NME Radar: Breakout

Arlo Parks: Creator of the year’s most devastating song

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

“I’d lick the grief right off your lips,” Arlo Parks tenderly sings at the start of her new single ‘Black Dog’, the most searingly honest song we’ve heard all year. “Sometimes it seems like you won’t survive this / And honestly it’s terrifying,” she quivers.

A devastating portrait of trying to help your friends through depression – named after Winston Churchill’s metaphor for the illness – ‘Black Dog’ positions Arlo Parks as a young artist able to tackle the weightiest subjects imaginable with the deftest of touches, and such naked honesty that it could well serve as an instruction manual for those struggling right now.

“In terms of the topic and the message of the song, I’ve been glad to hear that it’s been helping people out who have been finding quarantine difficult,” she tells NME. “People who are stuck inside and feeling quite low. I’ve had lots of messages from people saying that it’s helped them, which has been so wonderful.” She tells us about the creation of the song, how honesty is vital in breaking down walls, and the debut album she’s currently working on.

How long have you had ‘Black Dog’ written for?

“I’ve had it written for about a year. I wrote it in the same 24 hours that I wrote [recent single] ‘Eugene’. It’s just been sitting about, and gained new meanings as time has gone on. I was glad to finally have been able to release it.”

You’ve spoken about mental health at length in past interviews – was this something that you’d been working up to writing about and putting in a song?

“Definitely. It’s quite a difficult topic, and I’d been approaching it in other demos, but it never felt completely right, or that I was expressing myself exactly how I wanted to, and inspiration just hit when I heard that instrumental. It’s quite a simple instrumental and it gave me a lot of space to use my words and really deliver a message. I’d been listening to a lot of music that was in a similar vein – I was listening to ‘In Rainbows’ by Radiohead a lot, which uses space in a really interesting way.”

Did the lyrics come quite quickly or was it a difficult process to tackle something so delicate?

“I’d had a poem written before, which held the lyric “It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason,” and it all came out at once from there. All my songs are basically done in the same day that they’re started, and I write based on instinct a lot of the time. It all just came flooding out.”

Was there anyone in your life that has lent an ear to your problems, and shown you that talking about mental health can help, in order for you then feel like you’re able to help your loved ones too?

“I have a very close-knit group of friends, and when I was slightly younger, I’d been bottling things up quite a lot, but having them approach me with their feelings made me feel safe enough to talk about my feelings, and made me realise the importance of talking about things, and a lot of music that I listen to is also quite emotional and vulnerable, and that pushed me towards the idea that communication and opening up conversations is the best way forward.”

CREDIT: Jenn Five/NME

“Being vulnerable has a very big place in what music looks like today”

All your music is emotional and confessional, but do you see ‘Black Dog’ as having more of a purpose for an audience beyond yourself?

“I think so, because I’m talking in quite a lot of depth about a specific kind of feeling that people experience. A lot of people experience being low, and that looks like different things for different people, but it did seem like it was a song that I really hoped would connect to people outside of me and my circle of friends. Lots of people have been reaching out to me and discussing such a wide variety of different situations that they’ve felt this song could be applied to, which is amazing.”

Do these messages you’ve received give you a confidence to be as open as possible with your music in the future?

“Definitely. It makes me feel that when I am being open, I’m being heard and listened to, and that people are actually connecting. I’ve always felt that way. You can tell when a song has come from the heart and is genuine, and it moves you more when you can tell the person really feels what they’re saying. It’s encouraged me, and showed me that being vulnerable has a very big place in terms of what music looks like today.”

Has the increased discussion around mental health in the music industry and beyond given you more impetus to be as open and vulnerable as possible in your music?

“I’ve definitely seen the rise of more charities and Mental Health Awareness Week, and people in general seem a lot more open about struggles that they’ve faced. There was a time where there was more of an emphasis on having a persona as a musician, which was almost untouchable, where as I think now, more songs are coming out that are just human, and saying ‘This hurt me,’ ‘I love this,’ blah blah blah. That’s been really special to see.”

Have you been able to write new music during lockdown?

“Yeah, I’ve got a setup at home with keyboards, guitars and synths, so it’s quite decent. I’ve been doing lots of demos. Usually I’m inspired by things that are happening to me, and having conversations with people, but I’m doing more retrospective writing at the moment, and thinking about things that have happened to me in the past, and reflecting on those experiences and relationships. I’ve been trying different techniques to stay inspired, and reading a whole lot.”

Are you currently working on a debut album?

“I am. I’m trying to make it the best body of work that it can be. The album format is really important to me, and in terms of the music that I’ve put out thus far, I feel like I have a sonic identity, but there’s variation in what I put out so far, so I do have scope to experiment and explore different styles within my debut album, which feels exciting. I’m excited for what it could be.

You would’ve been non-stop touring for most of the year had it not been for coronavirus – has this unexpected time of stillness given you an opportunity to fully absorb everything that’s happened to you in the last year?

“I was thinking about this this morning. When things started to take off, I had more and more to do, and things were happening but I didn’t quite have the time to process it or enjoy the positives and think about how far I’ve come. It’s important to have a moment where you just stop and look at where you came from. Loads of artists that I used to love are now working with me, or commenting on my stuff, and now I can sit back and think, ‘Wow, all this crazy stuff is happening and I’m so grateful’.”

Arlo Parks’ new single ‘Black Dog’ is out now

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