Every school class has one: the kid who is more introspective than others, whose head is always in a book but whose ears are remarkably sensitive to whatever chatter might be filling the corridors. They likely keep to themselves, but should you find yourself crying in the bathroom on a particularly bad day, they’re the ones to slide a tissue under the door, to offer advice that demonstrates just how deeply they understand.
19-year-old Arlo Parks remains that kind of person. At age 10, she’d already begun writing in various forms with regularity. “I can remember spending a lot of weekends writing down my thoughts and making stories,” she says. “I’ve always been a very emotional person and as a child. I guess writing felt like something that I could do in private to process things. Being an empath [a person with heightened emotional awareness] you tend to absorb everyone else’s moods. I realised that being sensitive means you can connect to all kinds of people. I think I’ve learned that it is a gift as well.”
Speaking from the same south London bedroom where those early stories were born, the Arlo Parks of today has come a long way since school, even if those years weren’t actually all that long ago. She was born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, her enigmatic moniker – inspired by those of Frank Ocean and King Krule – playing on the ‘lows’ of her sound.
She’s been busier than most for the past couple of years. She’s signed to the illustrious Transgressive Records (home to the likes of Foals and Two Door Cinema Club) and 2019’s debut EP, ‘Super Sad Generation’, saw her pegged as the voice of Gen Z, weaving her way around lo-fi, indie-leaning R&B to capture the unique blend of anxiety and empowerment that many young people feel in the information age. And all this before she’s even made her debut album, which is currently in the works.
Just months after the release of ‘Super Sad Generation’, she followed it up with the ‘Sophie’ EP, a welcoming listen on which she refrained from overcrowding her sentiment with anything other than gentle guitar and her soft, coaxing voice. “You’re there picking out your flaws from 3am ’til noon / Like the bad kids at school used to do / Well fuck ’em, ’cause you turned out so kind and so cute,” she sings on ‘Angel’s Song’, demonstrating her empath ways.
Such integrity yielded a support slot for her hero Loyle Carner, and in the past six months she’s booked a US tour in support of another childhood hero, Paramore’s Hayley Williams (Arlo’s take: “It’s mad innit!”), has become a mental health ambassador for the charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) and in June performed a socially distanced gig in front of Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage, part of the BBC’s non-Glasto coverage.
In many ways, these recent triumphs can all be traced back to her recent single, ‘Black Dog’. Released in May at the end of another trying week of lockdown, it was penned for a friend struggling with the debilitating day-to-day of depression. NME called it “the year’s most devastating song” and listeners worldwide seemed to agree – the quietly crushing track has amassed more than four million Spotify streams at the time of writing.
The accompanying video, directed by filmmaker Molly Burdett, captures its sentiment in muted-colour scenes: a friend washing the other’s hair in the bath, an empty-eyed father comforting a distressed baby, the wallpaper curling on the walls behind him. The YouTube comments below serve as an open therapy session, fans espousing their deepest fears, shames and impossibilities, many speaking their pain for the very first time. One comment reads: “thankyou for singing for me and many others.”
“It’s amazing to bring a sense of comfort to so many”
Parks had no idea just how far this song would travel, but she did have an inkling that she was onto something special. “I’ve realised that I work very much in these bursts,” she says. “It was the same thing with ‘Cola’ and ‘Super Sad Generation’.” She and producer and co-writer Gianluca Buccellati work in Airbnb apartments – those with neutral energy, blank spaces where they can forge their own creative bubble. This time, she was listening to Radiohead and reading Keaton Henson’s 2012 graphic novel, Gloaming.
“Luca played the guitar line to ‘Black Dog’ and it was just so haunting, like sonic déjà vu,” Parks says. “I’d found this poem that I’d written which had that line, ‘Sometimes it seems like you wouldn’t survive this’. I don’t know if I cried or if I was almost crying, but it felt like a weight was lifted in some way. I texted my manager: ‘I’ve never felt this way before about a song’.”
It’s a rare thing to connect with so many so early on in a career, but Arlo Parks is a truly unique artist. Something about ‘Black Dog’ has the power to transcend its own minutiae to mean something different to every listener, be they, perhaps, the lonely teenager frightened by their own thoughts or the middle-aged parent worried for the partner who’s stopped behaving quite like themselves. ‘Eugene’, another single released in May, tells another relatable story – the pain of being forced to watch your best mate (the one that you secretly fancy) fall in love with somebody else.
Inviting an outpouring of strangers’ grief is a lot for any artist to carry, but Parks takes great comfort from seeing others find solace in her stories. “All of my songs are so hyper-specific – that they can seem universal is a beautiful thing,” she says. “When people message me about a song, they’ll all have a slightly different interpretation. It is a lot to take on, but at the same time, it makes me feel like I’m doing something real and that I am actually helping people. It’s a big part of why I started making music in the first place – knowing that I’ve touched people in a real way kind of outweighs how heavy those things are to hear.”
“I want to encourage vulnerability”
‘Black Dog’’s legend was confirmed at that Pyramid Stage performance. Beamed into living rooms on primetime TV, Arlo’s sparse Worthy Farm rendition was soft and introspective – just her, a guitarist and a few cows milling about in the background. It was a world away from your typical bombastic, breakout Glastonbury performance, but was oddly fitting in a year that’s been harder than most, capturing the sombre mood of the nation while also offering a distinct shot of hope.
“It just feels like such an iconic space,” she says today. “You’re on TV with your parents and friends at home watching and it’s just surreal, especially singing that song. Even thinking about the fact that there is space for music like mine in a world that is very immediate and based on hits and viral bangers… It’s just wild.”
The song feels more essential still when you consider Arlo Parks’ position as a young person of colour. Within Black communities, especially, a stiff-upper-lip approach to mental health often prevails, leaving many to suffer in silence. She’s proof that Gen Z are so much more than TikTok memes and ‘OK boomer’ eye-rolls, and the generosity with which she shares her thoughts is testament to her age group’s desire to do things better than their predecessors.
“Within my family, there has always been a sense of openness, which I feel really lucky about, because I know it’s rare,” she says. “What I want to do with my music is to just encourage vulnerability, and to talk about things even if they’re uncomfortable. Everyone has mental health – everyone has a mind that works in different ways and goes through highs and lows.”
Advocating for a more open conversation around mental health is part of Arlo’s role as a CALM ambassador. She plays virtual shows and shares her experience of managing her own mental health through music and writing. She follows in the footsteps of fellow ambassador Loyle Carner, who has become a firm friend and collaborator, directing the ‘Eugene’ video with his brother Ryan. “I’m glad that l had someone like him,” she says. “His music was one of those early things that I discovered for myself, and his vulnerability inspired me to do the same with my music, especially as a fellow person of colour.”
Speaking of friends, how is the mate she wrote ‘Black Dog’ about? Has the success of the song helped her at all in her own recovery?
“Yeah, definitely,” Parks replies. “She’s one of my closest friends, and it’s been an amazing thing to watch together, seeing an experience that was so dark and painful bring a sense of comfort to so many. We’ve talked about it a lot and both feel like we’ve made it through the other side. She was one of the first people who was like, ‘You know, music is gonna be your thing’.”
It’s testament to her openness that a chat with Arlo Parks feels like catching up with an old friend. She speaks thoughtfully, politely and laughs often, with interesting insights into the world around her. Ask her if there’s anything in particular that she wants to talk about, and she’s much more interested in hearing your questions.
She wasn’t a huge one for reading music press growing up: “Dad would sometimes bring me back a magazine if he was getting the newspaper, but of course I know NME!” Yet she is excited about doing her first cover feature, seeing this and our socially distanced west London photoshoot as an opportunity for a deeper connection with readers. “In doing so many interviews, I’ve really realised that I enjoy the conversations that are more in-depth than five minutes,” she smiles.
Proud of both her race and her bisexuality, Parks is open to discussing both of these things if it helps her listeners feel less alone, but would just as happily let her music say what it needs to, preferring to use her social media platform to “encourage education and change, but also to emphasise joy and self-care”.
On her own down days, music is a comfort (“Elliott Smith’s ‘Between The Bars’ when I need to feel it; Beach House when I want something hopeful”) as is poetry, novels and nostalgic movies from her childhood. Ask her what she’s been reading and her face lights up, names tumbling out of her mouth like an Oxbridge student who’s spent their life prepping for their entrance exam – Dostoevsky, Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks. But her passion is not the sort you can fake; it seems she genuinely just can’t get enough of a poetic flourish, no matter its literary form.
“I feel like all of the artists that I’ve gravitated towards do have this ability to explore imagery,” Park says. “I’m a very visual person. When I write I’m always asking, ‘Would an outsider be able to see this picture just from what I’m writing?’ I remember discovering the first Arctic Monkeys record when I was around 10 and it was the first album where I’d just sit down and memorise all the words. I think that really started my love of guitar music.”
“I discovered the first Arctic Monkeys record when I was 10 and memorised all the words”
As her career continues to pick up pace, more and more of her own bedroom posters are morphing into real life, turning inspirations into peers. She’s been enjoying connecting with them over lockdown, marvelling at what her younger self would make of it all.
“It does make you realise that you’ve actually come quite a long way,” she says. “I’ve definitely had that moment with [singer-songwriters] Clairo, Phoebe Bridgers, Snail Mail… [They’re] all people that really inspired me when I was 16 and just starting out. I remember listening to one of Clairo’s earlier demos on the way to the session where I made [2018 single] ‘Cola’.”
Recently she posted a cover of Phoebe Bridger’s ‘Moon Song’ online, with the resulting ‘pinch me’ effect. “I was literally listening to her first album ‘Stranger In The Alps’ as the notification came up that she’d retweeted it and said it was sick. It’s so cool to have those full-cycle moments of acknowledgement from people that you look up to.”
Always quick to cite her inspirations, Parks is an artist you can get to know a little better through the names she peppers through her catalogue with – ‘Cola’ name-checks My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, ‘Black Dog’ mentions The Cure frontman Robert Smith and ‘Eugene’ references poet Sylvia Plath. It’s an endearing trait of fandom that gets to the heart of her sincerity, giving her work an extra dose of reality. Will she be continuing that habit on her debut album?
“There are certain artists whose names I just love the sound of,” she says. “Moses Sumney, for example – I just want to include him! I’ve got a little list for the album. I definitely love the name-dropping – it will never stop,” she laughs.
“As Audre Lorde said: ‘Pain will either change or end’”
The album is, she says, still in its nebulous stages, but Parks is being productive in lockdown: “I’ve been doing a lot of writing for it, just thinking about exactly what I want to say as this first big cohesive statement of intent. I was quite intimidated by the idea of it, because I love the album format. I’ve been focusing a lot more on the idea of nostalgia, just reading old journals and being very reflective.”
A few days before we speak, Parks gives NME a sneak peek of her new song, ‘Hurt’, due for release in the next month. The rockier pace is something new for Arlo, though the optimistic lyrics perfectly complement ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Eugene’. She’s yet to decide if any of these singles will make her debut album, but it’s a song likely to resonate as much as its predecessors, tapping into her trademark sage insight.
“It’s kind of outlining the coping mechanisms and the self-destruction of a person, going through the thought process of grief,” she says. “But the crux of it is like, even when you’re in the pit of things, as Audre Lorde said, ‘Pain will either change or end’. That’s not saying things will be perfect, or that they won’t be bad in different ways. But no specific feeling will be permanent. I came up with the line ‘It won’t hurt so much forever’, and I just think that idea lends itself to something that was maybe slightly more sonically boisterous and uplifting.”
Arlo Parks is, to say the least, very wise. Can she really be just 19?
She lets out a huge, high-pitched laugh. “Thank you! I feel like I’m like 10 and 100 at once. I have a tendency to get quite hyper and excitable about things, like a puppy. But I’ve just read a lot and had a lot of conversations, and I guess that makes me seem older. I don’t think I’m particularly wise, you know. I’m just kind of figuring it out.”
Arlo Parks’ ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Eugene’ are out now