Search The Line of Best Fit
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Arlo Parks by Parri Thomas for The Line of Best Fit web 002

How Anaïs became Arlo

26 January 2021, 00:01
Original Photography by Parri Thomas

Arlo Parks tells Sophie Walker how trusting her instincts was vital to the creative journey from teenage empath to one of the UK’s most exciting artists.

Arlo Parks knows there is no drug like resonance. Her music holds a mirror up to our collective faces so close you can see your breath on it. At 20-years-old, Parks wears her quiet sense of confidence – that sought-after comfort in her own skin – with serenity, like a scar hard-won from the inevitable battle of growing up.

“It’s almost like a window to my adolescence,” she says of Collapsed in Sunbeams, her debut album on the cusp of release. “It’s about experiencing a series of firsts: falling for people, heartbreaks, and losses.” It’s places like this one, as we walk together through the Kyoto Gardens of London’s Holland Park one drizzly winter morning, which have been the backdrop for the moments where Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho knew that things had changed: life wasn’t going to stop for her, or anybody. Lolling in the sunshine on in the summer, Bluetooth speaker in hand; or sat on a bench, side by side, looking at the person next to you and realising there’s no one in the world you’d rather sit with: these moments are what her long-awaited debut album are made of. These twelve vignettes, which captures the darkness as well as the shafts of light she chases, tell the story of when Anais unfurled into Arlo.

“I’ve always wanted people to react to my music with the same emotional openness I wrote it with,” she explains, as we take shelter on a bench under a hidden archway. We watch people as they walk by, a flurry of dogs and children laughing. Parks assumes her role as a natural observer. Her experiences are personal, and yet she holds herself at some remove, present and yet suspended. It’s this quality that begins to explain the success of her music.

While she tells the stories of others in her music, she makes it clear: “My music is about watching things unfold. I write about experiences through my own eyes.” You will often hear the word ‘universal’ when it comes to Parks – it’s a quality she feels that she has stumbled upon, because if anything, she believes, the stories behind her songs are “hyper-specific”. “Black Dog”, a song about the helpless feeling of watching the corrosive effects of depression, earned her the title of the “creator of the year’s most devastating song” from NME - and “Eugene”, a dusky ode to smothering feelings of love for the sake of friendship, have proved to mirror the experiences of hundreds of thousands of people.

Arlo Parks by Parri Thomas

Pay attention, and you will hear Arlo Parks everywhere. Championed by the likes of Billie Eilish to Michelle Obama; acting in a Gus Van Sant-directed mini-series for Gucci; as well as prominently in Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, there is no question – either by accident or design – that Parks' music defines the turbulence of our times: both the joys and the vulnerabilities.

Mike Harounoff, her A&R at Transgressive Records, recalls the “pinch me moment” of when he discovered Parks. There he was on a Saturday night in Hackney, stood enraptured by this young artist who performed with her school friends, charmingly under-rehearsed, in a room of no more than fifteen people. “At Transgressive, we try and reflect the culture as best we can," Harounoff tells me. "I think that an artist like Arlo does that, very much so. Hers is a voice that I don’t think has really happened before. People have spoken on some of the themes she discusses, but she has a turn of phrase, as a poet – a way with music and a way with words – which I think feels incredibly true and real to people. I think it puts her in a category of her own.”

Harounoff recalls when he listened to “Black Dog” for the first time. “It sounds like I’m making this up,” he says, but when Parks’ manager, Ali Raymond, who was a champion of her music from the very start, sent him the demo she had made with her friend and producer, Luca Buccellati, it knocked him for six. “I was on the train home from work and I missed all of my stops and ended up at the end of the line," Harounoff explains. "I just listened to it over and over again. I’m so transfixed by the sentiment of it. You know, her voice, the story that she's telling - how simple the music is - or how wonderfully it’s put together… I had such an instant, intimate reaction to that piece of music. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”

The MVA-nominated music video for the song was made in collaboration with director Molly Burdett, who reached out to Parks’ management in 2018, when she was fresh from university. What began as a one-off turned into two years and counting of friendship, with Burdett responsible for six of Parks' visuals. The creative harmony between them comes from Burdett's understanding of Parks’ music, and the common interest in telling a coming-of-age story. “She’s got an incredible mixture of poetics and cinematic storytelling," Burdett explains. "Her music almost exists in this surreal, abstract world even though she’s so brutally honest in the way she writes. We really try and push that together, and that’s why I think we have always been very much aligned.”

A young father tries to soothe his wailing baby in a house where the four walls had never felt tighter; a mother tries to comfort her daughter, who she knows she can’t protect from the world like she could when she was just a child – but she holds her to her chest, just the same. Parks is in a car, removed, yet somehow, she looks on, sighing, “It’s so cruel / What your mind can do for no reason”. But when the young father’s baby wraps their little fingers around his; when the mother manages to tease a smile from her daughter, flicking water at her in the bath, things seem like they might just be alright. “It has an undertone of hope,” Burdett explains. When it was at last released, she burst out crying. “it’s an incredibly important video, and it feels very authentic – which to me, as a filmmaker, is the dream.”

“I wanted it to be a series of portraits,” Parks says, reflecting on the video for “Black Dog”. It’s a quality which is mirrored often across Collapsed in Sunbeams: she is drawn, moth-like, to the stories of the people in the world around her, which then, in turn, allow her to tell her own. “Song-writing has taught me patience,” she explains. “It’s taught me to sit with the parts of myself that I maybe don’t like as much - or rather than pushing them away, kind of interrogating them and asking why. The way we approach others and the way we approach ourselves can be so different. It’s easy to slip into that “woe is me, the world is terrible” kind of vibe, but then having that ability to kind of engage that... it’s almost like a metamorphosis, taking something negative and making it into something that has a broad reach that can touch people. It’s about trying to practise kindness, but not just towards other people, but towards myself.”

Arlo Parks by Parri Thomas

But music was not, in fact, her first love. It was a love of storytelling that would come first. She remembers, as a child, sitting upstairs writing stories on an old computer, rifling through a thesaurus, trying to cram in words she felt drawn to with only a tentative understanding of their meaning. “I’ve always had that connection to words,” Parks reflects. “I struggle to explain it, because even now, I can read a poem – I can read just one line – and the choice of words can be so good, it makes me emotional. It’s always been that way. I don’t know where it came from. Obviously, my parents liked books and read, but I always had that internal, instinctive connection.”

Collapsed in Sunbeams is more than just a sum of her musical influences – but the sum of every single one of her creative endeavours. The fingerprints of Haruki Murakami and Audre Lorde can be found just as easily as those of King Krule and Frank Ocean. A song on the album is inspired by Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, and one of the characters, Hatsumi, a heroine tinged with tragedy, who continued to forgive when her boyfriend treated her appallingly. “I definitely think that book is a teenage thing, as well,” she laughs, “You read Norwegian Wood and you think, “Wow, I’m so sophisticated!”

The album’s title was in fact drawn from the finely-spun words of Zadie Smith. “She’s sick!” Parks gleams. “White Teeth is fire, and so is On Beauty. It usually takes me ages to read a book because I’m always taking notes, reading it over and over again.” The latter was where she had drawn inspiration – a perfect example of her awe for a beautifully crafted sentence. “Here a bookshelf filled with their oldest paperbacks kept company with a suede beanbag and an ottoman upon which Murdoch, their dachshund, lay collapsed in a sunbeam,” Smith writes. Even though the context itself has nothing to do with her music, Parks explains, “it captures the sentiment I’m looking for in my album: something bittersweet. And it was written in summer, and my album is kind of the same, about summer in London.”

Parks is releasing a book of poetry to accompany the release of Collapsed in Sunbeams. She lights up as she reels off poets who have shaped her work, the names tumbling out faster than she can keep up with them. From the chaos of the Beat poets, with the rich, natural imagery of Gary Snyder’s “Four Poems for Robin” and Allan Ginsberg’s “Howl”, to the visceral wordplay of Sylvia Plath in “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”. “At one point,” she shares, “I was really into haikus and then imagism – these really short, concise poems, like three lines, or whatever. I just read everything. Once I like a particular medium, whether it’s music or poetry, I’ll take on anything.”

It was her poetry that first captured the attention of Loyle Carner. At eighteen-years-old, she wrote “London”, an ode to the concrete jungle that raised her, which namechecked the Mercury-nominated rapper. From the grim to the glorious; the “tears shed and tobacco lost”, bringing the person she liked to her favourite spot and not having the courage to kiss them, and laughing over cheap fruit wine and Poundland biscuits, she writes, “This is where I grew up. This is where I learned to toughen up. This is where I learned love.” She performed it at Latitude Festival in 2019 with Carner in the crowd; two years later, she was supporting him on his Not Waving, But Drowning tour.

“It was a special thing to work with Arlo,” Carner tells me. “She’s powerful and unwavering, but at the same time she’s open and not afraid to be vulnerable. I watched her show most nights on tour and learnt something new about her every time.” Shortly afterwards, he and his younger brother, Ryan Coyle-Larner, co-directed the music video for “Eugene”. He adds, “Shooting her video was a breeze, it was me and my brother’s first one, so we were nervous. But she trusted us, which helped us trust ourselves.”

Parks often grows up alongside her collaborators, who soon become friends. For Ryan Coyle-Larner, only eighteen-years-old at the time himself, this would be his directorial debut. “’We’d always been into film, and we’d always talked about ideas,” he says, “but ‘Eugene’ was the first one where we thought, ‘Hey, why don’t we actually try and do this?’ All I could think about when I listened to the song was how enigmatic her voice was.” Like many of her listeners, he couldn’t help but draw parallels between Parks’ experiences, and those of his own.

The music video takes place in a bedroom, with Parks and the friend she “fell half in love” with, sharing what may seem ordinary, but are, in fact, meaningful moments, from howling with laughter at a film to reading poetry together. In that way, it reflects Parks’ style of lyricism. “Me and my brother had very much discussed the bird’s eye view shot,” Coyle-Larner explains. “We like to capture those intimate, relatable moments which are kind of mundane, and heighten them. You get a lot of that in bedrooms, those really raw, personal things.”

"As I grew, I realised I could be a million different things. I don’t have to fit in a specific box. People like Frank Ocean and Radiohead taught me that you can be constantly evolving.”

Her talents in front of the camera is something he is keen to point out: “On the set, she was really fun, really natural. If you’ve seen her older music videos, like the video for ‘Cola’, you can see just how natural she is.” It’s a sentiment that is echoed not only by Molly Burdett, but by our photographer, too, as she chases the light around Holland Park, posing with her bejewelled hands to her face without an inch of self-consciousnesses. “I’m trying to get into acting, because I just love it,” Parks enthuses. “Even in ‘Eugene’, where I’d only met the person the night before… that sense of putting that mask on and being somebody else has always really interested me.”

Working with Loyle Carner is just one of the serendipitous, full-circle moments in her life. Parks has had to get into the habit of journaling, to be able to sit with these incredible moments in her career before they pass her by. Being present is something she’s still learning. Much of Collapsed in Sunbeams is steeped in a kind of nostalgia; like many of us, as the world ground to a halt in a global pandemic, we looked over our shoulder to mine the past for inspiration.

When she first set out on her love of music, while at school, she says, “I think I was a little bit more interested in the idea of having a unique, solid identity – having, you know, a sound. Then, as I grew, I realised I could be a million different things. I don’t have to fit in a specific box. People like Frank Ocean and Radiohead taught me that you can be constantly evolving.”

Parks looks back on her younger self and the songs she wrote with “a sense of fondness.” She continues: “Because of my personality, being an empath, I feel as though I absorbed a lot of things around me. It was difficult, you know? It was only when I went to college that I really found my people. I found myself surrounded by people who wanted to be artists, directors and producers – I’d never experienced that before. There were people who were super flamboyant and wore really weird clothes and wanted to study sculpture at Central Saint Martins. I'd never encountered that before, and I think going to college was a period of time where I felt like I'd really found myself, and also had confidence to think, ‘I want to be an artist, and I want to make art as a career.’”

But in secondary school, when she was penning “Eugene” and “Black Dog”, ‘confident’ was the last thing she would describe herself as. “I was super introverted, super shy – I didn’t want to tell anyone I was doing music. I didn’t want to speak to anyone, I’ll be honest.” But around that time was when she discovered the artists whose reverberations you can still feel in her music today. 2012 was a big year for Parks: she spent her days absorbed into the universe of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Soko’s I Thought I Was An Alien, and, of course, King Krule’s 6 Feet Beneath the Moon. She reminisces, “That super vulnerable, sensory writing – that sense of grit… I was completely captivated.”

Like many kids who grew up with the internet, GarageBand was something of a gateway drug into the world of DIY production. “Usually, in music lessons, you just bang around on the keyboard for an hour,” says Parks. “But then we got these new computers in, and they had GarageBand on them. They didn’t actually teach us anything, they were like, ‘Just do something on it’, so I stacked loads of loops – like a hundred – and it actually sounded good! So that was just awesome to me: the idea of not having to be in a studio or a massive space to make music.”

Then, of course, there was SoundCloud, where her horizons would broaden once more when she discovered the likes of the NiNE8 Collective and the dulcet bedroom pop of Clairo (who features on the backing vocals for Collapsed in Sunbeams). But at school, not everyone was like-minded in the discovery of this new world. “I remember in Year Nine, we had to do a presentation on an artist that we liked, and I picked King Krule. My teacher played one of his songs, and everyone was like, ‘What’s this? I don’t get it. This is shit’. That was the moment when I realised everyone’s not always going to like what I like, what I’m doing, or who I am.”

She learned, from that day onwards, that trying to be palatable, and cater to everyone’s tastes, was not only a waste of energy, but a disservice to herself. “I can’t force myself into a mould – you know, wanting to look a certain way, or be seen as, like, attractive, whatever that is. There’s a reason why I am this way. There’s only one of me, and the things that are maybe seen as not cool, I really like about myself, and I want to explore those things more. From the music that I make to the way I dress; I knew I needed to just trust my tastes.”

When it came to sending off a homemade demo to BBC Introducing, she didn’t really give it a second thought. “I waited for like, six months, and nothing really happened – I kind of forgot I even did it, to be honest with you.” When an email for Jess Iszatt ended up in her inbox inviting her to come to Hoxton FM to do an interview after school one day, it felt that the world had finally began to open up to her. “And then her friend, and my now manger, Ali [Raymond], asked who she was tipping at the moment, and she said me. So then he just sent me an email, I rolled up with my mum, and the rest is kind of history.” She was seventeen years old.

Though she is three years older now, and her life has been transformed in ways too many to name, some things don’t change. Parks doesn’t like to record her music in a studio – it’s too dark, too dingey; she feels like she’s trapped underground. “I like natural light,” she explains. “I like to go for walks and make tea and have my food – just be comfortable.” So an Airbnb in Hoxton was her place of choice when it came to pulling the threads of Collapsed in Sunbeams together. While she had three producers lending their talents to the record, including Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence and the Machine), as well as the Bad Sounds brothers, the third was her long-time friend and collaborator Luca Buccellati, who was right there from the very beginning when she made “Cola.” Buccellati is an early riser, whereas Parks is far more nocturnal. After she had compiled a playlist of songs as references for the sound she was seeking while he slept in the other room, she would wake up the next day, late in the morning, to find him already deep in the process of making the beat.

Time has run through her fingers, and even though she is still in the midst of her adolescence, Parks knows that already she is teetering on the brink of adulthood. We talk about the night she and her friends grew up. “We just started talking about really intense stuff, and a lot of us were saying that they didn’t really know what they wanted to be, or what they were passionate about – just lacking direction. People who were really struggling with their mental health weren’t really sure if things were gonna get better. It was this massive conversation,” she explains.

That night, on the bus back from the park, she wrote “Super Sad Generation”. She says, “It was moments like that where you just become a bit more aware – your world kind of expands, and you realise you can’t just sit in parks and drink Strongbows forever.” The idea of lost innocence is something she touches on again when she penned “For Violet”. That song, she says, “was probably the hardest song I have ever written.” Parks explains, “So when I was younger, I had a friend and her home life was terrible. Her dad was abusive. It’s about those first moments that dissolve your innocence, when you realise that the world isn’t always beautiful or amazing, and that it doesn’t just revolve around you.

Speaking to those who have worked with Parks, and those who are deeply in love with her music, when it comes to trying to put their finger on her appeal, they will say that she is the voice of a generation. It’s a responsibility that doesn’t sit right with her, but her gift in finding the humdrum holy; in channelling the universal through poetry that is not aloof but accessible to the world that inspires her; searching for strands of light in the darkest of places, is undeniable. Harounoff captures her best: “There was something missing for a long time, an Arlo-sized gap. There is a level of empathy that exists within her; an element of worldliness – it’s not my place to say if other artists have that, but Arlo has it in such abundance. Perhaps we didn’t realise what we were lacking before she came along, but we need her.”

Collapsed in Sunbeams is released on 29 January via Trangressive Records
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