Interview by Parisa Eshrati
In quarantine, London-based singer-songwriter Arlo Parks has immersed herself in introspection, working through uncomfortable yet enlightening thoughts. The outcome has provided not only an intimate atmosphere to her new music, but a hopeful outlet for listeners lingering in uncertainty. Ahead of the release of her full-length album, we spoke with Arlo Parks on balancing the structure and flow of her lyricism, making mix CDs for a crush, and much more.
You’ve stated how your songwriting process usually starts from a stream of consciousness into a poem, and then transformed into song lyrics. Though your lyrics are structured, they still carry that original flow and movement from a stream or poem. Could you talk on this process of balancing structure with flow during the songwriting process?
I think for me flow is the most important thing. At the crux of my songwriting is a desire to act and write based on instinct and feeling. I don’t care for structure much, I think its more a question of distilling something quite nebulous and disorganised into its core ideas which happens to be about the length of a song.
You’ve been posting about being back in your childhood room during quarantine and re-reading your old journals. Your lyrics seem to also mimic this feeling of journaling and self-conversation. Tell us about immersing yourself in nostalgia, and how revisiting these journals and old memories drive the storytelling aspect of your music.
Revisiting old journals and memories has helped me get to the heart of the conversations, situations and people who have made me who I am today. I like how memory is unreliable, how you focus on certain details, how hindsight dilutes situations, nostalgia has inspired me endlessly during these past months.
I really appreciate how your voice is soft, but not always necessarily shy. Though the lyrics might reflect feelings of worry or uncertainty (i.e. Eugene, “Yeah, I don’t know what to say”), you exude a sense of urgency. Can you elaborate on emanating urgency and persistent hope through very soft sounds and compositions?
I think I only write about something when it is really important to me, hurting me or filling me with joy which would explain the sense of urgency. I write because something is bursting out of me and I can’t not write it. I think my voice is soft by nature and I’m attracted to gooey, gentle, layered instrumentals. That parallel is interesting to me.
You call yourself a “creature of comfort”, and have recorded all your songs in bedrooms or apartments. Can you talk on how the comfort of your physical surroundings relays into intimacy of your music? Additionally, how are you able to hold those intimate moods when you’re playing stages like Glastonbury? Have quarantine home live streams been a comfort for you in that way?
When I’m comfortable I tend not to overthink or filter myself, when I have chamomile tea and candles and a familiar collaborator I can be completely honest with myself and with my work. Playing shows is different I almost surrender to the unfamiliarity, it’s exciting. I don’t really enjoy quarantine home live streams but I like that it makes other people feel happy when they watch them. The humanity of live performance is what interests me.
I appreciate the prominence of fruit, especially strawberries, in your poetry and lyrics (i.e. in “Black Dog”). It seems to act as the antithesis to the themes of sorrow, but it also made me think of all the posts you’ve been writing about self-reflection in quarantine. I’m reminded of this poem excerpt from Rumi:
It is difficult to speak to your unripeness.
You may still be in your springtime,
unaware that autumn exists.
This world is a tree to which we cling----
we, the half-ripe fruit upon it.
The immature fruit clings tightly to the branch
because, not yet ripe, it's unfit for the palace.
When fruits become ripe, sweet, and juicy,
then, biting their lips,
they loosen their hold.
What does fruit teach you about patience during these difficult times? How else have you learned to lean further into introspection, and what has been the outcome of all this meditation thus far?
I think my use of fruit, colour and texture is more because of my interest in sensory, hyper-specific writing. I’ve always been introspective and sought to become more self-aware, reflecting has been both uncomfortable and enlightening. The outcome has been me becoming more sure of my purpose and more committed to being an actively positive force for my fans, friends and on social media.
In your recent reflections, you’ve also been pondering the differences between platonic vs. romantic love. I want to expand on this with the way you romanticize colors. This stream of consciousness plays with themes of green in this nostalgic, uncertain love. In the song “Eugene” as well, you portray an idealistic love in various shades of purple. How do these colors emulate the connections between platonic, romantic, and self-love?
Again, the things I write are sometimes hard to explain in terms of specific links and symbolism. I unconsciously gravitate towards colours and scents and references because they feel right in the moment, stream of consciousnesses don’t allow you to overthink things it’s all really quite emotional.
I’d like to discuss your role as an ambassador at CALM. Tell us how you got involved, and perhaps any parallels between your role in that organization and your mission in music.
I became an ambassador for CALM over lockdown having participated in and written poetry for their Instagram live lock-in fundraiser. My mission in music and in life is to uplift those who are suffering, make people feel held and less alone. CALM’s mission aligns with that completely.
I really appreciate the CALM acronym (Campaign Against Living Miserably) as it makes me think of how we’re living in such an interesting and paradoxical time. Mental health discussions are becoming less taboo, but simultaneously depression has become a brand for this generation. There’s this strange grey area where young people are proudly carrying their heart on their sleeves, and then brands and influencers are promoting shirts with self-deprecating slogans and marketing it as a ~vibe~ or whatever. What’s your take on distinguishing authentic awareness vs. capitalization of mental health issues? How do you recommend people open up but not fall into these huge social pressures of branding?
I think you said it exactly - when mental health is used to sell things then it’s not a genuine opening up of the conversation, it’s twisting the narrative towards profit. I think sharing stories, communicating with loved ones, seeking professional help, using one’s platform to share personal experiences is healthy. At the same time setting boundaries is important and no one should feel forced to be open.
You captioned your fantastic “Baby Blue” - King Krule cover that it’s one of your favorite songs to share with a lover. Aside from this track, if you were making a mixtape for a crush, what songs would be featured on it? Would you pick songs with a secret subtext or go for an overall mood?
This is a great question. I think I would pick songs that reminded me of the person or that warmed my heart.
You’ve also been posting a lot lately about your love of techno. Who are some producers/DJs you’d recommend for a quarantine solo dance party?
I love techno! I would say Channel Tres, Objekt and Ross From Friends.
I know you can’t reveal any details about the album (congrats on finishing it, by the way!) So, since you’re an avid tea drinker, how about you describe the album as a tea blend. What kind of notes - floral, earthy? Invigorating, soothing? What kind of buds or herbs would be in there?
It would be chamomile, lavender, Manuka honey. Soothing, earthy, reminiscent of golden hour and summer.
Thank you so much for taking time to speak with me, and I can’t wait to hear the album. Anything else you’d like to mention or any other projects on the horizon?
I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed these questions, thank you! And I’m writing a poetry collection at the moment which is exciting.