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Arlo Parks lets the world in on her ‘joy and pain and confusion’

The acclaimed singer-songwriter talks about opening up for her second album, 'My Soft Machine', due out in May

By Brittany Spanos

Arlo Parks. CREDIT: Alexandra Waespi

When Arlo Parks set out to make her second album, she wanted to make sure everyone knew that she was singing about her lived experiences, and no one else’s.

“The first record was attributing a lot of things to characters and to people in my life,” says the British musician, 22, who has won widespread acclaim for her novelistic songwriting, with characters who burst into vivid life in each verse. “I wanted to be brave in the sense of being very clear that I was talking about the world through my eyes and my heart — [with] the sense of joy and pain and confusion and real kind of melting pot of emotion coming from me.”

Parks first began writing her new album, titled My Soft Machine and out May 26, before she released her Mercury Prize-winning debut, 2021’s Collapsed in Sunbeams. Recording the new LP took her 18 months, with “sporadic bursts in the studio” in between her opening slots on Clairo’s, Harry Styles’, and Billie Eilish’s tours as well as her own headlining trek. Along the way, she worked with a “kaleidoscope of collaborators,” including Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Haim), Buddy Ross (Frank Ocean), and Brockhampton’s Romil Hemnani. 

“Because I made the first record in the pandemic, I was really craving that sense of being able to jam and be free with many people in the room,” she says.

The experiences that color this album are a true whirlwind: The past two years have often felt like one big, ongoing party in Parks’ honor. Sunbeams skyrocketed her life to a new stratosphere, instantly making her one of the most lauded songwriters in the world. Along with her Mercury Prize win, Parks also nabbed big nominations at the Grammys and Brits (she took home Best New Artist at the latter). Her touring schedule took her across the world, along with some major milestones closer to home, like the night she opened for Eilish at the O2 Arena in her hometown of London, or the time she played to a Dublin stadium full of Styles fans.

“I forgot I did all those things,” Parks says when she’s reminded of these achievements. “My favorite thing about it was being able to just celebrate with people, like other musicians and fans. Actually being able to play shows when the songs had grown roots in people’s lives over what had been some of the toughest two years a lot of us had experienced, there was a sense of finally being in community.”

While she describes the last two years as “super joyful” on the whole, she adds that the amount of travel and sharing of herself has been taxing at times. In September 2022, soon after completing My Soft Machine as well as a string of festival sets, she canceled some U.S. tour dates, citing mental health concerns. Issuing a statement that said she was in “a very dark place, exhausted and dangerously low,” she flew back to London to rest for a bit.

“I think there was a point where I felt that I had given so much to the work that there wasn’t that much left over for me as a person,” she says now. She had played 125 shows over the previous year with little time off. “Your body and your heart tells you that there’s a need for balance, and that you’ve been kind of going too far in one direction. I felt that super profoundly. And everyone in my team and around me was just super accommodating to me to take that space and just, like, go into hibernation mode and spend time with loved ones.”

Nowadays, Parks calls Los Angeles home. She’s proud of the community she’s been able to build there and grateful for the chance to live near both the desert and the ocean. It also keeps her close to her girlfriend, rising pop act Ashnikko. The pair celebrated their one-year anniversary in December and have begun sharing swoonworthy tidbits of their otherwise-private life together on social media for their fans to see. 

“We’ve spoken about how much we want to share,” Parks says. “I feel like what keeps it so sacred and lovely is that it is just between us. But there are a fair few songs about her on the record.”

What Parks will share is how lucky she feels to have found a romantic partnership with someone who has been experiencing the rush of sudden stardom at the same time that she has. “It’s wonderful to be understood,” she says. “What we do is so particular. Moving through the world with somebody who understands that in a way that extends beyond empathy — who’s living it in their own way — is beautiful.”

Parks opens her new album with the single ‘Weightless,’ a lush and dreamy ode to romantic longing. (Last year’s ‘Softly’”’ was merely a one-off that felt right to release in the moment, she says; it won’t appear on My Soft Machine.) She ticks off a number of influences that brought the song together, including LCD Soundsystem, U.K. electronic musician Loraine James, and rapper John Glacier, all of whom inspired her to make something more “muscular and synth-driven.” Parks wanted to surprise people, and she cites a Missy Elliott interview in which the rapper discussed her own second album and the desire to show people what she was capable of. “This track felt very emphatic,” Parks says. “There was still a kind of fragility to it when it came to the lyrics. It felt like it would represent the world of the record well.”

She is a deeply curious student of art and culture,  as anyone who took note of the lengthy and wide-ranging list of influences and references that she unspooled on her debut album and pair of 2019 EPs knows. “I’m always sponging up whatever I can,” she says. The new album was inspired by everything from art-world photographers Harley Weir, Tyler Mitchell, and Wolfgang Tillmans to the film 35 Shots of Rum by French director Claire Denis. “I was watching a film a day for months to build out the visual world,” she says. 

The album’s title comes from a line in 2019’s The Souvenir, an acclaimed indie feature about film students in 1980s London, in which the characters talk about why they make movies: “We don’t wanna just see life played out as is. We wanna see life as it is experienced, within this soft machine.” It’s an idea that resonated with Parks, who’s thought a lot about what it means to write songs about subjective feelings. For her, this soft machine is her own body, eyes, and heart.

In her life outside of music, she hopes to continue learning; lately, she has been working on her DJ skills and gardening. She recently took a foraging walk with Ashnikko that left her hungry to learn more. Since attending the British Fashion Council awards ceremony, she has gotten the itch to learn how to make clothes one day, inspired by all the independent designers who were honored that night. 

By exploring her wider prism of interests, Parks says, she’s has gotten closer to herself. The cultural touchstones and hobbies she’s surrounded herself with allow her a wider avenue to access the transparency that she admires in artists like Elliott Smith and her friends Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo. The bravery she sought and found came from getting in touch with that and, like Missy Elliott, refusing to hold back. She let herself be wholly soft and free.

“That’s something that I always kept coming back to: How can I be as unflinching as possible?” she says. “The artists that I love are like that.”

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