Sitting down for a chat via Zoom, the COVID-19-friendly method of communication, 19-year-old South Londoner Arlo Parks is on the cusp of leaving the romanticised messiness of her teenage years behind, and moving into her 20s with a renewed self-awareness and the intent of investing in her own joy.
Growing up in a family with rich and varied musical tastes, Arlo became immersed in the multifaceted world of music from a young age and recalls there being a lot of jazz played in the house, such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane. You can almost see the trajectory from which her preferred method of expression developed, with jazz being synonymous with experimentation; having originated in New Orleans in the late 19th-century and finding itself amorphously transcribed a new form as it spread around the world.
"My earliest memory of music is listening to '(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay' by Otis Redding, just in the car. I don't know why that's the first song I remember consciously absorbing, but when I got older, it was more of a personal thing," she recalls. "Because my family loved music, it was on a different level where I went on YouTube and would spend hours trying to find new stuff to listen to – I think that's where my music taste really evolved."
Otis Redding's conversational melancholia being one of the first memories that Arlo has of music holds a poetic kind of symmetry. It is no mere coincidence that her own songs are littered with observational imagery and a solemn stillness that permeates listeners lives in a distinctly relatable way. There's an honesty that resides in the words, and it's something that Arlo is well aware of.
'Romantic Garbage' showcases the art of simplicity that resides within navigating the complicated feelings of crushing on someone. "If I fell in love with you, would you bring me the moon, or some broken beer bottles and fresh war wounds?" she asks. It's a universally relatable subject, but the romanticising of nature, and almost revelling in the bleak reality of existence, is what really draws you in.
As someone who is continually journaling and making a note of their thoughts, Arlo has an endless stream of words that she can manifest into music. Rather than sitting down with a conscientious intent to produce a body of work, she likes to let the creativity flow naturally. "It's something that I try not to overthink because the best songs that I've written have been when I'm just not getting in the way of myself and I'm just letting myself be expressive," she says earnestly.
"All of the songs that I've put out, and my favourite songs of my own, have just been done in a very short period of time. It hasn't been hours spent trying to figure out the melody. It's all just kind of come out," she offers. This ties into her belief that words come out precisely the way they were supposed to be. As someone with a self-confessed short attention span, it's a beneficial way to write because you're getting to the root of what you intended to say. "I think stream of consciousness is a powerful tool for me, personally, just because you don't have the time to overthink anything and you can be completely honest with yourself about what you're feeling."
When her debut single 'Cola' came out in 2018, Arlo had an element of naivety to thinking of what it might have meant for the way she would be spending the last of her formative years. She's still surprised by how things have taken off, and emphasises how it "feels very surreal".
There are a few milestones that stand out amongst a plethora of high points over the past two years. Signing to Transgressive Records, and playing at Glastonbury's virtual 50th anniversary, being among them. Arlo is definitely on an upwards path to attaining her goals, even though she's still fairly nonchalant in acknowledging them. It can be quite easy to forget that Arlo is still in the early stages of her career, and it seems that she is still struggling to come to terms with it all, herself. "It feels weird that I'm a musician now. It's cool, but it's weird," she giggles, almost incredulously.
Growing up in the early-90s, there was never a shortage of female artists to find inspiration from, but there was a distinct lack of representation for POC who identify as queer. While it was easy to find empowerment from the likes of Lil' Kim, TLC, Eve and Mýa; if the music that you were listening to didn't fall into the realms of contemporary R&B, hip-hop or pop, it was challenging to find a face that you could relate to. Arlo remembers experiencing a similar thing, but as a true Leo, she was walking her own path even just a decade ago when she was growing up.
"I didn't really feel represented," she says, taking pauses often to contemplate her words. "It was never something that I thought about that much. I felt like maybe I was kind out outside of what I was seeing. I didn't see women of colour – they were probably out there, but from my perspective – making the kind of music that I wanted to make."
In light of a rise in political activism, the phrase 'be the change you want to see' floats around quite often, and Arlo has been taking this on board with her own personal experiences. "It was difficult at first, but then I realised that I'm gonna have to be that person, and I definitely would like to be that person for younger people who are feeling the same way, feeling like making music. Hopefully, I can be that to others."
It might sound a heavy burden to carry, but Arlo seems to be more than willing to accept the role of being the voice of a "super sad generation" who find comfort in self-deprecating memes and poking fun at the bleakness of existence. Generation Z are more open to encouraging a freedom of expression and wholeheartedly experiencing the angsty feelings that her peers do, which subsequently allows her to fill the void of relatability that she had when she was growing up. Speaking of the openness of Gen-Z, Arlo feels as though we're taking steps in the right direction and that there is slow progress being made, because "younger people at the moment are willing to just unapologetically be themselves, stand up, and talk about things without fear."
Endless scrolling on a preferred social media platform, and following the latest TikTok trends are just a few ever-changing means of escapism these days. Still, one thing that can always be relied upon is literature and music. With songs reminiscent of distinctly denuded and conversational storytelling similar to Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, Written On The Body by Jeanette Winterson, and, one of her favourites, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Arlo can capture an arid landscape and inject life into it with her expansive language.
Recalling a time in her life where there "wasn't anything really exciting going on" – which is almost standard fare for an 11-year-old – Arlo began writing stories recreationally. One of these, a wild adventure reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde, was published in an anthology of short stories, and thus proved to Arlo that she was a cunning wordsmith who was worthy of exploring a career in the arts; but it was poetry that she eventually found a home in.
"Music is a way of processing things that have happened to me or things that have happened around me and just how I see the world," she says, before adding with a laugh: "It is always about me in the less ego[tistical] way." There's an art to finding poetry in the trivial, and Arlo believes that it is something almost anybody can tap into if they really want to – especially in concentrated bursts of creativity. "It's so much harder to convey an emotion in three lines than in a 10-page opus, and I think there is so much power in being concise in your words and being selective," she says.
So, for someone so well-versed in the realms of literature, and a plethora of music styles, what is the one thing she wishes that she could put her name to? After a long pause and a very brief and comical thought process of choosing The Bible, Arlo settles on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel that found itself as the "bedrock of an entire culture", and allows her to contemplate what it would be like to have a mind that worked on such a complex level with the ability to "create something that is [still] relevant, almost foreshadowing a lot of the world stuff that is happening now."
Steeped in Arlo's creative processes as she creates a microcosm of the generation she exists within, while adding in parallels with 17th-century poets, is a timelessness that transcends the confines of just writing about a singular experience. The release of her most moving single, 'Black Dog', saw Arlo flooded with messages of relatability and gratitude to the point where it signified the need for music to not always have a prescribed meaning so that the listener can assign their own definitions and attachments.
"People were saying that they'd hear this on the radio and it opened up a conversation that helped their marriage stay on track, and stuff like that, or shown it to a terminally ill parent, and it helped them stay out of destructive habits. All of those messages and responses made me really see [things in a new light], and I think has changed my perspective on my own music," she opens up. "Once it's out in the world, it takes on almost infinite different forms and means infinite things to different people depending on the context."
The topic of allowing people space for contemplation allows Arlo to find comparisons between revelling in the mystery of art, while revelling in the unknown and introspection of being in lockdown. "People are both intrigued by and terrified of the unknown," she begins, explaining why this is an interesting thing to contemplate. "It's just a constant battle between the way that people have reacted to the unknown, and that feeling of being out of control."
Her upcoming single 'Hurt' is inspired by the Audrey Lorde quote, "pain will either change or end", and is based on a friend who used substances to deal with their grief. While it outwardly seems a bleak observation on dealing with your struggles, there is a resounding element of hope that rings through it. "It's just the idea of when you're trapped in those really dark moments, you can feel that is a permanent state, but there is always the capacity for joy. No feelings are permanent or eternal," she explains as a reminder for people who are experiencing darkness.
As Arlo gears up for the release of her debut album, which is still in the process of being written, this elongated period of isolation and reflection has proven beneficial. She has been harnessing her creativity through outlets such as cooking, honing her music production skills, and DJing. She even confesses that there were many techno sets being played during the peak of lockdown, as well as her usual activities of journaling and reading poetry.
"I've really been thinking about the idea of gratitude and enjoying success, but then [also] never becoming complacent, because, of course, the goalpost keeps moving. But when you do achieve the goal, it's important to recognise that that is a good thing and that you have achieved something," she says. "If you're never satisfied with any of your progress, then the journey isn't even enjoyable."
And what a journey Arlo Parks has been on since her debut in late-2018. Her sound sits in the range of lo-fi indie and confessional bedroom pop, and she has dipped her toes into the pools of electronica with 'Romantic Garbage' and 'I Like' - the possibilities are endless for what's to come. "I still haven't found my niche, I would say. I mean, I've established a sound, and it does work, but I really want the umbrella of what the other parts of the music is about to be very broad. I'm very hesitant to pigeonhole myself this early," she tells me.
She may feel out of touch with the inherent internet culture of her generation, but Arlo is a thoroughly enigmatic character to follow on Instagram as she offers snapshots into her daily inspiration as well as snippets into future projects. 'Cola' was recorded while eating noodles, and 'Eugene' was made with pizza on the brain - what kind of cuisine was fuelling the album process?
It turns out, Mexican may just be the king of Arlo's eating habits at the moment, with Italian following as a close second. Cooking has proved to be somewhat of a salvation for Arlo, during lockdown. "The idea of actually meditating, like sitting still, is really difficult for me but if I'm cooking, going for a run, or painting; that's meditation."
To constantly be moving is to clear the mind and make room for all of her creative endeavours – music, of course, being the main one, even if it doesn't yet feel like a job because everything is still so new and exciting.
"When I first started making music – or when this journey began – I vowed to make music that felt true to my vision and be a positive force in my listeners' lives, whether that be on social media, or actually within the art that I'm making," she says. "I believe that I've upheld that, and I think even as things have grown, and the platform has expanded, I feel like I've always kind of tried to be a source of joy and comfort for people and I hope that my music still feels like a safe space to others."
There's an undeniable relatability to the charisma that oozes through Arlo's confessional songs. As an empath, it's an incredibly natural byproduct of her self-expression and is a poetic addition to why we're so enamoured by her. Even though the narratives in her songs are deeply personal, there isn't an ounce of narcissism that can be attached to the art that she creates.
As she puts it herself: "Selfishness is misunderstood. You can be selfish in a way that is balanced by just bearing yourself in mind – treating and investing in your own joy is never a bad thing." And on that note, Dear Reader, you'll find us buried in the soothing sounds of Arlo Parks for the foreseeable future…
Taken from the September issue of Dork, out now.
Featuring Arlo Parks, Cavetown, Everything Everything, Aluna and loads more.