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Artists of 2023: Arlo Parks

In this end-of-year series, Rolling Stone AU/NZ celebrates some of the artists who released a significant album in 2023

Arlo Parks

In this end-of-year series, Rolling Stone AU/NZ celebrates some of the artists who released a significant album in 2023. 

Arlo Parks brought intimacy and vulnerability to the indie-pop world with her highly-anticipated second album, My Soft Machine. “Almost everyone that I love has been abused, and I am included,” she declares in one of the opening lines, before adding, “The person I love is patient with me/She’s feeding me cheese and I am happy.”

Perhaps it is this relatable, raw, lyricism which earned some of the highest praise for Parks, including some calling her “the voice of a generation”. The album certainly chronicles the trials and tribulations of someone navigating loves, losses and the light and dark sides of life.

“I call my mother just to tell her that I’m happy,” Parks states in “Pegasus” – the single featuring Phoebe Bridgers – before admitting, “I’ve been working incessantly, but that won’t keep the wolves at bay…” on a spoken interlude in “I’m Sorry”.

It has been a big, whirlwind of a year for Parks, who cancelled a string of US dates in September 2022 citing burnout and exhaustion after 18 months of nonstop touring. “I don’t take decisions like this lightly but I am broken and I really need to step out, go home and take care of myself,” she said in a statement at the time.

After releasing the album in May, Parks toured South Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Australia, where she performed at Splendour In The Grass and her debut headline show at the Sydney Opera House. She also released her first book of poetry, The Magic Border, before commencing the European leg of her tour in September.

Rolling Stone caught up with Parks earlier this year to discuss her new album, her Australian highlights, as well as her other projects.

My Soft Machine by Arlo Parks is out now.

Firstly, how big of an honour was it to make your debut at Sydney Opera House? There’s no bigger stage in Australia.

It’s the biggest honour, 15-year-old me wouldn’t believe it – Bob Dylan, Kraftwerk, Bjork, Patti Smith – all of my heroes have been on that stage. To play a venue like that half way across the world, to feel the way the music has travelled – it’s overwhelmingly beautiful. 

In terms of the biggest, most iconic venues that you’ve played around the world, where does Sydney Opera House rank?

Honestly it is probably the most iconic venue I’ve ever played. There have been very sentimentally important venues that I’ve played in London and doing the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury with Lorde was huge but in terms of cultural significance the Opera House is the one.

How seminal was the Justin Vernon performance that you spoke about on social media to your music?

The thing about that performance is that it strips everything down to the essence – voices melting together, the purity of the emotion, it’s absolutely all in the feeling. Justin Vernon is a master at that – making you feel like he’s singing directly to you, no matter the drama or the size of the space it’s just you and him. He’s a big inspiration for me.

How did your Australian and New Zealand tour go last year? I was at your Auckland show last August and it was one of my favourite gigs of the year.

It was a lot of fun – since it was my first time touring in that part of the world I felt a real hunger from the fans here. I was dancing and climbing things and just being so free and the crowds met me with that same sense of abandon, it was special.

Are there any Australian/New Zealand artists that you particularly love?

I love Aldous Harding, Nick Cave, Courtney Barnett, Tame Impala, Pond and King Gizzard.

I wanted to ask about My Soft Machine – it’s another beautiful record. Did you feel a lot of pressure coming into this one given how hugely successful your debut album was? Or did you instead feel able to just make the album that you wanted, on your own terms?

I think I always put pressure on myself, I’m always wanting to create something meaningful, something that feels like an intentional progression, something that feels true. I know that I want to make music for a very long time and that popularity will ebb and flow, that aspect didn’t worry me, I think the stress was more about making something culturally important and that I felt was good.

After being essentially unanimously acclaimed for Collapsed in Sunbeams, are you now at the stage of switching off from reviews? It must be highly stressful having so many critics/listeners judge the art that you create. 

I try and stay away from reviews, sometimes it will be 4am and I’ll fall into a hole of reading a couple but it’s not good for the soul. My dad gave me great advice which was to ignore both the extremely good and extremely bad things people say about you, I hold onto that advice.

I know you’ve spoken about the influence of Fontaines D.C. on your new album – Skinty Fia is such thoughtful post-punk. Have you had a chance to get to know the band on your travels? Will we be getting an Arlo Parks x Fontaines D.C. collaboration anytime soon?

Who knows! I love their music and their spirit.

Your songwriting picks up on the small details of daily life so well. What can we expect from your book, The Magic Border?

The Magic Border is a complicated, knotted jumble of notes, fragments and feelings. It surrounds everything from death, blackness, queer domesticity, flirtation, creative purging. My best friend Daniyel’s photographic contributions add a layer of intimacy and romance to the book. This book just feels truly me.

Do you feel more anxious about putting out a book than an album? 

In a way yes. This is a completely new venture for me. I’m now in a space populated by people who have devoted their lives to studying the form, rhythm and art of poetry. In a way I feel out of place but I think the first step is hardest and I can’t wait to write many more books.

What writers have you been reading lately?

I’m currently reading An Apartment on Uranus by Paul B Preciado, it’s a beautiful and transgressive book about gender, the self and revolution. I’ve recently been reading Virginie Despentes, Olga Tokarczuk, Fernanda Melchor too.

Lastly, I liked what you wrote to fans on social media: “this year I’ve made a conscious effort to allow myself to just be – accept the mood and body that I find myself in on that day.” It takes a tremendous effort to reach such a point. I think it’s something I’m still striving towards personally. Particularly when you’re touring a lot, and life is hectic with your career, how do you centre yourself and find this calmness and acceptance?

I honestly just have a list of things that bring me back to myself and I try and do at least one a day. Swimming, good coffee, journalling, physio stretches for my bad knee, reading a bit of my book, calling my partner – it’s just about taking care of yourself in basic and consistent ways.