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Arlo Parks' Super Sad Generation

Alex Thompson and musician Arlo Parks talk internet influence, blurring genres and the role of poetry in music

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Image Credit: Transgressive Records & All Stripes PR

I first discovered Arlo Parks with the release of ‘Cola’ in 2018. It was a woozy and well produced single that combined hip-hop influences with an indie aesthetic akin to Tom Misch and the melancholy pop of artists like Billie Eilish and Lorde. Her soulful vocals, bittersweet emo-tinged lyrics and dense instrumentals made it an instant favourite and I’m not alone in thinking that. The heady, bedroom pop single gained traction with music publications like DIY magazine, VICE and BBC Introducing as well as Lily Allen who made it one of her top five singles on Apple Music that year.

Shortly after dropping her first single she signed to Transgressive Records (Foals, Flume, Let’s Eat Grandma) and began to drop a series of singles building up to her major label debut EP which releases at the end of the month. Pretty impressive considering she’s only 19. Parks’ lyrics chart the disenfranchised youth of the UK, touching on drink, drugs and party culture with a keen attention to detail that explores Gen Z issues with storytelling narratives quite unlike anyone else. The closest comparison is probably to someone like Mike Skinner; confessional songwriting being used as a tool to explore the life of a generation hooked on drugs, booze and life.

I kept up with releases as she dropped single after single of RnB-tinged pop bliss such as the gentle refrains of ‘George’ and the bitter melancholy of ‘Super Sad Generation.’ Then, without really knowing, I walked into one of her gigs and was blown away. Supporting Loyle Carner on the European leg of his Not Waving But Drowning Tour ( see the Music section for a full review), Arlo Parks and her band delivered an incredibly tight and energetic set that perfectly translated her recorded sound into a live setting, with jangling guitars and a driving rhythm section. Her voice sounded just as crisp and heady as it does on her singles. As a support act for Loyle Carner, you’ve got to be a cut above your average opening act and Parks delivered, having the crowd cheer and scream for every song.

Early last week, I sat down with Arlo Parks to talk influences, creativity and her rapidly growing popularity. Because this is MUSE, we had to start off by asking her about Loyle Carner. “We met at a festival,” Parks explained “I was extremely awkward about it but he was lovely.” The South London artist has often cited Carner as an inspiration of hers and ended her Leeds set by revealing how her first gig was seeing Loyle Carner at a London venue in early 2017. Now she’s on an extensive UK tour with him. “It’s pretty damn mind blowing to be honest,” she continues, “I still haven’t really processed it yet.”

She’s achieved an awful lot for a young artist so I move the discussion on to what advice she’d give to students wanting to get into music or creative fields “Stop thinking about doing it do it,” she implores, “be patient, practice and embrace your idiosyncrasies.”

We then move on to talking about her wide ranging and diverse influences, drawing from
seemingly endless numbers of artists, poets, rappers and musicians. “St Vincent, Nile Rogers, Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, Fela Kuti and Vashti Bunyan” are the first that spring to her mind and there’s definite echoes of their music in her work. The vibrant pop energy of St Vincent is very apparent, as is the funky groove of Nile Rogers and jazz tinged afro-beat of Fela Kuti. Roger Waters is certainly a curveball but the psychedelic swoon of Parks’ instrumentals carries a prog-rock influenced free-form nature.

Her influences aren’t just confined to music either. “Poetry is my primary influence I would say,” says the musician, “I’m also influenced by film, fine art and architecture.” Poetry is a key influence in her work; she composes poems after every single gig for her Instagram. She also began making music by performing spoken word poetry over instrumentals before she moved towards singing and rapping. I ask her if she sees her poetry and lyrics as disciplines which are connected. “They are very much intertwined,” she explains, going on to say that “poetry always comes first when I’m making music.”

This varied and eclectic influence manifests itself in a style that seems to be defined by its fluidity. When asked about how she sees her style, Parks tells us that she “would describe it as sonically fluid but always with an intense, visual quality to it.” I ask her if she’s ever thought of experimenting with any new genres, if we’ll ever see an Arlo Parks album in a completely different style. “I’d love to do a psych-rock tune or maybe get into some freakfolk” she jokes. When I comment on her evolving style she suggests that she’s “grown up a lot, read more and lived more so [her] writing has matured.”

Aged 19, Parks has evolved much faster than a lot of other musicians as her popularity skyrocketed over the past year. She’s gone from bedroom production to venue filling while her songs continue to climb in streams (‘Cola’ sits at almost three million listens on Spotify). When I enquire about the biggest milestone of her career she tells me that without a doubt it was playing Glastonbury. One of the most exciting acts to grace the BBC Introducing stage this year (along with our friends over at Fudge.) Arlo Parks delivered a whirlwind set of her biggest hits performed with vibrance and soul.

Parks certainly seems to be part of this new wave of musicians who grew up in the internet age and as a result have taken in a wider variety of culture and, in particular, music that wouldn't have been possible for previous generations of song - writers. Whether it’s rappers like members of Odd Future, pop stars like Charli XCX, meme rappers like Lil Nas X or weirder shit like the experimental hip-hop of JPEGMAFIA, it’s something that has made its way into all genres. When I brought this up Parks explained that the internet “definitely helped,” suggesting that she “was exposed to so many different styles and themes.” “I’m grateful for the internet on that front,” she continues.

On a topic close to my heart, I ask the musician about her sexuality and if she feels that coming out has influenced her music. “It’s simply part of who I am rather than a focus of my work” she replies. Growing up in South London, she also suggests that London as an environment has done a lot to help foster her music. “Everything important that’s ever happened to me happened in London,” Parks tells me. “It’s definitely given me a lot to write about.” London can often be tough for artists as there is so much variety that it’s easy to get lost in the mix but Arlo Parks’ strongest suit is that she cannot be pinned down to a single genre. “I was never part of a particular scene or subculture,” she explains “I’ve always operated in a little bubble.”

Part of Parks’ appeal is her grungy songwriting style, touching on themes of drug abuse, mental health and other issues that our generation seems to struggle with.  Her most streamed single ‘Super Sad Generation’ is perhaps the best encapsulation of this a teen narrative turned inside out detailing kids dropping acid in the back of an Uber, ketamine culture and depression. It’s very heavy subject matter but endlessly re-listenable. I had to ask her about what inspired the song, and about how she would describe our generation. “I would describe it as a generation that’s super sad" she jokes. Very helpful.

Arlo Parks’ debut EP releases on Transgressive Records 29 November. You can see her on her UK/ EU tour in Spring 2020 including a date in Leeds (6 March.)

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