reDoes anyone really want to be the voice of a generation? It is a question that at age 20 Arlo Parks is dealing with. The singer, songwriter and poet has been called a “movie storyteller,” the “euphonic voice” of Generation Z. “I don’t like that idea,” she says. “I’m just saying what I’m saying and I happen to be 20 years old. Maybe people my age gravitate towards my songs because they can relate to them, but I’m definitely not speaking for anyone.”
However, there is some credibility to the claims – their 2019 debut EP was titled Super Sad Generation. It contained the song Sophie, a mix of nu-jazz and indie pop, which lamented the growing mental health crisis among Gen Z with the lyrics: “I’m just a girl, I choke and slip, I hate that we are all sick.” This year’s sweet and devastating singles Black Dog and Hurt continued the theme.
Like her fellow newcomers Beabadoobee and Benee, Parks’s songs invite you to experience the pointy realities of her life, but unlike them, she opts for music that lies somewhere between Jorja and Elliott Smith. “That raw feeling is what people are gravitating to,” he explains, adding that his influences come from everywhere. “I group songs with the way they make me feel. On the way here I was listening [Aphex Twin’s] Windowlicker, then I wanted to hear Elliott Smith’s Strung Out Again, and then it was some random jazz. “
When I meet her on the south bank of London, before the second lockdown, Parks speaks effusively of Frank Ocean and Sufjan Stevens, as well as their first love: literature. You are reading Joan Didion and you have just finished Nabakov’s Pale Fire; her next album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, takes its name from a line from Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty.
As a shy but happy child growing up in Hammersmith, west London, Parks discovered poetry after a teacher gave her Ariel by Sylvia Plath, and she remembers reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl for the first time. “I realized that what I loved was descriptive writing rather than something with a plot,” she says. “My attention span was quite short and I just wanted to use a lot of beautiful words. When I read a poem like Howl, or Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus, I was touched, I wanted to do that for other people. ” She started making music in her mid-teens when she picked up a guitar and taught herself how to make beats in GarageBand.
But she says she “wanted to tell a story, a concise one,” and as such, unlike most pop lyricists, she doesn’t like to use metaphors, even when singing about mental illness and suicide. In Black Dog, he brings a friend out of despair, suggesting everything from licking the pain from her friend’s lips to a trip to the corner store to buy fruit. “I would do anything to get you out of your room,” he sings. “It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason.”
One fan said the song helped save her marriage, and as a self-proclaimed empath, someone who can acutely sense other people’s feelings, Parks takes the struggles of her listeners seriously. “Sometimes I am drowning. Even if someone messages me about my song, I bear that weight. It’s so hard for me to part … it means I give too much. But it’s instinctive: if someone is going through something difficult, I just need to be there to help them. “
She calls this her super power, even if it leaves her spent. “Sometimes I just give and give to people who don’t always deserve it. But I have learned to listen and approach people without judgment. I’ve had so many conversations with so many different types of people, it has opened my heart, which is helpful when I’m writing songs. “
This ability was something he adopted from his parents, whom he describes as “warm and outgoing people.” His father is from Nigeria, while his mother was born in France. Growing up, she says, “we were always encouraged to talk about our feelings. That sense of transparency, that sense of unconditional acceptance, was instilled in me from a very young age. I am grateful that not everyone has that. There was nothing deemed too small or embarrassing to discuss. “
That openness is manifested in his music. Parks says she always understood that her bisexuality was part of herself. His song Eugene is about falling in love with a heterosexual best friend, but explores the confusion and jealousy of the situation without shame or self-punishment.
When it all gets too much, meditating and journaling help Parks process things, as does her team, full “of women and people of different backgrounds, as that’s what makes me feel burdened.” The diaries also remind you why you write songs. “I found one from when I was 13 and it said, ‘I want to make music because I want to help people,’” he says. “When you approach the world with such vulnerability and openness, people return that energy. It’s exhausting, but it fills me with purpose. I would not change it for anything “.
• Arlo Parks album Collapsed in Sunbeams is released January 29 on Transgressive Records.
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