If Deep Breathing Doesn’t Work, Try Arlo Parks

The British singer-songwriter, who's been hyped by Billie Eilish and Michaela Coel, on fame, meeting her idols, and the perfect pasta recipe for recording an album.
By Sam Reed
Feb 04, 2021 @ 11:00 am

Arlo Parks wants you to know she's actually an extrovert. 

This may sound incongruous to those fans who have absorbed her sweet-sounding songs like they're a drip from an IV, a salve for all the feels. Where pop tends to skew saccharine, though, her sweetness is more mellow — juicier and filling. Her performances, which thus far have been mostly virtual, are soft and roomy, a safe space for her fans who prefer to sit quietly in the dark allowing Arlo's voice to soothe. 

"I'm introspective, but I'm extroverted," she tells InStyle. Parks, whose real name is Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, is Zooming in from her family home in London, which she describes as "warm" and "grounding." Her childhood bedroom has become her de facto press hub since the first U.K. COVID outbreak last year, and it strikes me that the intimacy of this space perhaps contributed to the idea that she's not a people person. "I think a lot of people think that I'm quite shy and then they're surprised," she says.

Her speaking voice — heard on the opening title track of her debut LP, Collapsed in Sunbeams, out now — is delicate but mature, like an audible exhale. She turned 20 in the middle of the pandemic summer, and her indie pop vocals betray more of that youth with a hint of angst. Her British lilt comes across subtly, a treat for an American audience that's only just discovered the singer-songwriter, who began making beats in her bedroom as a 15-year-old, in the past year or so. 

Shirt, Gucci. Pants, Gucci. Shoes, Nike.
| Credit: Makeda Sandford

Her self-declared "emo kid" title may also contribute to the misconceptions of her public persona. She was not a skinny-jeans-wearing, hair-in-the-eyes kind of emo. She says she read Beat poetry and was quiet, observant, and, underneath it all, brimming too full with everything — a condition not uncommon among adolescents, and especially those of Gen Z.  

In fact, her 2019 EP, Super Sad Generation (her first with label Transgressive Records), had listeners crowning her the queen of the teens, an androgynous figurehead whose lyrics spoke to mental health, the queer identity (Parks is openly bisexual), friendships and first loves, and all the Ketamine, messy breakups, and drowsy summer days she could squeeze in between. 

"I would never want to speak for anyone, and I feel like a generation is composed of so many unique individuals," she says respectfully, in what could easily pass for a coronation speech. "Of course there are things that tie us together, things like social media … but for me, I'm not sure if I'm the spokesperson for anything. I feel like I'm more just somebody who happens to be 20 years old writing about the experience of being an adolescent." 

"There is a sense of melancholy there," she adds. "But there's also a lot of hope and ambition."

If you haven't heard of Arlo yet, you've certainly heard her. Her 2018 single "Cola" was featured on Michaela Coel's compelling British drama I May Destroy You, and has been streamed more than 16 million times on Spotify. She's already earned multiple "emerging artist" and "ones to watch" awards, and surely has many more to win in the near future given the critical acclaim she's already received for Collapsed in Sunbeams. But it's her steady stream of singles released in the latter half of 2020 (many of which also feature on her debut album) that will be forever entwined with these isolating months in quarantine, making her something of a pied piper of the pandemic. 

As we slowly begin crawling our way out of our collective depression and burnout, Parks will be there guiding the way, identifiable by her short, dyed-red hair. Like her peer Billie Eilish who often sports custom Chanel (and Missy Elliot among other music superstars before them both), Parks prefers her clothes to drip loosely around her frame, obscuring her figure. Parks, too, has, already linked up with a major European fashion brand, Gucci, which seems almost to design collections for Arlo, conforming to meet her preference for layered long-sleeve tees under printed shirts, and piles of chunky jewelry. 

When I was preparing for my interview with Parks, my most-pressing question was not about her idiosyncratic style, or what it was like rising to fame in the middle of a global health crisis, or meeting (and collaborating with!) our shared hero Phoebe Bridgers. It was about Eugene. And Caroline. And Kaia, and George, and Sophie, and the many names Parks drops in her songs. 

Though I don't personally know anyone with these names, I know them as archetypes: as the girl who caught the eye of my crush instead of me; as the stranger whose exasperated lover has run out of patience; as the guy floundering in a cycle of depression. They're mentioned casually, as if we know them — because we do. I was determined to find out if she was Taylor Swift-ing us, singing about real people in her life.

Jacket, Gucci.
| Credit: Makeda Sandford

"They are real people," she says with a laugh. "There've been a few times where I would change the name just because I found a name just fits better, but they are all based on real people. To the listener, it's almost like they're reading a letter that I've written to someone else or hearing a phone call," she says. "It just feels a bit more intimate and personal." 

These mysterious Millies and Charlies mingle with the names of real pop-culture personalities, from poets of the '60s to punk rockers of the '00s. In "Black Dog," one of the most empathetic songs about depression, fittingly released in the midst of 2020, she name-drops The Cure frontman Robert Smith. It's a move that could sound annoying or even pretentious in the wrong hands, but there's an art to Arlo's ability to acknowledge her vast and diverse library of inspirations.  

"Read him Sylvia Plath / I thought that that was our thing," she sings on "Eugene," a wonderfully all-encompassing story of a girl who wants something more with her best friend, who happens to be dating Eugene. 

Arlo says most of her songs start as poems she keeps tucked away in her Notes app. But they aren't all destined for music — a poetry collection is in the works for an undisclosed future date. 

YouTube comments on videos like "Hurt," a more uplifting song about depression, are filled with gratitude for the lyrical promise of a silver lining in what, for many people, has been a hell of a year. She sings, "I know you can't let go of anything at the moment / Just know it would hurt so, won't hurt so much forever." If Phoebe Bridgers is where you turn if you want to wallow, then Arlo — true to her generation — can own a sad moment, digest it, and turn it into something hopeful.

When all is said and vaccinated, Arlo is excited to finally hit the road on her own tour, headlining a show for the first time in her hometown, playing for thousands rather than a handful of crew at a TV studio, and finally making her way stateside. "I'm just so excited for [live shows] because this album is designed to be experienced among other people," she says. "Actually yelling, 'You're not alone,' at the top of your lungs along with 100 people is going to be so special." And there's more proof she is so of this moment — all she really wants is to be among a modest amount of people, feeling something.

Read on for our conversation about fame, stage names, and the best scented candles for a creative mood. 

InStyle: How did you get started composing music?

Arlo Parks: I picked up the guitar when I was about 14 or 15 maybe, and then I started just messing around with loops on GarageBand, and just building my own beats in my bedroom and then just releasing that on SoundCloud. I kind of fell into music, and it was a very private exercise that I didn't really share until I was about 16 or so.

You're also a poet. How does writing poetry differ from your songwriting? What is that process for you?

They're very interlinked. Most of my [lyrics] come from poetry. Usually how it works is I'll write for 10 minutes [in] stream of consciousness, and then I'll pick out words, phrases that I like, turn that into a poem and then turn that poem into lyrics. The process is very fluid between them. But I think for me, writing poetry when I was younger really helped me to condense an idea or a story into only so many words, because in a song you really only have three, four minutes to have a complete world in this song, so I think it definitely taught me to be concise.

Left: Jacket, Gucci. Jeans, Nanushka. Shoes, Nike. | Credit: Makeda Sandford
Right: Shirt, Gucci. Pants, Gucci. Shoes, Nike. | Credit: Makeda Sandford

You mention Sylvia Plath in "Eugene." What other poets inspire you?

I really like Pat Parker. I really like Audre Lorde. I read a lot of the Beats when I was younger, so Diane di Prima, Gary Snyder. I've been discovering a lot more modern poems as well. I never really used Instagram to find poems, but there's this site called Poetry Is Not a Luxury that posts these kinds of little snippets of poetry every day. And I've been loving that. 

Can you tell me a little bit more about your stage name, Arlo Parks?

[Frank Ocean and King Krule] are very intrinsic to the story. Basically, I was reading this interview in The Guardian about King Krule, and he was talking about how his name, he was like, "Imagine a king crawling through his city at his lowest point." And I don't know if it was the fact that it was 3 AM or whatever, but I misread "low" as "Arlo." Arlo just came to me. So I just jotted that down in my journal.

I love double bowed names like Frank Ocean. I just thought that it felt like a more complete identity. And I was literally just in the park with my buddies when I was 16 or something and I was stressing about finding the second part to the name and they were just like, "It's June, we've just finished our exams. Just relax. We're in the park. We're safe. We're good." And then suddenly Parks just sprung to me. It was a very simple story. I wish it was super intellectual or something. It was just fun.

You have such a long list of references in your songs — from Robert Smith (The Cure) and Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance), and also MF Doom. And you mention Portishead and Earl Sweatshirt in your Spotify bio. That's a really wide range of artists and genres and eras. How did you discover all of this music? 

There was definitely music playing in the house. My dad loved jazz, so there was a little Miles Davis, Otis Redding, Donny Hathaway. My mum is French, so she'd listen to a lot of French music, but a lot of the music that actually formed my taste, I just found online. I grew up with YouTube, and also my uncle gave me his vinyl collection when I was younger.

What was it like to have this rise in your musical career coincide with the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and just political turmoil on a very global scale? How has that felt to you just having those both happen at once?

It's definitely been an overwhelming year in terms of, as you say, the pandemic. On a personal level, as somebody who's very social and gets a lot of energy from other people, I've been feeling quite isolated, and have that increased sense of self-awareness that comes from being by yourself. 

There was a question of I think setting boundaries for myself as well, because I really took it upon myself to be journaling and processing things one day at a time. I think it was easy to feel like there was so much happening in the world and there was, but for me, my music kind of came as the solace. Just being able to sit quietly and just work on this album and just work on demos made me feel quite centered during what was quite a chaotic year.

Many of your songs deal with mental health. How has it felt as a young Black woman in this time? As someone who also writes songs about queer love? 

The thing that was really warming was the fact that my music seemed to make other people from across the world feel more at peace and validated in terms of their identity and in terms of the experiences that they were having. A lot of people have said, "Oh, I've never seen somebody who looks like me making this kind of music," or, "Oh, I've never actually heard this experience vocalized in this way. I thought I was the only person who had been through this," that kind of thing. And especially in this time where we all felt very separate and in our own little pods, it felt like I could somehow help and connect to people, especially young people who were still figuring out their place in the world and who they are. It was beautiful to be able to bring that sort of comfort.

Do you think that that puts an extra responsibility on you or do you feel extra pressure now that you've got these fans that are really looking to you as a role model?

There is a sense of responsibility, but I've always stressed the fact that I'm only speaking about what I've lived and what I've seen and what I'm experiencing through my own eyes and the fact that I am just a human being who's processing things just as everybody else is. 

But there is, of course, knowing that people are listening now. It is a different thing to when I was making "Cola" and nobody was there, so I was just vibing.

I heard that you were making music in London in an Airbnb with your producer [Luca Buccellati]. What's the thing that you need when you're working on a song in an isolated environment like that?

When we were in the Airbnb, we definitely had a set of things that we had, like candles. We had crystals. We had this page of intentions that we wrote as soon as we entered the apartment. We had this specific pasta, but I just made up this recipe. I don't know where it came from, just from my mind. And we had it every day. It was halloumi, paprika and just randomly rocket on top. 

And then we had red wine. We watched a Studio Ghibli film every afternoon. There was definitely a sense of routine and I think that that brought a sense of comfort to me, which was really lovely.

You have a song, "Angel's Song," and you call your fans Angels. What came first?

The song, the song definitely, because I wrote that song when I was like 15, maybe 16.

[Calling my fans Angels] just sprung. I don't know why that happened, but it just has happened. I thought it was sweet.

You mention the '60s a couple of times in some of your lyrics. Is there something about that era that inspires you?

I think sonically, I'm definitely inspired by '60s, and actually, probably especially, the '70s, I would say. I think there's just a real warmth to the drum sounds. 

I'm not trying to romanticize the past in any way. It's more in terms of the musical era, and I definitely feel inspired by the past in that way. A lot of my songs, especially on this album, are trying to tap into those more classic melodies by groups like, I don't know, The Supremes or The Beach Boys, all of that, I'm really inspired by, The Beatles as well. But yeah, I mean, a lot of the references in my songs are literally just kind of instinctive, spontaneous. I don't really overthink it too much. It's usually just thrown in there.

You've spoken about being an emo kid and I want to make sure that I have an understanding of what an emo kid looked like for somebody who grew up in the mid 2000s, because when I was in high school, emo kids had crazy hair, it was the super dark makeup ...

No, no, no. I was definitely not. I was an inner emo kid. I used to listen to a lot of My Chemical Romance, Good Charlotte, Fall Out Boy, but outwardly, there was no emo. It was all inside. 

You also have a lot of spoken word parts and Collapsed in Sunbeams opens with this beautiful poem.

I think for the spoken word parts they almost provide a moment of stillness, and I think I wanted it to feel like I was almost talking directly to the person listening, and it's something that I did quite spontaneously actually. I think the first time that I did it was probably on "Hurt," and it felt just like it connected to that spoken word part of me. And I've always loved hip hop and speaking words and storytelling in that way, but "Collapsed in Sunbeams", the poem, was actually the last thing that I made on the record. I wanted it to be almost like a reassuring little moment where I can be vulnerable alongside with the person who's listening.

You've worked with Phoebe Bridgers, and both Clairo and Billie Eilish have recommended you. How did that feel to be acknowledged by these people as your peers as an emerging artist?

I think it's something that I still haven't completely come to grips with. I mean, it's quite surreal, especially when it's somebody whose music ... For example, with Phoebe, I remember buying Stranger in the Alps on vinyl when I was 16 and just playing it incessantly and being so inspired by it. And the fact that then she's sitting right there, it's one of those moments where a dream comes true. And I think what's beautiful as well as to be able to speak to these people that I've looked up to for so long just on a human level, on a personal level and just chat about tunes and what's inspiring us. It's been really lovely. Unexpected, but lovely.

Your tour got cut short because of COVID, so I wanted to ask — what does your ideal show look like?

I've always wanted my shows to be a safe space where people can do what they want. At gigs, some people like to dance crazy. Some people like to just sit and absorb. I just want people to feel comfortable. And I want it just to feel like this kind of collective, cathartic experience, especially when we're singing songs like "Black Dog" or "Hope." Actually yelling, "You're not alone," at the top of your lungs along with 100 people is going to be so special. 

There's so much to do in the live respect. I never played in the United States either, not once. And I'm just so excited for it because this album is designed to be experienced among other people. It is a very people-based record, so I think it's going to be amazing.

Credit: Makeda Sandford

SMALL TALK: 

What was your first concert?

Loyle Carner at the Shepherd's Bush O2

Wait, '02?

Yeah.

How old were you in 2002?

No, no, no, no. Sorry. That's a chain of venues. [Both laugh]

How do you feel about astrology?

Yeah, I'm down with it. 

What's your sign?

I'm a Leo.

Do you feel like you connect with that?

I feel like I relate to it in some senses, right? Of course there's a side of me that's extroverted and loud and wants to give and be a leader and whatever. But I think everybody contains multitudes. No one can be like that 24/7.

Who was your first celebrity crush?

Maybe Tarzan when I was like eight.

What's the favorite piece of clothing that you own? Or accessory?

Probably this necklace that I have. It's by Bleue Burnham and it's this little ruby on a gold chain. It's really beautiful. I love it.

Amazing. And I saw you're wearing a turquoise ring and I know you mentioned that in the opener "Collapsed in Sunbeams." [The turquoise in my ring matches the deep blue cramp of everything.] Is that it? 

Yeah!

How would you describe your personal style?

I would say it's pretty androgynous. I would say it's quite fluid. It changes all the time.

What is the one book that you can read over and over again?

Ooh, maybe Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch. It's this thing on meditation and creativity and consciousness. It's all these super short chapters and it's amazing.

What's your favorite thing to cook?

It's chicken fajitas, no questions asked. Mexican food's the best.

Photographs by Makeda Sandford. Styling by Alyssa Hardy. Beauty Direction by Kayla Greaves. Fashion Editor: Samantha Sutton. Production by Kelly Chiello.