Music

British singer-songwriter Arlo Parks basks in beauty — and pain

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Don't take it personally if singer-songwriter Arlo Parks excuses herself from a party, industry function, or awards show, because the chances are it's just because she's moved to write something down on a bar napkin or dictate a string of words into her phone's voice memo app from the echoey confines of the loo or from a breezy rooftop terrace. As she says, "the lightning bolt can strike at any time."

That string of words that she abandoned you in mid-conversation to write and remember could become a song on an album that could earn her a prestigious accolade like that of the Mercury Prize, which honors the best album released in the UK and is what the 21-year-old west Londoner took home earlier this month for her stunning debut record Collapsed in Sunbeams.

But more than an award, that sentence-turned-song-turned-album could reach out from its vinyl casing or streaming device to hold you, not unlike Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Williams' therapeutic mantra of "It's not your fault," mirrors Parks' comforting refrain, "You won't hurt so much, so much forever." And she's mostly right. It won't hurt so much, forever.

Parks, who grew up down the road from the Eventim Apollo, where the Mercury Prize festivities are held each year, recalls riding her bike past the venue to see which big names were playing. This month, the marquee read: "Congratulations, Arlo Parks," something the poet describes as being a full-circle moment.

"I used to cycle past that venue every year on the way to school," she says. "There's a church nearby where I would do, you know, like some Christmas carol services ... To be honest, it still hasn't quite sunk in. My parents were in the crowd and when they started describing the winner, my ears kind of perked up. My table, my label, everyone was like, freaking out. But I just felt like I was floating."

Following remarks by Irish DJ and television host Annie McManus, who referred to Parks as an artist with a "singular voice" who pens lyrics of "remarkable beauty to confront complex themes of mental health and sexuality" and who demonstrates a quiet strength "in a world of extrovert noise," Parks delivered a short speech where she thanked her parents and touched on the uncertain journey of writing lyrics in her childhood bedroom to accepting an award previously given to artists like PJ Harvey, Portishead, Pulp, and Antony and the Johnsons.

That sentiment of making it through is one that is true to all that the heart-opening, neo-soul-steeped, proper noun-heavy Collapsed in Sunbeams embodies, which includes, but is not limited to: kissing to Thom Yorke lyrics; trying to help someone who doesn't want the help; loving someone who doesn't want to love; self-sabotage; Robert Smith's eyes; the joy of pancakes; crying over Taco Bell; falling half in love; Sylvia Plath; the combination of apricots and blunts; comparing scars; shitty parents; needing space; the healing power of moonstones; dodging gravestones; setting boundaries; and not being afraid to cry in front of someone.

A confident record written mostly in isolation and described by Pitchfork as blurring into "a pleasant sort of monotony," Collapsed in Sunbeams is both universal and achingly specific. It often feels as though Parks is writing an "r u ok?" text to her entire generation, the same generation whose second leading cause of death is suicide and shows a higher rate of depression than others.

On "Black Dog," a song named by NME as 2020's "most devastating song," Parks wishes to "lick the grief" from her lover's lips. "Just take your medicine and eat some food/ I would do anything to get you out of your room." On "Hope," Parks insists "we all have scars, I know it's hard/ You're not alone, you're not alone like you think you are." On the album's penultimate track "Bluish," she pleads her case for needing space. "It's not easy when you call me in the dead of the night/ When I say I need space/ I shouldn't have to ask you twice."

Parks, who, unsurprisingly worships at the altar of poets like Patti Smith and the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, artfully balances confronting mental health head on while also reassuring her listeners that, when they're ready, there is a tunnel and there is a light at the end of it, and you can bask in its warmth. That might be why she was named CALM's 2020 mental health ambassador, a role that has undoubtedly solidified the singer as someone the collective we feel we can turn to.

"Well, it's happened to me quite a lot, actually," Parks says of fans turning to her for guidance. "Especially when it comes to playing shows and being physically with people. And I think it's about setting this balance between acknowledging that, like, being able to save somebody or lift someone up from a dark space in your music is a beautiful thing. And also trying not to shoulder your responsibility for others' well being completely on yourself."

She adds, "For me, it's just been about setting boundaries. It's been about having conversations when I feel emotionally capable of doing so. I'm just surrounding myself with people who I can speak to about things if it ever does get too much and just having a support system and being able to say no when things are too much."

There is a direct line between how Parks sees the world and the moment she realized poetry was the vehicle she would choose to express herself and touch others. Parks can't remember the exact time this occurred, but she estimates it was around 12 or 13 years old after an English teacher gave her a Plath anthology, which she admits is pretty heavy to have digested at that young of an age.

"I think what I loved about [Sylvia] was the fact that she had such a singular voice," she says. "And I realized that what I loved was energy. I didn't necessarily have an interest in writing a plot or following a thread in that way. I just loved words, and like, how you could be moved by a single sentence when it came to poetry. So then I was exploring William Buroughs and Diane di Prima and the Beats and then it just kind of evolved to now, I guess. I realized that poetry didn't have to be something rigid. It can be pretty much anything."

Parks grew up on American tunes, specifically the sounds of Motown, which produced poetry in its own right. She remembers Motown music pulsing through her home as a child, her dad a fan of the Temptations and Marvin Gaye, while her mom was a devotee of the great Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder.

"I feel like for me, it became this familiar sound like there was a sense of real warmth to it," Parks says of Motown. "So when I was working on the record, I would often go back to some of these albums, and it would make me feel kind of comfortable and secure, like I was back home. And I think that allowed me to go to deeper places within the record."

Save for a trip to L.A. and what she thinks may have been a trip to Miami or "Disneyworld or Disneyland" when she was 5, Parks will be bringing Collapsed in Sunbeams to the U.S. for her first proper tour of the country and the first step in many on her way to doing all the things, being all the things, not unlike dust that hangs in the air, dancing in, well, sunbeams, all while pumping as much soul-soothing beauty into the world as possible. You know, like a typical 21-year-old, which Parks proves does not exist.

Of her future plans, Parks says she expects to do a bit of everything. "I've been working on a lot by myself, but when it comes to the far future I kind of love the idea of being a bit of a polymath and taking time to write a book or like, be in a film, or write a screenplay," she says. "You know what I mean? Like Donald Glover vibes. That's kind of what I want to do. But yeah, I'm trying to take each day as it comes. So far it's definitely been a whirlwind."

Arlo Parks will perform at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sep. 29 at El Club; 4114 Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-757-7942; elclubdetroit.com. Tickets are $22.

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