South London artist Arlo Parks (born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho) first stumbled into poetry when she was 13 years old. An attentive teacher at school noticed her interest and gifted her Ariel, a poetry collection by Sylvia Plath. From there, “I kind of became obsessed with finding new writers,” she tells us.
Seven years later, writing has become fundamental in shaping Park’s growth. Beat poets Diane de Prima and Gary Snyder scored her early years, while modern writers like Nayyirah Waheed and Hanif Abdurraqib continue to inspire her today. And then there are, of course, the books: She cites Plath’s The Bell Jar and Murakami’s Norwegian Wood as two of her most enduring influences. But Parks adds to her repertoire at a rate that rivals an English class curriculum—Dostoevsky, Audre Lorde, Nabokov, and Joan Didion are just a few of the authors she’s read in the last year.
Parks’ self-driven attitude around reading also translated into her relationship with music. The singer-songwriter plays piano, electric guitar, and taught herself to use recording and production software GarageBand around the time she discovered artists like King Krule, Elliott Smith, and the Pixies. Coalescing her love for music and words happened naturally—she’d rummage through old notebooks to inspire melodies—but lately, the music has been coming before the words do. “It’s almost like the songs are flowing out of me somehow, like the songs are being written through me,” she says.
And flow is indeed one of the defining factors of Parks’ debut, Collapsed In Sunbeams. From the gentle spoken word poem on the record’s opening “Collapsed in Sunbeams” to the captivatingly rhythmic “Hope” and touching “Black Dog,” a throughline of vulnerability and reflection runs through every track on the record. Each song is unflinchingly honest and raw, what Parks describes as “an exercise in soul bearing,” while still connecting to the work as a whole.
Inspired by a wide range of artists, Parks brings a holistic approach to her music, each of her influences representing a different part of her work. She takes lyrical inspiration from Phoebe Bridgers and MF DOOM, shoegaze guitar tones from Beach House, and funky drum lines from Portishead and A Tribe Called Quest—all while keeping in mind how electronic music can move people without a single word. “I’ve always been interested in my music being a collage, almost like an amalgamation of all these different fragments that interest me to hopefully create something new,” Parks explains.
Now that Collapsed In Sunbeams is finally out, she hopes simply that listeners will enjoy the record, in whatever ways that means for them. “It can be everything from an album they listen to when they’re going to the supermarket to something that’s somehow saving them or making them feel held or understood,” she says. Above all, Parks hopes the work will be a moment of respite in this time of chaos and uncertainty—a ray of light that helps us find hope in the tumult. “I just hope that it brings something positive to people,” Parks says, pausing for a beat. “I hope that it lifts people up somehow.”
Since poetry and writing have provided a constant source of inspiration in Arlo Parks’ life and music, we used three poems which became songs on the new album as a launchpad to explore how she created the brilliant Collapsed In Sunbeams.
It’s interesting how you make Eugene the subject of the poem, even though he isn’t actually at all.
In that song, I find that Eugene is basically the disrupting force in our friendship, and I wanted to delve deeper into the “agent of destruction,” so to speak. When I was writing this poem, because the song is almost an amalgamation of a lot of different stories, I wanted to explore the idea of bitterness and jealousy in an honest way, and the difference between how I saw him and how the other person saw him. That’s kind of what this song is about really, this person who was causing this shift in our friendship.
Was there symbolism behind the fruits and vegetables that come up a few times throughout the poem?
I’ve always liked to include food in writing. I don’t know why, it just feels like something so grounded and of the earth. In that poem in particular, there’s that sense of this very fresh and natural thing being somehow tainted. It’s split. It’s grated. It’s spoiled. It’s the idea of a relationship souring in some way. I’m really inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell album and, more recently, that song by Adrian Lenker. They both use nature and trees and fruits and vegetables.
I feel like the part starting with “I wear jealousy..” is a turn in the poem, where you’re really being honest about your feelings—was that intentional?
The end of this poem was almost me sitting with myself and writing these lines completely, honestly, and transparently. When we talk about these situations, it’s usually somebody else was in the wrong, or somebody else is somehow spoiling everything. But here I wanted the idea of the speaker being like, I am jealous of you and your happiness. I think there’s a lot of beating around the bush with these kinds of feelings sometimes, that sense of bitterness and yearning and wanting to be someone’s favorite and have all their attention. I think that’s something we’ve all experienced in one way or another.
I think that jealousy is an emotion that we all experience and it can be difficult to write about in that way. I remember when I wrote diaries as a kid and—even though it was a diary and nobody’s gonna read it—I tried to make the rhyming beautiful and not include anything that would paint me as a villain in any way.
To me, the poem feels a little more distant than the song “Black Dog.” Was that an intentional shift?
I think I wrote this poem from a place that felt a little bit more removed. I’d had time to sit with the feeling for a little bit longer, and the song revisited that feeling, but with almost a fine-toothed comb. I think that the song itself as you say—I’m not sure exactly why—but it does feel more soft and desperate in a more quiet way. And when I wrote this poem, I felt more turmoil when it came to that situation. I had a lot more questions about the situation, and the song is more of a quiet reflection on what I saw unfolding, just hoping it would get better.
In a lot of literature and spiritual practices, black dogs typically represent depression. Was that symbolism the inspiration for this piece?
Yeah, I remember hearing that phrase and then reading about Tennessee Williams describing his own anxiety as something like “blue wild cats riding underneath his skin.” I liked the idea of your mind being an animal that you’re not in control of, and how it can lay quiet or spring up and hurt you at any time. That’s where the hook came from, “It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason,” almost imagining the mind as an animal with its own agency when people are going through those difficult times.
What do the elements of color stand for in the piece? Do they play against the more literal imagery of a black dog?
For me, even the idea of the black dog is something devoid of color or life. There’s a sense of absence there. The idea of mentioning a tiny blue flower almost mirrors the line of the jewel of hope—it’s the beginnings of hope, of something changing. Having these little spots of vibrant color remind you that you’re alive and there’s a possibility for joy, I wanted it to feel like a little spot of hope dappling this dark canvas of depression.
Red is also my favorite color. So for me, that represented a little fragment of joy. I’ve always associated red things with life and vibrancy and living completely, almost explosively. That color represents being completely alive to me.
“Collapsed In Sunbeams”
The first phrase, “stretched out open to beauty, brief or violent,” feels like an unexpected way to describe beauty. How did you mean it here?
In that particular instant, I wanted to explore the idea of beauty being ephemeral but never lost forever. Sometimes, we’re all too aware of that and it stops us from enjoying beauty as it is, whether it lasts a few seconds, or a few days, or a few weeks. Whether it’s the beauty of something physical or the beauty of a relationship.Sometimes the fact that we know it’ll end closes us off to wanting to experience it fully. In that line, I wanted it to feel like I was just opening my heart up to good things even if they didn’t last forever.
You describe all these scenarios where you’re sitting with the listener in all these places—what do all these mundane moments mean to you?
I wanted it to be a kaleidoscope of different images. I wanted the person listening to it to feel that I was present with them, to feel that they were experiencing a part of me and my mind. My hopes and dreams and what hurt me. I just wanted it to feel human. I wanted to break down the barriers between the artist and the listener and be like, “This is something that we’re experiencing together.” I’m showing you a piece of me right now.
Turquoise, which symbolizes tranquility and protection, is paired here with this darker “deep blue.” Why did you bring those two colors together?
On the simplest level, I wear this turquoise ring on my hand everywhere I go. [Laughs] As I was writing this, I was actually just sitting in my bedroom and I could see the sky turning from this alpine, powdery light blue and down into dusk through the skylight above me. It reminded me of the passing of time, and the idea that the night can be quite a difficult and existential time to people. But I was also thinking of the fact that morning will come again. We will return to that bright blue; it’s almost a cycle that we have to accept.
What does “collapsed in sunbeams” mean to you?
For me, the phrase feels very bittersweet. It’s the idea of surrendering yourself completely to emotion, whether that’s melancholy or elation. And to me, the sun feels very much like a healing force — when you feel the sun on the back of your neck, everything feels a little bit better. A lot of these stories took place during summer in London, so it kind of mirrored the idea of this album being a process of reckoning with one’s trauma and embracing the nostalgia, the joyful parts of your past.