Destined to feature on many an album of the year list come December (yes, we’re calling it now), Arlo Parks’ debut has arrived.
Word: Neive McCarthy. Photos: Alex Waespi.
Welcome to the world of Arlo Parks. Sun-tinged and intensely comforting, her debut album is here to dust the cobwebs of winter away and tug you towards summer. The very phrase ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ evokes that hazy, daydream-like glow of midday sun and dozing in the park. While we might still be in the gloom of January, Arlo provides the light and warmth to get us through. “There’s a sense of the sun being a healing force no matter who you are – feeling the sun on the back of your neck makes everything feel that little bit better,” the 20-year-old explains. A line from Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, the album title encapsulates the soothing contentment that defines the artist’s debut release. “I envisaged some kind of surrendering to emotion – whether it’s melancholy or euphoria is ambiguous, but it felt so warm to me.” That warmth is transcendent and without a doubt, characterises ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’.
It should come as no surprise that Arlo’s album title comes from literature. Her name has been on everyone’s lips for the past couple of years, and if you didn’t know by now that music and poetry go hand in hand for her, where have you been? Her long-awaited debut continues to embrace that collision with open arms. Opening with a gorgeous poem extending the title, Arlo’s crisp, clear voice calls out over twinkling keys and instantly puts you at ease. “It felt like such a sincere bearing of the soul,” Arlo muses on the inspiration behind the opening lines of poetry – Soko’s 2012 album I Thought I Was An Alien opens with a similarly emotive piece of spoken-word. “I always wanted to invite listeners into my world of vulnerability and nostalgia in a way that felt like I was sitting beside them and holding their hand – spoken word feels that way to me.” Arlo’s world is a mystical one, and to get lost in its tranquillity is a complete delight.
The past year, in all it’s teasing and hints of different tracks, has led to this moment. As we entered lockdown, Arlo found herself in an unexpected position. “It was actually strangely nice,” she recalls. “I had time, space, no distractions and a focus point in a very chaotic, scary time. There were challenges in terms of finding inspiration in a time where things were stagnant, and I wasn’t really ‘in the world’, but I brought my journals and pored over those, which was actually a nice period of introspection. I’m a person who needs to really be immersed in the world of a project, and lockdown allowed me to do that.”
In immersing herself in this project, Arlo has managed to create something equally as immersive. Her raw, no-holds-barred approach to writing feels endlessly relatable for a lot of different reasons. ‘Black Dog’, one of the first releases from the album, testified to this. A tale of nursing a friend out of a dark spell, it was a song that in a difficult year was intimately needed. “It’s definitely a beautiful thing to know that a song I write in private about a moment I found important takes on a million different meanings for people across the world. Also, to me, music is such a healing force, to know that I have the power to make people feel seen and understood grounds me and motivates me to stay true to myself.”
2020 undoubtedly showed us how music can carry us through darker times – largely in trying to understand our own situations. For Arlo, the album is a reflection on her last few years. “It’s definitely a time capsule of my adolescence,” she muses. For a lot of her contemporaries, it will be a soundtrack for theirs, too. Growing up and learning more about yourself in a time of such uncertainty can be daunting but ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ offers a slice of normality and solidarity.
“I love writing songs in a very sensory way”Arlo Parks
‘For Violet’ is a prime example of her ability to craft situations intricately personal yet all too easy to slot yourself into. It’s a track that bristles with frustration and love. “I just write about my life and what it’s like to be a human being,” Arlo lays out. “A lot of the things I write about like breakups, inner turmoil, feeling like you want to disappear, being in the park and completely in love – they’re something that a lot of people have happened to experience too. I never go into writing with the intention of creating something relatable though, that would feel artificial to me.”
Artificial is a label you could never attach to Arlo’s music. It’s affected by an earnestness that is so rare that it is completely arresting. “I always prefer writing raw, personal tracks because that’s why I started writing, but there’s honesty in every song I write. Sometimes I shroud situations in a veil that feels fictional, but I’m always writing about what’s in my heart. There’s something so compulsive about writing to me, I can never really help it, it’s always real.”
That unwavering earnestness definitely stems from the artist’s openness. Her social media has always been a dive into who she is, but as the album has approached, the glimpses into her inspiration have increased. From songs that have made her feel “full of stars and blood and petals” in 2020 to snippets of poetry to bouquets of flowers, it’s a refreshing and insight that makes her music all the more intimate. “I’m definitely a naturally open person. I’m a human being with 3am thoughts, weaknesses, passions and impulses like everybody else. I think social media can often be a world of extremes, perfection and falsity, so I like to just be myself and try to cheer people up.”
The way this seeps onto the album is telling of the mark of her poetry greats on her music – during the making of the album she referred to old favourites like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Sylvia Plath. Between the liberating stream of consciousness style of the Beat generation writers and Plath’s confessional tone, it’s clear to see how Arlo’s writing has been informed by her beloveds. “I was spending a lot of time putting on albums like ‘Overgrown’ by James Blake or ‘Syro’ by Aphex Twin and writing down thoughts as they came and went almost as a form of meditation or getting in touch with the subconscious. I have notebooks filled with these streams of consciousness, and I’d pick out words and phrases that I’d like, make them into poems then form those into lyrics.” Its meeting place at the crossroads of poetic skill and musical talent is precisely what makes ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ so exciting.
‘Caroline’, released back in November, sees Arlo reflecting on an episode of people-watching. It’s struck by that realisation that everyone you pass in the street has their own life, their own family, their own problems and life lessons. Observing a couple mid-argument, the track takes on the issue of what comes next. “It’s interesting because in that song I almost transposed my own thoughts onto these characters – what I think I would do in that situation, what it’s been like to be in a relationship that’s deteriorating. I try not to ever write somebody’s story for them, it’s more about using my imagination – harnessing my assumptions, subjective lens and life experience to create a world that’s separate from reality,” Arlo reflects.
One of her most stunning songs yet, it’s accompanying video is similarly striking. Finding the artist in a misty park with equally misty eyes before following an abstract depiction of the song’s couple, it’s experimental and emotive. “I had a Zoom call with Brock [Neal-Roberts, the video’s director] and we spoke about the idea of creating human vignettes, how we both loved non-linear narratives and how important the sense of contrasting warm and cool tones was,” Arlo explains. “He showed me this Russian avant-garde film called Outer Space by Peter Tscherkassy, and I showed him my favourite photographs from Wolfgang Tillmans’ ‘Central Nervous System’ exhibition and Nan Goldin’s ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ exhibition. Filming it was very emotional, it was a release in itself, and I’m so proud of the final product – it elevates and complements the song so exquisitely.”
It’s perhaps to be expected that Arlo’s music videos are equally as creative and full of depth as her music. It’s fitting that the final track on the album, ‘Portra 400’, takes its name from a brand of film. Something about her sound lends itself to a visuality – the vivid, anecdotal nature of her lyrics crafts an unshakeable image for you as you listen. Her music often feels as though it has been filtered through that same faded, nostalgic texture as a film photo. “I’m definitely a very visual creature – I love writing songs in a very sensory way as if you’re looking down the lens of a camera,” Arlo ponders. “For me, adding details like the shade of blue of a ring or the bump on someone’s wrist allows the listener to feel like they were really there. I’m definitely very into films too – ‘8 1/2’, ‘In The Mood For Love’, ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ and ‘Mommy’ inspire me a lot. That definitely filters into the style of my videos, like the emphasis on hands, expressions, vibrant colours and emotional performance.”
Her songs undoubtedly come to life in the minutiae. It’s in the “picking in the rips of my Nikes” on ‘Too Good’, the “dragonfruit and peaches in the wine” on ‘Green Eyes’, “trying to shave your stubble” on ‘Portra 400’. Arlo’s inspection of the everyday breathes air into her sound and transforms the album into her very own coming-of-age film. A24, eat your heart out.
The album takes a more ambitious turn than we’ve heard from Arlo before. ‘Just Go’, which takes inspiration from Little Simz, Jamiroquai and Daft Punk, is a much funkier version of her sound. “It’s about a feeling of euphoria that comes just after banishing somebody toxic from your life. it was essentially me resolving to set boundaries and not putting up with being treated poorly.” It’s elating and celebratory and completely lifts you off your feet.
“Making this album definitely allowed me to create a fuller, more varied world and really broaden the ‘Arlo Parks’ umbrella as it were. I was able to lean into my eclectic tastes and go from 90s throwback pop tunes to dark, gritty trip-hop inspired pieces.” The album just dips its toes in a vast range of musical pools – from Zambian psychedelic rock to D’Angelo to Radiohead, it shines for its universality. Whilst some tracks are pure, irresistible funk, others are more quietly poignant.
‘Hope’ merges the two. Lyrically, it’s captivating, and its jazz-infused sound grows increasingly exhilarating. It softens into another breath-taking piece of spoken-word. “The most important song on the album is ‘Hope’,” Arlo declares. “That hook, “you’re not alone”, is my favourite I’ve written – everything from the sentiment of resilience and unity, to the drums, to that filtered spoken word section. It sounds completely as I wanted it and I hope people feel comforted by it.” In a way, ‘Hope’ encompasses the album’s reassuring sense of faith. Resoundingly, it possesses a vulnerability that is keenly felt in every note, beat and word. That repeated hook of “you’re not alone” is one that will undoubtedly be taken by her listeners and kept close to hearts.
Arlo Parks’ world-making skills are second to none. On twelve tracks, she crafts a space so tranquil and soul-stirring, it’s impossible not to relish every second spent basking in it. “I want people to feel moved by this album, I want them to feel like they can be themselves, that they don’t have to inhabit their traumas, that pain will either change or end,” Arlo closes. ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ invites you to give in to the music and what touches you, all whilst providing the perfect soundtrack for you to both fall into and fall in love with.
Arlo Parks’ debut album ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ is out 29th January.
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