“It’s one more step towards the big day,” Arlo Parks brightly hums on the other end of the phone call. It’s late morning in Los Angeles and the 22-year-old is winding down from her journey in a yellow flower-flush Californian desert. The musician had been busy filming visuals for Pegasus; a gentle, fuzzing ode to love and loving deeply, which recruits the support of close friend Phoebe Bridgers. However, the pressures of the musician’s upcoming full-length project, My Soft Machine, seem inconsequential to what she found along the way. “The album gave me a space to put things,” says Parks. “It feels cosmic. I’m doing what I’m meant to do and that fills me with the biggest sense of purpose and joy.”
A sense of home is what persuaded Parks to move to LA. The bustling, busy entertainment melting point is a long way from Hammersmith, London where the British artist made her name. The bright-eyed notion of creative “adventure” proved a notable factor, too. Distance, however, would prove difficult to undo Parks’ ascension as a confidently established artist. In 2019, the singer-songwriter asserted herself as one to watch with her melancholic EP, Super Sad Generation. The release of her Mercury Prize-winning debut album, Collapsed In Sunbeams doubled down on Parks’ distinct strength of storytelling and as an observer of outward situations. The “insular” quality of the record, she says, emerged during the pandemic. “I was creating this fantasy of escape and adventure when we weren’t having that at all. I was living vicariously through experiences that I’d had in the past,” she explains.
Parks’ newest venture, My Soft Machine, tugs at the familiar idea of the softly-spoken musician. Self-composed beats and production colour the 12-track project, a reminder of Parks’ hands-on approach to creating art. Her subtle bedroom-pop talent creeps through, as does her appreciation for ambient and punkier soundscapes. Parks’ newer, dreamier sound is forward-moving, yet you can find footprints leading back to her earthy, melancholic roots. Parks’ affectionate songwriting perseveres even as the album’s sonic soundscape experimentally meanders with its fresher, pleasant shifts. She credits this new lens to the joy of attending parties, meeting friends, and savouring the opportunity to go back out into the her favourite spaces. “When I was making this record, I was very much out in the world, she shares. It felt most natural to sit down and go inwards and be by myself, with a cup of tea, and really figuring this all out.”
As Parks reconnected with her sense and returned to music, the singer seemed eager to shake off her boxed-in image as a modern-day mouthpiece for Gen Z misery. On her new single, Impurities, Parks pulls on influences ranging from fine-tuned brilliance of Frank Ocean to the assurance of her own sound, describing the track as an opening “window” for listeners and herself. Settings, for Parks, are significant, too. Whether it’s staring at a signed copy of Blonde in Electric Lady Studios in New York or producing a project at home, the musician finds herself immersed in the “magic” of the music. Impurities served more as a “bittersweet” message inspired by Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, but shed light onto Parks’ internal redirection of sound and subject. A subdued, rhythmic track, the singer surrenders to the force of comfort and companionship, willingly freefalling into the support of the person she loves. Laughing, she playfully compares the sentiment on the track to Stephen Chbosky’s Perks Of Being A Wallflower, a film that builds on the prosperity and certainty of platonic love. “It’s the first real joyful song that I’ve written,” she says recalling her own moments of community – notably one of being in a car blasting Charli XCX. She hesitates a second, recalling Chbosky’s script, before quietly screaming the infamous movie (“‘I’m infinite!’”) down the line.
The joyousness of Parks’ new project is seemingly self-fuelled. The young musician documents her experiences of falling in love as well as darker, more personal moments. Yet, as the singer walked through those experiences, it was the urge to capture her teenage creative spirit that centred her exploration. Instead, the weight of prolific industry nominations fell by the wayside. “When I’m making things, I feel like I’m a teenager again,” she tells GAY TIMES. “I feel like I’m in my bedroom [and] doing something that I love. It’s quite easy for me to go back into a completely insular bubble; it’s the only music that matters, and that’s never going to change, no matter what is happening around me.” Much of Parks’ new record unpacks micro-moments, whether they’re shared or independently uncovered. In the mid-album track Pegasus, the musician gives a gateway further into her world of creation, as well as her personal life. Inspired by a wide-ranging mix of creatives (Four Tet, Dijon, Radiohead to Rosalía), the 22-year-old meddled with ambient music, splashy guitar moments and prospective feelings of tenderness to capture her feelings towards her partner. “You think it’s going to be a ballad, but then it opens up into something else – and that was the feeling of love that I wanted to capture. It starts as this seed and it starts tentatively,” she explains. “You’re feeling around each other and then, when it connects, it does feel like this explosion.”
Parks’ girlfriend, the punkish blue-haired artist Ashnikko, fits into the image of the musician’s emboldened upcoming album. The duo, who live together, have shared spaces (events, parties, social media posts) publically together. Finding the line as a person and a personality is something she’s figuring out in hindsight, particularly as an “unguarded” writer. “The best art is something that spills out of you. Obviously, there are kind of consequences to being not transparent in terms of having to answer questions and people being able to ascribe it to a certain person, but the best work is the truest work,” she says. “I have to figure out how to set up boundaries after the fact.” However, the romanticism of artistic expression isn’t something lost on the musician either. She lightheartedly compares her situation to that of The Cure’s Elliot Smith wistfully singing to a lover: “I can imagine Smith saying ‘everything reminds me of her’ at some venue somewhere in Portland. I’m sure that person definitely knew he was singing about her, but there’s beauty to that! It’s a compromise that I’m willing to make.”
The beautified romance interlaced in My Soft Machine is charming and adds layers to Parks’ already well-versed trait as a lyricist. Take late-album track Dog Rose, a guitar-laden indie tune where the musician recounts the mundane experience of dishwashing, emotions of belonging, and the pervasive memory of a nicotine patch under a sleeve. Parks’ forthright, confessional attachment overlaps with the likes of Lorde, Phoebe Bridgers, and Samia. However, unsurprisingly, these artists are not only inspirations for the singer but also friends.
“I’ve always gravitated to Samia, Dean Blunt, Smashing Pumpkins and shoegaze Stereolab and straight-up indie pop music that I grew up with,” Parks says. The evolution of Dog Rose came while in a Toronto hotel room on tour with Clario (Claire Cottrill). “There’s something about a love song with that chorus-y guitar feeling. I love my friends and I’m constantly soaking up whatever they’re doing,” she says bursting out with a laugh.
Another companion, who Parks compares to an older sibling, is Phoebe Bridgers. The pair’s collaboration marks Parks’ first-ever feature in her discography. A self-proclaimed “fan”, both musicians had crossed paths plenty of times, from Glastonbury last year to performing Radiohead together on Radio 1 in 2020. “I remember listening to Stranger In The Alps when I was like 17 years and feeling so understood. She has such a command of her voice, and storytelling, that I’ve always been in love with,” she shares. When it came to asking the Punisher musician to get involved, Parks shyly recalls the moment it happened. “We’ve sung together quite a lot in the past. I feel like there’s some kind of magic that happens when our voices come together. I just asked her, saying: ‘I have this song… and I love you. Can we do this together?’” she laughed. “She said yes, she’s a legend!”
The inception of Collapsed In Sunbeams, Parks says, occurred while we were all “shut away on our little islands”. This time, the musician made the most of collaborators Romil (Brockhampton), Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim) and Buddy Ross (Frank Ocean) expanding her artistic depth and direction. Between albums, Parks has self-awarely navigated around her growing profile, mentally cataloguing the growing number of personal stories about her music that came her way. “As an artist, I feel like what I’m doing is kind of beyond me now and that was the first moment that I really felt that way. So, I would say that’s almost definitely one of the turning points for me,” she says. Parks has also established an inner-famous circle of fans from industry titans Billie Eilish and Harry Styles. And, now, with festival season upon us, Parks is set to share festival rosters with Boygenius, Lana Del Rey, Masie Peters and more.
Performing live isn’t something Parks did until 2019, at The Great Escape Festival, in Brighton. Finding courage in those moments is something Parks has accomplished over time. Now, the artist sees festivals as a “summer camp” to reunite with friends she often doesn’t have time to see. And as the place fans are likely to hear the album live first, she’s hopeful they will forge a special connection with it. “The music I’m playing is cementing a relationship or a moment that they’ll talk about on the car ride home,” she says. After pouring intimate stories and self-discoveries into this record, the singer is ready for it to be shared with a wider audience. Whether a fan is plucking up the courage to “put in a mixtape to send to like a girl that they like” or finding an “emotion they didn’t necessarily have the words for,” Parks wants listeners to be able to find comfort in her art, just as she did. Until then, the musician is ready to slow things down and avoid fixating on the release of the album. “If I try and take in the fact that my second record will be completely out in the world in a month I’ll go crazy. I’m just living day by day, man!” she laughs, promising that, as the days go by, she will still be hanging out with her dog, Wednesday, and reading books in childlike wonder. “Making this record was absolutely beautiful. I’m excited for people to be able to hear everything in its right place.”
This cover story features in the May 2023 edition of GAY TIMES Magazine. To read the full issue, click here.