Photo: Chris Almeida
At just 19, Arlo Parks has already awed audiences and music industry professionals alike with her silky vocals and jazz-infused lo-fi bedroom pop that is simultaneously melancholic and uplifting. Her music is where real-life struggles intertwine with poetry. It's the soundtrack for a "Super Sad Generation."
After releasing her first single, "Cola," to massive success in November last year, she released her debut EP, Super Sad Generation, in January, played her very first gig at The Great Escape Festival in Brighton in May, and has since gone on to play Glastonbury and Latitude.
2019 has already been a massive year for the London native but there are no signs of slowing down. She is currently set to support Loyle Carner on his sold-out UK tour and released "Second Guessing" earlier this fall - a gorgeous tune about existential misery, strength, and the possibility of self-fulfillment. The new single doubled as the announcement for her much-anticipated EP, Sophie, which will be out November 29 via Transgressive.
We sat down with the rising star on a sunny September Saturday in Hamburg, Germany, a few hours before her first of three shows at Reeperbahn Festival, for a chat about role models, expectations, influences, and not overthinking things.
OTW: If you were to describe your music to someone who has never heard it, what would you say?
Arlo Parks: I guess I would say it's a fusion of a lot of different genres: R&B, soul, pop, rock. But mainly it's emotional, confessional music. Have a listen, see what you think. It's quite difficult to put it in a box, I find. I want them to make up their own mind.
OTW: Your dad played a lot of jazz around the house when you were growing up and that's what inspired you to make your own music, right? But from that to actually making music what happened?
Parks: The jazz around the house laid the foundations. That was my first contact with music and where I started to fall in love with it. I guess it was that paired with my love of writing. I'd been writing a lot of stories and stuff when I was younger and that evolved into poetry and then that evolved into music. But jazz was my roots; it was the first thing I was in touch with.
OTW: When you released "Cola" in November last year you had quite a lot of success and it seems like you hadn't really expected that. And since then you've released an EP and you've played festivals like Great Escape and Glastonbury. Is the success easier to handle now?
Parks: It's all still overwhelming. I'm at the beginning of my journey, so it's still a recent thing and everything that happens is just "wow," so I'm still processing it as I go along. It's still crazy.
OTW: You've talked about how you were struggling with your identity when you were younger and you are very open about your sexuality as well. Do you feel like there was a lack of role models for you when you were growing up?
Parks: Yes, I guess I would say so. When I was growing up, the music I would listen to was made by people who didn't resemble me at all. But, in a way, the fact that I didn't have that many creative role models made me feel like it was okay for me to… if I can't find anyone that's like me, then I'm just going to have to keep being me and I guess it inspired me in a way to try to be that for other people, I guess.
OTW: Yeah, that was my next question. Do you see yourself as a role model?
Parks: I don't think I am yet, but I am working towards it. It's a work in progress. I'm still quite young, but I hope that in the future people can look at me and be inspired.
OTW: So that motivates you as well?
Parks: Definitely. That someone can connect to it and feel represented and safe when they come to my shows. That's really important to me.
Photo: Charlie Cummings
OTW: Along the same line, we're at the Reeperbahn Festival. The festival is part of an initiative called Keychange, which empowers women to transform the future of music whilst encouraging festivals to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022. I'm just curious to hear your thoughts on that?
Parks: If you have a set quota… I don't know. There are so many super talented women, and men, out there but right now the ratio is totally skewed. But you also don't want to feel like you've gotten somewhere just because you had to fill a quota. It's a complicated one but at least gender equality is starting to be a bigger conversation. I feel like that's progressing and that's very positive.
OTW: It is a tough one. And there are so many amazing female musicians out there. How do you feel as a fairly young woman going into this industry?
Parks: To be honest, I don't really think about it. I feel like I try not to overthink those things too much. I'm just working on my art and trying to achieve a vision and so far it's been really positive, I haven't had any bad experiences. But at the same time, I know that, especially in music, there are loads of problems and people get taken advantage of, but personally, I haven't experienced that.
OTW: So you're optimistic. You've already touched upon this a little but you've listed lots of different musical references - Earl Sweatshirt, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, King Princess, and even emo rock bands. Then there are also literary icons, such as Sylvia Plath. How does that all find its way into your music?
Parks: When I write songs, I like to use a lot of imagery and that definitely comes from the literary element. When I read a book, it conjures up a lot of mental imagery for me and I'm immersed in that world and that's something I try to apply to my songs. Sonically, all my influences are… I don't really know, I just listen to them all and use tiny little bits of each thing, even if they sound nothing like the music I make. It assimilates somehow.
OTW: So when you're writing songs, what comes first?
Parks: The lyrics are usually first. I write a lot of poetry so usually the lyrics dictate the mood of the song. But it depends, sometimes I have a chord progression and then it comes from there. I've got quite a fluid process.
OTW: Do you write alone?
Parks: Sometimes I write with producers and obviously when you're working with someone else you have to match their vibe and energy. When I'm by myself, I have my specific way of doing things, but when you're with someone else you have to let go of control a little bit. It's quite freeing actually, because it's nice to see how other people work, and even if it doesn't work out, then at least you know what you don't like. I am quite specific though.
OTW: You're not going to let anyone boss you around.
Parks: (laughter) No.
OTW: That's probably a good thing.
Parks: And all the lyrics are my own.
OTW: Have you even had time to process this past year?
Parks: No! I'm constantly moving. Maybe it will sink in at some point and then I'll just have a little cry. (laughing)
OTW: And you're working on an album?
Parks: It'll be an EP. And then late next year maybe there'll be an album. Nothing's set in stone though, I want to take my time with that. I love the album format so much, so I really want it to be good.
OTW: I love that you say that. So many artists seem to be just thinking in singles and EPs, and the fact that you need to feed your fans content all the time to stay relevant.
Parks: I definitely feel like that you need to keep in touch with your fans and give them things. But at the same time, it's definitely quality over quantity. You want to be putting out your best work, not just five million songs for the sake of it. It's a balance between keeping that mystery or intrigue and keeping people engaged.
OTW: I totally agree, and I also don't believe that the album is a dying format.
Parks: The album is immortal and that's my favorite way of consuming music. it's a complete body.
OTW: Who are your Ones To Watch?
Parks: I would say Biig Piig. She's from a collective called Nine8, which is based in West London. It's a bunch of creatives - graphic designers, musicians, producers - making really cool stuff together. Hers is low-fi hip-hop, really gentle and lovely. And I'd definitely also say Celeste who's playing here [Reeperbahn] as well.
OTW: I saw her the other night and I almost cried.
Parks: She is amazing, her voice is unparalleled. There's also an American artist I recently discovered called Choker. He's self-produced and mixes and masters everything himself. It gives me sort of Frank Ocean vibes but it's also experimental. It's really lovely.