Arlo Parks is Ready to Bare Her Soul. Again.
Arlo Parks knew the moment she struck songwriting gold. It was during the recording of My Soft Machine, her highly-anticipated second album, out now. “Every time I get excited about something, I stand up,” she says, reflecting on a particularly great studio session. “If I’m sitting down, I’m not excited.” At the time, Arlo was crafting album track “I’m Sorry”—a delightfully groovy apology for a bout of destructive behavior. It was the hardest song on the set for her to complete—the complex composition offering no gimmes—but the breakthrough she experienced during its creation has made it one of her favorites.
Parks, 22, is telling me about this watershed moment in the back corner of a pizza shop in Brooklyn on a sunny, early May afternoon. There’s not much space to move around, but our tight quarters don’t stop her from re-enacting the scene. As she pops up from her chair, it’s clear the people around us have begun to wonder who this tall young woman with a bright red buzzcut is. Arlo isn’t phased; instead, she takes a swig of coffee and carries on with our conversation. “I just heard that beat of the drums, and all of a sudden, I immediately got up and was like, ‘That! That’s it!’” she says, animated again by the memory.
The singer’s enthusiasm for music started long before that studio session. Parks, who broke big in 2021 with her highly acclaimed debut, Collapsed in Sunbeams (which landed on a handful of 'Best Of' lists that year and earned the singer several Grammy and BRIT award nominations), was introduced to songwriting at fifteen years old. After falling in love with her uncle’s record collection in her youth, and spending hours discovering artists like Radiohead on YouTube, the soon-to-be star (not that she knew it) enrolled in guitar lessons. One day, her instructor asked her to write a song—and the rest, as they too often say, is history. “It was probably awful,” she says, laughing at the thought, some seven years later.
The launch of My Soft Machine, which plays like an intimate, 12-song confessional, is, at this moment, just weeks away, and Parks is stressed. Actually, as she says, “so stressed.” And it’s not the critics' approval that the London native is worried about. She is more nervous to hear what her now-sizable fanbase thinks.
Since her debut, Arlo has matured, embarked on a new relationship with the rapper Ashniko, and fine-tuned her songwriting process. If Collapsed in Sunbeams was Parks's introduction, then My Soft Machine is her full unveiling—but baring the deepest parts of your soul isn’t always easy. “There’s something about relinquishing control in that way,” she says, thinking of everything that’s revealed within the record. “Anytime I’ve played the songs to a friend I’ve been able to provide the context and be there to explain my way through the song. When you put it out into the world, it’s open to criticism.”
But My Soft Machine is ready to share, and to be celebrated. Below, Parks speaks with Esquire about falling in love, embracing vulnerability, and the one thing she struggles to write about. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ESQUIRE: So, in the past five years you’ve released a critically acclaimed album, been nominated for two Grammys, toured, and recorded another album. Has the pacing ever been stressful?
ARLO PARKS: The pace is definitely fast. I have a very intense inner restlessness anyways, but because it’s all rooted in a very gradual journey—it’s something I’ve been doing pretty much every day since I can remember—it’s something that I can always retreat back to. Even when I’m traveling or doing press or photoshoots, at the core of it, it’s still just me making music and that’s what I love to do the most. That kind of slows me down, just knowing I’m doing something that I love.
Did your relationship with music change when it stopped being a hobby and became your job?
Definitely. It is a shift. When it is your livelihood and part of the way you survive, you do have to think about how it’s going to be received by your peers outside of how you feel about the work. There is that sense of like, “Okay, music is something that is ever shifting in terms of what people like and consume. And I'm basing my whole life on this thing that I can't control.” In the future, I don’t know how things will evolve and change. But there’s nothing else I could do. There’s nothing else I could give my life to in that way.
So, when did you start working on My Soft Machine?
The first demos I made were actually from before Collapsed in Sunbeams came out, in the fall of 2020. There’s this really interesting limbo when you finish a project and it hasn’t yet come out—it feels like the most creatively freeing moment. You have no expectations. You have the confidence that you've created a body of work that you're proud of, and so much time has been put into chipping away at this thing that you just want complete freshness.
Did you create My Soft Machine with an ethos in mind?
I think there was an ethos that I discovered retrospectively, and it was just the fact that I was working from a completely blank slate. I very intentionally didn't want to think about the past, or any kind of sonic brand or imprint that I made in the past. I just wanted to create something that felt good now.
I didn't start the process being like, “Okay, I'm making a record now. I'm making a complete piece of work,” I was like, “Okay, I want to get back in the studio.” And then after a while, I was at Electric Lady [a recording studio], just listening through what I’d made and I was like, “Okay there are 12 or 13 songs I really love and they work together. So, it’s album time!”
When you went back and listened to those songs, did anything you produced surprise you?
How honest I ended up being. I feel that a lot of artists spend their whole careers trying to capture one facet of one thing, or try to write different songs that gradually work their way up to encapsulate a very complicated concept. I’ve always wanted to write a song about joy and it was something that I found so hard to bottle, and I approached it a million different ways. With “Impurities” it all fell into place. There were a lot of moments like that, where something I experimented with or played around with finally locked into place.
That sounds so peaceful.
Yeah, I like that! It is peaceful.
Your music is very poetic and vulnerable. Is it difficult to be so open now that more people are paying attention?
I'm not sure I find it difficult. It feels natural to me. At the core of who I am, and also at the core of the musicians that I really respect, is this sense of openness, and this sense of real sensitivity and softness. It comes from an organic place.
I never feel under any pressure to be that open, that vulnerable. Especially on the Internet as well, I want to carve out a pocket of space where people are having conversations and are kind to each other. I feel like I lead by example in that way, even just by sharing songs that excite me and being clear about the fact that I really care about things and that I feel really deeply. I’ve always been like this.
After receiving such high praise for Collapsed in Sunbeams, did you feel like the heat was on to out-do yourself with this collection?
When the actual record was finished—I had sent it off to be mastered and it was getting pressed into vinyl—I was like, “Wait, was that good enough?” Suddenly, when it’s out of your control and you can’t tweak it anymore, you do have that sense of overthinking.
Do you like to send samples of your music out around to the people that you trust as you're making it? Or do you wait until after they’re done?
After. I hold it close to my chest, no one's hearing anything. Because even when I'm showing it to a friend, or someone I love, I still want it to be representative of what it can be. I also like to create things in a little bubble, especially if the song is slowly revealing itself to me. It's important to keep it away from people's eyes and opinions, and just let it get to a place where it feels complete.
How does a song reveal itself to you?
It's something that I learned with this record in particular. You do just have to sit with songs over time, especially because we created a lot of songs with just the piano and drums or just the guitar and drums. It was in a very skeletal form, so while thinking about all the different treatments a song could have, you just have to sit back and let it happen. My approach to music in the past was very much, like, going after it quite relentlessly until I beat it into shape. But for this record, I had to sit back and slowly let ideas flow in and out and be prepared for it to maybe take three months to get to a place where the song was where I wanted it to be.
Did any tracks stick out to you as the song of the album?
I felt that with “I'm Sorry.” That was the song that took the longest. Definitely. It started off as a set of four chords, a piano, and a drum, and it went through a million different versions—like having David playing guitar at the end and having that like really minimal-based treatment and then that like teardrop drum set, and then also having the lyrics really capturing the association of loneliness in a way that I haven’t managed to do before. It feels like the centerpiece to me in a way.
I really loved the song, “Dog Rooms.” It feels so honest, especially the lyric, “I want to belong to you, I’m sorry.” Tell me about the writing process for that.
So it came about when I was on tour, I was in Toronto. And I had this idea in my head of writing from the perspective of going between fantasy and imagining—like, you’re jumping the turnstile at the subway with this person, and you’re heading to a party, and you guys are so close and intertwined. Then going into the chorus, the reality of it is that you haven’t actually worked up the courage to tell this person how you feel because you’re afraid.
The inspirations of love on this record are very open and honest, and admit to the moments where you feel a little pathetic, or you feel like you’re too much, or you’re staying in something unhealthy whether you know it is. I think it’s important, when writing about love, to explore those facets that actually aren’t romantic.
Is there anything you struggle to write about?
Joy is still difficult for me. I approach writing in a way that explores the bitterness and the sweetness, whether it's romance, whether it’s friendship, whether it’s healing. I think it’s easier to strike that balance, but for me, joy is so pure. I find it hard to put it into words. So much of the way I use words is to process something knotted.
Speaking of joy, you’re in a semi-public relationship now. How have you managed to write about your dating life while keeping the details private?
Well, it's so natural that when you are in love, it bleeds its way into the music. It’s just so much of your life and [a part of] the way that you move in the world. But it does mean that I have to be really intentional about setting those boundaries and protecting those little moments.
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