Interview with Rykarda Parasol

Photo Credit: Pat Johnson Studios

Hello Rykarda!  You’re fresh off playing an acoustic gig at SXSW and your starkly captivating, self-described “rock noir” sophomore album For Blood and Wine was released this past October.  How was SXSW?  Did you get a chance to catch other artists’ performances?

Hello Jen! I did see many bands at SXSW. My favorite was Imaad Wasif from LA. I also really enjoyed Fanfarlo and Golden Filter.

I rarely accept acoustic shows because they can tend to be nerve- wracking. This particular show however was really conducive to the acoustic setting and a great opportunity to get to play with my good friend, violinist Jacob Lehrbaum, while revisiting Austin.

There’s a backstory to your batch of songs on For Blood and Wine. They showcase a female character’s descent through venturous and violent living, revealing the darker side of human connections, which includes lies, betrayal, and heartbreak, yet each song can stand on its own without prior knowledge of the album’s concept.  The storytelling effect is compelling and I was wondering, in the emotional sense, if your lyrics directly reflect your own relationship trials and tribulations.

Yes certainly, the stories are directly reflective of thoughts, feelings, and experiences I’ve been through and the meanings I derive from such encounters. On occasion, I recount a tale from the other person’s side, but I let the listener guess at that.

I started writing music because I felt there was a void. I remember being very tiny and listening to “Jolene” by Dolly Parton and thinking “What’s this Jolene got to say for herself?” At some point I wrote from the point of view of the troubled mind and the person whose moral compass was in decay. I like to analyze those darker moments. Writing professors told me to write about what I know – and it’s served me well to be authentic. In that sense I don’t feel terribly imaginative. I start with the aim to dissect the emotional state and apply logic to it and by doing it in song. I capture these life’s flashes as though they’re souvenirs. Like gritty photographic reminders. Of course, I’m a storyteller and stories often have a beginning, middle, and end. Without conflict there’s not much meat. My aim is also to define its meaning and give resolve.

For instance, in “Widow in White” I lost someone I cared about at a young age and with them I lost what I thought things were supposed to be, but what I found was that I was happier in fact to be free to reinvent new paths. It’s a bittersweet victory, because I was still dealing with loss on many levels. But I wanted to encapsulate that and remind myself of it in a wise voice and not an innocent’s.

Photo Credit: Xavier Gomez

Your sing-talking vocals are powerful, foreboding, and melodic, where you modulate between smoky whispers, matter-of-fact phrasing, and plaintive exclamations – a perfect match for your bleak lyrics.  I read that you specifically worked on your voice in order to reach and sustain the lower register.  What did that involve?  Did you train on your own or have a vocal coach help you out?

Well, first I want to say that I simply felt that a “meatier” female voice was just more appealing to me. I didn’t want to sound like a screaming cheerleader. I had a tone in mind and I just went about finding it…

I worked on strengthening my voice on my own, yet I had some opera training in my teens. Mostly it’s been through experimentation and just plain practice with a dash of insomnia that’s added to my weariness. Usually a female’s vocal muscles are more delicate in comparison to a man’s so it has to be built up. In some regard, actors, orators, and rappers inspire the sing-talk. The tonal quality of a voice matters more than their range to me. Emotion more than technical ability. I have a wide range, but it’s just more about the tone than singing as high as I can and I am a soprano. I don’t care how good someone can sing – the song and the emotion have to be there. An aged Johnny Cash is a powerful voice.

I recite the lyrics quite often without singing them when I am writing. I do that in order to not only find the right words, but to hone the delivery. That comes from my opera background. I would learn the songs first in English, then learn each meaning of the foreign word, if, say, the song was in German. I’d have to know the meaning through and through before I was allowed to sing anything. So I guess I practice delivering as much as singing!

What has your musical progression been like from your debut EP Here She Comes… in 2003 to your first album Our Hearts First Meet in 2006 and now your latest album?  Are they all in the same stylistic vein?

The albums styles are certainly related. It’s like they all have the same mother, but sometimes different fathers. Usually there’s one part of the DNA that has been switched out. Our Hearts First Meet had a bit of Johnny Cash’s eyes, but For Blood and Wine has Jim Morrison’s hips. Some instrumentation, such as horns, etc, come into play in changing the color, yet the hue is still stark, still intimate, still darkly mysterious.

What’s different between this album and the other recordings is that my confidence made For Blood and Wine an easier project to undertake. I went with what seemed right to me and didn’t listen to outsiders’ opinions. I only asked friends or people I knew who “know the darkness” to play on the album. There was a real sense of support from all sides… At any rate, yes, I am committed to this style. It is an extension of me and it was always there even before music.

You are not only a singer and song-writer, but a pianist and guitarist, and I think you produced all of your releases.  Did you have any collaborators on For Blood and Wine or was it all you?

I also played percussion on this album too!

The short answer is there wasn’t much production collaboration. Out of necessity I did what I had to. I’m so personally tied to the music that I kept thinking I have to make this for my nephews and nieces. I just figured I’d record it and set it aside, maybe bring it out and show them in 15 years. And I wanted to make this with my friends so they too would have a record of our friendship and love of music together. I didn’t have a label backing me and when I spoke to big producers they wanted to make albums costing $20K, which was totally nowhere near possible. I just decided to do what I could with a super-dinky budget and if I was ok with it, that’d have to be good enough. I could always choose to leave it in the basement. We got the basics down in two days and filled in the rest. I really couldn’t ask more from the people I was working with. I made sandwiches for everyone. It was DIY start to finish.

The best analogy of what I do is that I think of myself as a combination of Writer/Director/Actor along the lines of say Woody Allen who is infamous for giving limited direction and letting the other actors fill in and improvise. My direction is vastly based on a series of adjectives and getting folks into character. I don’t get technical on them usually. That can be problematic for some players who need a lot of direction, but I’m careful to work with those who need that space and who want to “serve the song” so to speak.  Each musician writes their own parts usually… I also took suggestions from Mark Pistel (engineer) and Brian Gregory (my bassist), especially when we came up against some challenges. I’m good at listening to what I like in other artist’s albums and figuring out what I need to do to my own to derive the right atmosphere.

There was a lot of “blood” in For Blood and Wine. There were tears too. I was struggling to remove myself from an abusive relationship and recording was very helpful to distance myself. I released the album on my own because I didn’t want to wait for a record label. Despite good reviews, none have ever come calling. So I felt that if I was a real artist, then art shouldn’t wait on anyone outside. There was an urgency within me to keep going forward. I suppose I included a track titled “Swans Will Save” by my five year old niece, who wrote the tune on her own, as a way to say “This is the future and a fresh start”.

Photo Credit: Jeanette Vonier

The lyrics to your songs can be found at your official site at http://www.rykardaparasol.com/ .  They are vivid and poetic on the page, but your dynamic vocal presentation infuses them with a raw vitality.  Here are a few samples:  “…as so often that it can become the case / where Love had presided Freedom now takes her place.” (“Widow in White”), “You can see it on my face / Life has left her trace.” (from the incredible “Covenant”), and “Why do you go ‘round and say that I have no heart? / It don’t make sense – you want what you say I ain’t got.” (“No Sir (Ain’t No Man Gonna)”).  Did you always know that you wanted to express yourself in the musical format as opposed to the literary mold?

Nope, I didn’t always know. I sung off-key when I was kid and the school’s choral conductor told me to lip-sync. I didn’t think I had any business making music. I started writing and singing seriously when I felt there was a void in the sound and style I wanted to hear. One day I just found “my voice” in a stylistic sense and that was a really good day.

I know the books I want to write and the messages I want to say, which is beyond the medium of music. I still write poetry and completed a children’s book, which I also hope to publish. The power of language is hugely central to me in both drama and wit. I’ve a special knack at playing on words. The artistic choice of a single word can add sparkle where something may otherwise be gray. I just read an article about comedic writing, and it debated using the term Fresca rather than Coke because Fresca sounds funnier. In dramatic writing I analyze words just as thoughtfully I hope.

Speaking of, well, writing about the literary angle, who are some of your most fave authors and what are some of your fave books or plays?  I’m partial to authors Thomas Hardy (at least currently; I didn’t appreciate reading Jude, The Obscure in high school), F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Virginia Woolf.

I enjoy those authors as well. I think one book that has always been with me was Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe. Moll is always moving from one area of society to another and adapting and surviving. Eighteenth Century literature in general speaks to me because there’s a lot of moral and domestic debate that still applies. Liaisons Dangereuses is a good example of that. I also read a great deal of poetry, usually out loud at bedtime. Anything from O’Hara to Houseman.

I’m also terribly interested in sound and dialogue. So I’ve taken the time to read scripts plainly by Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen for example. I actually really enjoy reading Woody Allen’s essays. Well-written comedy is ripe with acute observations dramatizing the missteps in human behavior.

I’ve even been deeply influenced by books like A Clockwork Orange, but from a different angle. Anthony Burgess himself was a composer and conductor, I believe. The tonal sound and slang of the book itself is quite musical throughout. So while I am keen on message, I am looking at the musical quality of words themselves and their connection with each other. The word choice of a character, for example, defines “the character” beneath.

I noticed on your MySpace profile that you list Afghan Whigs, Greg Dulli, The Gutter Twins, and Mark Lanegan as influences.  I have a mutual admiration for Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan and have been following Greg since the song “Gentlemen”, and Mark on ‘n’ off since his time in Screaming Trees.  What is your fascination with these two artists?

I enjoy their music. I feel Greg Dulli doesn’t get the acclaim he deserves particularly around the albums Gentlemen and Black Love. His imagery, insight, and delivery are inspiring and I think, hugely powerful. He tells me things in a way that’s new. Black Love is one of the greatest albums ever made. I get the feeling Dulli was blood-letting. I don’t want his baby. I just want to sing with him and chant “amen” every time he sings “Beware of who you trust in this world.”  He should call me – I think we need to do a duet.

You are a multi-talented artist and are also known for setting up an artistic space called the Hive where you host events like art installations, literary readings, music gigs, and fashion shows.  It sounds like you’ve got a lot going on!  How is the Hive working out?  Do you have enough time to devote to overseeing it?

I limit actual art exhibits to just a few events per year because of time and energy. The primary event is Debut Lit, which promotes new authors such as Tony DuShane and Andy Raskin. To earn our keep, the Hive is often rented to private parties or otherwise to artists who use the space for projects-in-the-works like photo shoots and painting. Von Iva shot a video here. And most often the Hive can be a social headquarters for the late night scenesters. Word is in the 60s it was a Beat hangout called the After Twelve. No doubt these walls need to keep quiet.

Your album covers are very eye-catching, where an unclothed, svelte female figure with pale skin is strategically hidden by full-blooming, richly colored flowers.  Who designed the covers?

Thank you. I design the album artwork throughout. Symbolism and consistency is fun for me and a way in which I tie the albums and their significance together. The nudity is a way of saying “Things will be revealed, but some things still concealed”. I’m afraid to say I am the pasty cover nude. Over the years, I’ve worked with Jeannette Vonier who’s had the chore of taking pix of me in the buff and then I do the collage work surrounding it. The flowers have symbolic meaning that connect them to geographical locations alluded to in songs as well as meanings connected to the flowers themselves (such as sleep and death in the poppy).

The other images like Jack of Spades, pills, ships, etc – they too are associated to the songs or to me in some way. For instance, the Blacktail snake is native to Texas and in the song “Lullaby for Blacktail” there is imagery that feels snake-like and the song makes references to Texas. It’s hard for me to separate visual and aural – sorry if my thoughts here are confusing… The visual imagery of the lyrics in that song was supposed to stretch out with a sense of length, calling up the images of both train and snake. The snake appears on the back of Our Hearts First Meet and the snake’s markings, which are yellow and black are also repeated. (Sigh!) And yet while it may sound like I’m meticulous, there still is a lot of relaxed effort. The rawness still has to be there… By the way, I believe the Jack of Spades card exists in two of my videos. You have to look for it. The ever-present character fault.

You’ve toured in the U.S. and Europe, specifically Germany, France, and Poland and I was wondering if you have a “French connection” because one of the songs off the new album, “Je Suis Un Fleur”, is in French.  I find this number interesting for several reasons; it’s not sung in English, the lyrics are lasciviously witty, and it’s short and lighter compared to the other songs.  How did this all come together?

Sorry, this is another answer where I’ll have to cite the multitude of inspirations. I study French and spent a month in Paris writing last summer. I’ve been trying to immerse myself with French music and writing just to cement my language skills: Gainsbourg, Bizet, Satie, ZouZou, etc. I’ve a humorous side to me and I wanted to amuse myself by combining my opera training with comedic poetry, and lastly to see if I myself could play the percussion parts myself. Hey, why not?

The translation goes like this:

I smell fish –

Or is it the smell of an orange?

All the world says of me:

“That girl smells like cheese”


But lo not my love

He truly is the best

He has no sense of smell

And thinks I am a rosette!

The story is reasonable despite its joke: Even those rotten can be loved.

Also on For Blood and Wine the short intro song gives way to the rousing second number “A Drinking Song”.  The propulsive tempo and dark, but adventurous atmosphere remind me of many an Afghan Whigs tune and it sounds like you’re channeling a firey, devil-may-care Greg Dulli, and even Siouxsie Sioux on the exclamations of the sing-along chorus.  Could you go into the process of how this song came together?

I didn’t have another artist’s work in mind while writing this. I’m not a good enough musician to characterize their styles intentionally anyway. And melodically, my idea was to restrain from being too “sing-y” and just keep it stoically strong rather than chaotically or aggressively so. I believe this was written during a “What does it all matter anyways the ship is sinking” moment/year/life. If you were really on a sinking ship you certainly wouldn’t want to be an annoying hysterical person losing it – therefore I certainly didn’t want to sing or sound terribly animated in that fashion. I tried to vocalize, as I’d hope to be in a situation of say a sinking ship: immune to doom, yet dignified and prepared.

On “You Cast A Spell on Me” you employ a stream of consciousness narrative mode where you quickly list a variety of things that you are (or that the narrator is), like “I’m a cannon / I’m a forgotten epistle / I’m black jack gum / I’m Scandinavian crystal…” Are all the lyrics facets of yourself or just some of them?  You also list “I’m the tell tale sign…” – is that a reference to The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe or is that too much of a reach?

Well, yes, it’s a reach with Edgar Allen Poe. The song is very much inspired by Screaming Jay Hawkins. How funny would it be if some skinny white woman took it upon herself to get so guttural? And of course, I’m also revisiting the poet William Auden in parallel. I was quite selective with word choice and that they should have modern bite and be edgier. In essence the song is about infatuation and lust, which together make can make one act irrational as if they’d been hexed into something they logically know they are not.

Photo Credit: Sarah Morrison Photography

There are two instrumentals on the album.  What is their purpose, besides sounding lovely and bittersweet?  I ask this because you are immersed in words on the other songs and want to know why you felt the need to include the two (or one song, broken in two, as it were) instrumentals.

Those are my favorite tracks actually.

As much as I love words, I find it necessary to have periods of silence in my life. My parents said it drove them crazy because I would just turn inward and stop talking. I need those times to refuel and also because sometimes there are simply no words to convey what can simply be said in a simple gesture – and those perhaps are the things I cannot speak about at all…

Sometimes I find myself reading a book and taking a minute or two at the end of the page to think about what I read before continuing on… The instrumentals are just one taking a moment to let things sink in. I like to think they’re also like a break in conversation when two people can only but look at one another and the look is everything. When Anne Sullivan and Brian Gregory did their parts there was a real understanding between us three, that went unsaid, that we all seemed to want to convey a really beautiful sadness and there was a lot of reflection and care in their playing. I had to leave the room when Anne was finished as I was pretty moved.

They are particularly melancholy pieces – two parts of the same song and I think they do a good job of taking the listener from one act, “Wine”, into the next act “Blood”.

For some reason the lyrics “One for joy / and one for sorrow”, and even your vocal inflection, on “One For Joy!” sound familiar to me.  Is there some literary or musical connection that I’m missing?

As far as words, the beginning comes from an 18th century nursery rhyme: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_for_Sorrow_(nursery_rhyme)

which in essence is a rhyme about counting crows or counting one’s luck. The added symbolic connection is a black bird reference in “My Spirit Lives in Shadows” and the name “Maggie”, which is another song title on my album with the loose reference to a magpie (black bird).

While it sounds like another song to drink to, to me the spirit encapsulates a declaration of seizing opportunity and fighting the fight rather than accepting fate. I’m too aware though that despite the best of one’s efforts, sometimes you need a lot of luck.

In the liner notes for the song “One For Joy!” it lists ‘Wurlitzer’ as one of the instruments used.  I’m assuming it’s an organ (the company also produced electric pianos and other instruments) and I was wondering what it added to the song compared to others?

The Wurlitzer we used has a piano-esque tone to it. It was kind of a happy accident because I’d planned to use the upright piano in the studio, which we did later. But since we were recording the basics of the song all at once, the Wurlitzer was easier to isolate whereas the piano would’ve been bled into the mics in the drum room. I liked the tone, so we kept it.

What was it like touring Europe compared to the U.S.?  When you play live, do you always accompany your singing with guitar or piano, or does someone else take on those duties?  Do you have a set band member line-up for when you play live dates?

I play guitar when I perform, which is usually a 4-piece lineup. I do have a set lineup (which, by the way is by far the best I’ve ever had), yet I know that the men I play with have lives that may lead them beyond my project in the future. When it’s a solo-fronted band as this, one cannot ask for lifelong commitment. Hopefully, I’m not wasting anyone’s time.

As far as Europe, it’s apples and oranges. In Europe, you show up to a club and there’s a warm home-cooked meal waiting for you and a comfortable bed later. Here, you can have all the Pabst Blue Ribbon you want. But essentially, being on stage feels the same to me and it doesn’t change my performance or care for what I do. I just want to go where the love is wherever that may be.

Your latest album has been out for a few months now to great critical acclaim.  What are your plans for touring and, not to sound too impatient, but are you working on material for your next release?

That’s ok, it’s a tough question to answer. It’s likely I will be playing in LA and the Northwest over the summer, but I’ve no concrete plans. I am fighting an uphill battle of being a self-produced and released artist, which means “no funds” for anything and not enough time to do everything. There’s no tour support and I don’t have 3 or 4 people throwing into the pot. In most cases I don’t have a promoter or booking agent, so it’s best to just stay tuned. But believe me, my bony butt is trying to remedy all of the above and at the same time perform and write, which am happy to say I have been doing a lot of lately. Financially I’m not sure I can justify recording for a while, but that doesn’t mean I won’t write. I will always write. Life keeps giving me material.