meta-scriptArlo Parks Talks Debut Album 'Collapsed In Sunbeams,' Winning Over Billie Eilish & Phoebe Bridgers | GRAMMY.com
Arlo Parks

Arlo Parks

 

Photo: Alex Kurunis

 

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Arlo Parks Talks Debut Album 'Collapsed In Sunbeams,' Winning Over Billie Eilish & Phoebe Bridgers

The British singer/songwriter plumbed profound emotions with a simple toolkit on her debut album, 'Collapsed In Sunbeams.' Now, some of her favorite musicians are along for the ride

GRAMMYs/Jan 28, 2021 - 10:09 pm

"I'd lick the grief right off your lips."

Fans rejoiced at the tantalizing thought of new music from Billie Eilish after she captioned a passport-style Polaroid to her Instagram in January with those emotionally charged words. But the lyrics actually come from a hotly tipped singer/songwriter from the U.K. Eilish was referencing Arlo Parks' "Black Dog," a candid look at the realities of trying to help a friend living with depression. A year apart in age, Eilish and Parks represent a new generation of songwriters intent on tackling Gen Z's problems head-on.

It's not just Eilish who's singing the praises of Parks—the vanguard of the creative arts is rooting for the young singer. "Cola," from her 2019 debut EP Super Sad Generation, appeared in Michaela Coel's critically acclaimed HBO series, "I May Destroy You." Phoebe Bridgers and Florence Welch have shown love, too. Although the influencer generation has shifted the capacity to create stars from institutions to individuals, Parks has taken home a host of industry awards, too, landing a spot on the BBC Music Sound Of 2020 long list, which launched the careers of Michael Kiwanuka, Haim and Sam Smith, and NME's Essential New Artists For 2020 list.

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Parks has had a meteoric year, but she's remained undeterred by the pressure; she spent 2020 and early 2021 mostly confined to her childhood bedroom. She's gained and maintained a fan base via a social media presence as sincere and personal as her songs, emphasizing self-love and openness. Her lyrics tackle big subjects—unrequited love, addiction, mental health struggles, sexuality—and her vocals are tender, unflashy and inviting.

Themes like these are the bedrock of her debut album, Collapsed In Sunbeams, a series of vignettes describing friends and their problems tied together by a calm, wistful energy. (The album's title is lifted from British author Zadie Smith's 2005 novel, On Beauty.) Nodding to her influences, like Radiohead and Portishead, Collapsed In Sunbeams easily flits between lo-fi pop, R&B and the indie sounds of her youth. Yet the real beauty is in Parks' smart observations on life, which she tackles directly yet compassionately.

GRAMMY.com chatted with Arlo Parks about Collapsed In Sunbeams, her literature collection and how her heartfelt lyrics entered Eilish's imagination.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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What are you reading at the moment? I learned a new Japanese word recently—tsundoku, or the art of leaving a book unread after buying it. Are you like that?
I'm definitely like that! My favorite thing to do is wander around quaint little book shops in SoHo, like Skoob Books, and buying 10 books at once. I've got Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland, This Young Monster by Charlie Fox and The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst on my desk, to name a few. There's something so comforting about books as a little physical world to explore, but making the time to read them is a different story.

Aside from your musical influences, which artistic figures inspire you?
I'm obsessed with sensory, muscular writers like Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, and Raymond Carver. Some special books to me are Just Kids by Patti Smith, Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles and Blueberries by Ellena Savage. I'm also interested in [photographers] that capture youth culture and act like super-observant documentarians, like Wolfgang Tillmans, William Eggleston, and Nan Goldin.

In terms of films, I love Xavier Dolan—especially Mommy—[as well as] Wes Anderson's catalog, Vertigo by Hitchcock and quiet, sensitive films like In The Mood For Love by Wong Kar-Wai or Driveways by Andrew Ahn.

Can you remember which came first, writing stories or listening to music?
Listening to music came first. I remember sitting on the carpet in the living room and listening to everything from Françoise Hardy to My Funny Valentine by Chet Baker to Zombie by Fela Kuti. Music permeated the house, and the car rides to Sainsbury's. It's in all my conscious memory.

You're a prolific journal writer. Is that where your ideas for songs germinate?​
Definitely. This album was inspired by poring over old journals and picking out fragments of conversation, dissecting explosions of emotion and important stories [magnified] by adolescence. Journaling also allows me to have those quiet moments of introspection and makes me a more honest, focused, and experimental writer. Everything I write feeds into my songs.

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How did you go about recording Collapsed In Sunbeams?
It was recorded between my bedroom, a few Airbnbs, and two studios. I wrote the demos for "Portra 400" and "Bluish" in my bedroom and recorded the Bluish vocals at 3 a.m. at home. Most of the songs were written and recorded in Airbnbs in East London—Dalston and Hoxton.

It was a very organic and instinctive process. We approached this album on a song-by-song basis to make sure everything felt fresh, and the sonic palette was broad.

Your songs' emotional maturity is surprising given your age. Have you always been that emotionally in touch?

I've always been somebody who felt a lot all the time. That sensitivity and empathy is a big part of who I am, and I've always had a sense of self-awareness when it comes to my inner landscape. I learned a lot about emotion and communication just from being around very open people—from helping friends and understanding myself.

You've spoken elsewhere about being blessed with a supportive family, who helped with that emotional intelligence. What do they make of your new stardom? And what has it been like living with them while your career has skyrocketed?

They always say how proud they are of me, but there have been adjustments to be made. Being on TV or being recognized in the park, or being in the paper has taken some getting used to. It has felt so grounding to be surrounded by the people who know me and love me best during the chaos of this year, so I'm grateful for that. It's refreshing to watch some Hitchcock films with my mom or just chat with my brother between interviews. It centers me.

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"Black Dog" is particularly devastating, but elsewhere on the album, there's a more uplifting message. How can we maintain hope during this bleak period?
I think this album is an exercise in balance. Being a human being involves spikes of elation and dejection, and I wanted to explore both sides. Honestly, I would say try and make space for your own joy every day, whether it's going for a quick walk, getting a posh coffee, having a solo dance party or a bath with candles. Doing little things for yourself consistently and being aware that what is meant for you will not pass you by.

How do you feel about flaunting your influences? I can hear bits of Radiohead and Portishead.
It's super important to me. I'm a music lover before a music maker, and I love the idea of picking little elements of records I enjoy. Maybe a kick drum from [A Tribe Called Quest's] The Low End Theory, some guitar reverb from a Beach House song, a melodic approach from [Elliott Smith's] Either/Or, creating a unique collage.

I like paying homage to and basking in the songs that made me fall in love with music and allow me to fall more deeply in love every day.

Speaking of influences, Billie Eilish says she's a fan. So is Michaela Coel and Phoebe Bridgers. How do you cope knowing the cool kids are watching?
It's surreal to know that such powerful, unique human beings are a fan of my work. It's validating in a specific way because these are people I look up to.

You're very in touch with your fan base, particularly through your candid social media presence. What's been the most impactful fan reaction to your work?
I feel connected to my fans, there's a familial quality to [my] community, and I find that lovely. Someone said that "Eugene" helped them come out to their older sister and feel a sense of comfort in themselves and their sexuality. I also remember someone saying the only way their baby boy would sleep was listening to "Cola", which I thought was very wholesome.

Your natural lyricism and interest in words of all kinds lend themselves to rap. Can we expect that on future albums, or will you keep it centered around spoken-word for now?
Maybe so. Who knows? I'm a big fan of hip-hop. Artists like Navy Blue, MF Doom, and Earl Sweatshirt are so playful with language. The sky's the limit, and that's so exciting to me.

Phoebe Bridgers Talks 'Punisher,' Japanese Snacks & Introducing Conor Oberst To Memes

Glass Animals
Glass Animals

Photo: Drewby Perez

interview

Ladies And Gentlemen, Glass Animals Are Floating In Space

For Glass Animals, breaking through with their last album during the pandemic was an isolating experience. They brought those feelings to the fore with 'I Love You So F—ing Much,' where the Englishmen embrace a sort of majestic, celestial loneliness.

GRAMMYs/Jul 19, 2024 - 05:20 pm

Remember the atmospheric river of 2024? Glass Animals' Dave Bayley thought he'd drown in it. He'd holed up in a cheap Airbnb to write his band's latest album, I Love You So F—ing Much — and soon realized why it was so cheap.

"When I got there, I realized why. It was one of those stilt houses, hanging off the edge of a cliff," Bayley tells GRAMMY.com. "There was s— flying down and trees coming out of the ground, flying down the mountain. I was like, I'm dead. This is it. This is the end."

Late at night, observing the bedlam of the natural world, Bayley didn't feel planted on terra firma at all; he felt as if he was floating in space. Which turned out to be the impetus for the English indie-psych-poppers' latest statement — space being a metaphor for disconnection and unmooring. (The album arrived July 19 via Republic; Bayley remains the sole producer.)

"I think I had a lot of imposter syndrome, and felt very disconnected from reality as well," Bayley says of the Covid era — which unfortunately dovetailed with the breakout success of their last album, Dreamland. But by some strange alchemy, Glass Animals spun that feeling into emotional warmth.

As you absorb songs like "Creatures in Heaven," "A Tear in Space (Airlock)" and "Lost in the Ocean," read on for an interview with Bailey about how this celestial, lonesome, yet oddly swaddling and comforting album came to be.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

How would you describe the four-year gap between Dreamland and I Love You So F—ing Much?

Like lifetimes, honestly. And at the same time, it sort of feels like yesterday as well.

It's very, very confusing — because we finished Dreamland, and then Covid hit. We were about to release it, and then we postponed, and postponed, and realized the pandemic is not going away. We promised people the album; we needed to release it to, like, survive. So, we released it thinking it would probably tank. And it did something absolutely amazing, unexpected.

Most people, when something like that happens, get to be out and experience it, and see it happening in the real world — playing live shows, and they feel part of it, and it's part of them. Whereas I was trapped in my bedroom in my underpants watching it all happen through social media and email updates.

You needed to make it to survive? Say more about that.

I mean, that was our livelihood. Somehow, this has become a profession — I have to pinch myself when I say that, it's the best thing ever.

But you can't just not release music. You have to keep writing and releasing music to maintain it as a profession. We were four years out from the record before that, at that point.

Odd question: if a music career was inaccessible to you, what would be your professional destiny, as it were?

I was trying to be a doctor before all of this happened. I was four years deep into medical school, actually. Then, a series of strange and terrible things happened in my life that made me like, I want to take a break from med school.

I was using music as a therapy, almost, to get over some of the things that had happened. I was making music to feel better, really, and connected somehow. Someone, somewhere, maybe, put it on SoundCloud.

**What was the thematic seed of I Love You So F—ing Much?**

I guess that sense of detachment was a big thing — because it not only went for the duration of the pandemic, but even after the pandemic, we were touring. And because there was no insurance for people touring against Covid, we still had to isolate and bubble within ourselves. It was going to extend us another year and a half, just being in this metal tube.

It was like, the biggest shows we ever had — they were amazing. We'd walk on stage, and for an hour and a half, be slammed in the face with emotion and energy. And then we'd walk offstage back to the bus, and we couldn't interact and be part of what was happening afterwards.

It just made us all feel even more surreal — it felt like a dream.

Talk about the sound you wanted to capture.

This one, I wanted to sound a specific way; I knew the equipment to get. I got about six synths and 20 pedals that fit the sound — a couple of guitars and a drum kit that fit the sound — and I just went for it. You could turn anywhere, and the sound would fit into the context of the record.

**If you think of Glass Animals' discography as stops on a journey via train, which stop is I Love You So F—ing Much?**

We've reached this retro-futuristic stuff, and I think it's definitely a progression from the last album.

I definitely set my own kind of '90s, '80s production — and now there's a bit of a vaporwave thing going on, but it was still pretty analog and nostalgic. It seems to be almost like the train went backwards.

Then, on the songwriting side, I was trying to really make sure the core of the sounds had [integrity]; they could basically be played with guitar and voice alone. I wanted the chords to tell the story of the song as well; we'd kind of done that in the past, but I'd never really focused on it like I did this time.

I wanted the chords to keep evolving through each section of the song — just twist the atmosphere of the song in each section.

Give me a line on I Love You So F—ing Much that you feel sums up what we're talking about.

"Show Pony" is the first song; everyone creates this idea of love, and what love should be, based on what they've seen and experienced growing up. Seeing their family, seeing their friends — you're walking down the street, and you see a couple arguing, and you form these [impressions of] love.

"Show Pony" is kind of the blueprint; it gives context for the rest of it. And then, the line that comes right after it: "What the hell is happening? What is this?" I like that as the real beginning of the record, after the table of contents — the first song.

Where do you think Glass Animals will go from here?

It's a good question, because I don't really think I'm there yet. I have a few ideas — but to be honest with you, I never end up going with any of the first ideas that I have.

Before this iteration of the album, I wrote a whole other space album that just felt really cold and hollow and empty — like a vacuum. It wasn't cool; it didn't have enough emotion, and it didn't feel soulful enough. I just binned it, and sacked off; it's in the trash.

It wasn't until I stumbled on this concept of juxtaposing these kinds of small, intimate moments with the size of space, that I put two and two together — and worked out how I could do a space album without it being f—ing s—.

Explore More Alternative & Indie Music

Childish Gambino at the 2024 BET Awards
Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) at the 2024 BET Awards.

Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for BET

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New Music Friday: Listen To New Releases From Childish Gambino, JT, Rauw Alejandro & More

With July being more than halfway through, take a look at the new tracks, albums, and collaborations from Alessia Cara, Joe Jonas and more that dropped on July 19.

GRAMMYs/Jul 19, 2024 - 02:24 pm

This summer continues to dazzle us with an electrifying array of music, with new releases arriving from Jimin (MUSE), Ivan Cornejo (MIRADA), Koe Wetzel (9 Lives), Denzel Curry (King Of The Mischievous South Vol. 2), and Adam Lambert (Afters), and many more this week. From eagerly awaited comebacks to iconic collaborations, July 19 has an abundance of new music to offer across all genres.

As you continue shaping up your summer playlists, be sure to check out the following 11 new songs and projects.

JT — 'City Cinderella'

Following the release of "The City Cinderella Documentary," which chronicles JT's inspiring journey from overcoming challenging circumstances to embarking on a solo career, the rapper unveils her highly-anticipated 16-track mixtape, City Cinderella. The project is a showcase of talent and growth, featuring powerhouse collaborations with DJ Khaled and Jeezy, the latter of whom features on a remix of her hit "OKAY."

City Cinderella is JT's first project since parting ways with her former City Girls cohort, Yung Miami. Speaking to Paper Magazine about her new venture, JT explained that the inspiration for the project was simple: "I just wanted to authentically be myself and make music."

Rauw Alejandro — "DEJAME ENTRAR"

Puerto Rican star Rauw Alejandro has been a song machine since his Sony Latin/Demars Entertainment debut with 2019's Trap Cake, Vol. 1. He'll be releasing his fifth album in five years later this year — and judging by his latest release, it may be his sexiest yet.

"DEJAME ENTRAR" sees Alejandro getting close to a woman who once was just a crush, but has now turned into his latest love affair. The singer debuted the sultry, pulsing track with a smooth performance on "Today" on July 12; one week later, the song's official release also included the official video, which co-stars actor Adrian Brody. 

Though Alejandro hasn't revealed a release date for his next project, he teased on "Today" that it will hopefully be done "soon." "These songs [are] too good to be inside the studio," he said.

Childish Gambino — 'Bando Stone & the New World'

Just two months after re-releasing his 2020 project, 3.15.20, under the new title Atavista, Donald Glover is back with another Childish Gambino album, Bando Stone & the New World. The LP features stylistic musical choices that parallel Gambino's past albums, including 2011's Camp, 2013's Because the Internet, and 2016's "Awaken, My Love!," as well as features from Amaarae and Jorja Smith, Flo Milli, Fousheé, and Yeat.

As Glover revealed in April, Bando Stone & the New World will be his last album under the Childish Gambino moniker. But he's going out with a bang: along with a massive world tour, Bando Stone & the New World is accompanied by a sci-fi film titled Bando.

According to a recent interview the New York Times, it seems Glover feels a sense of completion with the project, too. "Success to me is, honestly, being able to put out a wide-scale album that I would listen to," he said. "For this album, I really wanted to be able to play big rooms and have big, anthemic songs that fill those rooms, so that people feel a sense of togetherness."

'Twisters: The Album'

Nearly 30 years after the 1996 release of Twister, the blockbuster finally gets a sequel with the highly anticipated Twisters — and an equally exciting accompanying soundtrack. The sprawling Twisters: The Album features some of the biggest names in country music today, with tracks from Luke Combs, Lainey Wilson, Jelly Roll, and many more.

Combs was the first to tease a taste of the soundtrack with his gritty, uptempo tune "Ain't No Love In Oklahoma," which was released alongside a music video that featured clips from the movie. Scenes from the film can also be seen in the clip for Jelly Roll's "Dead End Road," which arrived the day before the album's release. 

But there's so much more to discover across the soundtracks 29 songs, from Megan Moroney's "Never Left Me" to Charley Crocket's "(Ghost) Riders In The Sky." And though the track list is stacked with country stars, there's a few gems to enjoy by hitmakers from other genres, too, including Benson Boone ("Death Wish Love") and Leon Bridges ("Chrome Cowgirl").

Alessia Cara — "Dead Man"

It's been two years since we last heard from Alessia Cara, but she's ready to begin her next chapter. The GRAMMY winner unveils "Dead Man," the lead single from her forthcoming fourth album — and if the kiss-off track is any indication, Cara's in her fearless era.

Backed by crisp drums and harmonious saxophones, "Dead Man" is an edgy ode to someone she's cutting off because he's no longer serving her. "If you really care, then why am I feeling you just slipping through my hands?," she questions in the chorus. "If you're really there, then why can I walk right through ya?/ Talkin' to a dead man."

James Bay feat. Noah Kahan & The Lumineers — "Up All Night"

In the folk-pop collaboration that dreams are made of, James Bay teams up with longtime friend Noah Kahan and genre giants The Lumineers for "Up All Night." The track boasts a vibrant instrumental layered beneath the harmonious blend of each artists' vocals — a perfect soundtrack for warm, starry summer nights.

The week "Up All Night" arrives also marks a full-circle tour moment for Kahan and Bay. Five years after Kahan first opened for Bay on the "Let It Go" singer's Electric Light Tour in 2019, Bay is now opening for Kahan — at New York City's Madison Square Garden and Boston's Fenway Park, no less — on the We'll All Be Here Forever Tour.

Sueco — 'Attempted Lover'

After four years and two projects with Atlantic Records, Sueco unveils his first independently released studio album, Attempted Lover. Across 12 tracks, the L.A. native delves into the complexities of love and relationships, while navigating the tangled emotions that accompany these themes.

Sueco set the stage back in March with the project's lead single, "Drama Queen" — a raw, high-energy track that drew in both new and loyal listeners. He soon followed up with "Mulholland Drive," a stripped-down acoustic gem, showcasing the impressive range of musical styles that Attempted Lover has to offer. 

In celebration of the release, Sueco will embark on the Attempted Lover Tour in Sept. 13, kicking things off in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and hitting 32 cities in North America until Nov. 2.

KALEO — "USA Today"

During a short break from their Payback Tour, KALEO is back with new music — and making a statement and an impact with their latest release.

The rock band deliver the emotionally charged "USA Today," a reflection on gun violence in America. Though frontman JJ Julius Son first wrote the track in 2019 with Shawn Everett and Eddie Spear, he felt compelled to release the track after an innocent bystander was killed during the attempted assassination of Donald Trump on July 13.

"So here we are/ Fighting for america/ Fighting for a new day/ Trying hard to change/ USA today," Son sings over gritty guitar riffs and dark synths. KALEO invites listeners to join the movement, pledging to donate a portion of the proceeds from the song to the gun violence advocacy group Everytown.

"USA Today" is the second track KALEO released from their forthcoming fourth album, which is due later this year; it follows the acoustic lead single, "Lonely Cowboy."

Avery Anna — 'Breakup Over Breakfast'

After being named an Artist to Watch by Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, and CMT in 2023, country newcomer Avery Anna further displays her promise and prowess with her debut album, Breakup Over Breakfast. The Arizona native co-wrote all 17 tracks on the project, including standout track "girl next door," a powerful ballad that puts Anna's golden vocals on display.

"These songs mean the world to me. It's a little bit of rock, country, acoustic, pop, and everything personal," the singer/songwriter wrote in an Instagram post. "I really wanted to give you guys an album that you can confide in. I carefully chose the songs and track listing, and creating it was an adrenaline rush / a relief all at the same time."

Role Model — 'Kansas Anymore'

With his 2022 debut album, Rx, Role Model dove deeply into themes of love. Two years later, the rising bedroom pop star offers a different take on that same topic, grieving the very relationship that inspired Rx with Kansas Anymore.

Along with offering a different take on love and relationships, Role Model's latest effort is also inspired by his longing for his native state of Maine. Drawing inspiration from artists like Zach Bryan, the War on Drugs and Caamp, Kansas Anymore chronicles Role Model journeys back home, attempting to fill the void created by leaving his East Coast roots for California. The project represents a mature step forward, navigating the rollercoaster of heartbreak and homesickness — and moving listeners in the process.

Joe Jonas — "Work It Out"

Since releasing his first solo album, Fastlife, in 2011, Joe Jonas has been plenty busy, from landing a megahit with his pop-rock group DNCE to bringing back the Jonas Brothers with his siblings Nick and Kevin. Thirteen years later, the singer makes a solo comeback with "Work It Out," the bouncy lead single from his sophomore solo album, Music for People Who Believe in Love, due Oct. 18.

"This album is a celebration of gratitude, hope, and love. These songs reflect on my life from a bird's-eye-view acknowledging the many blessings around me," Jonas shared on Instagram, referencing both his own experiences as an individual and as a recent father of two. "I hope it brings you as much joy as it brought me creating it."

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Amy Allen Press Photo 2024
Amy Allen

Photo: David O’Donohue

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Meet Amy Allen, The Hitmaking Singer/Songwriter Behind Sabrina Carpenter's "Please Please Please" & More Pop Gems

Amy Allen has penned hits for stars like Halsey, Harry Styles, and Tate McRae, including two recent smashes from Sabrina Carpenter. As she embarks on her own artist journey, learn more about the GRAMMY-winner's already dazzling career.

GRAMMYs/Jul 18, 2024 - 06:13 pm

Some artists are lucky enough to have a moment: a song of the summer, a radio hit, or a point at which their song dominates the pop conversation. Before even launching her own singing career, Amy Allen has done just that — multiple times.

In 2022, the Maine native contributed to hit songs from Harry Styles, Lizzo, Charli XCX, and King Princess; at the 2023 GRAMMYs, she was one of the inaugural nominees for Songwriter Of The Year, Non-Classical, and celebrated an Album Of The Year win alongside Styles thanks to her work on Harry's House. And as of press time, two songs she co-wrote with Sabrina Carpenter are in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart: "Espresso" and "Please Please Please," the latter of which hit No. 1.

When you have a resume and catalog as impressive as Allen's, it's hard not to get stuck in a run of highlights — but Allen's writing style is so full of remarkable emotional depth and inevitable hooks that her life and career deserves further exploration. After binging on classic rock and performing in rock and bluegrass bands in her youth, Allen began writing songs for others in the mid 2010s and has only continued to expand her impact on audiences and collaborators alike.

"Amy is a once-in-a-lifetime writer and friend — it all comes to her very naturally and effortlessly," Carpenter recently told Variety. "She's super versatile: She can wear any hat and yet it still feels authentic. I've learned a lot from her and admire what an incredible collaborator she is."

Along the way, Allen has continued honing her skills as an artist in her own right, releasing a handful of EPs and singles since 2015, initially under the name Amy and the Engine. But on Sept. 6, she's ready to fully introduce herself with her debut album — fittingly titled Amy Allen.

Just after Allen celebrated her latest No. 1 and released her newest single, "even forever," GRAMMY.com rounded up the key details you need to know about the singer/songwriter's diverse musical background, from her advocacy for female creators to seeing Harry Styles sing a song she co-wrote to a massive audience.

Her Origin Story Features A Lot Of Car Talk

Allen's early musical growth relied on four-wheeled vehicles to drive the plot forward — in many different forms. Growing up in rural Maine meant long car rides to for school and family outings, which in turn meant a lot of time with the radio.

"My dad is the biggest classic rock fan, so since I was little, I spent hours every day listening to music in the car with him and my sisters," she told Variety earlier this year.

When it came time for one of her sisters to start a band, the elder Allen named it No U-Turn, setting the theme. When the band needed a new bassist, Amy took up the low end at just 8 years old, learning classic songs from the likes of Tom Petty and Rolling Stones. The band started collecting opening spots at a bar in Portland, Maine, and lasted until Allen was in high school and her sisters had left for college. In addition, she started playing in a bluegrass band called Jerks of Grass alongside her high school guitar teacher.

Eventually, Allen thought about moving on and changing course. "I went to nursing school at Boston College for two years, and within a month of getting there I was like, 'I made a big mistake,'" she continued. After moving over to the prestigious Berklee School of Music, Allen started a new project, yet again turning to vehicular terminology: Amy and the Engine, who would go on to open for the likes of Vance Joy and Kacey Musgraves. The project's timeless indie pop charm shone brightly on singles like "Last Forever" and the 2017 EP Get Me Outta Here!, fusing references ranging from the Cranberries to the Cure.

She's A Major Champion For Women In Music

Back in 2021, Allen pondered whether it was time to carve up one of America's most prominent monuments. "Can you imagine tits on Mount Rushmore/ And Ruth Bader Ginsburg from dynamite sticks?" she sang on "A Woman's World," a highlight from her 2021 solo EP AWW!. The song backs off from that explicit ask, but the low-slung waltz of ghostly piano and gentle acoustic guitar still subversively slices at traditional gender roles and power dynamics. 

And while the track may focus its first verse on the Notorious RBG, Allen designed it as a more approachable anthem. "I felt very proud of that song. And it's something that I love to play live, because I think that it's nice as a woman to give that moment to other women in the audience where I see them," she told The Line of Best Fit upon the EP's release.

Her solo work sits in a long line of female pop and rock stars looking to lift others up — with Allen's list of influences including everyone from the Carpenters and Pat Benatar to No Doubt, Hole, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. But she's also aware of the shortcomings in the industry when it comes to behind-the-scenes matters, with female songwriters representing a disproportionately small percentage of the industry and often at lower revenue than their male counterparts. 

"It's important to have more women writing and performing so that younger girls can be hearing that and really connecting with that and resonating with that, and then being inspired to do that themselves," she continued. "I'm really excited to hear what the next generation of singer songwriters creates, and I want to do my part in making sure that they're able to."

She Went Full Circle With Selena Gomez

Allen's emotionally salient and indelibly quirky songwriting with the Engine caught the attention of more than just adoring fans. While on a tour stop in New York, she connected with Scott Harris, a songwriter who has worked with the likes of Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello, Niall Horan, and Meghan Trainor; when Allen eventually moved to New York, she would take on some of Harris' writing sessions when he was in Los Angeles. One of those sessions spawned the first song she'd place with another artist: Selena Gomez's "Back To You," which ended up on the soundtrack for the second season of Netflix's teen drama "13 Reasons Why" in 2018. 

"I grew up listening to Selena Gomez, and I know that she's going to be a pop icon forever," Allen told People in 2020. "She's awesome. I was so psyched…It definitely propelled my career in the pop writing field further."

Two years later, she would re-team with Gomez for "My Mind & Me," a single released alongside a documentary film of the same title following the impact of the star's diagnoses with lupus and bipolar disorder on her career. The single similarly offers an openhearted, empathetic look at big mental health struggles, this time in the form of a sweeping, cathartic power ballad driven by stumbling syllables and stair-step piano. 

The track was shortlisted for Best Original Song at the 2023 Academy Awards, charted in more than a dozen countries, and, perhaps most importantly, seemed to have made quite the connection with Gomez. "Honestly, it was therapeutic for me," the pop star and actress told Variety in 2022. "I felt super connected to what I was singing and what I was saying."

She Loves Seeing Her Collaborators Live

Songwriters often wind up hidden behind the scenes, unable to really gather the impact that their artistic expression is making on others. But thankfully, Allen has been able to catch a peek in on the arena-sized reactions for some of her biggest collaborators. 

One of Allen's most-played co-writes is "Adore You," a highlight from Harry Styles' 2019 album, Fine Line, which has nearly 1.7 billion streams on Spotify alone as of press time. The buoyant, slippery burst of Fleetwood Mac-indebted funk pop embodies the start of an infatuation, and fans similarly felt under the song's spell. And Allen finally got to see that feeling come to life at Styles' album release show at the Kia Forum in Los Angeles in 2019. 

"Watching Harry, I was really nervous because the album had only been out for a couple days and I wasn't sure if anybody would know that song," Allen told Variety in 2020. She also noted that the song was a hard turn from more heartbroken tracks she'd written for the likes of Halsey. "'Adore You' was my first feel-good song, so I'm psyched about that," she added.

Though not in person, Allen got a similar bolt of joy when she was able to watch Lizzo perform Styles' track for BBC Radio 1 in 2020. "I idolize Lizzo," Allen continued. "It really just goes to show that the right song can be performed by many different people." 

Little did Allen know that she'd get to celebrate a GRAMMY nomination and win alongside Lizzo and Styles, respectively, just three years later. She co-wrote "If You Love Me" from the flute-jamming pop star's 2022 record Special, which was nominated for Album Of The Year at the 2023 GRAMMYs, where Styles' Harry's House (which featured Allen's co-write "Matilda") won the coveted honor.

She Shapeshifts Her Songwriting For Each Artist

When a songwriter has to split their tracks up between multiple different artists, it might be difficult to ensure that each track sounds appropriately fitted to each performer. For Allen, it all comes down to knowing when to follow the rules and when to break them. 

"Sometimes we'll be writing and someone will say, 'It should go straight to the chorus here,' and in my brain I'm like, 'But we need a pre-chorus!' — you know, following the ABCs of songwriting," she told Variety. "But I've really been trying over the last couple of years to deconstruct some of those — that you don't need to pull out all the tricks all the time. It can actually make the song more interesting."

In fact, it might come down to what she prioritizes when sitting down to write, rather than which rules to follow. While walking the red carpet for the 2021 Ivor Novello Awards for songwriting and composition, Allen explained her perspective on songwriting formulas to PRS For Music: "When I'm writing for myself, I usually start with the verse and move my way through, and lots of other times when I'm writing with another artist I make sure the chorus is bulletproof."

The GRAMMYs Are Helping Change Her Family's Perspective On Her Career

Allen earned her first GRAMMY nomination in 2022 for her work on Justin Bieber's Justice, but her most meaningful nomination came a year later for Songwriter Of The Year, Non-Classical at the 65th Annual Awards ceremony (alongside Nija Charles, The-Dream, Laura Veltz, and Tobias Jesso, Jr.). While Allen had a hard time contextualizing the recognition, it helped her loved ones better understand the impact of her career.

"I'm just so grateful…Even my closest family and friends, they're like, 'I've listened to this artist for so long, or I listened to this song on the radio, and I had no idea there was a team that helped make this happen,'" she told VERSED: The ASCAP Podcast in 2022. "People like me growing up in small towns, we don't know that being a songwriter for a career is an option… I watched the GRAMMYs when I was growing up, and if I had known that people were making great careers, I would've gotten on the track a lot earlier."

Though the inaugural award ultimately went to Jesso, Jr., Allen seems to agree that he's deserving of the honor — he's one of her collaborators on her upcoming album.

Maine Will Always Be Home — and An Inspiration

For those who haven't been to Maine, a quick look at Allen's social media will reveal just how stunning the American Northeast can be. Among TikToks promoting her music, Allen almost inevitably drops in a clip displaying the expansive natural beauty of her home state — whether she's on a rope swing over a dazzlingly blue pool of water, or dropping a front spin while skating on the ice, or watching the massive waves from her family home.

"POV: ur back home in maine and wondering why u ever left," she plastered over one particularly stunning TikTok montage of a dazzling day swimming amongst waterfalls. The only thing as beautiful as the scenery is the music behind it is an unreleased track about missing home — proof that Maine will always be part of her, and that she clearly made the correct choice in following her songwriting dreams.

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Adam Lambert press photo
Adam Lambert

Photo: Brian Ziff

interview

Inside Adam Lambert's 'Afters': How '90s House, Clubbing & Lots Of Sex Inspired His Most "Liberated" Music Yet

With his latest project, Adam Lambert leans into his sexuality and queer nightlife culture like never before. The singer details the uninhibited inspirations behind songs like "WET DREAM" and "LUBE."

GRAMMYs/Jul 18, 2024 - 01:25 pm

Fifteen years into his career, Adam Lambert is primed for the after-party. In fact, the pop star has made an entire EP for the occasion — fittingly titled Afters.

The six-track project, which drops July 19 via More Is More Records, finds the big-voiced singer trading the expansive covers of his last LP, 2023's High Drama, for a no-holds-barred romp that takes listeners from the club to the after-party to the bedroom and beyond.

"It's my love letter to our nightlife culture," Lambert tells GRAMMY.com on a phone call from New York City. And though he admits to recording the bulk of Afters in L.A., the project is imbued with the club kid spirit of New York's queer community — from the primal sexuality dripping off dual lead singles "LUBE" and "WET DREAM" to the strutting, ballroom-ready kiss-off (and nearly NSFW title) of follow-up track "CVNTY."

Ahead of the EP's release, the queer GRAMMY nominee (and frequent Queen collaborator) celebrated his new musical chapter with a special party at The Standard High Line's nightclub Le Bain. Organized by legendary NYC nightlife impresario Susanne Bartsch as part of her famous On Top! event series, the soiree felt like a full-circle moment for Lambert as he watched drag artists like God Complex and ShowPonii slay the house down boots to his new music. 

"I've always really been drawn to that kind of world," Lambert says of the thriving LGBTQIA+ party scene. "I think even way back before '[American] Idol,' I remember being in L.A., when I was in my early twenties and trying to find the parties. They were pretty underground at the time, where people would dress up and wear crazy makeup. And of course, I was there in my platform boots, stompin' in. So I've always sort of sought out that community. I love it."

Below, Lambert takes GRAMMY.com through the colorful and unapologetically queer inspirations that led to Afters, from the '90s house sounds of Crystal Waters to finding freedom in radical creative expression — and, of course, plenty of sex.  

Feeling Free — And Sexy

I've always loved electronic dance music, I've always loved house. And it's interesting because, for a long time, it was considered sort of "niche" for a gay person to make dance music. And now it just feels like it makes sense. [Laughs.] It's so obvious, you know?

I was working so hard for so long and on tour for so long, and I did a lot of tours with Queen and on my own stuff. I was so focused on my career for so many years, and then as the pandemic kind of faded and we were getting into that next chapter, I made some time for a social life. Which was much needed. That's what kind of inspired me to want to make this music. 

I just wanted to make something that felt like my actual social life — that felt like my life. I'm in a relationship, we've made lots of friends in L.A., we have lots of after-parties. We socialize, we go out, we go to clubs, we go to bars. I wanted to make music for that.

My private life is...exciting is how I would probably put it, and passionate. So it's definitely fueled from that. The music is written in first person, but it's also sort of meant to inspire the listener to want to feel that type of freedom as well. You listen to something about sex and hopefully it makes you go, "Yeah! I feel sexy!"

Overcoming Post-'American Idol' PTSD

When I first came out the gate after Idol, I did a big old performance [at the 2009 American Music Awards]. I got in trouble for kissing the guy and having sexy dance moves and stuff, and that gave me a little dash of almost a PTSD of, like, "Oh, OK, there's a line that I can't cross. And if I do, I could risk losing everything." And that fear drove me down a certain path where I felt like I had to hold back a certain amount. 

That was very much a reflection of where we were at as a society at the time, and what the mainstream was able to digest. The music industry was a different game back then. There were a lot more gatekeepers, a lot more obstacles that I encountered. Now, the industry has shifted so much, just in terms of how people get music, how you can reach your listener, how you can make music, what kind of label situation you have set up. There's a lot less filtering going on. That's what also inspired me to want to make something that was more liberated. 

My perspective has shifted a lot. That fear early on came from a place of, "I don't want to lose this opportunity." There was a little dash of imposter syndrome in there. You know, coming off of "Idol," feeling like, "Oh my god, how did I get here?" It happened so fast. And I think just having stayed in the game over the last 14 years has given me a sense of confidence. It's given me a sense of belonging.

I've found more of who exactly I am over that time. Working with Queen has been a real boost in confidence as well, and has allowed me to sort of feel like I've earned something.

Setting The Mood

I love music that puts you in a mood, in a headspace. And that's what I wanted Afters to be. That's why I called it Afters. It was, yes, you could totally listen to these at a club, but it's also, like, lyrically, when you go to a club and then you go to an afterparty, the rules are out the window. You can do whatever you want, you know? And people feel that freedom. 

There's something to be said about growing up a bit and maturing as a performer. You feel less of a need to prove something [vocally]. I think I'm finding less of an impulse to be, like, "Look what I can do!" and more, "Look what I can make you feel." The "less is more" thing does start to become more obvious.

As I've gotten a little older, too, my voice has shifted a bit. And I have, like, lower parts of my voice that I haven't really dug into before that I definitely did on this project. Which is kind of a fun experiment. I just wanted to do something that was more vibey. 

'90s House & '20s Hyperpop

I like going into a project with, like, a reference and a direction. It gives you sort of a roadmap…I have a whole playlist of newer stuff that I kept adding. A lot of it's somewhat obscure, but then there's artists out there that I think are really cool, like Slayyyter [or] COBRAH. A lot of the DJs that I really like — Chris Lake is amazing. Even stuff like Disclosure… I really love them. I just wanted to make music that made me move.  

I found myself gravitating towards a similar sound over and over again — sort of a dirty house, kind of sexy tech-house sound. Certain textures and sonics that I started noticing as a pattern of the stuff that I liked. 

I love a good, soulful house vocal, always…Like Crystal Waters or any of those. I love that, like, '90s house vibe. And obviously "DEEP HOUSE" [on Afters] has a little bit of that. So does "WET DREAM," where you get into that soulful pocket. It's so fun to sing from that place.

Queer Voices In The Studio 

It was really important for me to make sure there were queer people in the room when I was writing these songs. Back when I was first starting, the major label writing setups that I was put into, there weren't many queer people. And that's changed so much — there's more and more queer people in the music space. Definitely top-line songwriters, and then even more and more, I'm finding producers that identify as queer, and that's really exciting. 'Cause it makes everybody less afraid and just willing to sort of go for it.

"WET DREAM," I did with Sarah Hudson and JHART and Ferras, who I've known for ages. Vincint and Parson James worked with me on "LUBE." Just people that I really admire. Vincint did some background vocals on "LUBE," actually, which is cute. Vincint and I did a collab on his project recently as well, so that was cool that we got to each kind of add to each other's project.

A lot of the songwriters are friends of mine who I've known for a long time. I was like, "Do you want to do a song?" Which makes the writing process so much fun.

Queer Rebellion & Sexual Healing

I think, right now, people want to find freedom. I think people want to find an escape. There is a lot of sociopolitical energy right now that's kind of dark and negative, that's coming at us from the right wing, super-conservative side of the world. Some of that can make us feel dark as well, and kind of discouraged. 

But I also think there's a lot of us, including myself, that feel like that lights a bit of a rebellious flame in us, and makes us want to shine brighter and be bolder and be wilder and crazier than we are. And [I] see that out and about: people are more and more expressive, emotionally, with their identity [and] how they want to explore [it].

There are members of our community that want to explore their gender identity; there are members of our community that want to explore their feminine side or their masculine side. There's, I think, more acceptance in that exploration and that expression right now than there's ever been. It's f—ing great. It's always been there in the [LGBTQIA+] community, but you're just seeing it on display a little bit more. People are more comfortable going there and exploring it, and I love that. 

There's less and less shame around sex than there's ever been. We're more mainstream than we've ever been — there's more with social media and [pauses] other types of media on the internet. And that's really exciting. 'Cause sex is f—ing great. And healing, and wonderful, and exciting. It's our human right to explore our sexuality, and I see more people feeling freer in that. 

Finishing With A Climax

One of the Afters songs, "FACE," was actually created a while ago. I wrote that with Pete Nappi, like…four-ish years ago? During the pandemic, I think. But it sounded very different. And once I started getting more house tunes together, I kinda was like, "OK, can we take this idea and evolve it into a higher BPM and a dancier kind of direction?" 

We sped it up, we added a bigger beat to it, more of a four-on-the-floor feel to make it feel "club." But it's definitely the last track on the EP for a reason. 'Cause it slows down compared to the other songs a bit. If the rest of the EP is foreplay, it's sort of like the home run. [Laughs.] It's like once you get that person that you've been into all night into the bed, what happens?

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