Moses Boyd and Arlo Parks are two of the hottest names in independent music right now, so where better to start Music Week’s indie takeover special? Here, we meet the pair in London to discuss their art, their position in the scene and to unpick the highs and lows of 2020 so far...
Moses Boyd picks Bob Marley And The Wailers as he takes a turn in front of Music Week’s camera. The sound seeps from the stereo and out into the South London air, as hot sunshine bakes the city. Inside, there’s an air of celebration, and it’s no surprise.
We join Boyd, a jazz drummer and futurist producer, and Arlo Parks, poet and maker of tender, ultra-modern confessionals, to applaud their impact on independent music and to recognise the fact that their work is pushing the very boundaries of what’s possible for indie acts in 2020. Both are nominated at this week’s AIM Awards, and Boyd is basking in the light of a place on the Mercury Prize shortlist for the seismic Dark Matter album, released on his own Exodus Records. Transgressive-signed Parks, meanwhile, is still buzzing after her Black Dog single was added to the A-List at both BBC Radio 1 and 6 Music. The 20-year-old (real name Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho) has also felt the glow of a placement on Michaela Coel’s viral show I May Destroy You and performed in front of a bare Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury for BBC One in June.
Lockdown may have eased, but Boyd and Parks, who are both South Londoners, are still more than happy at home, taking in the continuous barrage of 2020, staying sane and busying themselves with music.
“I think I’ve managed to cope a bit better than I thought I might,” Parks begins. “We were playing a show in Manchester when SXSW got cancelled and that’s when I realised things were crumbling, as it were, I was upset but then I realised it was going to give me time to sit and write, which I hadn’t been able to do that much because I’d been playing live and doing press. I tried to take the positives, taught myself to DJ, made beats, wrote songs and started a poetry collection. Of course, there have been low moments where I’ve been disappointed, but in general I’ve tried to focus on what I can control.”
Boyd has a similar tale of being on stage before the world changed.
“I finished my last show on March 12, as soon as I got off stage, the venue staff said, ‘That’s it, we’ve had to cancel tomorrow’s show, we’ve just had info from the government or whoever...’” he says. “So the reality hit as soon as I got off stage, who knows when live music will come back.”
Of course, their opening comments barely scratch the surface of what Boyd calls a “once in a lifetime” year. So it’s time to sit down, first with Boyd and then Parks, to tell their stories and find out their vision for a new era of independent music...
How do you see the state of independent music today?
“There’s a lot of good indie artists across the spectrum. The technological advancements over the past five years, from a business point of view, make it easier to do your own thing, but it’s still not easy. I’m seeing a lot more young artists being empowered by that and seeing it as an option, whereas when I started music it was kind of, like, you find a label and hope for the best. I didn’t want that.”
Why did you start Exodus Records for your own music?
“I was on a mentorship programme, the Steve Reid Foundation, and my mentors were Floating Points [Sam Shepherd] and Four Tet [Kieran Hebden], who both have their own imprints. I’d recorded some music and played them what became Rye Lane Shuffle and they were like, ‘Oh man I’d love to put this out’. I remember Sam in particular saying, ‘Maybe you should try it yourself’. He said he’d give me the advice and help connect me with a couple of different people, which I’m very grateful for. I had no idea. I was like, ‘What is a lacquer?’ ‘Who do I get it mastered with?’ and all of this stuff. Afterwards, I realised this was what I wanted to do. I didn’t just want to hand it over to a label and let them do their thing, I wanted to understand the mechanics. Once I built the infrastructure and got more proficient, I had a house ready to go. I’m not Sony, I’m not EMI, my relationships are my contact book and I’ve got the music, that’s what I lean on.”
Will you ever expand?
“Eventually. The thing I’ve been struggling with for a long time is that I’m not sure I want to be on the same business model all the other labels are. Obviously, people have to eat and pay bills, but I feel like there’s an alternate structure that I haven’t figured out yet. For the moment, it’s still just me and my music and I’m OK with that. I’ve got to work out a way I’m comfortable with, a different way of how a label operates. What does a label do in 2020 that independent artists can’t do for themselves? I’m not saying there aren’t things, but more and more I’m asking that question. Maybe we need to change the structure.”
What does a label do in 2020 that independent artists can’t do for themselves?
What does your utopian vision for Exodus look like?
“I want to be able to champion things I think are really exciting and cool and be a part of them in some way. I write, produce, DJ and all of these things, there’s something I can add to an artist if they want it, and they can take it or leave it. For the artists, I’m very big on ownership. I’ve seen some contracts and offers and I don’t believe a label can demand that they own a file or intellectual property for so long when they didn’t create it, it’s never sat right. It doesn’t happen so much with smaller independent labels, but with the majors it’s another form of slavery in my opinion. So, how do you create a system that’s fair, does it operate in the same way everyone else does? Are we going to go off DSPs, create a whole new world for artists? Where maybe you’re not on Spotify, you’re centred around Bandcamp and your own shop that you learned to code and build yourself that operates on a D2C basis. You grow and you mine the data yourself, it’s ethical and you create a fanbase from the ground up, relying less on social media and creating your own system. Maybe there’s an alternate way for new artists, with fairness mentorship and artist development.”
How have you coped with everything 2020 has thrown at the world?
“It’s been a rollercoaster. For a long time after lockdown started, I had a bit of a block, with Covid, the death toll and everything, it has an effect. There were bigger issues. And then when I did get productive, we had George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. It’s something I care deeply about. I haven’t put too much pressure on myself to be productive because we’re in a once in a lifetime situation. My partner is a nurse so I’ve been hearing stories from her and other friends who work in care, you’re not far away from anything. It’s been very heavy.”
What’s your take on the music industry’s role in the fight against racism?
“This isn’t trying to be negative, but to put it blunt, I’ve been black my whole life. This isn’t new to me, the reality that black people live, particularly in music, whether you’re male or female, and being black and female is another thing. It’s not to say I don’t think people care, but I’m not expecting things to change overnight and I’m not relying on that. It goes back to the independent mindset; I’m trying to figure out how to do as much as I can on my own with own system, that is freedom. There are so many issues with the music industry, whether it’s racism, misogyny, everything. So build your own system. If more people do that, the landscape will be forced to change.”
What does independence mean to you?
“Having creative freedom and being allowed to experiment and figure myself out as an artist. When I think about the artists I look up to, whether that’s Radiohead or Phoebe Bridgers, they’re constantly pushing boundaries, that’s something I wanted for myself. Transgressive’s roster is wildly diverse and genre isn’t really a thing, that’s what really appeals to me, the idea that I can really be anything. There’s camaraderie and a sense of community. I have friends who are signed to a variety of labels and I enjoy that breadth, but within the indies there’s a sense that we’re in it together. The whole idea of being on an indie label is way more personal and family oriented and those values carry across. It feels like people are given a lot more space and are allowed time to marinate their ideas, rather than being rushed into it for a commercial deadline, but this is just from my eyes. As a kid, signing to a label was always the goal, but I just focused on the making of the music and hoped something would happen. I didn’t really think about releasing music, I just put it online.”
Can the music industry be a force for good to fight prejudice?
“I’ve seen certain things like Mura Masa organising a workshop and there have been other positive steps forward, but it’s about actively employing and commissioning black artists and making sure that their artistry is championed. A lot of music has roots in black art, but that’s not really appreciated. It is positive to see people saying they are going to make a change, but we’ll see when it happens and we’ll see how much actually happens. It’s a big, big problem, the fact that it’s so deep-rooted, racism and prejudice can be both conscious and unconscious, just the way you see the world. It’s going to be very difficult to undo and it affects the lives of every single black person on the planet. When awareness was starting to increase, it was seen as a positive thing, but also this isn’t really new, this is just my life and black people experience these things on a daily basis. I’m optimistic, there’s a younger generation of human beings and artists who are actively willing to enact change, speak out and stand up for what they believe in.”
How has music changed your life?
“I still haven’t really processed any of it. It feels dream-like still, even if I hear myself on the radio I’m like, ‘What?’. I remember I was in the car and Radio 1 was on and I said to my friend, ‘Stop playing my music, you know I hate that,’ and she said, ‘No, this is the radio’. It’s those moments, being recognised or striking up conversations with other artists I’ve looked up to for years and years. I’ve tried to take things in my stride, appreciate them and not get too in my head about it.”
The whole idea of being on an indie label is way more personal and family oriented
How has 2020 been for you creatively?
“I’ve had a lot of space to reflect on what I want my debut record to actually say, it’s a statement of intent, so I’ve been grateful for the time to think about what it will be. It’s in the very early, nebulous stages. I’ve been writing a lot but it hasn’t taken form yet, I like to write loads and loads and then go back and cherry-pick and organise, so I’m still at the furiously writing stage.”
Has your writing process changed?
“The focus for me is always the words. I’ve started flicking back through my old journals and pinpointing important moments and I’ve got this massive word bank, whenever I read poetry or a book, I pick out words that I like and add them. I scan through that and see if any of the words strike me as a starting point, it’s always words first, that’s been a constant for my whole life. It’s all on paper, I’m a purist in that respect, I love having things written down. It’s strange, I was reading the dictionary this morning and certain words I like and certain ones I just don’t. It’s not necessarily obvious, it’s not big words or anything, it’s the texture of them. My dad is really into gardening and I was grilling him for very specific flower names because I’ve always had this thing about nature, I don’t know why. Also someone pointed out the colour purple is a thread throughout my songs that I didn’t even notice. I love colour and texture, food and things like that.”
How does it feel to be part of this generation of indie acts?
“I’m really excited. When I look at the cohort of artists in their twenties who are making music at the moment it makes me feel so excited, there’s such a broad range. It does feel like vulnerable, emotional music is making a comeback and there is a space for it in the scene and that is exciting. People are really pushing boundaries and destroying genres as a concept. I want to approach my art with a level of transparency and empathy and I want to help people.”