She calls her generation “super sad”, but we are super happy with Arlo Parks, a nineteen-year-old singer from London whose coming-of-age bedroom pop is as addictive as a can of Coke.
- Born in 2000. Grew up in West London
- Is half Nigerian, quarter Chadian and quarter French. Learnt to speak French before learning English
- Started writing poems at eleven years old. Picked up the guitar when she was thirteen
- Quickly exchanged the emo punk of My Chemical Romance for music by Fela Kuti and Portishead
- Debuted in 2018 with the song “Cola”
- Released the EPs Super Sad Generation and Sophie in 2019
- Is working on her album debut, which should be released later this year
In 2012, Lana Del Rey sang about how her pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola, her eyes “wide like cherry pies”. Her song “Cola” was all lust and desire. Eight years and a #MeToo revolution later, Arlo Parks tells a very different story under the same title: “Leave me to my own devices, it's better when your Coca-Cola eyes are out of my face,” she bites back. Cutting songs that sound sweet hit the hardest.
At the end of 2018, Arlo Parks catapulted herself to being the next big thing with “Cola”. Or at least to us she did, because even though the BBC listed the nineteen-year-old in its Sound of 2020, we don't see her fighting for world domination. Her confessional brand of pop vacillates too much between indie rock, R&B, and jazz for that.
“I don't like being pigeonholed,” the singer tells us on the telephone from her apartment in South West London, where she has just woken up. “The kind of music that I make? It's a fluid thing. I would say I just make emotional music. Obviously that isn't very helpful.” (Laughs)
Being unique can never hurt. I only know one other Arlo, for example, and that is the folk singer Arlo Guthrie.
ARLO PARKS: I've only been made aware of him recently, people keep on bringing up his name.
He is the son of the late Woody Guthrie, the great hero of Bob Dylan, who visited him on his deathbed. Do you have any heroes?
PARKS: I have several. (Laughs) Sylvia Plath, Nayyirah Waheed, Allen Ginsberg...and especially Jean-Michel Basquiat. I discovered his art through a friend, who told me about the New York graffiti scene in the 1980s. I went to an exhibition of his work at one of the local galleries in London and I started reading about his life. I found it very inspiring. Saddening as well. I love how free he was in the way he expressed himself.
A musical “hero” of mine is Vashti Bunyan. I find her music so airy and abstract. I like artists who are slightly odd, people with a unique sonic identity. Like King Krule. Or MF Doom. Hip hop that is left of centre. MF Doom's wordplay and lyricism are unparalleled.
Where did you discover that music?
PARKS: On YouTube. And of course I learned a lot from my parents. When I was very young, my dad was really into jazz. He listened to Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. My mum liked Prince, and French artists like Charles Aznavour and Jacques Brel. She was born in Paris, and we still speak French to each other.
Brel was Belgian, by the way.
PARKS: O, my goodness! Sorry.
I forgive you. Just like Jacques Brel, you often use names in your songs. You have tracks called “George” and “Eugene”. Your last EP is even dedicated to a certain Sophie.
PARKS: Naming songs and projects after people helps to paint the picture and it makes them more personal. I do have a friend called Sophie. But the Sophie I sing about represents all the troubled and confused individuals of my generation. People who suffer under immense pressure and take medication because they don't feel good.
You called your first EP Super Sad Generation. What triggered that title?
PARKS: One summer night I was hanging out with my friends. At one point, we were all talking about all the troubles that we'd been through. It seemed that there was a lot of sadness surrounding me. I wrote the poem that inspired that song afterwards on the bus. It was very much a reflection of that moment.
And now you're called the voice of a generation.
PARKS: Yeah! (Laughs) Of course there are so many different and unique individuals within my generation. I can't possibly speak for all of them. As an observer, I just comment on what I see happening to the people around me. It's not that everybody is super sad all the time.
“I hate that we're all sick,” you say nonetheless.
PARKS: Again, it's a reflection of the people around me. I got to a point where a lot of my friends seemed to be suffering from mental health problems. I was feeling very frustrated.
In the song “Sophie”, you sing: “I feel like the world is on my back.” That's, um, heavy.
PARKS: The expectations that people have of young people nowadays can feel like heavy burdens. It's not only society, it's also the parents who want their children to succeed and be happy, even if that may not be in line with what the kid wants to do.
Despite the chaos and confusion, I find that your generation thinks about things in new ways.
PARKS: Yes, a lot of topics are spoken about more, and maybe we tend to go into things more deeply. People share a lot of stuff about themselves. That's a double-edged sword, often we over-share. But I feel our eyes have to be open in order to make big changes happen.
Young people are taking to the streets nowadays. That seems like a good first step to open people's eyes.
PARKS: Yes. It's really heartwarming to see everyone trying to actively instigate change.
You are also very open about being bisexual.
PARKS: I didn't want to define me, it's just a part of who I am. And by speaking out, I hope I can help other people to do so too. That's what is so beautiful about being an artist, you have the power to change individual worlds. People will tell me that they listen to some of my songs, and it really moved them and pulled them out of dark places.
You were included in the longlist of the BBC Sound of 2020. Do you think you are the sound of 2020?
PARKS: Yes, please! (Laughs)