Arlo Parks: myriad sunflowers and musical sunbeams from the poetic British star

Arlo Parks at Somerset House - Martin Harris/Capital Pictures
Arlo Parks at Somerset House - Martin Harris/Capital Pictures

The sunflowers appeared 20 minutes before the show, freshly cut and handed out from the stage, transforming the Somerset House crowd into a floral idyll. The yellow blooms have become something of a symbol for British singer-songwriter Arlo Parks, adorning her stages throughout a year on the road. On Tuesday night – her only headline date in London this year – the flowers proliferated out among the crowd, a neat gimmick that ensured a sweet rapport between artist and audience.

Buoyed by sunflowers, then, rather than Collapsed in Sunbeams – the title of Parks’s debut album, which read the room perfectly upon its January 2021 release, its soothing poise almost medicinal in the depths of the pandemic. Little wonder she won the Mercury Prize that year, alongside a clutch of Brit awards and a number-three spot in the charts. If these triumphs yielded a validating glow, she scarcely needed it.

The 21-year-old is a BBC Music Introducing success story who has outwitted the dreaded “voice of a generation” tag with her cool and collected demeanour, the kind that marks out a star. Collapsed in Sunbeams positioned Parks primarily as a lyricist, taking its title from a line in a Zadie Smith novel and opening with a spoken-word piece. Much like Joan Armatrading or Tracy Chapman, she’s a calm chronicler of queer desire, writing acutely personal vignettes about mental health and sexuality. She reads poets like Anne Carson and Eileen Myles, sings about oleander bushes and burnt hibiscus, and deploys quietly powerful phrases like “shards of glass live in this feeling”.

Should you wish to catch the poetry of her songs, however, Somerset House might not be the place. It’s a notoriously talky venue that can’t quite shake off the air of an art opening or a workplace summer do, and on Tuesday people were milling about on the cobblestones sipping wine, and continuing their conversations throughout her slim 50-minute set. But, for every chatterbox there was a queer couple, young or old, bathing in the warmth emanating from the stage, or a fan ardently brandishing their sunflower. By the third song, Caroline, some audience members had begun to sob.

Parks’s music – coffee-shop beats, mid-tempo soul, light rap and R&B – leans heavily on her strength as a writer. Many of her songs could stand alone as poems, potentially struggling to translate to the stage. But live, Collapsed in Sunbeams is a different beast. A seven-piece band enlarged and enlivened tracks with brass flicks and percussive thuds. Simmering cymbals and horns ensured the spoken-word section of Hope – a song that promises listeners they’re not alone in whatever troubles they may be coping with – did not lose its punch, and frequent electric guitar solos kept the temperature pepped.

The sunflowers bobbed all the while, a wash of positivity that offset the darkness of her lyrics. “I’ve struggled a lot in here,” Parks said, tapping her head, before singing Black Dog, an intensely moving track about suicide. But, for most of the show, she exuded joy, whether dancing goofily alongside her band or pausing to drink in the atmosphere of her home city.

Parks has honed an affectionate and deeply confident stage presence, growing from nervous early shows amid the socially distanced dregs of last year’s lockdown, to support slots for Clairo and Harry Styles, and countless festival appearances this summer including Coachella and Glastonbury. (A string of autumn shows in North America now awaits.) It’s a run that has felt lacklustre at times, her songs let down by their own gentleness. Tuesday night went some way towards fixing that, the energy in the courtyard undeniable. Still – the wholesome mood left you longing for some real musical heat.

Touring worldwide until October;