Arlo Parks’ sophomore album is, in some ways, accidental. “I started listening to everything I’d collected, and I was like, ‘Whoa! I pretty much got the raw material for an album here,’” she tells Variety. “I tricked myself somehow.”
This helped the 22-year-old London native avoid some of the pressure that often accompanies an artist’s second LP — especially if they’ve had an ascent like Parks’. After building a loyal fan base in the U.K., she released her debut album, “Collapsed in Sunbeams,” in January 2021. It went on to win the prestigious Mercury Prize and earn Parks best new artist and alternative album nominations at the 2022 Grammys. But all of that success didn’t come without a cost: After opening for Harry Styles, Clairo and Billie Eilish in the first half of 2022, Parks canceled part of her U.S. tour later in the year, saying her mental health had “deteriorated to a debilitating place.”
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In many ways, that honesty has made her even more of a beacon of relatability for Gen Z, and her new album, “My Soft Machine” — which was released May 26 — is her most personal project yet. Below, Parks discusses mid-20s anxiety, working with Phoebe Bridgers and what makes a good love song.
How does it feel to finally have “My Soft Machine” out in the world?
When you’re really going inwards into the deepest recesses of yourself and showing people what you come out with, it’s like the conversation you would have with a best friend or a therapist, but you’re having it with the world. It’s scary, but when I think about some of my favorite artists — like Elliott Smith or Phoebe Bridgers or Jeff Buckley or anyone who has that openhearted approach to music — then that’s what’s moving about it, right?
I’ve been revisiting Buckley’s “Grace” recently. He was just so special.
I listen to “Grace” a lot, but I was revisiting the “Sketches for My Sweetheart” record and that song “Everybody Here Wants You” — it just rips you to shreds, doesn’t it? Something about his voice… it’s actually almost painful to listen to it. I was talking to my friend about this, where it’s like, I have to be in a good space, because otherwise it will send me off the edge.
Absolutely. Much of “My Soft Machine” focuses on the unique but universal feeling of being a 20-something. What do you feel is so significant about this period of life?
There’s something really profound about the years where you find yourself, where you have to decide where your place is in the world… There’s something quite painful about that journey, but also beautiful, because it’s something that everybody goes through. And when you’re in it, you feel like you’re the only person who doesn’t have it figured out, and then you talk to more people and it’s like everyone is in the same boat. I’m still figuring it out, and I feel blessed to know that I’ve got something that feels like a purpose to me, but it’s still complicated, you know?
When did you first start working on the album?
The first songs that were made on the record were the demos for “Ghost” and “Room,” which were made before “Collapsed in Sunbeams” actually was released, so in the winter of 2020. But then I made “Impurities” over the summer of 2021, and that was the first song that I felt like really captured the energy of what I wanted to do with the record and it was the first time I met Romil. And then January and spring of 2022 was when the rest of the music came together.
You’re referring to Romil Hemnani from Brockhampton, I assume?
He’s so sweet, I love Romil. You have to surround yourself with people like that, because a big part of having a long career that feels like it’s always pushing forward and into new corners is having people around you that genuinely just want to make something that you all love. Something that feels good, something that you can protect from wanting validation or acclaim or whatever.
And in turn, that makes the music so much better and more original.
It’s funny how you get an artist that’s doing something amazing — like take for example a Billie Eilish, or even a PinkPantheress, or Phoebe. Someone who is doing something really singular. And then you get people who become almost offshoots of them, trying to do a version of that. But they already exist, so you can’t create something that’s trying to capture the zeitgeist in a way that’s not original because there’s already someone there. I feel like a lot of people forget that you are the only one who is yourself, so do that. It’s sad, because maybe it comes from a lack of self-confidence. Maybe it comes from people wanting to do something that they’re sure other people will like.
The pressure of the second album can be a scary and overwhelming thing. How did you approach it?
To be honest, I had heard about the fact that the second record was difficult to tackle for a lot of people, but I started the process by just making things and that’s the most natural thing in the world to me… There was a moment when I was in New York, and I went into Electric Lady because they have beautiful speakers and I just started listening to everything I’d collected and I was like, “Whoa! I pretty much got the raw material for an album here.” I tricked myself somehow. I don’t know how I did that, but I’m glad I did.
What inspired the title of the album, “My Soft Machine”?
[The film] “The Souvenir” talks about how we don’t want to see life as it’s played out, we want to see life as its experienced in this soft machine. I interpret that as the soft machine is the body, the brain and how it’s much more exciting to create work that comes from a subjective place that’s seeing through someone’s eyes and heart and the details of the memories that they remember… Soft, obviously being an exploration of that sense of tenderness and gentleness and compassion, juxtaposed with the machine, that conjures up images of steel and coldness and something inhuman that has no thought or soul — it captured the fact that this is an album of light and shade. It’s about numbness but also being hypersensitive, and even extroversion versus deep introversion and community versus solitude. I think it just captures a lot of those contrasts really nicely.
You can hear that contrast in the music as well, as it’s a bit more upbeat than your last album but still deals with heavy topics. What draws you to that type of juxtaposition?
My voice has a quality of softness, and I always want there to be balance in the same way that some of my favorite songs [do]. Take “Kyoto” by Phoebe, that sense of it being purely happy, but then the lyrics and the depth that it goes to in her relationship with her father. I love it when there’s that contrast. Because that’s what it’s like to be a human being.
Speaking of Phoebe Bridgers, you two finally properly collaborated with “Pegasus.” How did the song come together?
I wanted it to feel quite minimal, like a “White Ferrari” moment or [like] that pianist, Duval Timothy. I just wanted it to have space to breathe, because I felt like the instrumentation on the rest of the record felt rich and lush. I’ve been a fan of Phoebe for so long, since I was 17. We’ve sung together a bunch, and I feel like when our voices come together, they just mesh really naturally. So I sent it to her and was really honest about how much her music meant to me and what the song meant to me, and she said yes.
Falling in love is a big theme on this record. What makes a good love song?
It has to be specific — you have to feel like somebody is actually lying there looking up at a person. That detail can come in any form, but for me that always strikes a chord because you can tell that maybe you’ve been writing this in the corner of the room whilst your person is cooking or on a phone call or whatever. I think there’s something really beautiful to that. I just love a bittersweet song, like a tiny element — I’m not saying it has to be like, “I love you but it’s almost over” — it doesn’t have to be depressing, but I like it when it’s not completely blissful. “Everybody Here Wants You” is a perfect example, where it has this sultriness and this slowness to it and this quietly creeping sense of anxiety and sadness as if some storm is about to disturb the peace.
What are you most excited about when it comes to playing this new music on the road?
Playing “Devotion.” Like I’m playing guitar, I feel like I’ll just have this newfound sense of energy toward the music now that I feel completely represented by it. I’m also really excited to play that All Things Go festival with all my friends in Washington at the end of the year, that’s going to be so fun. Muna’s playing, Maggie [Rogers] is playing, Ethel Cain’s playing, Beabadoobee’s playing, Lana Del Rey’s playing. I saw that lineup and it made me so happy.
It was amazing to see so many women and queer people on that lineup and see it sell out so quickly — like, this is what the people want!
Exactly, and I feel like there’s just never really been any excuse. It shouldn’t even be something that I’m glad for, it should just be what’s going on. But seeing a lineup like that, that just has so many queer artists and such diversity — like you can’t say that femme people and nonbinary people, people of all genders are making music that isn’t good enough. That’s just not true.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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