Arlo Parks won the Mercury Prize last night for her debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams. Back at the start of the year she spoke to The Herald Magazine on the eve of the album’s release about vulnerability, anxiety and strength.
Because for a 20-year-old just at the beginning of her career, she already seems to be known by an awful lot of people.
Jodie (Killing Eve) Comer and Lily Allen have both declared their love for Parks’ music, Michelle Obama, no less, has added Parks to her playlist and Billie Eilish, the most feted teenage artist of her generation, has praised the singer-songwriter in the pages of Vanity Fair.
Even Parks was taken aback by that one. “You never expect that stuff to happen,” she tells me on a grey London Thursday afternoon. “You never expect to turn your phone on and then have Billie Eilish sending you a message . That was definitely a beautiful one.”
Still, if you are not Billie or Michelle or Lily or Jodie, here’s what you need to know. Arlo Parks, known to her family as Anais Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho (“I’m all good with Arlo,” she says when I ask her what I should call her), is, as previously mentioned, 20 years old, about to release her first album and is already having to fend off claims that she’s the voice of her generation.
Right now, she’s in her bedroom at her family home in west London. On the wall there are prints of Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie and a poster of the late MF Doom’s Operation Doomsday album. She is surrounded by books and candles and guitars and synths and bits of paper (“organised chaos,” Parks says) and she’s counting down the days until the release of her album Collapsed in Sunbeams with a mixture of nerves and excitement.
“It changes every day. I just hope, especially in times like these, it’s going to bring people some comfort. But you never know how people are going to receive your work. All you can do is produce the best work that you can and see how the world receives it. I am excited though.”
Truth is, if it gets even half the acclaim her singles have in the past year, she should have no reason to be nervous of the album’s reception. Collapsed in Sunbeams (the title is taken from a line in Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty) is a confident-sounding, of-the-moment debut that speaks to Parks’ facility with melodic lines and beats and her big-hearted empathy as she turns her gaze on her not-long-departed adolescence and Gen Z life.
It’s an album that tackles insecurity, anxiety, bisexuality and mental health with an openness and honesty that’s beguiling and, no doubt for some, consoling. She’s writing about what she knows.
Her very fine single Black Dog references The Cure’s Robert Smith while offering support for a friend in despair: “I would do anything to get you out your room,” she sings in the lyrics. “It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason.”
“I think the main reason I share music is the desire to connect to others and help others,” Parks suggests. “If you create a piece of work that has the potential to make other people feel understood and seen, then it makes sense to put it out, and that was my thinking behind it.”
Little wonder, perhaps, that Parks was made an ambassador for the suicide prevention charity CALM last year.
On its release last May, Black Dog was embraced by both Radio 1 – Annie Mac labelled it the “hottest record in the world” – and 6 Music. Or kids and their wannabe hipster dads if you prefer (you can guess which demographic I fit into). It’s a reflection of the broad appeal of her music.
Parks’ rise has been vertiginous. When she was 14, maybe 15, she says, she picked up a guitar and started teaching herself how to make beats on GarageBand. She started off putting music out on Soundcloud and playing gigs with her friends. “And then I put out my first song properly as recently as November 2018.”
Since then, she’s toured with Loyle Carner and Jordan Rakei and even played Glastonbury last year, albeit a Glasto missing an audience.
“I’m still definitely at the beginning of my journey,” Parks says, “but it’s been a wild ride.”
Her dad’s from Nigeria, while her mum was born in France. Music was an ever-present soundtrack growing up. “My dad is a big jazz lover, so there was a lot of Miles Davies and Thelonious Monk playing, and a lot of soul; Minnie Riperton, Otis Redding.
“And then my mum is French, so there was a lot of eighties French pop. And Prince.”
That eclecticism is reflected in her own tastes and influences. After writing poetry as a young teenager, it was the joint influence of a punk icon and a millennial rapper who made her start thinking about adding music to the words she had been writing.
“I remember listening to Patti Smith, Redondo Beach, and also listening to Earl Sweatshirt’s album Doris. Those are two very different artists, but there’s something very vulnerable about the way they wrote and the way that they used their words, especially Patti Smith. The way she combined poetry with instrumentation was really inspiring and it really drove me to try it for myself.”
Parks’ musical tastes encompass indie and hip-hop. Not so unusual, she suggests. “I’ve always explored music from all kinds of genres. I think that’s what’s fun about making music, especially now. The idea of genre has kind of dissolved and you can go anywhere.”
What is striking is how open she is for one so young. Her writing is full of warmth and compassion, but it’s also very honest and vulnerable.
“I think there’s a strength that comes with being vulnerable, especially in public,” Parks suggests. “Maybe I will feel exposed in a way, but the message behind the song and the conversations that it has the potential to open are more important. They outweigh that sense of fear. I always feel a little bit scared before I put things out and I think it’s a good thing. It means I am operating at the fringes of my comfort zone.
“Yeah, I definitely think there’s a strength in vulnerability. It’s not really the same as fragility in my eyes.”
Presumably once you’ve put a song out there you can feel a sense of solidarity, too, when people respond?
“Definitely. And those messages make me feel so warmed and like I’m on the right track. To have my music – something I dreamed up in my head in an apartment in London – have a real, tangible, positive effect on people’s lives is really special. I think music is quite a powerful thing.”
Given that Parks released an EP entitled Super Sad Generation, there is a temptation to position her as a spokeswoman for her generation. She’s rightly wary of the label. She’s also wary of generalising about what people of her age are like.
“Of course, there are threads that tie us together, like social media. But even when I think about the people I went to school with … Every single person had their specific anxiety and ways of seeing the world. I can only speak for the people around me, but I definitely feel that things like social media have aggravated that anxiety, just because you can compare yourself to almost anyone in the world.
“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in social media. I think that leads to people feeling a little inadequate sometimes.
“But,” she adds, “I definitely feel there’s a lot of hope in our generation as well. I’m not sure I could say this generation is specifically sadder or happier than the last.”
Parks herself has talked of suffering from imposter syndrome in the past. Is that ebbing away now that she is on the verge of releasing an album?
“No, I think it’s something I will always carry with me. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s just more an awareness that I have a long way to go in my journey and I find it quite humbling and grounding, because I think the worst thing that can happen is becoming complacent or feeling like I’ve done everything I’m going to do. Like, ‘I’m already great.’ That kind of mentality is more damaging.”
What else can I tell you about Arlo Parks? She likes psychological thrillers (“Hitchcock films and When A Stranger Calls”), she’s been listening to Solange and Blood Orange a lot lately and she has become friends with Glaswegian singer Josef. She’d also like to write a novel and maybe go into acting and directing. “I feel like I’ve got a lifetime to explore all of that.”
What else? “Something that people may not know,” she says, “is that I’m actually quite an extroverted human being, even though my music is introspective. I’m actually somebody who feels very energised by people and I’m quite mischievous … I don’t know if that’s the right word, but I love being out and around people.”
In short, Arlo Parks is perfectly capable of making her own introductions.
Collapsed In Sunbeams, by Arlo Parks is available on Transgressive Records