With her introspective lyricism and calming instrumentals, Arlo Parks has become one of music’s fastest-rising stars. Months after releasing her debut album, “Collapsed in Sunbeams,” in January, Parks collected the Brit Awards’ breakthrough artist honor and the Mercury Prize for album of the year. Now the 21-year-old musician and poet is up for best new artist and alternative album at the Grammys. Parks spoke with Variety about her Grammy nods, blurring the boundaries of genre and being a Gen Z singer-songwriter.
You’re nominated for best new artist and best alternative album at the Grammys. Take us back to the moment when you heard the news. What was your reaction?
I was in Cologne on tour, and I actually found out from my guitarist because it was the one day I’d left my phone at the hotel. I was just wandering around aimlessly and didn’t have any clue what was going on, and then he let me know and I felt so overcome. I think when you have moments like that it’s hard to put them into words, but it just felt like everything that I was doing and working toward had been validated in some way. I just felt very proud of myself and of the team around me.
What does it mean to you to be nominated in those specific categories?
I’ve always wanted to create music that exists outside of genre, or the more traditional genre structures. And to be alongside artists like St. Vincent, who I’ve listened to for six, seven years now — it just kind of reinforced the vision I had when I started, about making music that felt like a kaleidoscope of different influences. Alternative is that kind of blurred lines one, which I really like. And best new artist, being seen as the future in some way — especially as a British, independent artist — is really special.
Tell us a bit about your musical background. What are some early influences or favorite artists?
I grew up listening to a lot of jazz. My dad was a big fan of people like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Aretha Franklin. My mom listened to a lot of Prince and a lot of ’80s french pop, a lot of Diana Ross. Then by myself, I discovered indie music like the Pixies and the Cocteau Twins and Arctic Monkeys, and just found so much satisfaction of finding artists that I felt I could claim as my own.
What was the moment that kickstarted your career?
I had just finished school and signed a record deal with Transgressive. That made me feel that there was this body of people that really believed in me, beyond just words — it felt like a real commitment from them. I had a year, basically, after I finished school to give music a shot. And signing that deal, I was like, “Okay, this feels like something real, not just something that’s confined to my bedroom or my computer. This is something I can actually make something out of.”
You’re a poet as well, and that comes through in your songs. What came first for you, poetry or music?
Writing is what started all of it. I did a lot of short stories when I was a kid, and then that went into poetry and songwriting. For me, they’re just very interwoven — I never know whether it’s going to turn into a poem or a song. I just try and approach it quite openly.
What’s your typical songwriting process?
Usually, I’ll have a set of references or a playlist, and I’ll bring my notebook and folders full of little phrases that I’ve scribbled down or things that I want to include. And then I’ll probably hear a chord progression, along with some drums, and that will immediately spark some kind of sentiment in me and I’ll be like, “Okay, I need to write about this.” And then I’ll voice note some melodies into my phone and kind of hone in around that.
Your song “Black Dog” came out in May 2020 during the thick of the pandemic, and was heavily relatable to a lot of people. What’s the story behind that song?
I wrote that song quite a long time ago, actually, in spring or summer 2019. I was still at school, and I was really inspired sonically by records like “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake or “Carrie & Lowell” by Sufjan Stevens. I was just writing about my best friend and the struggles that she was enduring and how you can feel very helpless from the outside when someone you love is in pain. It was a moment that brought us closer, because she’s doing a lot better now and I think she felt very seen and touched by the song. And it’s something that has then gone on to help other people.
What do you hope listeners take away from your music?
I hope that people see themselves in it, and I think part of that is allowing people to just get whatever they want out of it. I hope that it encourages people to feel more like themselves and allow themselves to be more vulnerable, because I really am in my songs.
What is most exciting to you about your fellow Gen Z musicians?
Just the sheer variety of music that’s being made by people around our age, and the fact that genres are dissolving, and that people are throwing that idea of any kind of boundary out the window. Especially when I think about artists like Lorde or Phoebe Bridgers, in the singer-songwriter sphere, there has been a renewed emphasis on lyricism and on being emotional.