Violet Bell

Interview: Violet Bell and the Songwriters of Yesteryear


Violet Bell

Violet Bell—the duo of Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez—have reached into the past with their latest album Shapeshifter in order to make something new in the present. It is a collection of songs that binds the songwriters to those lyrical storytellers of yesteryear…a cross-generational journey that is felt throughout their latest single, “Fisherman’s Daughter,” available today.

Shapeshifter is due this fall.

I recently sat down with Ross and Ruiz-Lopez to discuss our collective sense of belonging, mummies at the Met, and following one’s ear to North Carolina.

(The duo answered the questions collectively unless otherwise noted.)

Americana Highways: There are so many great layers to the songs found on Shapeshifter. What did you set out to accomplish with the album, and now that it’s finished, do you feel like you checked off all of the boxes that you were working towards?

Violet Bell: Thank you! We wanted to do justice to this story of the selkie. It’s an ancient metaphor for modern life—our sense of belonging, how we relate to the over-culture, and how much we feel like we can really be who we are as opposed to hiding what we fear might make us unsafe or unlovable.

We hope that this story and these songs help people come home to their hearts and connect to their own innate, wild, worthy, and sacred selves, regardless of their color, gender, or any other culturally assigned barometer of worth.

We went into recording with the intention of being present for the music, and letting the product be secondary to the process. Music reflects the experience of the people making it. When you listen, we want you to feel that the music is alive.

That practice of staying present in the studio feels like surfing – keeping your balance in the midst of changing circumstances and expectations, staying in the flow and remembering that all of this comes from a love of making and sharing music in community. I feel like the album reflects that love, and that checks a big box.

That said, the nature of creativity is that it grows wild—all the boxes will never be checked! We’re already excited to record the next album. And we do have a dream of making the selkie songs part of a musical—so there may be more to come!

AH: Your first single “Meet Me in the Garden” was released back in April. What was it about that song that you felt was a great introduction for people to what they’d experience with the album as a whole?

VB: “Meet Me in the Garden” is such a tender melody, and it touches on the vulnerability of loving. As humans, we’re so fragile and susceptible to whatever the next tide of fortune may bring. And yet we keep loving each other through that uncertainty.

The album title Shapeshifter is a reference to the selkie, a morphing seal/woman, but on another level—we all have to be shapeshifters to move with what life throws at us. Life is constantly asking us to adapt, change, release, and surrender. “Meet Me in the Garden” speaks to acceptance, love and forgiveness in the face of change.

We hope that our music offers healing and truth. “Meet Me in the Garden” comes from that place. (Plus we love those harmonies…)

AH: Speaking of the album as a whole, what would someone learn about you in sitting down to listen to the record front to back?

VB: I hope they’d feel the sense of play, broadmindedness, and curiosity, both musically and lyrically. Throughout the album we try on characters to explore different ways humans can be and feel. None of us are 100% good or evil. None of us fit perfectly into the role that the over-culture would have us play. We all have funky back alleys in our souls, and bits of ourselves that we’ve splintered off and shoved into the darkness so as to avoid rejection.

What would happen if we softened towards the parts of ourselves that we deem “other” or “less than”? On both an individual and a cultural level, what kind of healing would be possible?

AH: I feel like we are venturing back into a moment of musical time where artists are looking at the full album journey. How important was it for you that this collection of songs spoke to who Violet Bell was in 2022, and, that it said something cohesively about you musically?

VB: We come at this from a desire to be of service through music. It’s a mystery how and why songs come to certain people. The selkie songs felt like a gift from our storytelling ancestors, and something that we have the opportunity to share. What is important to us is getting out of our own way, letting the music take the lead, and doing everything we can to support the music’s work in the world. For some people it won’t resonate, and for others it will be soul medicine.

In terms of cohesiveness, it was such a relief to break out of telling the whole story in one 3-minute song. Taking a whole album to explore a story from multiple perspectives feels so much more true to life. That complexity is what gives stories their flavor and grit. I’m grateful we got to weave that thread throughout the album.

Musically, the album has a soul that’s wild, surprising, and yet still cohesive. I like that we can play with genres and got to sit in this acoustic-psychedelic, harmony and string-laden place. Music feels so much bigger than genres. The sound of this album is a consequence of the players and how the songs wanted to be expressed, rather than a stylistic ideal.

AH: What are you most proud of with the album and why?

VB: I love that this album braids us together with storytellers past and future.

This album is an antidote to the cultural story that, in order to be safe and lovable, we must orphan the parts of ourselves that aren’t pretty or don’t belong. This album says, go and gather the splintered fragments of your soul. Welcome them home. You can be whole.

For some people, that is true – you can be safe, you can be whole. Many others are still in places and situations where that’s not true, and their lives are threatened just because of who they are.

The story of the selkie has been told by and for so many people who felt like captives in the culture. It’s medicine for anyone who longs to come home to themselves. It’s hope that one day, that will be possible for us all.

AH: Lizzy spent some time in New York City during her formative years. How and where did the musical diversity of The City That Never Sleeps leave its imprint on you?

LR: As a kid, bouncing between households taught me that people live differently, and that different doesn’t mean bad. To a curious kid, walking down the street in 90s Manhattan was an up-close and personal glimpse into wildly diverse cultures and all walks of life. Music was part of that, from Broadway musicals to subway performers.

NYC was this mind-blowing, expansive experience that gave me a window into the world. As a kid, I didn’t know to worry about paying rent or getting mugged. To me it was Chinatown, cannolis, mummies at the Met, and a bootlegged Lion King VHS—it was a wonderland that broadened my sense of potential in this life.

AH: Omar, same question but with a different spin. Growing up in Puerto Rico, how did you find yourself transitioning from Caribbean folk and salsa music to Americana? What was that musical transformation like?

ORL: I grew up with the sounds of Tito Puente, Fania All Stars, Elvis, Stevie Wonder and more playing in our household as a kid. Cumbia, bachata, salsa and R&B were genres ingrained into me from an early age. Music was always important, though I didn’t know at the time how big of a role it would play later in my life. My father played nylon string guitar and timbales, and has always been a great dancer. I would say his love of music was passed on to me.

We moved to the States right when I started high school. My teenage angst led me towards A Perfect Circle, Smashing Pumpkins, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Those led to The Smiths, The Cure and Sage Francis, which led to Sigur Ros and Arcade Fire. I discovered Debussy, Django Reinhardt and Charles Mingues for myself through going to school for viola, violin and jazz improv after high school. It was just a matter of time before I’d follow my ear to North Carolina to learn more about bluegrass, old-time and storytelling through song. The progression has all felt organic and natural, flowing down life’s river and watching the scenery grow and shift each year.

AH: Your voice flows so beautifully on Shapeshifter, Lizzy that I have a difficult time imagining you fronting a Green Day cover band, which in fact, you did at one point in your musical journey. What would that younger version of yourself, belting out Billy Joe Armstrong lyrics, think of Shapeshifter if she had a chance to hear it back then?

LR: (Laughter) I think she would be surprised that I found the courage to sing. I used to be really shy about my voice. Since then I’ve let go of my voice having to be “good enough” or “pretty”– it’s like bodies, there’s no one model of perfection; every voice has beautiful and different qualities. I’m having more fun growling, whispering, speaking, howling, and just – letting it flow freely.

Most of all, I think my younger self would be lit up by the sense of freedom and play that permeates Shapeshifter. Vocally, musically, and thematically, the album turns fear on its head and embraces honesty and vulnerability as part of healing. As an adolescent I felt such pressure to perform and conform to gender norms. I would be so relieved to know that my present self is engaged in an ongoing practice of releasing externally imposed standards, and instead embracing what feels true to me.

AH: What have the two of you discovered creatively in each other that enables you to do what you do as a duo? In your opinion, what is the magic sauce that makes Violet Bell work?

VB: Oooh. Well, our ability to listen to each other is the soil in which this music grows. When I bring a song to Omar, or vice versa, it’s a dance of sharing our musical visions while leaving space for each other’s contributions.

I’m a more intuitive, less musically educated songwriter. I come at songs from weird angles, and lyrics and melodies are my forte. Omar’s a composer and music educator. He brings a wealth of knowledge and cultural context to our shared creations. He’s always got a chord voicing or arrangement tweak to spice things up. The beautiful thing about a long term collaboration is that we get to know and adopt each other’s creative language and tools, so we learn from one another.

AH: As we grow as people our songwriting grows. How have your creative points of view changed since you first came together to where you are today on the verge of Shapeshifter?

VB: So true! The more time I get to spend on Earth, the more I try to stay present, embrace creative flow, and release what I cannot control. Move away from perfectionism and towards practice and progress. Of course, that’s easy to say and harder to do.

That growth has been complimented by a few years of sobriety. Instead of using substances to open up creatively, we’ve been cultivating the deer trails in our souls that our 8-year-old selves used to run. We’ve been getting curious about what’s behind the urge to escape our consciousness, and moving towards feeling rather than numbness.

All of that shadow is powerful creative fuel. Instead of hiding it or stuffing it, if we can witness what we feel, it will often lead us down the path to healing. A lot of times that happens through creative expression – and that is fundamental to how Shapeshifter came to be.

Some of what you hear on the album is us wrestling with oppressive, identity-based cultural structures like patriarchy and racism, while some of it is internal – our own fear, anger, and ego. Sometimes wrestling gets too heavy and we have to start dancing with it all. Throughout, we gotta keep evolving the cultural conversation. Music does that. Today, I’m just grateful to be active in the creative process, because that helps me keep growing.

AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?

LR: Future tripping is dangerous! I gotta ask – if I get that glimpse of the future, can my actions today still change what happens? If not, I’d say no. I’m growing my practice of really inhabiting my body, and listening to it in the present to guide my choices. You can’t do that when you’re intellectually projecting yourself into another moment. I’d rather take life one day at a time.

ORL: I think I am more interested in taking it one day at a time and enjoying the here and now, growing and nurturing the love for the art rather than trying to fit my own grandiose plans on it. Playing music is a lot more fun when we remember to do just that: PLAY with it!

For more information on Violet Bell and their latest single, visit here.

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