Rykarda Parasol’s name has an exotic, musical air to it. If she weren’t making music, she’d be the anti-heroine of some late-period Nabokov. Or, better yet, heroine in her own sprawling road movie —a lush, atmospheric Southern Gothic shot in warm, slightly corroded sepia tones.
The songs on her debut album Our Hearts First Meet [Three Ring Records, 2006] use lust and wanderlust as starting points for a song-cycle of eloquent expansiveness. The lyrics songs draw a map through the heartland and across scarred-over emotional terrain, down dimly lit, lonely roads and switching back towards the ever-hopeful California sunset.
These complex narratives would be arresting enough on paper, where they read with an unmistakably Faulknerish eye for detail. But Parasol is a stunningly natural performer (although, in the interview that follows, she talks about how hard-won that seeming naturalness has been) who instinctively knows how to handle this material so as not to tip it over into overheated pastiche. It’s a delicate balance, but she keeps the tension in all the right places. Rykarda’s husky, unadorned voice has an unvarnished expressiveness that is arresting even without the lush backing of her band (which includes Colleen Browne, ex- of Pale Saints/Heart Throbs).
Our Hearts First Meet is a haunting but tenacious record, filled with American ghosts and old world wonders. Using the larger metaphor of personal journey to touch on universal themes of loss, dark secrets and discovery, this spare, deliberate record slowly gathers in power until it ends with a gentle but cathartic resolution: “Don’t cry.”
Miss Parasol was kind enough to answer some questions about the genesis of the record, her wayward path towards music, and the influence of San Francisco on her music.
How would you summarize the band's sound to people who were unfamiliar?
It’s a red velvet couch in a red lit room, it’s Lou Reed’s black leather jacket, it’s longhorns on an MG, and a gaudy crystal chandelier in a tiny dilapidated Latin Quarter apartment. Maybe it’s easier to say Edith Piaf meets Nick Cave meets Johnny Cash meets the Velvet Underground.
The songs on Our Hearts First Meet all touch on yearning —to be somewhere else, to be someone else, to go back to the place you've left ("Janis, Don't Go Back", "En Route", "Texas Midnight Radio", etc.). In general, those yearnings are thwarted. But there's also hopefulness there, a determination to keep moving forward despite all the bad things that have happened.
There's also a marked gravitational pull towards Texas in a number of the songs. It feels less autobiographical in nature than it seems addressing the hugeness of America, and this desire to connect to that mythical, wide-open space and all the possibilities it offers. The fullness of the album's production, augmented with Theremin, piano, accordion and violin in addition to guitar, bass, and drums, only adds to this feeling.
Maybe in those songs there is a wish for things to be altered. To start over. But I think in "Janis", for example, there is a plea to admit things are broken if she goes back and to see the present is where it’s at. Understanding my situation was hard though it was clear I had to. I was in a state where if I had options they were lousy ones. (Bear in mind, I still found a way to have a good time despite my on-going tribulations.)
...There were many things that were twisted and confusing to me over an earlier boyfriend’s death, which I recollected in “En Route.” I think the only hope I had in that circumstance was to be unfazed. I was fazed of course even though I may’ve not projected that. I know that in writing these songs I was aware of being torn about my location and relationships. I see in “Texas Midnight Radio” the song is a cognitive souvenir of a moment in time to keep the fire burning while I was gone. Whatever it took to keep going, you know. I keep my eye on the horizon. If you think of determination like a road, then mine is a crooked path. To stay connected to others and in order to experience what life offers I wander more than most. But I still get to the point. Maybe much like this answer!
In a number of the songs Texas is simply a backdrop to the stories that unfold. Scenery to the script. I think it’s a great place even though a few things got to me there or brought up old wounds. Bygones are bygones. Texas was where I was and where my heart was for a while. The stories are all based in my own experiences and truths with the exception of “Lonesome Place.”
The hugeness of America —I don’t know. I know that I didn’t believe that what was being handed to me was all I’d ever get. Know what I mean? I think I was aware of some sort of hugeness and possibility. That is American. Part of that was shaking off the bad guys from distorting my perception of my hopes and me or keeping me down.
So yeah, Texas is the backdrop. I do approach the collaboration with the band as something like me being the writer/director and we’re all actors putting on a play and building the set.
Were these songs conceived as a song-cycle? Did the Texas songs build off of one another? What was the process of building the album like?
Some writing overlapped. For instance, I wrote “Night on Red River” and “Texas Midnight Radio” as bookends. I sprung back and forth between those. The first was about leaving the things hurting me behind and the second was about the things that I could take that were positive memories. The accounts are based in fact and the retelling of them emotionally necessary. Manipulators and shit disturbers surrounded me. So I was writing things down to stay clear-minded and to keep myself intact…
Other songs were written separately: “En Route” came many years before the other songs on a road trip from Miami to Texas. At a gas station in Texarkana, I looked up at the sky and the words came to me. The real story happened along Big Sur. The body of these songs is autobiographical, sans Lonesome Place – that one fact in En Route is the only time I skewed an actual truth.
Writing was fairly fluid and easy. The overall process was grueling only in terms of recording. I had lineup switches, engineer issues, family struggles; boyfriend became a junkie (don’t worry, he’s out of the picture), and conflicting schedules —sometimes more comical than tragic. It was start and stop. Hurry and wait. Hurry and wait at the airport, rehab, the hospital, and jail. It was a spectacular end to my life in Texas that’s for sure! I’m certain many people can relate to the notion of staying focused on your life while trying to stay constructive for others. I don’t think I’m alone in those matters.
I also funded the album on my own so that was punishing as well which meant moving slowly –yet the more I was invested the more momentum [there was] to continue. There was never a time when I would give up on making the record. If I’d lost my voice I would’ve replaced me with another singer –maybe a rapper! The whole thing was like finding yourself out at sea and there’s no point in turning back. And once I got the guts to chuck a few things overboard I was sailing much faster.
The press release for the new album mentions that you are largely self-taught. How did you find yourself drawn to making music? Had you written songs before you were asked to join the band in 2001? Was it a tough transition, to suddenly find yourself the leader of a band?
Yes. I wrote songs and even performed them a while before any lineup came along. I came in with songs and a ready vision. The first incarnation of the band lasted maybe 2 weeks. It was essentially another band altogether though we’d started playing my songs. Different name too. I was replacing a singer who’d gone missing on a heroin binge —and other members basically followed him. Long story. Then, one member and me continued on for 5 months, with other lineups. The name changed over. When he left the transition was apparent and I quite literally found myself being the only band mate. If I wanted to continue I’d have to accept that things would be influx around me and yet I could be the constant. So I asked others to recognize that as well and they seemed to look to me to make certain decisions anyway.
There was a real need to not only make music, but to also play a major role in the music’s destiny. I’m extremely grateful for playing with those musicians in the earliest days. They gave me a very necessary push and made it easier for me to find everyone who came on later. Since I believe in the songs, I hope those who collaborate with me in performance and recordings feel they’ve got a very reliable person at the helm that is not just a singer/songwriter. I think there is mutual appreciation for what we all can bring to the table.
On being self-taught: I ain’t going to lie to you. I guess I lacked “relative pitch”. I had no natural aptitude towards music other than loving the song as a whole. When I was a kid I couldn’t say to you “I love that bass line”. I couldn’t hear the damn bass line. I was nearly tone deaf. While I lacked musical talent, I was naturally artistic and I knew it would be good for me to explore all mediums. I sought out everything from poetry, to playwriting, to sewing, to painting.
Initially music was just a sojourn. A place I’d visit and see if I could pick something up that could apply to something else. It’s of course far more automatic and natural for me now. That’s from sheer will and practice I guess. Of course, I do things on piano and guitar that are “odd” or “wrong” but it’s coincidentally given me the sound I want, so I don’t sweat it. I’m lucky that my abilities coordinate well with my aesthetic vision. Still I’m always learning and trying to get better. I’ve constantly been lyric-focused so no coincidence there that my songwriting centers on that. If there is no meaning I lose interest. Just like films and so forth. The writing is the backbone.
How has San Francisco infused your sound? Could you imagine making music anywhere else?
I can really imagine making music elsewhere and I hope to do it more. Going back and forth between SF and Texas as I did it all blended anyway. I’d like to live in Stockholm or Berlin and up until five days ago I thought about living in Tel Aviv. But for me the question that beckoned was “What do you want to do the most, kid? Build a band or travel?” – and I chose the band. I have in fact made music in other towns. LA is where I found my sound anyway. I began solo there and my writing and voice evolved. I played in Texas too, but didn’t get a band together till I came back to San Francisco...
SF does inspire me a great deal especially the historical parts: The Barbary Coast, The Beats, The Hippie Era, the city’s architecture —the building of the city, and the search for gold. Someone loaned me Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast recently and I am again smitten.
The press material with the album mentions "empathy towards strangers & underdogs." The album's narrators, taken as a whole, certainly seem to be outsiders. Could this impulse to document the undocumented be traced back to the influence of your parents, both to their tales of Beats-era San Francisco and to their darker stories of Europe during WWII? If not, how would you explain it?
My father’s holocaust experience doesn’t have a direct weight in the these songs except in the brutality and survival of "Lonesome Place"... No, I wrote the songs because I was isolated in many ways. The album is my own chronicle in large part. I wanted to write what I knew and it was important to me to convey something truthful. Someone told me about a Judaic tradition of leaving an ethical will, which is an account of your beliefs, your life lessons, and things like that. Not necessarily religious values –just your life values. The idea is that you leave a piece of your thoughts behind and not just financial assets. Some songs have been my way of saying “I was here” because you’d never have known otherwise. Speaking for those who can’t speak up for themselves does resonate with me. I think for a while I could not speak up so I wrote my songs and worried about performing them another day.
Favorite writers? I do detect a Faulkner influence, and also Carson McCullers —lush, poetic Southern gothics full of turmoil & hothouse emotion. Who else has influenced you as a writer?
Well I know where I got gothic inspiration and it’s actually from several English 18th century writers. Some wrote epistles and descriptions would unfold like letters to friends —domestic and intimate tones. Samuel Richardson and Ann Radcliff. I like speaking to the audience as though they’re the sole listener. But you’re right, Faulkner is influential. Each tale has a society that puts a negative spotlight on someone else because of his or her differences.
In school I read other Southern writers like Mark Twain and Edith Wharton. They might’ve left a mark. The South is in so much of our American culture. Even my father, while a refugee in Europe got a hold of Tom Sawyer.
I realized I’m a Daniel Defoe fan. I like his characters that are in quest of their true identity and they’re often unknowns. Moll Flanders is one of my very favorites. She’s scrappy and she’s noble. She’s like Scarlet O’Hara hopped up on speed. Determined to survive.
Don’t get me wrong, I do read newer novels too. I just like escaping into my “Merchant Ivory” world from time to time. I loved The Virgin Suicides immensely. And those who know me best know I swear that Crazy From the Heat is one of the best books ever. I don’t get stuck on the highbrow. If its about sex and drugs I’ll probably read it.
When it comes to the written word I do seek out poetry more often than the novel or non-fiction. I like them all: Auden, Houseman, O’Hara, Millay. Everyone from Billy Childish to Christina Rossetti and I’d say I derive a lot of inspiration mostly from poetry. I’m actively studying and researching when it comes to this. The rhythms, patterns, and figurative language. It’s very helpful for me. Plus, my attention span is questionable –and I get through a poem pretty quickly.
What were some of the bands you would name as primary influences on your band's sound? How about songwriters or bands that have influenced you in less direct ways?
Of course Nick Cave has been a useful reference to my band. But we also look towards numerous others. Early Pink Floyd, Nico, and The Animals. For me the Afghan Whigs’ album “Black Love” blew my mind. I still think of it as one of the best albums of all time. It’s psychologically layered and almost operatic in the way the music underpins the narrative. In less direct ways I’d say Iggy Pop, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Erik Satie, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and early Ike and Tina. I like artists that give me a feeling a train wreck may ensue.
What were you listening to when you were 15? 20? 25? Have you rediscovered anything from that time and how did it sound to you?
The Doors at 15. Afghan Whigs at 20. Pulp at 25. I go back to all of them. “This is Hardcore” is a great album. It’s cheeky, desperate, and really stylish.
Do you still have the first beat-up cassette/45/8-track you ever owned? What was it? (Mine was Nena, "99 Luftballons." ) Is it a fond memory or a guilty pleasure at this point?
I have a big dusty box of cassettes and it’s hard to tell when I got what when. I know I own both Fear of a Black Planet and The Trinity Session. I think both are guilty pleasures at this point. I just took a look and nothing is too embarrassing. Devo. Screaming Trees. Old REM tapes —very fond memories of those. Good music for travels.
When you're young you (usually) digest music in a fairly non-discerning fashion (i.e., passively). What song or band marked a turning point for you, when you realized there was a real power & expressiveness in music?
I’m not so sure I can say I listened that passively even when I was little. We didn’t grow up with a lot of popular music so when I heard it I was keen on it. I must’ve been 4 years old, but I remember hearing Jolene, by Dolly Parton, and really feeling her pain. The words are terrific. I also realized that even big-boobed blondes get insecure sometimes.
Rykarda Parasol, "Hannah Leah"
Rykarda Parasol, "Lullaby for Blacktail"
Rykarda Parasol | Myspace | Our Hearts First Meet is available now from Three Ring Records. Rykarda's debut EP, Here She Comes (which includes an excellent Gun Club cover, among other marvelous things) is available here.
PHOTO OF RYKARDA BY JEREMY HARRIS