed my process, which is interesting. I did have nerves that I would find myself worried that people wouldn’t like it and change the way that I wrote, but I didn’t feel that at all. I think actually having people gravitate to my music at its most authentic—you know, those first songs, I didn’t expect anyone to listen to them—confirmed that people like me for me. I haven’t compromised artistically ever, and people like what I’m doing, so I should just kind of continue trusting that. And that’s a belief I hold quite dear—any time I’m feeling hesitant or wondering, ‘Will people like this?’ I’m just like, ‘No, do your thing and some people will like it and some people won’t, that’s just part of art.’
Camille: Do you have anything you do to get things moving when you feel creatively blocked?
Arlo: Usually just doing something different. I think it’s an extension of what I was saying in the beginning: it should always feel good. It should never feel forced or like you’re dragging it out of yourself, so when you get that feeling, maybe it’s time to step away and do something else in life. A big part of being a creative person is also absorbing and living, and that is a form of productivity in itself.
Camille: Sounds… Balanced. [laughs]
Arlo: That’s at least how I try to think about it. I like to go on walks with a friend, especially one that has a dog I can pet. I’ve set it up within my lifetime to get a little cockapoo named Pierre, but I don’t have one yet.
Camille: Sounds like something to manifest. Before I let you go, what’s a line of poetry or literature that lives in your head rent-free?
Arlo: Ooh! I think it’s probably ‘pain will either change or end,’ which is a quote from Audre Lorde. It’s just so true: things may get better, things may get worse, but they will never stay the same. It’s just part of being a person, things are always in flux and life’s unpredictable and it kind of encourages you to embrace that.