There’s an elegant marriage of strings and vocals between Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez of Durham’s Violet Bell. Ross treads lightly back and forth from soft soprano and alto, like stepping from stone to stone across a stream of violin, mandolin and guitar. Delicate yet powerful, their soundscapes are founded in folk, but their music continues to become more stylistically diverse and lyrically vulnerable, according to Ross. It’s heard on their forthcoming full-length album, “Honey In My Heart.”
“The more we write and play together, the more collaborative and authentic the music becomes,” Ross explains. “We’re getting more comfortable being ourselves, rather than confined by genre expectations. . . . We’re writing about real topics that are close to our hearts, and melding seemingly disparate genres into a unique sound.”
Ross moved back from Nashville in 2015 with a collection of songs in tow. She wanted to record a live album then, but two weeks before a show, a mutual friend introduced her to Ruiz-Lopez. Since meeting in 2016, the duo have played roughly 300 shows together from East to West coasts, released an EP (“Dream The Wheel”), and are preparing to drop “Honey In My Heart” in fall 2019.
“He learned the songs, joined me on stage, and brought a new dimension of beauty to the music—playing violin, mandolin, and guitar,” she remembers. “We started playing shows as a duo, and fell in love (it must have been the music!). A few months later, we realized we were in a band.”
The two have been Violet Bell since November 2016. Their spring tour will bring them to Waterline Brewing on March 15. Lizzy Ross told encore about Violet Bell’s upcoming album and touring.
encore (e): In a short time you’ve worked on two albums, how has your music together already grown and evolved from one album to the next?
Lizzy Ross (LR): Omar comes from a classical background; I come from a singer-songwriter background, and we’re both influenced by the bluegrass and old-time traditions in NC. Add our mutual love for soul, gypsy, world, Americana and psychedelic music into the mix, and it’s getting stranger every day!
e: Tell us more about “Honey in My Heart.”
LR: We are so excited to share this new album. It’s a full-band recording, with dear friends on drums, keys, winds and bass; Omar on violin, cello, electric and acoustic guitar; and me on vocals and guitar. We focused on the process during recording—instead of getting stuck on the “product” and perfectionism, just embracing and enjoying the music-making. That approach nourished our hearts and the music, and we love the album that came out of it.
e: How did you land on a name?
LR: To us, “Honey in My Heart” is an expression of joy and gratitude for the sweet things in life. The song is about recognizing your journey, all the people who have loved and helped you along the way, and overflowing with gratitude for the happy accidents and mysteries that make our lives. It’s about the vast web of connection between all forms of life, how we are part of one another; we are all related. It’s about stopping to take a moment, saying thank you, and basking in those good feelings.
“Honey in my Heart,” is based on the teachings of the Tz’utujil Maya people in the Lake Atitlan area in Guatemala. I cannot do justice to complexity of the teaching and deep history of the Tz’utujil people. That said, our understanding of the saying is it’s a blessing, a celebration, and a calling to recognize the value and wisdom of all forms of life—human and non-human. By that I mean there is wisdom in the water, the plants, the land, and the creatures who inhabit it. We have a lot to learn from each other, and a spirit of gratitude greases the wheels of evolution.
The way we live now is just a blink of the eye in the context of human history. There are so many ways to live, and though we take the parameters of our current cultures for granted, it’s not the only way. Our day to day choices impact the course of history. We have the power to transform what we’ve inherited, to live with joy and love, and to offer a better world to our children and their children.
e: Tell me more about your songwriting process, marrying lyrics with soundscapes we hear this album.
LR: Each song evolves of its own accord! It’s never [played] the same way twice. Often, it’ll start as a melody, maybe some words (which may or may not “make sense”)—I find that when I’m walking in the woods or driving or cleaning, melodies will just show up. Omar will sometimes hear whole band or orchestral arrangements, but not the lyrics. Sometimes it’s just a seed and we have to tease the rest of the song out together. In this way, we strongly complement each other.
I’ve heard from a lot of artists that they have a similar experience. It’s just a matter of learning to notice that the “radio in your head” is playing a new tune, and stopping to capture that before it drifts off into the ether. It’s almost like remembering a dream!
When one of us has a song idea or “stem,” we come together and play with the idea, see where it takes us. The whole process is playful, intuitive and collaborative. It’s also kind of like a cat— it doesn’t come when you call. You just have to make yourself available to the inspiration, and keep showing up. I believe everyone who wants to write has beautiful songs in them, and I honor the diversity of approaches to creative work.
e: “Swimming Towards Sharks” stands out, particularly with a violin’s wailing dueling with your vocals. Tell readers more about these instrumentals.
LR: “Swimming Towards Sharks” is about sexual violence and abuse that many women—really, people of all gender identities—deal with on an everyday basis. It’s born out of my own experience, and the countless stories of sexual assault from loved ones. The song came from a place of grief and rage, and the desire to transform this part of my life and our culture.
At first I was afraid to share the song, because the subject has been culturally taboo. When we did record it, the music came out with lightning bolts. My vocals and Omar’s violin solo intertwine, wild and explosive. You can hear the power of the emotions behind the song—it’s edgy, on fire. To me that is beautiful because it’s a true expression. When we are able to witness, feel, and share those experiences, we then have the power to evolve.
I feel grateful this song came to me at this moment in our culture. It’s been a healing process for me to write and share it. I’m grateful to Omar and the whole band for developing such a powerful instrumental arrangement, [which] really helps the listener feel what’s behind the song. I hope it serves those who hear it.
e: Can you tell us about other songs and their origins?
LR: Sometimes songs surprise me. They come from personal experience, weaving in mythology and our adventures on the road, and sometimes from totally unexpected and hilarious origins. “The Mountain Song” came out of a trip to the Adirondacks after we played a NYC show. Omar and I hiked the tallest mountain in the area, and at the top found a fire tower in disrepair—no railing, rusted-out stairs. Against our better judgment, we climbed it. At the top, we took in this magnificent view: green valleys all around, a silver lake shining, and only one road cutting through it all. On the way back down the mountain, the song wrote itself to the rhythm of our steps. It’s like the spirit of the place came through.
“Summer Skin” is a laugh at the bro-country portrayal of women – the reality is, any girl running through cornfields has likely got some bug bites! “Juliana” is an ode to an online yoga instructor who kept our spines in line when we were on the road, spending hours in the car every day. It’s an example of how random and funny inspiration can be. I definitely didn’t set out to write a song about online yoga classes.
“Smoke in the Night” is a tune about the aftermath of assault, healing and dealing with the mixed messages our culture gives to victims of sexual violence. “Howl” is a song for women who don’t have a choice about how they live; who are told who they have to be and what’s acceptable for them to do. “Let me Forget” is a classic breakup tune. “Ugly Part” is an ode to the temporary insanity that sometimes strikes us in dark moments, and about making it through that. “Path You’ve Never Seen” is about the playfulness and mystery in life, taking a chance on the dreams that call to you.
Overall, this album speaks to the vivid intensity and beauty of life, with all its strange diversity. I hope, by sharing our authentic experiences, we bring light to our listeners and inspire folks to speak and live their truths. There’s a strong feminine vibe, but I think people of any gender can relate.
e: You recorded them live?
LR: People make great recordings in all kinds of ways, but for us, we just love the tone and feel of music recorded live. Having the band gel rhythmically, and getting those magical overtones, is musically delicious. It captures the energy of the song and feels authentic, rather than a Franken-track that’s auto-tuned and cobbled together. We didn’t use scratch tracks, a click track, or very much isolation. Most of the performances, including the vocals, are just the way they happened that one time we recorded the song.
We did not record entirely live in single takes. We did do overdubs in the studio—for instance, Omar may have been playing the guitar on the initial live take of a song, then went back and recorded the violin solo. He’s good, but he can’t play two instruments at once! (I’m sure he’ll find an exception to that, now that I’ve said it.) There are also a few players we brought in later, including Rissi Palmer and Shana Tucker on backup vocals, Carter Minor on harmonica, and a few other wonderful artists who we feel lucky to have worked with. It takes a village.
Ultimately, while we kept it mostly live, we weren’t dogmatically wedded to that. We let the album show us how it wanted to come into form, one step at a time.
e: Tell me about working with producer Jason Richmond—what did he bring to the table that you found particularly helpful in making this album what is?
LR: We LOVE working with Jason. His energy is wonderful. Making art requires presence, and when you’re in the studio, you might be feeling tense about the tight schedule, the high expense, and the artistic pressure to get the spirit of the songs across. Jason’s personality and experience tempered that anxiety, and he was a beautiful part of the mix for us. He set the scene for us to deliver our most authentic performances, captured them beautifully, and got creative with the mixes. I think he appreciated our openness to experimentation. He held up a mirror for us to see our sound in a new way, and brought devotion and artistic integrity to the work.
e: Will we mostly hear “Honey in My Heart” at your forthcoming live show? Are you already writing new songs—or too soon to ask?
LR: We have a whole album’s worth of songs in the pipes for the next two albums! Can’t wait to get back in the studio! Writing is my favorite part of this whole vocation. We play new and old songs at every show, so you might hear songs that are 10 or two years old, or that haven’t even come out yet. We will definitely add a few songs from “Honey in My Heart” to the setlist.
We look forward to road-testing these songs out as a duo and a quintet, in anticipation of our fall ‘19 release!