In a collection of essays written during the height of the pandemic, English writer Zadie Smith describes the misery of lockdowns as “very precisely designed, and different for each person.” Often, it is art that rescues us from seclusion and reminds us of our connection to others.
Arlo Parks’ debut album, “Collapsed 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 themes like loneliness, mental health and sexuality, the album is an exercise in vulnerability and introspection. It’s sad, but affirming, like a late night heart-to-heart with a close friend.
“It’s so cruel / What your mind can do for no reason,” she sings on “Black Dog,” a devastatingly poignant song about living with depression.
“Those months (during lockdown) were some of the toughest that a lot of people have ever experienced,” Parks said in an interview with the Star. “It brings me comfort to know that my record was a sort of soothing balm for people.”
Since Parks’ breakout in 2018, the 21-year-old artist has attracted an intensely 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 the best British album.
Now, after months of delays caused by the pandemic, she’s finally embarked on a tour, which includes a stop at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto on Tuesday — her first ever Canadian show.
“There was definitely a sense of frustration,” said Parks. “But the way I chose to look at — because it’s always about perspective — is that when I finally did get to play these songs live, they would have grown deep roots in people’s lives. People would know all the words and it would feel even more special because it was something that we had waited so long for.”
Born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho in West London, Parks grew up surrounded by music — from Prince, to Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, “music kind of infused the household,” she said.
As a teen, after discovering indie bands and hip-hop groups like Odd Future, Parks started playing guitar and writing her own music. At first, her ambitions were limited.
“I was not cool enough to be in any scene,” she said. “I was very much in my own room doing my own thing. Music is a very personal, internal, insular kind of thing. It was something that I did for myself, by myself. The idea of sharing didn’t really occur to me until a bit later.”
Eventually, she began uploading demos to BBC Music Introducing, a platform that supports under-the-radar U.K. talent. This caught the attention of the folks at Beatnik Records, who released her breakout hit “Cola” in 2018.
After releasing two EPs in 2019, Parks teamed up with songwriter and record producer Gianluca Buccellati in early 2020 to record her debut album.
Recorded in various Airbnbs throughout East London at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Collapsed in Sunbeams” is a reflection of Parks’ increasingly eclectic musical taste. Over 40 minutes, the album borrows sounds from indie rock, alternative rock, trip hop and neo-soul.
“There’s definitely some Radiohead and Portishead (on the album). But a lot of the influences for this record came from across the pond,” she said. “D’Angelo and Elliott Smith, Yo La Tengo, Joan Armatrading; I guess I’ve just taken tidbits from everywhere. I try to have … a kaleidoscope, or a collage, of all the things I’m interested in.”
Lyrically, Parks has described the album as “a series of vignettes and intimate portraits surrounding my adolescence and the people that shaped it.”
An avid reader, Parks approaches her songs with a literary sensibility and a focus on storytelling. Specifically, she cites James Baldwin’s classic 1956 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 quite describe it, but there’s a sense of, like, humanity and patience. I feel like he’s very wide-eyed when he writes and there’s this attention to detail.”
Parks taps into the spirit of Baldwin on “Eugene,” a delicately rendered story about the narrator’s unrequited love for a straight girl. “I had a dream, we kissed / And it was all amethyst,” she sings over a bass line that would sound at home on the Radiohead album “In Rainbows.”
On the more upbeat “Hope,” Parks drops the details in favour of a more universal affirmation: “You’re not alone, like you think you are.”
Speaking backstage ahead of a sold-out show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in New York, Arlo Parks sounded exceedingly relaxed. Performing in front of a live audience, she said, “feels like coming home.”
“Every performance has had this sense of safety. People are excited to see me and sing and dance. There’s just, like, a purity to the feeling.”
Parks is tight-lipped about her 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 U.K. music royalty; James Blake, Skepta, Portishead, PJ Harvey and Anohni are among the previous recipients. But that doesn’t seem to faze her.
“I feel like with most prizes and external things, 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 the work; you can only control what you put in. So just continue making music that you’re into.
“That’s all I can do. So I guess that’s what I’ll do.”
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