Arlo Parks talks affinity for words, inspiration at inconvenient times

Photo of Arlo Parks
Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff

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“So many of my notebooks are basically lists of words that I just like,” said Arlo Parks in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I can’t really explain it, I just like words.”

When she was younger, Parks would flip through dictionaries and write down words that caught her attention; now, she embraces them all like old friends. Parks’ current favorite word is “luminous,” though she doesn’t quite know why she’s drawn to it. Apropos, there’s something luminous about the warm, rich color that soaks the British singer-songwriter’s lyricism — the way she notes flushed strawberry cheeks, sunspots within green eyes, an amethyst kiss from a dream.

Her most recent single “Softly” taps into this soft incandescence, wistfully illuminating the delicacy of a dying relationship. The song came to Parks and producer Paul Epworth during a spontaneous studio session in North London; spontaneity, Parks noted, often yields the best creative outcomes.

“It’s a very unconscious process. I feel very much like a lightning bolt strikes, and I’m just kind of a vessel,” Parks described.

But Parks can’t help when lightning strikes. From receipt scribbles on the back of a friend’s bicycle to voice memo recordings just before going on stage, ideas often flutter into her mind at the most inconvenient times.

“I will forget a melody as soon as I think of it,” Parks said. “I’m always in the airplane bathroom, like, trying to record a voice note over the sound of the engine.”

When she’s not frantically penning lyrics on the go, Parks is making patient observations. For the 21-year-old artist, any quotidian moment has the potential to sprout into poetry, evoke cinema or form the basis of a new song. While Parks’ personal experiences ground many of her songs, sometimes details about anonymous passersby spark her creativity.

One song — “It hasn’t come out yet, maybe it never will,” Parks mused — was inspired by a woman seated outside a coffee shop. Staring into space, the woman appeared entirely composed, except for the shaking hand holding her teacup.

“Immediately I was thinking, ‘What’s going through her head? What kind of news has she just received? Like, what is her story?’ ” Parks pondered. “Those small, almost betrayals of someone’s inner landscape are what intrigue me the most.”

Parks traverses these inner landscapes with exquisite dexterity and sensitivity. The young artist wrote nearly all of her debut record from an apartment in Hackney, letting openness guide her. Although Parks feels her musical process will remain the same, she recognizes that honing her craft requires experimentation and risk-taking.

“​​I always want to feel like I’m pushing the boat out a tiny bit and just at the edge of my comfort zone when I make things,” Parks remarked.

Parks feels she’s still learning to push the boat out, but she’s already plunging below surface waters. On Collapsed in Sunbeams, she explores the depths of the human experience, focusing on the intricacies of relationships and the importance of mental health. Tenderly poeticizing devastation and love with astonishing solace, the record melts like daybreak into the horizon.

Yet as Parks looks to the horizon, she must also navigate turbulent waters as she adjusts to finally being on the road. From recording her album in lockdown to touring this year with Clairo, Billie Eilish, Harry Styles and Florence + The Machine, Parks now finds herself in ceaseless flux.

“On stage, you share your songs and your energy, but you also are giving up stability and being around your friends and your family,” she explained. “It’s definitely hard work, but it’s something that I really enjoy.”

As she travels, Parks makes time to practice self-care — she scouts out coffee shops, writes postcards to loved ones, goes on long runs to clear her mind, listens to podcasts, discovers NTS Radio artist mixtapes and puts together playlists. (The last playlist she compiled, themed around peaceful music for painting, was for her girlfriend’s mom.)

“Listening to music, and making music has definitely made me more connected to myself and to the people around me,” Parks said. “Music really encourages vulnerability and encourages community.”

Live music, in particular, knits communities together through instant intimacy — Parks’ performances foster this glorious magic, glowing with comfort. Aptly, her tour posters diffuse similar warmth, depicting Parks atop sunflower centers and serenely looking to the sun. Parks doesn’t simply harness a sunflower’s golden sanguinity; she embodies it.

“They have this almost defiant optimism, turning towards the sun and moving with it,” Parks said. “Just holding on to hope.”

Parks will open for Clairo on March 30 at The Masonic and March 31 at Fox Theater.

Taila Lee is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @tailalee.