I’ve got to admit I was intimidated. I’ve done enough interviews that I don’t usually get the jitters beforehand, but San Francisco songwriter Rykarda Parasol’s sheer self-possession on last year’s full-length Our Hearts First Meet (Three Ring) had me a little spooked. Yeah, I’ve sat through enough interminable creative-writing workshops to know not to confuse the author with the story, the narrator with the narrative, the singer with the song. Nonetheless, on such numbers as "Night on Red River," there’s a glow of eternal bad-ass that outlasts the spinning of the CD. "So my steps were slow and my swagger [pause] deliberate," Parasol sings at her throatiest almost on the edge of phlegmy, really. "And if ever my heart grieved, now my body must not confess it." And she walks and wails, more in triumph than lament, into the Texas dark, leaving the jeering crowd back in the bar, "walking through everyone out on Red River tonight."
The situation plays itself out more than once. On "Arrival, a Rival," Parasol sings, "So this is Texas, so this is ache / So this is Texas on your knees now don’t you break." With "En Route," she tells the story of a lone motorcyclist, an ex-lover, who died on the way to New Orleans. At his funeral, she mourns, "Not a dry eye was to be seen / Unless you looked into mine." The record set largely in Texas but also in New York has a novelistic, dare I say, cinematic feel to it. There’s crashing thunder, and there’s light. There are lonesome plains and evil deeds, with only the sound of "Texas Midnight Radio" to hold off the darkness. But what in lesser hands (and with lesser voices) could come across as ham-handed and weepy, another alternaheartbreak opus, rises above. Parasol’s background yeah, that’s her real name as a University of San Francisco literature grad shines through, and the songs come across as the tales of a woman, an outsider, in crisis situations. Parasol’s character digs deep and summons an inner strength just strong enough to edge out self-doubt and to stand up and walk on.
WHEN WE FIRST MEET
So yeah, I was intimidated a bit. Our Hearts First Meet feels like literature to me: it makes me think of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and I’m a little reticent to say it because I think she gets this a lot Nick Cave.
Of course, when I met Parasol for coffee in the Mission District, she wasn’t swaggering deliberately. She didn’t put her cigarette out in my drink, like the famous story of Cave dousing his smoke in Richard Butler’s cocktail at a London party. Really, what the fuck did I expect? While careful, which is to say trained with an almost Pavlovian rigor, not to confuse the writer with the writing, I could see the path she’d taken from being "extremely shy my whole life" to the "I shall overcome" or, to take another quote from "Red River," "To myself I will be true" attitude of the disc.
"I was told not to sing in the school chorus," Parasol told me. "I used to lip-synch. I was … I wouldn’t say ‘tone deaf,’ because that’s a real clinical term. They call it a ‘lack of relative pitch.’ " She went on to say she had "no natural aptitude" for music, rather "such a strong desire. I just wanted to push myself further."
This desire led to opera lessons. Although Parasol wanted to sing rock, she also knew her parents wouldn’t bite, so she pitched opera to appeal to her mother’s sense of elegance. "I was kind of a ratty kid," she added, laughing. From opera lessons she went on to a few bands, none of which she wanted to name. Finally, toward the tail end of a venture with ex-Jawbreaker drummer Adam Pfahler, wherein she didn’t write any of the music, he asked her if she had any songs. "It was, like, ‘Somebody actually wants to hear what I’ve written. Oh, my god.’ I never felt I had any business being a musician."
Beyond feeling musically unworthy, Parasol felt like a cultural outsider. Her father is a Holocaust survivor. Born in Poland, he spent his early years hiding from Nazis before immigrating to the newly formed State of Israel and later, through the beneficence of a distant relative, to California. He met his future wife, a Swedish woman, in a San Francisco bar. "He probably saw a big, tall blond lady and thought, ‘I’m going to have kids that will be Hitler’s worst nightmare,’ " Parasol said. "Aryan Jews!" Holidays saw "Hanukkah wrapping paper underneath the Christmas tree that we referred to as ‘the bush.’ You know, like the burning bush. We were very confused."
Despite wacky Decembers, Parasol’s upbringing was largely secular. Nonetheless, she grew up feeling outside the main current of American culture. Having recently seen the PBS documentary on Andy Warhol, she related to the artist as an outsider who came to the States as a child and never really fit in. "Although I was born in the US, everybody around me was a foreigner," Parasol explained. "My parents didn’t have any American friends. Everything in their house was sort of European." What she calls her "funny accent" as a child was drilled out of her in school as a "speech impediment." When she studied American literature in college, "it was a brand-new world."
Maybe it was the relative unfamiliarity of the surrounding culture that led her to move from Northern California to Hollywood and later to Austin and New York, where she seems to have continued in her role as a perennial outsider. Looking back on the interview, I think we had a bit of a misunderstanding about the setting of the album and its overarching Southern Gothic tone. Texas has a mythos to it, one that’s certainly embraced by Texans, right down to their "Don’t Mess with Texas" anti-littering campaign. It’s the Lone Star State, and everything’s bigger there. I don’t know, but when I brought Texas up, I think Parasol thought I was somehow challenging her right to use the state as a backdrop. Which, of course, I would have had it felt unearned or tacked on. She even went so far as to send me an e-mail addendum stating, "Art is frequently artificial. These songs are not grand statements about Texas or the South. They’re about hurt, loss, and isolation."
They’re outsider songs, I’d add. Which isn’t to say they don’t conjure up a set of imagery and the aforementioned mythos they just know when to transcend it. They’re powerful enough to transcend it. Parasol mentioned a well-meaning fan with a video idea. "He was talking about sticking me in period costume with 1930s hair, and I was, like, ‘This isn’t 1930,’ " she said. "I wasn’t keen on the concept. I want it to be timeless." This is where I think we weren’t seeing eye to eye. Just because something has a setting in time and space, that doesn’t mean it’s not timeless.
I’ve got to admit that I see a woman on a barren plain when I listen to Our Hearts First Meet, in the middle of a thunderstorm, and damn it all if she isn’t often wearing a worn gingham dress, reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s famously destitute Okies. This woman doesn’t have fancy hair, because it’s pouring rain, and besides, she can’t afford an expensive hairdo. But it’s not a helpless, waifish image, even though the woman may very well be weeping in the rain. The feeling I get from it is that of the final scene in King Lear. Lear is half naked and half mad, rid of everything he once held dear. And he’s shouting, taking a stand against the very universe. He’s been sunk to the depths in terms of worldly stature, but his humanity has been raised to its zenith.
It was funny to hear Parasol talk about "Night on Red River." Never mind separating the singer from the song: the scenario is that she’s in a bar with her boyfriend and "a young girl who passed judgment on people she didn’t know. A clique person." When the protagonist’s boyfriend does nothing to stand up for her, she takes that burning walk down Red River. But whereas the song’s narrator comes across as pure bad-ass, Parasol herself frames the real-life situation differently: "I have no power in this situation," she said of that night. "Nothing I can do can make it better or worse. I’m going to have to stick this out. But I don’t have to stay here."
And I guess that’s it: finding the sense of power in powerlessness. Parasol seems to have done this in her life as well as in her music: she’s found her bad-ass gland and tapped it. *
RYKARDA PARASOL AND THE TOWER RAVENS
With Elephone, French Disco, and Dora Flood
Fri/5, 9 p.m., $10
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF