In a collection of essays written during the peak of the pandemic, the English author zadie smith describes the misery of the lockdown as “very precisely designed, and different for each individual”. Often, it is art that saves us from solitude and reminds us of our connection to others.
Arlo Parks’ debut album, “Collapped in Sunbeams”—which takes its title from a line in a 2005 novel by Smith—does just that. Released in January, it is a perfect companion for these challenging times. Navigating weighty topics like loneliness, mental health and sexuality, the album is an exercise in vulnerability and introspection. It’s sad, but confirming, like a late night heart to heart with a close friend.
“It’s so cruel / What can your mind do for no reason,” she sings on “Black Dog,” a devastatingly poignant song about living with depression.
“Those months (during the lockdown) were the hardest that a lot of people have experienced,” Parks said in an interview with the Star. “It comforts me to know that my record was a kind of soothing balm to people.”
Since Parks’ breakout in 2018, the 21-year-old artist has attracted an extremely loyal fan base and has become one of the defining voices in contemporary indie pop. Earlier this month “Collapsed in Sunbeams” was awarded the 2021 Mercury Prize for Best British Album.
Now, after months of delays due to the pandemic, she has finally embarked on a tour that includes a stop at the Queen Elizabeth Theater in Toronto on Tuesday – her first Canadian show.
“There was definitely a sense of despair,” Parks said. “But the way I chose to look — because it’s always about perspective — is that when I finally got the chance to play these songs live, they would take deep root in people’s lives. People would know all the words and It will feel even more special because it was something we have waited for so long.”
West London-born Anas Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho was surrounded by park music—from Prince to Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, “The music influenced the house,” she said.
As a teenager, after discovering indie bands and hip-hop groups such as Odd Future, Parks began playing guitar and writing his own music. At first, his ambitions were limited.
“I wasn’t cool enough to be in any scene,” she said. “I was doing a lot of my work in my own room. Music is a very personal, internal, insular kind of thing. It was something I did for myself, for myself. The idea of sharing didn’t really pop into my mind until a while later.”
Eventually, she began uploading demos to BBC Music Introducing, a platform that supports under-the-radar UK talent. This Beatnik Records caught public attention, who released his breakout hit “Cola” in 2018.
After releasing two EPs in 2019, Parks teamed up with songwriter and record producer Gianluca Bucellati to record her debut album in early 2020.
Recorded at various Airbnbs across east London at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Collapsed in the Sunbeam” is a reflection of the parks’ increasingly eclectic musical tastes. Over 40 minutes, the album borrows sound from indie rock, alternative rock, trip hop and neo-soul.
“There are definitely some Radiohead and Portishead (on the album). But a lot of the influence for this record came from across the pond,” she said. “D’Angelo and Elliot Smith, Yo La Tango, Joan Armtrading; I think I just took information from everywhere. I try to have a kaleidoscope, or a collage, of everything that interests me.”
linearly, parks album is described as “a series of vignettes and intimate pictures surrounding my teen years and the people who shaped it.”
An avid reader, Parks gives her lyrics a literary sensibility and a focus on storytelling. In particular, she cites James Baldwin’s 1956 classic novel “Giovanni’s Room”—a landmark exploration of queer sexuality—as an inspiration for her debut album.
“There’s something about the way[Baldwin]writes, I can’t even describe it, but there’s a sense of humanity and patience in it. I feel like when he writes his eyes are so wide and It takes attention to detail.”
Parks taps into Baldwin’s spirit on “Eugene,” a delicately presented story about a narrator’s unrequited love for a straight girl. “I had a dream, we kissed / And it was all sapphires,” she sings on a bass line that would be heard at home on the Radiohead album “In Rainbows.”
On the more upbeat “Hope,” Park drops the description in favor of a more universal affirmation: “You’re not alone, just as you think you are.”
Speaking backstage before a sold-out show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in New York, Arlo Parks sounded very relaxed. While performing in front of a live audience, he said, “Ghar aane ka manna raha hai.”
“There is a sense of security in every performance. People are excited to see me and sing and dance. There is like a sanctity to the feeling.”
Parks has remained silent about his plans for the future. “I usually try to keep it a secret,” she said. “For the next two years, I’m just touring and writing, and reading my books.”
As a Mercury Prize winner, Parks joins the ranks of UK music royalty; James Blake, Skepta, Portishead, PJ Harvey and Anoni are among the past recipients. But it doesn’t distract him.
“I think as with most awards and outliers, I see them as wonderful and special, but I try not to think about them too much,” she said. “You can never control what people are going to get out of work; you can only control what you put in. So just keep making the music you’re into.
“That’s all I can do. So I guess that’s what I’ll do.”