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Arlo Parks: Amplified Softness

The rising bedroom pop artist finds strength in the softness of life. 

by Madeline Lines

Photos by Vince Aunt

Arlo Parks joins our call from a sunny corner of LAX, which ends up being the perfect place to discuss her upcoming album, My Soft Machine. Just as her debut Collapsed in Sunbeams captured coming of age in London like a bug in amber, the now 22-year-old’s latest work is deeply rooted in her chosen home of Los Angeles.

Parks speaks warmly of the city as one of the album’s muses and influencing forces. She’s about to leave it to catch a flight back home to the UK, where a whirlwind of album promo and touring awaits. We chat as Parks sits in a transitional space between her two album-shaping worlds, about to bring the fruits of one into the other.

In returning to London, she’s embracing the full circle feelings and looking forward to intimate record store sets in the shops she frequented as a kid. Even though she calls somewhere sunnier home now, there’s no hard feelings towards her hometown, just fond ones. 

“There’s a beauty to being in a place that you can just navigate so easily and have that sense of peace,” she says, pulling her hoodie over her shock of red hair to cocoon against the echoey airport sounds. 

Raised in West London as Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, Parks’ bedroom-pop style bloomed the instant her first tracks were planted around 2018 and 2019. In the following pandemic year, her acclaim burst beyond closed doors and confinement with viral singles “Eugene” and “Black Dog.” 

By the time her first-ever album hit in 2021, a constantly ballooning number of fans were waiting at the ready. Collapsed in Sunbeams was bumped in bedrooms across the world for a year before anyone got to hear it live. “It came out almost into a void,” says Parks. 

The new album is already different, in welcome ways. For one, she’s already playing it to people. Parks lights up when she recounts how it felt to play yet-unreleased tracks off of My Soft Machine a couple weeks ago to an eager crowd in LA. 

“I heard people whispering, ‘What did she say?’ and trying to write down the lyrics in their phones,” says Parks. “I’ve never had that before in my life – being able to tease the music to people and make mistakes, figuring it out in real time.”

Amid her skyrocketing rise, it’s easy to forget that there are still musical boxes Parks is checking off for the first time. With the widespread return of international touring last year, Parks had an avalanche of opportunities that had been building up over years come raining down, rapid-fire. She shared stages with (and made friends out of) acts like Lorde, Clairo, Harry Styles, and Phoebe Bridgers

While it was exhilarating, it was a lot. She’s spent the time since recovering and rooting down in her California home, leaving only to get acquainted with the lush natural surroundings suddenly at her doorstep. My Soft Machine was born in the gentleness of this period. When I ask Parks what the new album would feel like, if you could touch it, she says it’d be like “putting your hands in wet soil.”

“The smell of petrichor, like soil after the rain. There’s a sense of earthiness and feeling grounded, feeling the shock of the cold earth on your hands,” says Parks. “Feeling the land and feeling quite small, but also very in touch with yourself and the world. I think it’d be that.”

The title of the album comes from an utterance in the 2019 film The Souvenir, just one of many creative references Parks is constantly dog-earing and drawing from. She spills out a dizzying list of current reads when I ask, pinpointing exactly what she loves about them, from the way French author Annie Ernaux gets love and longing, to seeing California through Joan Didion’s eyes. Lately, she’s been devouring film scripts, taking notes on how “people build a storyline over that longer arc,” as opposed to the quick chorus hooks she’s working within.

Parks got her start as a poet, and through all of her influences, her natural instinct towards the art form remains strong. My Soft Machine opens with the instantly incisive spoken-word track “Bruiseless,” a choice that’s shaping up to be a signature way to open an Arlo album. “I wish I was bruiseless/almost everyone that I love has been abused and I am included,” Parks begins the track, demanding instant attention for the duration of the album. 

“You pay more attention when it’s someone’s voice telling it to you directly,” says Parks. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m being really vulnerable with you right now. And I’m almost trusting you with what I’m saying. And this is the bubble that I’m gonna create with this work.’ There’s this intimacy to it.”

Another poignant track is ‘Pegasus,’ where Parks’ and Phoebe Bridgers’ voices feel destined for each other. Parks says she wrestled with getting the arrangements of this one just right, wanting a sparse love song that felt like a “sound bath,” but it was missing that emotional kick. She settled on a fluttering beat that gets euphoric for a second without overwhelming the song’s melancholy tinge. The sound of My Soft Machine will be familiar and palatable to fans, taking subtle musical risks. 

“I knew I wanted this album to be more courageous. As a music lover, I wanted there to be more electronic moments, honouring my love of Burial, Boards of Canada, and Aphex Twin,” says Parks. “I had a really strong web of support around me where I just felt held in [doing] whatever experiment that I wanted to do that day.”

The working environment of My Soft Machine, where boundaries were set and rest was a virtue, allowed Parks to turn the lens inward for a record that’s distinctly more personal than the last. It’s an ethos she’s taking with her as she sets back in motion, gearing up for another tumultuous album cycle. It’s through carving out careful lines of self-preservation that Parks is able to give more of herself in ways that matter, to take good care of her own soft machine. 

“I think that everyone I’ve ever met has a softness to them, even if some experience has hardened them,” says Parks. “I like the idea of that being something that unites us, like the physical way that our body works. Softness is at the heart of us all in some way.”