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Entertainment

Arlo Parks Brings Light to Life's Darkest Moments

The 20-year-old singer counts Billie Eilish and Michelle Obama as fans, and landed a feature on HBO's 'I May Destroy You.' She's just getting started.
Ryan Bassil
London, GB
September 24, 2020, 2:00pm
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Arlo Parks is relaying the surreal moment when she heard her song “Cola” weave its way through an episode of Michaela Coel’s critically and socially impactful TV show I May Destroy You. “I turned to my friend like… ‘You know I hate it when you play my music’ – then I literally saw it on the TV,” Parks tells VICE. “Especially to appear on a show that was so challenging and important – it felt amazing.”

The twenty-year-old Londoner’s inclusion among the mass of Black British musicians on the programme’s arresting soundtrack felt distinctly fitting (other picks included UK rap acts Little Simz and Hardy Caprio, throwback UK garage tunes like Wookie’s “Scrappy”, a second wave grime banger from Fekky and Dizzee Rascal and a song by up-coming afro-swing duo Young T & Bugsey). Like the sum of the twelve-part HBO/BBC series, Arlo’s music leans into emotionally taxing life experiences with microscopic, true to life detail. Often the result is serene and dream-like, bringing fluidity to themes of depression and teenage ennui where other writers might be content to lounge around and languish in static.

Arlo reflects on this idea of spiritual impermanence when we meet and I bring up a recent Instagram post of hers that alluded to the content of recent single “Hurt”. "Things flow in and out. If you accept that, it makes things a little easier. Joy, pain, confusion – they’re all part of the world and how it works,” she says, stretching back onto a small grassy patch in the park where we’ve met in west London, soaking in the last of the summer sun. It’s an important part of her upbringing, this place (more on that later), and it helped form spellbinding debut 2019 EP Super Sad Generation. It’s chill here too – dogs tumble around in the distance and the odd bumblebee wafts across the air.

Having a song selected for a universally acclaimed TV show could be the high point of the year for most artists, but for Arlo it’s one more golden achievement upon many envy-inducing successes. Put it this way: pop act of the moment Billie Eilish has said she's a fan. So has increasingly rising indie star Phoebe Bridgers (in mid-September, a week after we meet, Arlo Parks and Bridgers linked up to perform a cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” for BBC Radio One). And oh yeah: literal ex-First Lady Of The United States Michelle Obama included Arlo’s song “Eugene” in the inaugural Michelle Obama Spotify playlist. These are huge accomplishments, in the sense that these notable figures show just how far Arlo’s tunes are spreading from west London.

“When people share my music it’s always like ‘what?????’” she says, feigning confusion. “Especially when they’re someone I look up to. Billie Eilish did a podcast where she talks about the music she likes and brought up Arlo Parks. I was like ‘whoooooooort.’” The excitement is palpable, even now, as her cadence enters a lightly rising, spoken-well but not well-to-do London lilt. “What is happening.”

Here in chog-smoked Engerland she’s garnered a raft of fans too: The famous, like BRIT and Mercury Award Nominee Loyle Carner who directed the video for “Eugene”; and the official, like leading mental health charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) who named Arlo as one of their ambassadors for 2020. She landed on the BBC Sound of 2020 longlist too, which is voted for by critics, radio DJs and music industry folk in the UK. And of course, her fans adore her.

“girl, i just love you. don't even ask me why,” reads the top comment under the YouTube video for one single from her debut EP, also called “Super Sad Generation”. A composed, soulful track, it effortlessly captured the experience of growing up young but downhearted, telling tales of tabs popped in the back of Uber cars and “trying to keep our friends from death.” Mellow but not melancholic, it presented things to the listener as they are, or were.

Followup 2019 EP Sophie doubled down on that approach and nailed Arlo’s knack as a storyteller. Meanwhile “Hurt” and what she describes as its “Michael Kiwanuka, InFlo, Little Simz drum sound” added a punchier shade to Arlo’s oeuvre, welcoming in experimentation. She’s poised to become one of the next generation’s stars.

Dressed in beat-up white Air Force One trainers that she describes as “bruked up”, a black t-shirt by French designer Alexandre Mattiussi’s ‘Ami’ brand (featuring a rainbow coloured heart logo) and cargo-ish type utility trousers, she unfolds the details of her career so far as we kick back, cross legged, chatting for a few hours in what’s colloquially known in British terms as having a “park hang”.

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Photo: Alex Waespi

Born to a Nigerian father and a mother from Chad, by way of Paris, Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho grew up in Hammersmith – a relatively leafy, riverside district in west London that was probably once cool, but is now on the opposite side of the city to where most artistic pursuits take place (if you live and make music in the UK capital, you live east, south or north of central London but rarely ever west). She’s been here ever since.

A self-described “loner kid”, Arlo immersed herself in written, spoken and sung word from an early age. Music arguably came first, via her dad’s collection of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Chet Baker records, as well as her mum’s catalogue of Parisian hits and classic Prince songs. She picked up the piano around age six/seven, then the guitar aged 13. Between the tunes, she also developed a love for poetry and short stories – something that informs the simplistic yet detailed songwriting heard in her tunes today, featuring characters like “Sophie”, “Eugene” and “George”.

At 14 she had to do a school presentation on an artist she liked, and she wrote about King Krule. Everyone laughed because they thought the south London songwriter’s voice sounded too rough, raw and obtuse. “Everyone was like: ‘his voice sounds so weird, why’s it like that?’ I was embarrassed, but fuck it.”

As the years went on, Arlo’s musical taste began leaping across genres as she took in sounds from the likes of Portishead, Cocteau Twins, The Cure – rockier stuff, basically. She’d make playlists by indie rock bands, steadily stitching together the best tunes for the ultimate listening experience. A true curator. “Ever since I was a kid. I would just be singing, banging around making noise, listening to my weird little like Arctic Monkeys playlists. Like, music has always been a big part of me,” she says.

Around the time she was 17, she uploaded one of her songs to a BBC Introducing portal, where aspiring artists can put forward their music for potential inclusion among BBC radio stations. Something stuck and the song, “Cola”, was picked out. It’s a song of precision, with distinct lyrical brushstrokes. Straightforward, uncomplicated stuff like “I'll miss your T-shirt in the rain / The one that makes you look like Gerard Way” and “Eating grapes in the back of the party / Throwin' hands 'cause she drank your Bacardi,” which vividly transport the listener into a moment in Arlo’s life.

She explains her process like this: “When I write a song, I want to be able to read the lyrics and see it almost as if it's like a scene from a film. The details are so intricate and specific, but somebody coming from the outside could literally see it through my eyes like how it was. I always go into a song not necessarily with an idea of sonically where it will go but, like, emotionally, there's a situation I want to encapsulate. If I can read the lyrics, listen to the song and feel like I've translated a feeling into words, that's kind of all I really aim to do. And I always feel it in my gut when it's right.”

With more tunes came more insightful moments and gut-felt triumphs, such as 2019’s rain-drizzled acoustic strum-along “Angel Song” and its lyrics about the song’s lead character wanting to “jump off a roof” or the reference to a teenage friend “doing ketamine on weekends” on “Super Sad Generation”. Arlo’s built up banks and banks of these references throughout her catalogue, predominantly by sourcing inspiration from the countless notepads she keeps and writes in daily. The end result is a collection of songs that give insight into the western teenage experience: of mental health issues, substance misuse and yearning upon yearning, as well as countless pop culture references (such as Bathing Ape clothing on “I Like” and “You do your eyes like Robert Smith” on “Black Dog”). And many of these experiences in her tunes – back to the park thing – took place here in west London, in or around a place called Ravenscourt Park, either at house parties or right on the field.

Drinking laws in Britain are relatively relaxed compared to those in the States. You can booze outside, freely, and many people do so around the time they hit 14 or 15 years old. Though the legal age for drinking is 18, it’s not uncommon to see teenagers get “on it” (British slang for getting “trashed”). However, while underage drinking is commonly accepted, it is to be done so away from the home and out of sight. And so, without anywhere to go, Britain’s teens end up regularly congregating in public parks.

These green stretches of land are a quintessential part of growing up in Britain, especially for those living in cities. According to the gov.uk website, there are 3,000 designated parks in London, some big, some small – though size doesn’t matter when looking for a place to hang out. The best spots usually aren’t too far away from a smog-choked high street of fried chicken shops, off-licenses and Wilkos (a British shop where you can buy stationary, homeware, cosmetics and food). Ravenscourt Park is one of these.

It features all the usual recreational properties you might expect from a good-use park, like tennis courts and a playpark. It’s quite spacious: imagine several football fields worth of uninterrupted grass, separated by asphalt walkways and the odd tree. It’s relatively sparse; a park like this is not a nature reserve, but a space, however there’s also a pond somewhere with a weeping willow tree. From experience though, these things don’t matter when you’re young. The park is just the in-between place: somewhere to have adult experiences, while you’re still a teen.

“Those arguments, those break-ups, those dates [that informed my songs], they all kind of happened here, in the park,” explains Arlo. “When I reflect on my formative moments a lot of them happened after one of the park gatherings, on the bus home I’d be writing.”

Like most people her age, Arlo started hanging around in the park when she turned 15 (“you’d have some Strongbows and sit around. That's something I'd do almost every single weekend when I was growing up.”)

Arlo can pinpoint several key moments as having happened here, on the grass. “I’ve had a lot of conversations surrounding mental health in this park," she says. "Whether it’s some of my best friends telling me they were struggling, whether with anxiety or depression or something else, and going for a walk around the park to comfort and console them. I remember I broke up with someone in this park. You know those moments where you either grow one level closer to someone or when something that was once so intimate and strong then breaks apart? There’s been a lot of those moments.”

She carries on, nattering away as flights to London’s Heathrow airport chug along the in-bound flight route overhead. “I remember sitting in this park and having conversations about, like, hopes, dreams for the future – you know when you’re 15 and like ‘maybe I want to do music?’ and someone’s like ‘yeah, yeah, you should try that out’ – and now I’m here. So it’s all kind of come beautifully full circle.”

In 2019 Arlo achieved the dreams she spoke about, signing to British label Transgressive Records (home of Foals, SOPHIE and Marika Hackman). In 2020, she got all her ducks in a row and kicked the year off with her debut European tour. Later in spring, she had slots booked to support Hayley Williams on her North American tour, as well as several SXSW shows. Summer would have seen Arlo heading out on to numerous festivals – except, of course, she couldn’t (with the exception of Glastonbury, where she filmed a performance of new song “Black Dog” to a field emptied of punters, the festival’s legendary Pyramid Stage in the background).

Coronavirus and the ensuing global pandemic hit the UK, Europe and United States hard in March, locking artists out from touring duties for the rest of the year. It’s been a challenging time for everyone and musicians especially are feeling the pinch. How did Arlo feel about having her 2020 plans scuppered at the last minute?

“I think it helped me deal with the idea of not being able to be in control all the time," she says. "Everything was planned, I thought [the tour] would happen and when it didn’t, I was forced to adjust. In general it was a positive thing because I had time to write, which is what I love to do. It’s hard to write on tour; I don’t know how some people do whole albums.”

Though she's extroverted and has been longing for company, Arlo’s been using the downtime to relax, meditate, journal and absorb other art forms and music. She’s been reading the poet Eileen Miles a lot, “which has been good.” She’s gone back to the Beat poets and read Audrey Lorde and Adrian Rich “a bunch”. The night before we met, she was up until the early hours of the morning “hunched” over a keyboard, making a beat. The space away from the touring side of music has allowed Arlo to reconnect with the reason she aspired to become a musician in the first place.

“In all the chaos, I immediately gravitated toward making music.," she says. "And I realised I do it because it’s a very personal, instinctive thing. Whenever I feel weird, I’ll write a song. It’s very ingrained in me. I went back to how I wrote songs as a kid and used it as a personal tool. It’s something I love and can do, just for me. Being in lockdown was about going back to the pure thing: writing a song because you feel something, want to express and process it.”

When Arlo’s ready, she’ll go back to the studio. Her and producer Gianluca Buccellati regularly rent out an Airbnb in London where they cook food, dance, watch Studio Ghibli and write and record (“it's nice to be in a bubble, but it doesn't feel as pressured as being in a studio”). The debut album is on the way, the tours have been re-booked – everything looks to be back on track.

Right now, Arlo has loads of stories to tell: about this town on the riverside in west London, this park and the people she’s hung out within it, and the way their stories intertwine. They’re the kind of stories she hopes you can see in your mind, just as vivid as watching a TV show or reading a book. She pauses for a moment to collect her thoughts, as we start to pack up and head over to Hammersmith tube station.

“Before I turned 20 I had an existential crisis. Like, you know, I'm not a teenager anymore. Like shit got real really quickly. But then I turned 20, and I was like, I actually feel really comfortable with this. I’m excited to see what this year brings. I'm grateful I managed to get to this point at this age. I feel good about it.”

@ryanbassil