Arlo Parks
Photo by Charlie Cummings
Emerging Masters

Arlo Parks: “It feels like what I’m meant to do”

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Short Profile

Name: Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho
DOB: 9 August 2000
Place of birth: London, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Musician

Arlo, journalists often describe you as the voice of a generation — a label you tend to reject. If you’re not the voice of a generation, who do you hope to be the voice for?

That's actually the best way that someone's asked me that question! I guess I want to be a voice for the kid. I mean, it sounds quite contrived, but I want to make music that I would have wanted to hear when I was 14. When I was that age, I would listen to artists and think, “Wow, I feel represented by that. I feel inspired by that,” if I was listening to like Tyler the Creator, or Frank Ocean, Odd Future, all of them… I want to be that person that kids can listen to, and feel energized by because they've never felt like they had someone that they could listen to and see themselves in before.

Being the voice of a generation also seems like a lot of pressure to place on you as a musician; you can never really speak for anyone except yourself.

Yeah, it can be dangerous to kind of try and target your art to a certain type of people! You don't know who's going to gravitate towards your work, you never know what people are going get out of the work. So I try and just create music that feels true to my taste, and then see what happens. I've kind of honed in on that fact more than ever. Lately I’ve been collecting words and lyrics and kick drum sounds and filters and auto tunes… Whatever it was, and it became this moodboard, this kaleidoscope of truly everything that I like. All I can do is put that together and put it out — and at least I know that it's me.

“The best art comes from a sense of urgency, like I can't help but talk about this. I can only be in that creative space when I really want to, and when internally it feels right.”

And that moodboard is the foundation for your songwriting process?

Yeah, I'll start with a kind of stream-of-consciousness; a lot of my writing is actually freeform, or it's just adding to that little bank of phrases and conversations. Sometimes I'll have like a verse maybe, or even a hook that I've already written down somewhere, and I'll listen to an instrumental and that will kind of spark something in me. Or sometimes it starts with melody; so I have a chord progression and drums, and then I'll voice a melody over the top of that. And then I'll kind of rummage through my notes and find something that strikes a similar chord in me as the music goes, or maybe I’ll break down a poem to use as lyrics, if that makes sense.

Is there a difference for you between words, poetry, and song lyrics?

I don’t think there is one. Anything can be a poem, and when I write it’s just putting the words down on paper; I don't really have any kind of preconceived idea of what its final form will be, it just all kind of comes spilling out with me from the same place. Poetry doesn’t necessarily need to be some erudite thing. Your mom telling you a story is just as much poetry as some old 17th century thing that no one really understands. I think that those boundaries should be broken down! Everything I write comes from the same instinctive place anyway.

Do you write every day?

I do, but I never force it out of myself. I'm kind of trying to explore writing as a practice, so you know, I journal every day, I try and do kind of something for the art every day whether that's reading or watching film or practicing guitar… It kind of ebbs and flows, but I do try and do something creative every day. When it comes to writing poetry or songs, I really have to have an idea or have that desire to get something down. I feel like the best art comes from a sense of necessity and urgency, like I can't help but talk about this. I can only be in that creative space when I really want to and when internally it feels right.

Has it always been easier for you to express yourself through art and music?

Yeah, I mean, poetry was always something that fascinated me. I started off writing when I was around six, and then it felt like that way of expression was always the one that I was most for familiar with. Then I discovered guitar, and I think you kind of unlock a different part of yourself when you're playing an instrument because you don't even have to speak or think, it's just all in the feeling of it. But I always turn to my notebook, I always write things down If I want to work through something. Seeing something on on a page just gives me a different perspective. I think it slows me down. Like when I need to make a decision, or if I'm upset, or if I'm confused, I'll always just write it down.

Arlo Parks' video for Black Dog, 2020.

Are there also times where you’ve struggled to express something out loud, but it’s come out more easily in the form of poetry or a song?

Definitely! To be honest, all of my songs are an example of that because they're always touching on this kind of bittersweetness when things are really hard, and it kind of hurts, but like, that was good scattered in it. And I find that easier to express by writing it down. Another one is when I think about my song “Black Dog,” where I just didn't know how to talk about what my friend was going through, and also how it was affecting me.

“Black Dog” is about your friend’s battle with depression, and apparently when you finally performed the song while she was in the audience, it was a very intense experience for you.

Yes, it was this thing where everyone else in the room kind of melts away. When I sang the song, you know, she was in a much better place, so it was just a reminder of the darkness that we were both plunged into, and how much closer we became, how much strength it took to overcome it. Everything just came rushing back, I think, for both of us. But it was a really beautiful moment.

Is it challenging for you to get so deeply in touch with your own experiences and emotions?

No, I think I slip into it very easily, and whatever I’m feeling, I can't help but write it down. I’m never kind of plumbing the depths or like trying to rip something out of myself, it always just comes quite easily and naturally.

And do you get nervous about presenting your feelings, however personal and intimate, to your listeners? In your song “Eugene” for example, you write about being jealous of your best friend’s boyfriend…

I honestly don't think about that until it's out! And then I’m like, “Oh my God…” (Laughs) But I can't kind of filter and cherry pick the parts of myself or my story that I share, it all floods out. And I think it's worth it because honesty is what inspires connection. People can tell that there's authenticity there. And that's what moves them. And for me, I like the idea of wading out until you’re just outside of your comfort zone, like your feet are just off the sand that you can just about reach. And I think in order to push yourself and in order to grow, you have to be a little bit uncomfortable, you have to be a little bit unsure because I think a part of being an artist is moving past the things that you've done. You always have to be trying new things in order to create something truly great.

Can you hear or sense a difference when you’re staying safe with your work?

I can tell when I'm not going far enough, when I haven’t pushed myself there. I mean, it can be very draining to push myself to that place all the time… It can be very hard. But I never get tired of it because it feels like what I’m meant to do.

How do you think time will impact your ability to stay open in that way? Will it get easier, or do you worry that you’ll start to close yourself off eventually?

I think I'm a naturally open person. It’s part of who I am and I don't think it will ever dwindle. Privacy is of course very important to me and I have to maintain that boundary between my personal life and the artistry… But when it comes to my writing, I can never come up. I can never write about something that isn't touching that really raw, exposed part of myself. So I don't think that will ever change.