Familys past leads sultry songstress into some dark places

Singer-songwriter Rykarda Parasol has a habit of writing songs that channel her family’s macabre history.

Growing up in San Francisco, Parasol would often perch on her bed as her tall, Swedish mother told her terrifying stories about Parasol’s Jewish father — his escape from a Polish ghetto, the fear and anguish he experienced as a boy before arriving in Israel.

“I remember my mother telling me about the Holocaust when I was young, and I had so much anxiety about it — I didn’t know where these places were, and we [she and her sisters] had to be careful about not talking about it too much with my dad,” says Parasol. “And I felt ripped off because I didn’t have grandparents.”

Parasol, who lives in San Francisco again after spending some time in Texas and Los Angeles, has channeled that confusion and discomfort into her music career, which began in earnest with the release of her debut album in 2006. She sings twisted tales of death, loneliness and fear — but it’s not as though she’s thrashing about, angrily yelling out lyrics. She takes a much more restrained, mysterious approach to her music.

“It’s a particular darkness I cultivate,” she explains. “I thought: You can scream, but you won’t get your message across that way. [My music] is about being calm and in control — still singing with powerful intensity but keeping it a little mischievous.”

Parasol will sing her self-described “rock noir” tunes at Café du Nord in San Francisco on April 24.

photo/sarah morrison photography

While her lyrics are born of familial tragedies, Parasol’s smoky singing style is a result of her interests in both blues and opera. She likens her bluesy vocals to other deep-voiced artists such as Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Marianne Faithfull. Her opera side comes out in the way her somber lyrics tell a dramatic story.

Although she credits her music to a range of influences — from poet Langston Hughes to the artsy hippie next door — Parasol says the ultimate inspiration for her songs was being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor–Israeli father and a Swedish mother.

Her parents’ cultures were a big deal

when she was growing up, she says. “A lot of their friends were foreign, as well; there were always Swedes and Israelis around.” Thus, her songs often reflect a dark sense of discomfort and otherness.

Parasol says her family always recognized Jewish holidays, though usually with a twist: Chanukah presents were wrapped in Christmas paper, for example, or Chinese food was served for a holiday meal.

Parasol went to Hebrew class as a youth, but she didn’t really become interested in Judaism until taking some Jewish studies classes at the University of San Francisco, where she majored in English literature.

“When Rosh Hashanah rolls around now, I scoop up my Jewish friends and we go do something to celebrate, even if it’s just seeing a movie by a Jewish filmmaker,” she says.

Recently, Parasol began working with her father on his memoirs, allowing her to delve deeper into her background. (Rykarda Parasol, by the way, is her real name; Rykarda is a nod to how her father’s name was errantly spelled on his Polish birth certificate, and Parasol is indeed the family name.)

Born in Czestochowa, Poland, Parasol’s father didn’t have an easy go of it: He and his family were forced into a ghetto when he was 6, and then he lost all of his immediate family in the Holocaust.

Although he was smuggled out of the ghetto and hidden by a Polish Catholic family, he lived in constant fear of being caught. Eventually, he ended up on a kibbutz in Israel (where he raised chickens); later he served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, fighting in the Sinai Campaign in 1956, and then immigrated to the United States.

In the past decade, Parasol’s father has taken part in a project to clean up the Jewish cemetery of Czestochowa, and he also participates in other commemorative Holocaust projects.

“In a moment of haste, my father once made a comment that he never did anything important to contribute to the world,” Parasol says. “My siblings and I realized that it’s up to us to carry on his story.”

Rykarda Parasol plays at 9 p.m. April 24 at Café Du Nord, 2174 Market St., S.F. $10-$12.