Arlo Parks' Poised Soul Defines This “Super Sad Generation”
The British songwriter captures the specifics of being young and messed up like no-one else. We’re premiering her latest video here.
Photo credit: Melanie Tjoeng
Have you tried ketamine? Clinically, as you probably know, it’s used to tranquilize horses. I can’t say for sure what happens – I’m a writer, not a vet – but presumably it knocks ‘em off their four legs and onto the floor. Stronger doses are even used on rhinos, who are hard as nails, making ket a useful anaesthetic, and doctors have also considered it as treatment for depression. Really, it’s a wonder of medicine. And so, like cocaine and opiates – both of which once had their medical uses – it’s no wonder ketamine was co-opted by humans: used recreationally to disassociate and party.
Whether it’s ketamine, cocaine or booze, getting out of your head is synonymous with living in Britain, and so that’s what 18-year-old storyteller Arlo Parks sings about. Or to be more precise, it’s one element of new music; just the one line in fact – “when did we get so skinny / started doing ketamine on weekends / getting wasted at the station / trying to keep our friends from death” – on devilishly soft new song “Super Sad Generation” (which we’re premiering the video for below). Really, if we’re being completely honest, there’s a lot more to her than one line about ket. Stuff about love and heartbreak and all the messy stuff in-between, like remembering the smell of an ex-lovers t-shirt (in this case, one featuring Gerard Way’s face; the kind of things you feel intensely as a teen but also as an adult too, when you’re feeling a bit despondent.
Arlo Parks is an emerging voice of an age group that’s been raised in an era of uncertainty, rising house prices, easily available prescription drugs – stuff that gets you depressed and messed up, basically. Audience wise, I guess you could put her in a similar bracket to teen Billie Eilish, another rising star – albeit on a much higher scale. But Arlo is different. She’s precise as she speaks about the lived experience of this generation, often with a nuance that sticks in your throat – in person, when we meet, and also on record. Her closest comparison is probably someone like Mike Skinner, who detailed a specific British experience with The Streets, one of front-room weed smoke, pills and cash points in one-club towns, but for this generation (eg: there’s a lyric about “dropping three tabs in the back of a Prius” – presumably an Uber).
A true musical nerd (check the copy of Mojo magazine in the video above), she knows more about music than you and I. Cocteau Twins to Earl Sweatshirt. Erykah Badu to My Chemical Romance. She grew up around her parents’ music: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Chet Baker listened to by her Nigerian father; and French classics, as well as Prince, enjoyed by her Parisian-raised, Chad-born mother. She had an “existential phase” too, listening to lots of Julien Baker. As for now? “Shit. How many artists to pick as my obsessions? The four I listen to all the time are Phoebe Bridgers, A Tribe Called Quest – I’m being very selective, here – and then probably the Cure, still; and then The Internet – I love The Internet,” she says, speaking across the table from me in a low-key pub in Hammersmith, not far down the road from where she’s finished college.
See, at 18, Arlo is at the ripe age for becoming a star. She first arrived on the scene in late December 2018, with debut track “Cola” (watch above). Like a Frank Ocean or a King Krule, the lyrics are poetic in a distinct, lived way, as if you’re occupying a moment in Arlo’s life, close to feeling what she’s feeling, yet far enough away to not fully understand every reference and to make it your own. Take, for example, the line “So take your orchids elsewhere / elsewhere / I loved you to death, and now I don’t really care / because you’re running around over there / you’re running around over there”. It’s the sort of music that allows for projection of personal experience, the stuff that makes an icon.
Growing up as one of three black kids in her school, Arlo says she often spent a lot of time alone; a self described loner. But it was in these moments that she’d write poetry, short stories. She could play piano too, although she’s forgotten a lot of the theory stuff, “which is a bit peak,” she says, smiling gracefully. “At the beginning I wasn’t really rapping. I had poetry, so it was a spoken word vibe. Then I found beats that you could sing over – lo-fi, ambient stuff. So I was singing over them and trying to put things into practice. Then I made ‘Cola’ and put it up,” she continues. And then boom: now you’re here? “Yeah,” she says laughing.
Sure, for now, Arlo has the two tracks out – “Cola” and “Super Sad Generation”. But instinctively there’s something very special here: she’s an artist that taps into the very specifics of what it means to be alive and young and confused in Britain in 2019; to be falling in and out love, getting wrecked on the weekends, feeling despondent yet hopeful. You’d be dumb not to keep an eye out for what she does next.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.