Arlo Parks’s last concert before the world ended was at the Grand Social in Dublin. It was March 2020 and, with a pandemic brewing, live music had become a game of hedged bets. Would that night’s show go ahead? When would it all come tumbling down?
She remembers the gig vividly. There was a crowd of “around 50″ and while she tried to raise spirits as she unpacked the intimate bedroom pop that later formed the spine of her debut LP, Collapsed In Sunbeams, the feeling in the air was mournful. Everyone knew they wouldn’t be doing this again in a hurry. She said her goodbyes and stepped into the darkness, not knowing when the light would return.
“At the end of the tour, it was definitely this sense of impending doom. With each show, you weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Parks (22) says, speaking ahead of the release of her second album, My Soft Machine on May 26th. “There was definitely a deep sadness when we had to cancel everything, though it was obviously completely necessary.”
It’s funny how life works out, she continues. In June 2022, she played before the biggest crowd of her career to date. And as fate would have it, the location was Dublin once again – where she supported Harry Styles for his sell-out at the Aviva Stadium.
This was a big deal on several levels, says Parks. First, it was Harry Styles, raffish regent of Gen Z pop. Secondly, Parks, who lives in Los Angeles and grew up in Hammersmith, London, had never previously set foot inside a stadium until the Aviva, that swooping grey-green flying saucer plonked in the middle of south Dublin.
“That was the first time I’ve experienced a stadium of any kind. It was huge! That was definitely a surreal experience. That same weekend I was playing the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury with Lorde and Clairo. And the doing the O2 Arena with Billie Eilish. All in the same weekend.”
Parks is softly spoken and thoughtful. Her conversation unfurls with a casual honesty. It’s a quality you will recognise from her music which, framed by soft-focus beats and delicate indie guitar, has the intimate quality of a whispered conversation between friends.
She has communicated from the heart since her debut single, Cola in 2019. The song, released when she was still at school, was an unflinching meditation on romantic betrayal, which she introduced to the world with the statement: “I’m a black kid who can’t dance for sh**, listens to emo music and currently has a crush on some girl in my Spanish class.”
Parks has a sweet and unthreatening singing voice and for that reason, her songs can be deceptive. You think you’re passing the time with throwaway pop – and then you pay attention to lyrics such as “don’t hide the bruise/ I know it’s hard to be alive sometimes”. Those lines, from her recent single Impurities, may not sound especially devastating on paper; however, delivered in Park’s dreamy coo and framed by lilting electro-pop, they’re devastating.
That gorgeous melancholy has been part of her toolkit from the outset. One of her earliest releases, Black Dog, was about helping a friend cope with depression. “Let’s go to the corner store and buy some fruit/ I would do anything to get you out your room,” she sang, the conversational lyrics contrasting with the dark subject matter. Another formative number, Super Sad Generation, looks back wistfully on a misspent adolescence. The excess is acknowledged – “When did we get so skinny?/ Start doin’ ketamine on weekends” – but Parks also quietly mourns what is lost when you grow up and have to take life seriously.
The same hot-knife honesty is once again front and centre with My Soft Machine. But now the context has shifted. Since winning the Mercury Music Prize for Collapsed In Sunbeams, she has relocated to California and started a relationship with North Carolina-born rapper Ashton Casey, aka Ashnikko.
Ashnikko’s presence can be felt across My Soft Machine. She and Parks share a loved-up drive through the mountains on Impurities (“Piling in the Escalade/ my chest is buzzing light me”). And she’s there when Parks tries to paper over a row on Blades. The tune is a warm-to-the-touch mix of Christopher Cross-style early 1980s “yacht rock” and Billie Eilish-esque bedroom pop, which contains the singer’s “happiest ever” chorus of: “I just don’t know what to do/’Cause I only want to be with you.”
“When I make music, I can’t filter myself about the things that are moving me. After the fact, I have to think about how much of our relationship I want the share.”
Parks and Ashnikko are both celebrities, after a fashion. The internet certainly regards them in that light. In packing her record with snippets from their life, Parks know she is walking a line. She wants her private life to stay that way. But she has never censored her lyrics. It is a contradiction she continues to negotiate.
“I want to honour our relationship in the music. But that’s all I want to do. I’m good maintaining boundaries in that way.”
When you’re in a place that you feel well supported, you feel you’re in good company to dive inwards. That’s what I did with this record— Arlo Parks
There’s a lot of love on the LP. But My Soft Machine isn’t soppy and she never over-shares. Threaded through the material, moreover, is a seam of sadness. Parks sings about happiness with the understanding that it, like everything else, will end eventually. That’s what makes it special. You have to grab hold of it before it vanishes.
“Love in all its forms is something that is deeply inspiring. I feel there are a million ways to talk about that subject,” says Parks.
“Some of my favourite songs are about love in a sad way and in a joyful way. Everything Reminds Me Of Her [a heart-ripping break-up ballad] by Elliott Smith is one of my favourite songs. I feel like there are a million different ways to honour that feeling [of love]. I think, too, that when you’re in a place that you feel well supported, you feel you’re in good company to dive inwards. That’s what I did with this record: I had the support system around me to be unafraid to delve deep.”
She has described the album as chronicling her journey through “self-sabotage”. This isn’t a reference to her career, she says. Mostly she is talking about her personal life.
“It was through the lens of when you are feeling happy you ruin it for yourself by thinking, ‘Oh, how soon is this going to be over?’ That thing of getting in the way of yourself – getting in the way of your own flow by doubt. In the same way I can be writing a song and then thinking about whether it’s going to be good or not, thinking about whether I’m achieving what I want with the song or not… is what stops me from finishing it. A lot of this record is about not getting in the way of that. Allowing yourself to just be in the world.”
Collapsed In Sunbeams was about finding strength in vulnerability: it surfed on gentle beats and melodies yet, at its centre, was a core of steel. Second time around, she wears that steeliness on the outside, via occasional cascades of 1990s-style indie guitars. Musically, two big influences on the record, she explains, were the Irish bands My Bloody Valentine and Fontaines DC. That sensibility rings out, especially on Devotion, a ferocious rocker.
The root of why I make things is poetry. Songs are the vessel for the poetry. As a kid I wanted to be a writer: to write books, to write poetry. Words were very much at the core of what I felt my path was— Arlo Parks
“I love Fontaines. Especially Skinty Fia. It’s a big inspiration: especially Devotion being inspired by [Fontaines track] Nabokov, which I love. Tom [Coll, Fontaines drummer] played with us. And having sent some messages to Grian, I feel there’s something exciting happening with younger people in music. Obviously my Bloody Valentine – MBV is one of my favourite albums of all time. Songs like Who Sees You, And from Loveless, Only Shallow – that sense of texture… it being abrasive, with the vocal being so ethereal. There’s exciting music happening in Ireland.”
In her early teens, Parks wanted to be a poet. Fontaines DC also have a background in the written word, publishing two books of verse before turning to music. Perhaps they’re drawing from the same wellspring.
“We definitely have that link there. The root of why I make things is poetry,” she says. “Songs are the vessel for the poetry. As a kid wanted to be a writer: to write books, to write poetry. Words were very much at the core of what I felt my path was.”
There are other parallels between Fontaines DC and My Bloody Valentine and Parks. As Irish people, those two groups had to negotiate life in the UK. And now, here is Parks, a Londoner in Los Angeles – another stranger in a strange land.
“I’ve always been inspired by people who approach the world from the outside. With me, it’s about being an English person in California, and being very intentional in bringing elements of where I grew up into this new context. But still allowing myself to be influenced by meshing those two cultures together.”
Parks and Fontaines DC both broke through at approximately the same time. In addition to their musical talents, they have a shared work ethic, especially when terms of touring.
All that toil eventually extracted a toll. In July 2019, Fontaines DC cancelled festival slots due to “health issues”. Last September Parks did likewise, calling off dates in the US so that she could “step out, go home and take care of myself”. Where she went others would follow, with artists such as Sam Fender and Wet Leg announcing they were stepping off the conveyor belt to safeguard their mental health.
“The thing about being an artist is that it’s no longer just about you your happiness. It’s about the crowd, your crew, your management. The people who are depending on you in that way.”
Cutting short the tour, in other words, would have a knock-on impact. She had to consider not just herself but the people who worked with and for her. Ultimately, though, she felt it was impossible to go on. As a matter of survival, she had to step away.
“It felt so necessarily,” she says. “On a soul level, on a cellular level, I knew I needed to rest. That decision was a very emphatic move towards self-care and prioritising my happiness. I wasn’t surprised my friends and peers would rally around me. When it came to the fans, I hoped they wouldn’t feel disappointed.”
She received nothing but support – which came as a surprise and a relief.
“Everyone was on my side, which was beautiful,” she says. “I hope it set some kind of precedent in a way in that it encouraged people to have a more compassionate view of artists and the workload they take on. And how much shows are a gift.”
You want to be fully in the room, locking eyes, feeling part of the music. You always want to retain that. When that starts to slip away… that’s when it’s time to take a break— Arlo Parks
The last thing she would have wished for was to go on stage a zombie, thinking of nothing but how quickly she could get off again. A concert is an emotional interaction between performer and audience. She wanted to preserve the sanctity of the exchange.
“Gigs can be so energising. But you have to give a lot. On balance, it was a positive experience for me. You want to always have a sense of presence. You want to be fully in the room, locking eyes, feeling part of the music. You always want to retain that. When that starts to slip away… that’s when it’s time to take a break.”
The Grand Social on the eve of the apocalypse wasn’t her first time in Ireland. She came to Dingle in 2019 for an appearance at Other Voices. The following morning she composed Poem For Dingle, about the town and the sights she had taken in there (“My hands smell of Hunky Dorys and an old couple are dancing quietly”).
Other Voices music producer Aoife Woodlock recalls: “Arlo was 18-years-old when she performed in the church of St James, a bone fide artist. Like other true artists such as Kae Tempest, the work is social commentary and she performed a magnificent set, an Other Voices highlight. There are few artists that you can jest, ‘Would you write a poem for us?’ and the following morning, while filming, she produced a piece of paper with ‘a poem for Dingle.”
My Soft Machine takes its name from Joanna Hogg’s 2019 psychological thriller The Souvenir. In the film, a manipulative anti-hero played by Tom Burke, says that people are drawn, like addicts, to drama. “We don’t want to see life as it is played out,” he says. “We want to see life as it is experienced, in this soft machine.” What he means is that we crave access to the inner experiences of strangers: we don’t simply want to observe them negotiate the world, we want to understand their motivations.
This is the essence of Parks’s songwriting, which is all about shining a light on her innermost feelings and exploring what happens when they make contact with the outside world. For example, although My Soft Machine is, in its essence, a happy LP, it is tinged with melancholy – because that’s how Parks is wired. Even on a perfect day with her girlfriend, there is a voice in her head telling her that nothing is permanent and that this, too, will pass. “There’s always a sense of bittersweetness, even when I do talk about joy,” she says.
But she never gives in to despair. Being with people she loves and trusts gives her the strength to keep going. She can put off the negativity until another day. “With a song like Impunity I say, ‘I radiate like a star’. It’s about being around people who make you feel like you’re shining from the inside out ... Things that you struggled to let go of – now you are feeling joyful in someone’s presence.”
The sunshine helps, she continues. “California definitely played a part. Your context always plugs into what you are making: spending a lot of time in the mountains and by the beach. And being with a community spread across disciplines: directors, sculptors. That allowed me to make a record that felt quite boundary-less. And which took inspiration from so many pockets of the creative field. And from nature as well.”
People are trying to put it into a category so they can understand music better. But calling it rap music feels quite loaded. It feels like somebody hasn’t taken the time to listen to what I do— Arlo Parks
Parks is a sweet and considerate interviewee. She’s no pushover, however. When a hipster website recently included her in a countdown of “hip-hop” artists, for instance, she spoke out on social media about the unfortunate and ongoing tendency within the industry to pigeonhole black artists.
“It does happen a lot. It doesn’t make me sad or offend me. People are trying to put it into a category so they can understand music better. But calling it rap music feels quite loaded. It feels like somebody hasn’t taken the time to listen to what I do.”
She isn’t angry – more frustrated.
“That’s what makes me sad: the sense of somebody not taking a second to absorb what I’m doing but still trying to absorb it somehow. I guess, in that moment, I wanted to make a statement that, rather than being upset, was more uplifting. Was more a moment of supporting people who make music that is outside the box. Especially young black people. And encouraging them to keep going. Unfortunately there will always be people who misunderstand what you do. But you just keep doing you.”
My Soft Machine is released on May 26th