The 20-year-old poet and singer Arlo Parks started releasing music as a teenager, courting blog interviews in between her final exams. Parks, who was raised in London by Nigerian and Chadian-French parents (her full name is Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho), went on to release a pair of acclaimed EPs, Super Sad Generation and Sophie, in 2019; just before the pandemic hit, she was set to go on her first tour. Instead, she’s been stuck at home, waiting out this nightmare like the rest of us. “It’s given me some time to reflect and get used to spending more time with myself,” she says.
Parks used the time to complete her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. Released in January, it’s a lush and expansive project with a patient vulnerability at its core. “I wanted to really delve into the idea of reckoning with difficult things in one’s past — and celebrating the joyful things, and honoring the stories that have made me who I am,” Parks says. “I took all of my journals that I’ve written over the years and all my folders of poems and worked from those.”
Throughout the record, Parks achieves an emotional resonance that’s unflinchingly sincere. Her narrative vignettes sketch out struggles that ring universal: On “Hope,” we’re introduced to a character named Millie, who, Parks sings gently, has “tried to talk the pleasure back into being alive.” It’s an anthemic tune about battling depression, told with compassion and care. “You’re not alone like you think you are,” the chorus goes. Parks is attentive with language, and her songs about love, regret, and pain flutter like memories stamped into your mind.
“When I first started writing in the beginning, it was very much surrounding the idea of escape and of fantasy, then when I got a little bit older it very much became a way of looking inward. So I was only really writing about my feelings,” she explains. “And then I got to this balance, where I’m speaking about stories of people around me. I am looking at it in the way of a student — my subjective lens.”
The open discussion of mental health is something of a hallmark of Gen Z, often seen as being more emotionally in tune than previous generations, thanks in part to the internet. Still, Parks handles emotion particularly deftly — never overbearing, or even necessarily overt. She has the presence of a storied musician, though she’s only been performing a few years. Her music already speaks across generations.
“I feel like people who are older have lived longer and it’s harder to impress them,” she says. “So I always feel super flattered when I see an older couple at my show. I’m like, okay, I must be doing something special.”
Parks’ songs often feature playfully deployed cultural references that manage to capture one of the best parts of being young — when the archive of the world begins to reveal itself to you. On “Black Dog,” she opens with a couplet: “I’d lick the grief right off your lips/You do your eyes like Robert Smith.” On “Hurt,” we meet Charlie, who “melts into his mattress watching Twin Peaks.”
That relationship to the wide world of pop culture is part of her stage name, too. “I really wanted to have a name that was double-barreled,” she explains. “I think at the time I was listening to a lot of Odd Future — like Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean — and I wanted my name to have a ring to it.”
At the park one day last summer, it came to her. Exams had just finished, and she found herself in a moment of peace: “My friend just turned to me because she could see me stressing and was like, ‘Relax, we’re in the park. We’re safe.’”