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.