Lockdown is making Arlo Parks feel like she’s 16 again. Having moved back in with her parents in west London, she’s in her childhood bedroom making music the way she used to.
“I’m reading, practising guitar, making beats. I’ve got my notebook, my candles, my tea – just chilling,” she says. “Before, you’re travelling here, going to a shoot there, doing a session, blah blah blah, always in motion, meeting strangers every day. It’s been nice to come back to where my journey started, literally sitting in this chair in this room.”
Feeling 16 again isn’t necessarily a huge leap of nostalgia. She’s still only 19, but a lot has happened in between. She signed her record deal last summer just after finishing A-levels in English, History and Biology. She had a place to study English Literature at UCL, with a notion of being a journalist and a novel in the thinking stages. Then a succession of beautiful, featherlight singles, starting with her breakthrough song Cola, set her up as a new voice with an exceptional eye for the darker details of young lives. This summer she should have been touring the US with Paramore’s Hayley Williams, finishing her debut album and growing her fanbase at the festivals.
“Before, I wanted the album – this big, cohesive project – to come soon. I was being super-productive, making like three songs a day, going wild. After I went back home I slowed down a bit,” she says. In fact, the easing of the pace suits her sound: acoustic guitar, shuffling beats, shimmering keys and pillowy vocals that articulate sadness from a range of angles. On Eugene, she longs for the romantic love of a female friend whose head has been turned by a new boyfriend. “You play him records I showed you/Read him Sylvia Plath/I thought that was our thing,” she sings. One comment beneath the gorgeous video says: “I feel seen for the very first time in my life.”
However, she doesn’t want her sexuality to be the main focal point of her music. “This is just a part of who I am. When I was growing up, there weren’t that many queer girls of colour making music. So I just wanted to be able to exist, just to be that, without putting too much emphasis on it.”
On her new single Black Dog, named for Winston Churchill’s term for his depression, she’s trying to coax a sufferer merely to come to the corner store and buy fruit. Again, the video is a heartbreaker. “It was inspired by a really close friend of mine,” she says. “Somebody that you really care about being in a lot of pain, and being willing to do anything to lift them out of that space. It’s about that feeling of helplessness.”
This month she was made an ambassador for the suicide prevention charity CALM. Having started out writing poetry before she began putting her words to music, she filmed a spoken word piece to mark her involvement. That, and the lyrics of her earlier song Super Sad Generation (“When did we get so skinny?/Start doing ketamine on weekends/Getting wasted at the station/And trying to keep our friends from death”) might set her up as a smart, sharp spokesperson on youth issues, but she’s not so sure.
“I wasn’t trying to say that everyone in my generation is miserable,” she explains. “That song is a snapshot, capturing the mood of a particular afternoon, the people around me and their struggles. I didn’t want it to be a negative song. There is a prevalence of mental health problems, but there is also a lot of hope, a lot of ambition, a lot of activism, people taking action to achieve change.”
On the hot day we video call, she’s sunny company, a frequent smile appearing between her cropped hair, a Basquiat T-shirt and a silhouette of Africa dangling on a necklace. She has a Nigerian father and a mother from Chad who grew up in Paris. Arlo Parks is a stage name – she has chosen not to reveal her real name so far. As a schoolgirl she began writing stories, and had a go at a play, a family drama inspired by Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. “Then that morphed into poetry because I was more focused on imagery than plots, I would say.”
At the same time she was exploring a wide range of musical interests. Her father played her jazz. Her uncle gave her his vinyl collection. Her lyrics namecheck Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance and Robert Smith of The Cure. “When I started making my own music I was listening to people like Erykah Badu and Elliott Smith. I think I always gravitated towards slightly more understated voices because it felt like I could really connect with what they were saying. It felt more like a conversation.”
Her musical ambitions are similarly modest in one sense. Asked about the scale of success she is hoping for, she says she always wanted to play at the Hammersmith Apollo because she used to walk past it on the way to school. But back at home, she’s also reminded of a list she wrote early on, and keeps next to her computer, of the reasons she makes music. “It sounds cheesy to say it, but I think my motivation has always been to help others. When I was younger, music really saved me, and felt like a refuge for me when I was in quite a lost space. I just want to talk to people, and I guess in a way, feel understood myself,” she says. “If I ever feel weird, or it feels like a storm, I just look at that list and know exactly who I am again.”
Black Dog is out now on Transgressive