The musician on the outdoor spaces that drive her creativity

In this series, friends of The Outsiders Project tell us about their favourite place to get lost, and dive into their relationship with the natural world. First up, award-winning musician and poet Arlo Parks shares how the outdoors is key to her creative process.

Arlo Parks has always had an affinity with the outdoors. Growing up, she remembers swimming in the sea while on holiday in the south of France, as well as family trips to the Forest of Dean. But today, her most important outside space is much closer to home.

Getting out and into nature is something the 21-year-old musician and poet truly believes in. Parks released her debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams this year. A soothing antidote to the stresses of life under lockdown, its collection of soulful, honest pop ballads have earned her a Mercury Prize nomination and a loyal following. 

Parks took regular walks during the recording process. For her, it was about finding a place to get lost, seeking out creativity and experiencing the restorative power of the natural world.

Here, she tells us all about it. 

“I must have been about sixteen when I first went to Hampstead Heath. I grew up in South West London so I was quite late to it, I never really went north. I remember it was one of those classic blazing hot days – the kind we only ever have about three of in a year. I went with a couple of friends and we had a picnic. I remember feeling particularly taken by the beauty of it, by being high up and having these incredible views of the city, I loved exploring all of the hidden nooks and crannies.

“I started going pretty regularly after that. I love how easy it is to find a pocket within the park that feels secret, it’s all yours. At quiet times, you can walk for ten minutes in any direction and not pass anybody else, and that’s really hard to find in London. I’ve lived here my whole life and there’s always cars and people and sirens, there’s always some kind of noise in the background. It’s really rare to just hear birds.

“Over lockdown, going outside and escaping in some way was really important for me. Going to Hampstead Heath got me outside of my own head. It was an escape from the anxiety of the times we were living in. I had my little routine, I always got off at Hampstead Heath station. I’d either meet a friend or go by myself, I’d get my latte from the Nook cafe and then I’d go into the park, take a left and walk uphill for 40 mins until I reached the forest.

“During the pandemic, it felt like we were very much living on our own islands, so it was nice to come to the park and see other people. It was a moment to just breathe in fresh air and not be stuck in your own world. I’d walk and walk until I felt sufficiently lost.

“I spend a lot of my time in the company of people, so I need time on my own to replenish. Outdoor spaces are perfect for that. I might listen to a podcast or just the sound of the birds. Whenever I come to Hampstead Heath I feel this real distinctive sense of calm. It helps in terms of creativity too, it’s hard to explain, but I’ve always found being near water or being in a forest [inspiring]. Going for walks is a big part of how I clear my head and get perspective. If I’m stuck on a song, I always go for a walk to take space from what I’m working on.

“One of the beautiful things about being in nature is that you can have a very childlike approach to it. You can run around and just do what feels good. It doesn’t have to be structured – find places that look good, that look fun, and follow your instinct. I never stick to any particular trails. I head to the places that look cool. I climb trees. I look for birds. I’ve seen some very cool ones that I can’t identify. I’d love to learn more about recognising the nature around me. I usually take videos and ask my friends who are more knowledgeable, but it would be great to be able to do it myself. Even in my songwriting, I’ve always been really interested in specificity and detail. I want to include the things that I’ve seen in my lyrics, but sometimes I’m not too sure what they are!

“Being outdoors can have such a positive impact on your mental health. If you’re living in an urban space it does wonders for anxiety and for relieving that sense of pressure, it’s the openness of space, that vastness… you feel resettled. I don’t know how to explain it but there’s something very pure about spending time with your feet on the grass or swimming. Growing up, depending on where you live, access to nature and to those kinds of activities was not necessarily a given, it was something that your parents would get you into, or you had to go out and find it yourself. Nature is something that is replenishing and beautiful for everyone. It’s not something that should feel exclusive. So I think building out of that sense of exclusivity and making it something everyone can enjoy – and that everyone is aware of – is really important.”

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