Rising indie pop star Arlo Parks discusses influences that shaped her debut album ahead of her first Canadian show
In a collection of essays written at the height of the pandemic, the English writer Zadie Smith describes the misery of blockages as “very precisely designed and different for each person”. Often times, it is art that saves us from isolation and reminds us of our connection to others.
Arlo Parks’ debut album, “Collapsed in Sunbeams” – which takes its title from a line from a 2005 Smith novel – does just that. Released in January, it’s a perfect companion for those tough times. Navigating on weighty themes such as loneliness, mental health and sexuality, the album is an exercise in vulnerability and introspection. It’s sad, but affirming, like a late night one-on-one with a close friend.
“It’s so cruel / What your mind can do for no reason,” she sings on “Black Dog,” a devastating and poignant song about living with depression.
“These months (during the lockdown) have been some of the most difficult a lot of people have ever experienced,” Parks said in an interview with The Star. “It comforts me to know that my record was kind of a calming balm for people.”
Since Parks’ escape in 2018, the 21-year-old artist has garnered an extremely loyal fan base and has become one of the defining voices in contemporary indie pop. Earlier this month, “Collapsed in Sunbeams” received the 2021 Mercury Award for Best British Album.
Now, after months of delays caused by the pandemic, she has finally embarked on a tour, which includes a stop at the Queen Elizabeth Theater in Toronto on Tuesday – her very first Canadian show.
“There was definitely a feeling of frustration,” Parks said. “But the way I chose to look – because it’s always about perspective – is that when I finally got to play these songs live, they would have taken root deep in people’s lives. People would know all the words and it would be even more special because it was something we have been waiting for so long.
Born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho in West London, Parks grew up surrounded by music – from Prince to Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, “music has infused the house,” she said.
As a teenager, after discovering indie and hip-hop groups like Odd Future, Parks started playing guitar and writing her own music. At first, his ambitions were limited.
“I wasn’t cool enough to be in any scene,” she said. “I was really in my own room doing my own thing. Music is a very personal, internal, insular thing. It’s something I did for myself, by myself. The idea to share didn’t really come to me until a little later.
Eventually, she started uploading demos to BBC Music Introducing, a platform that supports UK talent under the radar. This caught the attention of the folks at Beatnik Records, who released his hit “Cola” in 2018.
After releasing two EPs in 2019, Parks teamed up with songwriter and record producer Gianluca Buccellati in early 2020 to record his debut album.
Recorded at various Airbnbs in east London during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Collapsed in Sunbeams” reflects Parks’ increasingly eclectic musical taste. In 40 minutes, the album borrows sounds from indie rock, alternative rock, trip hop and neo-soul.
“There’s definitely Radiohead and Portishead (on the album). But a lot of influences for this record have come from across the pond, ”she said. “D’Angelo and Elliott Smith, Yo La Tengo, Joan Armatrading; I guess I just had treats from all over the place. I’m trying to have… a kaleidoscope, or a collage, of all the things that interest me.
Lyrically, Parks described the album like “a series of intimate vignettes and portraits surrounding my adolescence and the people who shaped it”.
An avid reader, Parks approaches her songs with literary sensibility and a focus on storytelling. Specifically, she cites James Baldwin’s classic 1956 novel, “Giovanni’s Room,” a historical exploration of queer sexuality, as the inspiration for her debut album.
“There’s something about the way (Baldwin) writes, I can’t even quite describe it, but there is a meaning, like, humanity and patience. I feel like he’s wide-eyed when he writes and there’s this attention to detail.
Parks taps into Baldwin’s mind in “Eugene,” a delicately rendered story about the narrator’s unrequited love for a straight girl. “I had a dream, we kissed / And it was all amethyst,” she sings over a home-sounding bassline on Radiohead’s album “In Rainbows”.
On the more upbeat “Hope,” Parks drops the details in favor of a more universal claim: “You are not alone, as you think. “
Speaking backstage before a sold-out show at Music Hall of Williamsburg in New York City, Arlo Parks seemed extremely relaxed. Performing in front of a live audience, she said, “is like coming home.”
“Each performance had this feeling of security. People are happy to see me sing and dance. There’s just, like, a purity in the feeling.
Parks is discreet about his plans for the future. “I generally try to keep it a secret,” she said. “For the next two years, I just turn, write and read my books. “
As a winner of the Mercury Prize, Parks joins the ranks of British musical royalty; James Blake, Skepta, Portishead, PJ Harvey and Anohni are among the previous recipients. But that doesn’t seem to bother her.
“I feel like with most of the prizes and external things, I see them as wonderful and special, but I try not to think about it too much,” she said. “You can never control what people are going to get out of work; you can only control what you put on. So keep making music that you are passionate about.
“That’s all I can do. So I guess that’s what I’ll do.