Arlo Parks: “I wanted to explore sounds that felt a bit more abrasive”

After the runaway success of her debut, ARLO PARKS is back with a record that sees her taking inspiration from some unexpected sources…

Words: Neive McCarthy.
Photos: Jennifer McCord.
Styling: Lewis Munro.
Make-Up: Emilie Louizides.

“I was fully in my Mary Oliver vibe,” laughs Arlo Parks over Zoom. After a whirlwind few years following the unanimous success of her debut album, ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’, the 22-year-old found inspiration in the works and ethos of the poet, known for her love for long, rambling walks and adoration of nature. When you’re balancing winning BRIT Awards and heading out on sold-out tours with trying to keep yourself sane, it makes sense that she’d be a figure to turn to. 

Making the move from her hometown of London to LA last year, Arlo found herself in a sort of retreating state. The last couple of years had been a non-stop, chaotic upwards scramble. In LA, Arlo faced a completely different world to the home comforts of drizzly London. Instead, it was constant sun, close proximity to nature and a new means of grounding herself. 

“I spend a lot of time out here by the beach, in the mountains, going up to Big Bear, being in the forest and the sun,” Arlo explains. “Simultaneously with my move to LA, I realised how much nature means to me and how much it grounds me. That also comes from having spent a lot of time touring. Being able to go for a walk in the park, in the desert or wherever it might be, was the one thing that kept a layer of consistency to my days. When I moved, I made a more conscious effort to do that. It makes me feel small in a way that I like. When you’re at the foot of a mountain, you feel like a little pebble. The worries and the anxieties that feel consuming to you, it minimises them in a way that’s nice. Time ebbs and flows; everything ebbs and flows. These things have been here for centuries; time passes, and things change. It brings me back down to earth.”

It appears to be the very move that afforded her a new perspective with which to embark upon a new chapter in her career. Two years on from her debut, Arlo returns with ‘My Soft Machine’. She has always worked in time capsules – ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ was a sonic journal chronicling her own coming of age. ‘My Soft Machine’, however, captures what came after that. From falling in love to loss, anxiety to sheer joy, it is the musical equivalent of a camera over the shoulder as Arlo navigated this period of her life – a sun-glazed home video of her newly changed world. In a new place, with new people, new experiences were born. 

“It infused it with this sense of adventure,” she recalls. “I already had a nice foundation of friends, so I didn’t feel lonely. London to me is home; it’s comfort. I feel so surrounded, and I know it so well. I was looking for the opposite. I was looking for a city that stretched out before me, and I had no idea where to go or what I was doing; the possibilities felt endless. Moving to LA mirrored the approach I wanted for the music. I wanted it to feel like it was coming from a completely new place. I wanted to feel like it pushed the bounds of what I had done before. I felt like actually geographically moving to a new place and being surrounded by new nature, new friends, new food, and being immersed in something that takes you out of your comfort zone, that naturally comes out in what you do. You push yourself to the edge a little bit.”

Though pushing herself into this different world and embracing discomfort, there was an act of reconnection at the core of this process. Somewhere along the way, the reasons for making music in the first place get lost. At some point, it becomes vital to find them. “I was going back to the roots. That was to process and untangle, to pay homage to songs I like and have fun and feel like a teenager again. I was chasing that feeling rather than it having any intention of me being in the studio making things. Creating it that way felt quite open-ended and meant that I could channel something rather than feeling that I had to start with a solid idea of what I wanted it to be. I was just making things.” 

Ultimately, ‘My Soft Machine’ became indebted to slowing down. With everything else so fast-paced, taking the time to find her way back to those organic feelings was key. It also involved becoming way more present, whether through her embrace of nature or otherwise. 

“My most grounding process is taking notes of what’s going on, what’s in my head,” shares Arlo. “My songs become my journal. The last few years I’ve had have moved very, very fast. I’ve had to be empathic about slowing down time. Even handwriting versus doing it on a phone or whatever. Your hand moves slower than your mind. You’re almost forced to slow down on a day when you might have a million different things to do. If I want to write down a phrase I heard someone say, a text message someone wrote me, or a section of an audiobook, I have to slow down and take 5 to 10 minutes. There’s something about the physical act of writing that I found really, really helpful. I never feel more present than when I’m writing something down, especially when it’s something I’ve learnt or a piece of writing that has really moved me. It takes me so long to read books because when I see a phrase I like, I’ll copy it into my notebook. It’s an extremely long process, but it helps me slow down and absorb things.”

“When you’re at the foot of a mountain, you feel like a little pebble”

Arlo Parks

On her first album, Arlo often adopted the role of the observant – ‘Caroline’ saw her recount an argument she witnessed between a couple in public. Here, however, she leans into intimacy a bit more. Rather than tuning into those around her, she tunes into herself instead.

“It felt natural to go inwards in that way. It felt natural to notice how I felt about the world around me. So much was happening externally, so my safe space was to go inward and ask myself how I was feeling about things and go smaller rather than being this observer or onlooker that had the time to sit and watch and make notes and try to understand the world around me. It became more about taking note of how I was processing what I was seeing.”

Perhaps because of that more innate understanding of the self, the album seemed cosmically born, spilling into being more organically than Arlo had experienced before. “All the songs you heard on the record were made in these weeks or three-day stints that felt like they were touched by magic. There were these periods of breath in between touring and doing other things, and it would just come flooding out of me, not in a way that was planned or intentional. It felt like a snapshot or a scene from a movie that you’ve just paused. I wanted it to move in scenes like that, that felt self-contained.”

If ‘My Soft Machine’ was a movie, it’d be a sun-soaked escapade, faded film shots of blooming oranges and yellows. There’s a real warmth to it. Opening track ‘Bruiseless’ is an outpouring of wishes for change and expressions of regret. It quickly draws to an end, crackles flooding the track. From that very point, this distinctive warmth is established. The slick, disco-leaning grooves of ‘Blades’ and jazzy guitars of ‘Purple Phase’ continue to grow. Even when lyrically it’s far more joyous, that warmth pervades all, as if to say that even in the darkest of times, Arlo and her music are there to bring light.

“The music that I love is like that,” remarks Arlo. “When you listen to ‘Speed Trials’ by Elliott Smith, or you listen to Bright Eyes, or you listen to A Tribe Called Quest or Jai Paul, or ‘Weird Fishes’. There’s this sense of warmth to it. When you listen to it, you feel like you’re sat in it – you have a little chair, and the band are playing around you; you’re really in the world of things. That also comes from the mix. We laboured over sixteen mixes deep because it was so important to have that sense of warmth and to feel surrounded and like the arms of the music were around you. I always have loved music that made me feel that way. I like music that offers this sense of comfort and this solid, sturdy base for the words on top of it that may be a little bit more difficult to hear or more melancholy. You always have the warmth of the instrumental that helps you bathe in it a little bit more comfortably.”

By combining this deep-rooted appreciation for that kind of sound with the back-to-basics approach to the album’s creation, Arlo was able to produce an environment where that glowing joy and creative freedom was a natural character. “I almost got out of my own way to just see what happens. There were absolutely no boundaries to what that might be. To be able to pull from references that people may not expect, to think about Smashing Pumpkins, or Deftones, whatever it might be – to show all these different sides of myself and to be really involved in the production and the minutiae of the music did feel very free. That’s how I would characterise it – everyone who worked on it is also a dear friend. Everyone approached me with this real softness and understanding. We challenged each other, and we laughed, and we ate tacos. It was so natural.”

It was more complex, however than just sunshine and good times. It allowed Arlo to see herself from a new perspective, arguably aided by that much-needed grounding in the present. It was an act of going deeper – pushing herself to the edge in another way. “I won’t peek through the blinds I’ve shut in myself / And so nothing changed,” she sings on ‘I’m Sorry’. It’s a conscious effort to twist those blends open, gently, and allow herself to progress. 

“This whole album is about peeking through the blinds. So much of the music that I’ve been in love with has been about people coming face to face with the ugliness, or the tangled mess, or the trauma and pain, or the darkness within, but also the light. Being like, ‘this makes me really happy, I should do more of this’, or ‘being around this person makes me feel happy, and I haven’t told them yet’. Being honest with yourself.” 

Confronting both good and bad meant that amongst the warmth, there had to also be some moments of heaviness musically, too. Sonically, there’s a lot of advancement for Arlo. It’s undoubtedly still intrinsically Arlo Parks, but it develops in a sprawling direction that might be unexpected for those heading into the album with ideas of laidback indie-pop. Of course, there are shades of that, but something else entirely, too.

“I wanted to explore sounds that felt a bit more abrasive. In the end of ‘Puppy’, there’s this synth that’s quite shredded and filtered. That came from me loving My Bloody Valentine and that song ‘Who Sees You?’ and just loving how that wall of sounds crashing over you is so chaotic. The guitars are smashing into one another, but it still has this sense of calm. It brings balance in the same way the album title talks about softness and the metallic steel machine. Having this balance was really important. I wanted to have more contrast and for the energy to flow to many different places rather than being more consistent.”

‘Devotion’ is a similarly powerful moment – while Arlo professes her steadfast adoration for a lover, the track builds and builds until it unleashes a cast of ferocious guitars, plunging the song into absolute euphoria. It’s as though her sound has more breathing room here, free to stretch and grow in a way she perhaps wasn’t before. With so many surprising twists and turns, it becomes increasingly immersive. 

“So much was happening externally, so my safe space was to go inward and ask myself how I was feeling about things”

Arlo Parks

More dynamic, explosive tracks also allow for more creative risks when crafting a live set – something Arlo cares ardently about. Her live shows until now have seen the stage decked out in glorious sunflowers, casting that vibrant sun across her audiences and bringing that comforting sonic heat into whichever room she will captivate that evening. 

“The internet can only afford so much connection. When I’m playing a show, people have paid money and taken the time out of their day to come down to this venue as a community and watch me. There’s something so special about that. That’s what I live for, and that tells me I’m making something that’s affecting people and doing good. I see the faces in the crowd – the little kid at their first gig, on their dad’s shoulders, the two queer kids holding hands and feeling unafraid to do that at my shows. I see the old dude there by himself, having a great time. The variety of people who come to the shows, and the energy they give, and how everyone takes care of each other is like nothing else.”

Such a safe, freeing atmosphere surely speaks volumes of the person curating it, and there is no doubt that Arlo’s passion and care for the community she has built have facilitated that to no end. “That’s the beautiful thing about music. It does create this sense of a group of people being in a room for an hour, completely outside of their circumstances and a part of something. The community-building aspect of music is something I’m really invested in.” 

She carries this interest beyond just her music, however. Last year saw Arlo create ‘Dream Fuel’, a BBC Sounds show which saw her speak with the likes of Zadie Smith, Ocean Vuong, Clairo and more, including her own friends. In building a community, she intended to offer a window into different worlds for the benefit of her own listeners. “I wanted it to be this resource for people of any age to learn and be inspired. I wanted to create this access for people to understand how it all works and for it to feel less foreign and more achievable. I wanted to give people that fuel, that sense of understanding and inspiration. Also, just to talk to people whose art I really love and respect. To be able to talk to Zadie… I remember when my dad gave me White Teeth when I was younger. It was the first book he ever gave me. To speak to someone who has been writing for so long and had such a big cultural impact, and then to speak to someone like Ocean who is nearer the beginning of his journey and is from a completely different part of the world, hearing about his ethos was great.”

How the work of others filters into her community was deeply considered when it came to features on the album, too. Finding someone with the same values and focus on those who cherish their music led to ‘Pegasus’, with none other than Phoebe Bridgers. 

“The community-building aspect of music is something I’m really invested in”

Arlo Parks

“Phoebe’s music has been a part of my life for around five years now. I feel like, as a person and as an artist, she has soundtracked the majority of my career. When I thought about whose energy I wanted on my second record as my first-ever feature, there was no question about it. What she represents and the community aspect she has created through her hard work and how singular she is and how confident and soft and funny she is was a no-brainer to me.”

The result is a glorious moment of two artists working in tandem – their voices entangle ethereally, a genuinely heart-wrenching display of love and care. The track is a testament to the growth of Arlo. It’s a branching out, a physical manifestation of the kind, welcoming universe she has crafted for both her community and herself. Ultimately, this is Arlo Parks reborn – refreshed and grounded and clearly capable of absolute greatness. ‘My Soft Machine’ sees the artist at the top of her game, having completely grown into herself. 

“There’s something really exciting about putting out music that you feel represents you,” Arlo muses. “Being able to put your marker down and say ‘this is where I am now’. The music I have out now is more representative of who I was when I was a teenager. To expand in people’s minds the Arlo Parks world, and to be out in the world, talking to people and sharing the music is going to be exciting. There’s obviously a sense of nerves; you never know how people will receive things… but I feel confident.” ■

Taken from the April 2023 edition of Dork. Arlo Parks’ album ‘My Soft Machine’ is out 26th May.