It was poetry that first captured Arlo Parks, not music. As a teenager in West London, the artist read Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," which she remembers emanating a sense of yearning and longing, while also challenging ideas of form and rhyme. Parks says the poem gave off an air of humanity, but was equally strange and intense.
When she first tried her hand at poetry, it all seemed to revolve around escapism — a Hollywood fantasy, moving off the grid or falling in love. But music eventually made its way into Parks' creative practice when she started speaking poetry over beats. Art, poetry and songwriting all meshed into what would become her first EP, Super Sad Generation, a collection of vivid and confessional songs from a Gen Z perspective.
Now, at 20, Parks has put out her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. It's brimming with story songs — vignettes — about joy, pain, heartbreak and depression. It centers the mental health and struggles of her and her friends. "Talking about mental health and talking about the difficult parts of adolescence," she says. "It's what I was living through and what the people around me were living as well."
At one point, Parks found herself holding a friend's hand through a period of depression and hopelessness. It's chronicled in the album's midpoint, "Black Dog," which Parks describes as "essentially me, as a friend, experiencing the pain of a loved one." The song is an emotional outpouring, but muted. There's a lump in her throat, but Parks is calm as she sings, "I would do anything to get you out your room."
Writing specifically for Generation Z was never the artist's intention. "It's more of a conscious attempt to tell my story, and I happen to be 20 years old," she says. More than that, many of the artists she admires these days are vulnerable about their own mental health, whether it's a matter of working through anxiety, depression, OCD or trauma. "I think the conversations are opening," she says. "And the fact that it's becoming easier to speak one's truth is really comforting and positive to me."
To Parks, unpacking difficult situations and revealing the truth is as important as highlighting the possibility for joy. The world operates on a balance — "Nothing lasts forever, whether it's pain, whether it's joy. I think that's just, kind of, part of what it is to be a human being," she says. It's a hopeful upswing for her, especially in the current moment. It also rings true to an Audre Lorde quote that she holds dear: "Pain will either change or end." Parks says she knows what sadness, fear and grief can do, but even so, she's optimistic that things will get better someday.
Arlo Parks spoke about poetry as her gateway to music, mental health in creative work and the making of Collapsed in Sunbeams on All Things Considered. Hear more of the conversation at the audio link.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It was poetry, not music, that first captured Arlo Parks.
ARLO PARKS: I remember reading "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg. There was this sense of yearning and longing. And it also kind of defied form, defied rhyme. It just felt like something that was so kind of human and strange and intense.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
So as a teenager in West London, she tried writing poems. And at first...
PARKS: There was a lot kind of surrounding escapism and surrounding the idea of Hollywood or moving to the mountains or, you know, falling in love.
CORNISH: Then came the music.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARLO PARKS SONG, "SOPHIE")
PARKS: And then I just gradually started literally speaking poetry over beats. Songwriting and poetry and being a musician, being an artist, I feel like they're all so intertwined.
KELLY: Her music came out as vivid and confessional songs from a Gen Z perspective. Her first EP was called "Super Sad Generation."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOPHIE")
PARKS: (Singing) I'm just a kid. I suffocate and slip. I hate that we're all sick. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CORNISH: Now, at age 20, Arlo Parks is out with her debut album. It's called "Collapsed In Sunbeams." It's full of vignettes, story songs about joy and pain and heartbreak and depression, about the mental health of her and her friends.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARLO PARKS SONG, "BLACK DOG")
PARKS: Talking about mental health and talking about the difficult parts of adolescence is what I was living and what the people around me were living as well. I was seeing my friends go through things and being affected by their pain and working through things. And all of my writing is based on the stories of people I know. Like, my really good friend was going through a period of lowness, a period of depression and hopelessness. And this song is essentially me, as a friend, experiencing the pain of the loved one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK DOG")
PARKS: (Singing) Let's go to the corner store and buy some fruit. I would do anything to get you out your room.
The day that I was writing that song, I remember I just got off the phone with her, and she was struggling to get out of bed. Things have evolved since then, and she's doing a lot better. But it was honestly an emotional outpouring.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK DOG")
PARKS: (Singing) It's so cruel what your mind can do for no reason.
It's not a conscious attempt to tell the story of Gen Z. It's more a conscious attempt to tell my story, and I happen to be 20 years old. And a lot of artists, the ones that I look up to, are just very vulnerable about mental health, whether it's about anxiety or depression or even things like OCD and trauma. I think the conversations are opening. And the fact that it's becoming easier to speak one's truth is really comforting and positive to me.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARLO PARKS SONG, "HURT")
PARKS: I think that in music, it's important to, you know, show the truth of difficult situations but also highlight that possibility for joy. The world kind of operates on that balance. Like, nothing lasts forever, whether it's pain, whether it's joy. I think that's just kind of part of what it is to be a human being.
I like to have that hopeful upswing. That Audrey Lorde quote, pain will either change or end, is something that I've held very dear because I think that's something that people really need, especially in times like these, just that kernel of hope that things will get better someday.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURT")
PARKS: (Singing) I know you can't let go of anything at the moment. Just know it won't hurt so - won't hurt so much forever. Won't hurt so much - won't hurt so much forever. Won't hurt so much...
KELLY: The debut album from Arlo Parks - it's called "Collapsed In Sunbeams." She's also a mental health ambassador for the British charity CALM.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURT")
PARKS: (Singing) Watching "Twin Peaks" on his ones. Then his fingers find the bottle when he starts to miss his mum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.