Arlo Parks on her lockdown album that has struck a chord with people across Britain and the world

FEW singers have offered such a beacon of light in the darkness of lockdown as Arlo Parks.

The 20-year-old Londoner applies her gorgeous, soulful voice to songs dealing with big subjects brought into sharp focus by the pandemic such as depression, addiction and loneliness.

Yet just a couple of years ago, she was still having to combine her fledgling career with school studies.

It has been a whirlwind rise for Arlo, a favourite of “ones to watch” lists and a performer on the BBC Music Introducing stage at 2019’s Glastonbury.

Now she’s released her debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams, which is filled with telling observations on the human condition and conceived, in part, at home in her bedroom.

At a time when the healing power of song is needed more than ever, she has struck a chord with people across Britain . . . and the world.

While her subject matter can be bleak, there is genuine warmth about her album, aided by the light touch of the uncluttered, jazz-inflected arrangements.

She calls it “a little bit indie, a little bit soul and a little bit pop”.

Speaking to Arlo for SFTW, I quickly discover a key reason for the acclaim she is receiving: Her unswerving honesty.

“I was just writing for me and about me,” she says. “I was writing about difficult things that I’ve been through and my own healing process.

“But I guess a lot of those experiences are just part of what it is to be a human being, especially one that is coming of age.

“I was talking about those first moments when you fall in love, when you fall out of love, that idea of figuring out who you are, figuring out who you want to be.”

Although much of her material is written from an adolescent perspective, she adds: “Even older people are saying, ‘Oh, this reminds me of being 15 or 16’. They’ve been transported back to that time.”

When Black Dog — about a friend in the grip of depression — appeared as a single in May last year, Arlo was overwhelmed by the response.

“That came out in the pit of lockdown and everybody was going through it a little bit,” she recalls.

People told me that my song made them feel understood

“Then there was this wave of people telling me the song made them feel heard or understood.

“I was getting people from Brazil, from Alaska, from Siberia, all saying it was helping them in some way.”

Because of the nature of her songs, Arlo has often been described as shy — a label she strongly refutes.

“I have to correct people every time because I’m definitely NOT shy. I’m an extrovert,” she insists.

“I guess my music might give people the wrong idea but you can be introspective without necessarily being introverted.”

Among her legions of admirers is one of America’s most vital current artists, Billie Eilish, who has been on record as saying: “Arlo is sooo cool. I love Arlo.”

The object of her praise returns the compliment . . . and then some.

“I really look up to her, for sure,” she says. “What I love about Billie Eilish is how specific and singular she is — everything from her visuals, her lyrics, to how painstakingly she records her vocals.”

To fully appreciate Arlo’s own aesthetic, however, it is important to know her back story.

Born Anais Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho to a French mother and Nigerian father, she grew up in Hammersmith, West London, discovering a love of writing from a very early age.

“I was probably about seven or eight when I first started making up short stories. I still don’t know where they came from,” she says.

“My parents were big readers and enjoyed music but, ever since I can remember, I’ve always had this desire or instinct to write things down.”

Arlo relied on her “active imagination” — whether it was “writing about spies or running away from Australia or wrestling snakes — it was all very high-drama”.

Her parents helped shape her music taste, as she explains: “My dad was into jazz and listened to a lot of Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk and Otis Redding.

‘Emotionally raw’

“And my mum would play a lot of Eighties French pop, as well as Prince.”

As for her first appearance on stage, she says: “When I was in primary school, I remember being in this play about colours and I was the sun. When I got into secondary school, I was never really part of school plays. They never drew me in.”

But by the time Arlo was 12 or 13, her passion for the written word opened new horizons.

“I realised that poetry was everything I loved about writing . . . trying to elicit emotion out of the fewest lines,” she says.

“I discovered people like (Beat poet) Allen Ginsberg and (feminist activist) Audre Lorde and got a sense of poetry being something quite free that didn’t need to operate within traditional rhyme structures.”

Maybe the poet she loves most is Sylvia Plath, the American icon who took her own life in 1963 after years trying to cope with depression.

“I love how specific her voice is,” says Arlo. “I’ve always gravitated towards people who speak about difficult things in a way that is unflinching.

“When I was younger, maybe I didn’t understand the full context of what she was saying. But I knew she was being completely transparent.”

I've been at home during lockdown… feeling weirdly creative

That sentiment also applies to the musicians she’s drawn to. “When I think about Elliott Smith or Phoebe Bridgers, there is a sense of being emotionally raw and not just for the sake of it,” she says.

So when, I ask, did she discover her lovely singing voice and the possibility of composing and performing her own songs?

Arlo says: “I’d always sang in choirs at school but I honestly just fell into making music when I was 14 or 15.”

Her first efforts were strictly confined to the four walls of her bedroom.

“I picked up the guitar and taught myself how to produce on GarageBand. There wasn’t really a ‘lightning bolt’ moment when I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to sing my own songs’. It felt more a part of a natural exploration.”

Later, Arlo realised she was ready to take things to the next level by hiring a manager and signing for small indie label Beatnik.

“I was still at school but I began working with a producer at that time,” she continues. “I made a few videos and put them out there to see what happened.”

The first song to get her noticed was Cola, which appeared in 2018 and is a typically detailed description of lost love.

‘Private dream’

A similar theme emerges on another early composition, Eugene, which makes it on to Collapsed In Sunbeams, and is about bisexual Arlo’s teenage crush on a straight best friend.

The fact that she deals with her sexuality so openly is another refreshing aspect of her work.

“I always want to be myself,” she says. “That’s why other artists I like seem comfortable in their own skin.”

Much effort has gone into the coherent sound and expression across the album, as Arlo affirms.

“Eugene and Black Dog were the only songs written a fair bit before the rest but I felt they still slotted in well sonically,” she says.

“They were inspired by In Rainbows (the Radiohead album), Sufjan Stevens and Portishead and they tell stories relevant to the rest of the record.”

Of course, a huge part of any budding music career is the chance to play live — something that has been denied Arlo by the pandemic.

She cherishes singing at Glastonbury and the tour dates she completed early last year before months of restrictions kicked in.

“The most beautiful thing is having these lyrics you wrote in your bedroom being sung back to you,” she says.

“You really get that sense of being in a safe space and having that sense of community. I’m singing to people who have already connected to my music.”

Although she has a host of new tour dates planned for 2021, Arlo adds: “It has been super-upsetting not being able to play live and I can’t help thinking about all those people who keep venues going, who work at festivals, who have lost their livelihoods.

“Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to use social media to do live streams and connect to fans. That has kept things from becoming stagnant but nothing can really replace that in-person connection.”

So, has she struggled much during lockdown?

“I’ve been all right, I can’t complain,” she replies. “I’ve been at home all this time. There’s a blessing in that because despite so much chaos, I feel grounded.

“I’ve been watching a lot of films, reading a lot and feeling weirdly creative. Melodies have been coming to me out of the blue, so I’ve been holed up in my little home studio.”

Although music is her primary focus, Arlo has ambitions beyond its confines.

I was writing about difficult things that I’ve been through and my own healing process

“I’ve always been interested in being a polymath,” she says. “Someone who does directing, acting and screenplays as well as writing books of poetry and making albums.”

Anyone who has seen the video accompanying Hope, the latest single from Collapsed In Sunbeams, will have noticed it is more like a short film, requiring not in-considerable acting skills from Arlo and her co-star Molly Windsor, recently seen in TV dramas Cheat and Traces.

The life-affirming and beautifully shot depiction of one girl helping another combat loneliness gives the song new depth of meaning. Arlo says: “My acting journey has evolved as we’ve made more and more videos.

“I’ve always had this secret, private dream to go into acting. There’s something really interesting about assuming another character.

“You put on that mask but find out more about yourself. The beautiful thing about art is that it’s all connected and you can go down a million different avenues.

“I also want to be truly international. I want to travel and to collaborate with people from all over. I’d like to spend time in LA and New York.”

With a fine first album in the bag and everything to play for, Arlo Parks is keeping both feet firmly on the ground.

“There isn’t a particular award I want to win,” she admits.

“My only real desire is to do art for the rest of my life.”

Arlo Parks, Collapsed In Sunbeams


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