Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez are floating in the Eno River, someplace between Durham and Hillsborough.
A fierce summer sun beats down. Minnows nudge them. They float, holding onto large rocks and letting the current point their feet downstream. Kids wade by, headed from the gentle waterfall to the inches-deep ford.
As two humans navigating life together, Ross and Ruiz-Lopez are present; the only moment is now and the only location is here. As a band, as North Carolina progressive folk duo Violet Bell, they are present; a recording is not expected to be the platonic ideal, the authoritative version of a song, but just one brief window of its lifetime. And that sense of letting go and leaning in, of accepting that spirit and heart count far more than the myth of the perfect take, is central to Violet Bell’s debut LP, Honey in My Heart.
“When you’re standing on the edge of fear and you have that deep desire to control… I think it is ego stuff, because the ego is the one that gets scared. Being willing to make a choice that we’re going to hold this space open — we’re going to suspend fear for now,” Ross says, “If we let go and let it flow, we’ll come out with something that feels alive.”
Accordingly, Honey in My Heart is vibrant, full of ebbing and flowing emotion; full of passion, fear, hope, angst, frustration, humor — all the messy emotions comprising the worthwhile chaos of the human experience. Stylistically, the songs take familiar Americana textures and bend them in surprising directions. The album draws from all over the spectrum, ranging from folky psychedelia to subtle jazz and experimental indie-pop. Honey in My Heart is what happens when two musicians at the top of their craft share the same sandbox.
On the album’s lighter side, the ebullient “Summer Skin” lampoons bro-country’s unrealistic descriptions of women. “She’s out on a boat in her white bathing suit / with a drink in her hand / she looks like an ad / except her farmer’s tan and her scabs,” Ross sings, describing a real Southern woman in the summer, replete with poison ivy and tick bites. “Let Me Forget” is a bittersweet Americana road song with a Jeff Buckley-reminiscent R&B chorus. “Swimming Towards Sharks” takes rape culture by the horns – “I see my body in the water / blooming blood red flower / circling, closing in / that’s my body in the water,” Ross sings over deceptive quiet, then explodes with a swirl of ferocious violin. Indeed, many songs explore the concept of gender duality and the impact of traditional gender roles in our culture.
To make these songs feel alive, Violet Bell rewrote its own norms and expectations. Honey in My Heart was recorded largely live. If there were mistakes in the best take, that didn’t stop it from being the best take.
“We didn’t do any scratch tracks,” Ross says, “Once we got into the room together, it felt so good. The songs are just what came out.” By consciously rejecting elements of studio culture dogma, Violet Bell was able to discover the joys of embracing the process, like the broken Mellotron that gives “Path You’ve Never Seen” a fascinating glitchy character without much digital production to speak of.
Ruiz-Lopez is quieter than Ross. He considers his words, then speaks in terms of ideals, of acoustic instruments, of teaching children to play music and of bringing things of beauty into the world. Indeed, each half of Violet Bell has dedicated their life to the pursuit of music: Ross as a songwriter who briefly tried her hand in Nashville before returning to more receptive soil in North Carolina; Ruiz-Lopez as a music educator and sideman who plays a staggering array of instruments (violin, viola, cello, guitar, mandolin, banjo). From his work with Kidznotes, a nonprofit that offers instrument lessons to underserved Durham schoolchildren, to his collaborations with Triangle-area musicians and membership in bands like Jonathan Byrd and the Pickup Cowboys, Ruiz-Lopez was a busy musician for years before Violet Bell. Yet he was tired of being a sideman. He had much more to contribute. “For a long time I had wanted to work with something I felt really aligned with,” he says. “Lizzy came, and all of the sudden there’s this depth while there is light.”
Ross thinks melodically and lyrically, while Ruiz-Lopez thinks in tones, textures and colors. To him, an arrangement is a Rubik’s Cube — a satisfying challenge that is solved by different changes, sections and timbres. As a multi-instrumentalist, Ruiz-Lopez has a broad sonic palette at his disposal. A consistent soundscape throughout a record is uninteresting to Ruiz-Lopez, as is undue obedience to genre. As simple as it sounds, his tools are rhythm, harmony and melody.
“We need things of beauty and not just products,” he says. “If people open to the arts and creativity in general, we can make the world a better place and more colorful. The tribute is to beauty when you make song and raise a joyous noise.”