Arlo Parks on Her Favorite Songs, Album 'My Soft Machine,' and My Chemical Romance


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Mar 07, 2023

Arlo Parks on Her Favorite Songs, Album 'My Soft Machine,' and My Chemical Romance

The West London singer-songwriter on My Chemical Romance, SOPHIE, Missy

The West London singer-songwriter on My Chemical Romance, SOPHIE, Missy Elliott, and more.

Press Play is a recurring column that looks at (and listens to) the songs that have shaped the life and work of beloved musical artists.

Arlo Parks’ sophomore album My Soft Machine takes its title from a scene in Joanna Hogg's 2019 semi-autobiographical film The Souvenir, during which one of the two main characters describes art as a reflection of an individual's experience of events more so than a retelling of the events themselves. A similarly sparse yet deeply felt tension fuels both projects. "I feel like I’m always looking for romance in reality, and while there's a thread of truth [in my songs], I’m always heightening the vividness of a memory to make it feel filmic," says the 22-year-old artist born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho.

While Parks referred to her Mercury Prize-winning 2021 debut studio album, Collapsed in Sunbeams (itself, a nod to Zadie Smith's On Beauty) as "a time capsule of adolescence," its follow-up originated from an awareness that she was "moving fully into adulthood and feeling around in the dark to find my place in the world," she says. "This record is about what I’ve carried into my twenties and cherished, but also what I should probably let go of."

The video for the album's fourth single, "Pegasus," finds Parks driving through the desert, picking up a series of hitchhikers. Featuring backup vocals from Phoebe Bridgers, the song exudes the warm empath energy of previous tracks like "Black Dog" or "Hope" while tumbling into love with all the fear and ecstasy of "Eugene."

"We wanted to reference the desert as a character in itself," Parks says. "As a landscape, it's so unique that it almost has a personality—the endlessness, the boiling heat in the day and the cold at night, the silence, the clarity of the moon. We were also referencing desert journey films like Gerry, Paris, Texas, and My Own Private Idaho."

Below, Parks shares the songs that have soundtracked her life thus far.

"I saw Loyle Carner—he's a rapper and a poet from the U.K., and my favorite song at the time was ‘Damselfly.’ I remember being obsessed with the fact it was so loud I could feel it in my whole body. I loved how everyone gave each other space to dance, how everyone's eyes were pinned on him, and the community he had built around himself. Then I thought, ‘I want to do that.’"

"Most definitely ‘Teenagers’ by My Chemical Romance. There was something so electrifying to 15-year-old me about Gerard Way with his black hair and white face paint in his striped marching band jacket era. In ‘Teenagers,’ he's just growling and unleashing, and his tone alone had so much power to me. I remember moping and skating and also just thrashing around by myself in my room to this song. I caught My Chem at a festival about a year ago, and I got very teary-eyed hearing them play this one."

"‘Ponyboy’ by SOPHIE. I saw her perform at the 26th Meltdown festival that Nile Rodgers curated at the South Bank in London in 2019. I remember her shrouded in lights and smoke behind a laptop making this beautiful industrial chaos. I’ve spent years trying to understand how someone could sculpt something like ‘Ponyboy’ from a block of marble, from nothing. To me this song gave me confidence in singularity and imagination. It just goes so fucking hard."

"Definitely Caetano Veloso playing ‘Cucurrucucu Paloma’ in the Almodovar film Talk to Her. It starts off with guitar overlaid with these visuals of a man swimming under water then launches into one of the most gorgeous live performances I’ve ever seen in a film. Caetano's voice has this innocence to it, one of the main characters in the film is completely moved and starts welling up—it's perfect."

"‘IFHY’ by Tyler the Creator featuring Pharrell. Tyler the Creator and the whole Odd Future group gave me permission to be Black and make experimental music, to be Black and awkward and funny, to be Black and multi-disciplined. I’ll always remember seeing the artwork of Tyler in a striped shirt on a bike with an orange frame in front of a lake—it's burned into my memory forever."

"‘Twilight’ by Elliott Smith. ‘Haven't laughed this hard in a long time/ I better stop now before I start crying.’ Need I say anymore?"

"‘Dog in Heat’ by Missy Elliott. This beat is one of the best of all time—it just digs so deep, and it's so minimal. Missy's voice is so sultry and commanding. I’ve definitely rolled all the windows down and shout-rapped this song on many road trips."

"‘If I Am’ by My Bloody Valentine. This band is incredibly important to me. Even though the lyrics are shrouded in these fuzzed-out guitars, there is such a delicate quality to Bilinda Butcher's voice. The flow and the open-sky feeling of this song can only be fully felt when you give it space, when you’re lying in the dark in the early hours letting it wash over you."

"‘Two to Birkenhead’ by Bill Ryder Jones. An old friend played me this song. We were cycling through fields and took a break for a picnic under an oak tree. This is the first song she chose. The cicadas were buzzing, and the heat was making waves in the air. I remember hearing the lyric ‘Sitting on your hands well it kind of broke my heart. / It wasn't in the plan when we went to Conway Park.’ There was something so simple about the sentiment—I could picture a relationship dissolving, two people sitting beside each other on a bench saying goodbye. I always listen to this song when I feel like things are falling apart a little bit."

"‘Today’ by the Smashing Pumpkins. There's a sense of wanting to cling onto the moment before it dissolves. I’m thinking of the lines, ‘I wanted more than life could ever grant me’ or ‘My angel wings were bruised and restrained, my belly stings.’ I think the worst thing about a breakup is the split second where you both know what's to come, but the words haven't formed yet—this song captures that for me."

"‘House of Cards’ by Radiohead. To me, this is the softest Radiohead has ever sounded. Thom Yorke's voice is yearning and pleading in a way that always makes me think of begging somebody to love you. In Rainbows is a record that makes me feel inexplicably so so so happy. I listen to this song when I’m falling."

"‘Without You’ by Perfume Genius."

"Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens—my favorite song off it is ‘All of Me Wants All of You.’ This girl called Martha who I had a crush on when I was 15 showed it to me. She had deep green eyes and freckles and was in a band from South London. She bought me a bag of Haribo candies for our first date but left them on the train. She showed me this record and I remember just sinking into it completely—the way he sings ‘Manelich I feel so used’ cut me so sharply, and it still does every time I listen to it. The grief and the detail and the innocence of this record has moved me more than almost anything I’ve ever heard. I listen to it when I have a hard time sleeping, when I’m anxious, when I’m driving through the desert. One of my favorite fragments is from the song ‘Eugene’: ‘The man who taught me to swim / He couldn't quite say my first name. Like a father, he let community water on my head / And he called me Subaru.’"

"‘Daddy’ by Nourished by Time. I haven't heard anything that strange and infectious and moody in a long time. I was playing it incessantly when I was driving around Sao Paulo and discovering the secret corners of the city."

"‘Crush (Unfinished)’ by Jai Paul. This record [Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones)] was the touchstone for my album. It's a patchwork quilt of references that meshes so perfectly to make something raw and unique. Jai Paul wears his influences on his sleeve in a way that really inspires me. The imperfections are perfect to me, the spirit of Prince in there, his voice all silky and romantic. I soaked in it for the whole 18 months."

"Probably ‘Puppy’ at the moment. I’d always wanted to create something that was a soup of everything I love—the ‘Heart Shaped Box’ guitar moment in the second verse, the Mount Kimbie/‘Two Can Win’ by J Dilla drum textures, the My Bloody Valentine fuzz at the end, the lyrics surrounding the loss of innocence and the oblivion of being a teenager in summer. I think I melted everything into one with this song."

"‘Devotion’—I’m thrashing around with my guitar for the first time, it's so much fun."

"I feel like Pharrell is such a shapeshifter—he has branched into so many artistic spaces, he is so gracious with new talent that he loves, he has facilitated some of the best pop songs ever, he is truly the pillar of all cool music. I love ‘Raspy Shit.’"

Dijon has so much energy—it's frenetic, the mood is swinging, he's broken one moment then deep in love then angry then shaking you by the shoulders. Love his song ‘Many Times.’ He is the future."

Melissa Giannini is the features director of ELLE.

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