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Singer Arlo Parks: I’ve figured out who I am now

Singer Arlo Parks may only be 23 but says she “definitely” has a strong sense of who she is.

“I’m somebody who’s really intentional about being present and the way that I move through the world,” says the Mercury Prize winner.

“I was still a teenager at the beginning [when she burst onto the music scene with 2021 album Collapsed in Sunbeams], still figuring out who I was, figuring out balance, but I feel like I’ve got there now.”

Now the musician, who counts songwriting for Beyonce’s Ya Ya track on the album Cowboy Cater among her many accomplishments, hopes to help other young women gain “a sense of empowerment” and the ability “to feel comfortable in themselves” too

Idris Elba and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meet families of knife crime victims at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Idris Elba and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meet families of knife crime victims at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Ahead of her third appearance at Glastonbury (her “favourite festival in the world”), Parks travelled to Sierra Leone to meet victims of child marriage, and young people leading grassroots projects for social change.

“It was really emotional for me, being someone who is very sensitive in general,” she says, calling the experience “sobering”.

Parks spent five days in the West African nation – where 21% of all pregnancies occur in girls aged 15 to 19 years – with Unicef. The charity say the majority of Sierra Leonians don’t have access to contraception, and maternal death rates in that area of the continent are among the highest in the world.

Progress is being made though; just last week Sierra Leone’s parliament approved a bill to ban child marriage and enforce penalties on offenders. A “massive” step in the right direction, says the singer, although “unfortunately it’s quite ingrained”.

Parks, who has now been appointed as Unicef youngest ambassador for the UK, was particularly affected by “the conversations around women not feeling like they had bodily autonomy, young teenage mothers, people who had been taken advantage of, or who didn’t have access to education – that was really confronting.

“It was sobering to see people who were much younger than me, that had been through more than most people would have in a lifetime.

“I felt a sense of kinship – we were the same age, but had had these very, very different paths.”

In April, Sierra Leone declared a national emergency over the increase in drug abuse. “Dismantling shame and talking about things like substance abuse more is really important – and encouraging people who are really in the depths of that to seek help,” says the singer. The track, Room, on her 2023 album My Soft Machine, addresses the issue too, with suggestions it’s about someone close to her. “It’s a problem that’s global, unfortunately”.

Idris Elba and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meet families of knife crime victims at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Idris Elba and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meet families of knife crime victims at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

The musician says: “[The trip] gave me a sense of courage to do more in my own community, in my own ways, because I could see the strength that they had in that sense of resilience, and the fact that these people weren’t defined by these often really traumatic experiences.”

There were “these really dark moments, but that sense of hope,” she adds, “Like this sense of sisterhood, especially within groups of women.”

Playing basketball with women involved in a project opening up opportunities in sport made Parks reflect on her body image.

Particularly “seeing the way that that sport had transformed those women’s relationships to their bodies – the fact that it was about strength and athleticism and team spirit and community”, she says.

Idris Elba and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meet families of knife crime victims at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Idris Elba and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meet families of knife crime victims at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho (Arlo is a stage name) in Paris to a Chadian-French mother and Nigerian father, she played a lot of sport where she grew up in West London.”I do feel like that’s something that really strengthened my sense of self and made me feel comfortable in my body,” she says.

“I remember playing hockey and feeling how it was about being fast and being agile, rather than necessarily conforming to certain beauty standards – it was just about being yourself.”

Today, exercise is a key part of her self care. “I feel like it’s my form of meditation, in a way, whether it’s like running, climbing, boxing… I’ve always been a really active person.”

She’s an avid journaler – “I  journal every day. I think it’s really helpful for me to kind of put my my thoughts somewhere” – and writing, of course, comes naturally, she’s written poetry since she was a child. And, “I’m a voracious reader. I’ll read books in 24 hours.”

Parks was only 21 when she won the Mercury Prize and Taylor Swift congratulated her – “That little moment was really special to me”, she smiles.

Idris Elba and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meet families of knife crime victims at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Idris Elba and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meet families of knife crime victims at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

But she’s “back better” after taking a break at the end of 2022 to reset her mental health after burnout due to touring. She hopes to normalise taking time out, “Not just for musicians, but with people in general”.

“I didn’t grow up with any kind of other creatives in my family [so] there was this sense of me feeling really lucky and me loving every moment, but maybe not knowing when I’m overextending.”

“[The break] was a moment where I really actively invested in my own self care, and gave myself that space and spent time with family and grounded myself. I think having that rest made me come back just super refreshed and hungry to do more.”

These days she lives in Los Angeles and the outdoor lifestyle suits her inherent need for introspection.

“[There’s] a lot of time spent in nature, a lot of time spent by the water and going up to the mountains and out to the desert. There is a lot of really beautiful nature in California.

“Especially when I’m in that record making space, there is that sense of having space for reflection. I do need those moments to be with myself and sit with myself”, before connecting with her band and others in a recording space for a “big, messy jam”.

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