Violet Bell fuses folk, soul, and bluegrass music into a uniquely distinctive sound. Oh, there are a few hints of classical too. Based out of Chapel Hill NC, Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez draw inspiration from the simple aspects of nature, not often appreciated enough in song, some ancient mythology, and their diverse musical backgrounds. The duo honed their strong onstage chemistry playing hundreds of shows from Montreal to Miami since forming in 2016. They released their EP Dream the Wheel in 2017. Honey in My Heart is their first full-length.
The album was produced by Violet Bell and Jason Richmond (Avett Brothers, Steep Canyon Rangers, Dom Flemons, Bombadil). The songs were recorded largely live in single takes, free of vocal tuning, isolation and click tracks and any other assorted studio gimmicks to reflect their live sound. The album features the duo in a quintet setting with four other guests contributing on select tracks. Lizzy Ross is the lead vocalist and plays guitar and surpeti, an Indian form of harmonium. Omar Ruiz-Lopez plays multiple strings (violin, viola, cello, guitar, mandolin) and sings as well. They are back by a rhythm section of Joe MacPhail (keys), Dylan Turner (bass, vocals) and Austin McCall (drums, percussion). Guests Shana Tucker and Rissi Palmer add backup vocals on three tunes while Daniel Chambo plays flute and sax while Carter Minor adds harmonica.
Ruiz-Lopez says, “She’s a songwriter, I’m a composer and multi-instrumentalist, and our ability to blend genres works well for us,” Ruiz-Lopez says. “The world of songwriting offers more freedom than purely instrumental, ‘classical music.’ Combining those singer-songwriter qualities with orchestral technique allows us to create unique textures around our message.” Prior to forming Violet Bell, Ross fronted the Lizzy Ross Band form 2009-2014. Ruiz-Lopez, raised and trained on classical music, moved to North Carolina after hearing bluegrass for the first time while in college, which he now considers a life-changing experience.
They open with the title track with Ross’ lovely, ethereal voice front and center, backed by a lush sound of violin, cello, and plucked acoustic guitar. As she moves into some wordless vocals, the backing becomes even more interesting harmonically. Ross isn’t scatting like a jazz singer, but it’s clear she’s got some of those instincts. “Elephant Heart” begins with sparse instrumentation before gathering momentum and the beautiful harmonies from Tucker and Palmer. “Summer Skin,” another with Tucker and Palmer harmonizing, becomes a playful put-down of bro-country and an off-handed reminder to wear sunscreen, lest one’s neck get too red. “Swimming Toward Sharks” though gets serious as it takes on rape culture directly. “Howl” brings attention to modern motherhood with fiddle runs mimicking multi-tasking.
Voice, cello, flute, and harmonica create an impressively dark background for “Smoke in the Night” but as the band does throughout, they let the song breathe and keep Lizzy Ross’s voice in the forefront. The organ swells signal a gospel sound for “Let Me Forget,” with Tucker and Palmer back as a choir for the thickest sounding track. Carter Minor’s harmonica leads into the brisk shuffle “Juliana” before Ruiz-Lopez and MacPhail engage in a fiddle-organ dialogue. “Mountain Song” brings an entirely different feel, driven by gently strumming guitar and duet vocals that gives way to a melancholy flute solo before the latter part of the piece builds to a glorious crescendo with the voice and instruments blending together as if to signify high mountain winds. “Path You’ve Never Seen,” the closer is the tune that uses the surpeti for interesting effects.
To call Violet Bell a folk duo ultimately does them a disservice. The beauty of this record is the shifting sounds, genres, and moods that range from bliss to dreamy to agitated to a kind of psychedelia on the way out. The unpredictable nature of their sound and Ross’s clear, mountain-stream like voice are riveting.