In an age of auto-tune and overproduction, it was a quest for musical flaws that brought Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez together.
Ross had performed in North Carolina under her own name, then moved to Nashville for a few years. The singer-guitarist returned to the state with a new batch of songs to record but quickly felt frustrated about the studio process and what she calls “the perfectionism trap” of doing numerous takes of the same song.
“I feel like it irons out all the goodness of the music, and makes it flat and artificial. And it’s also really expensive,” Ross says. “I was thinking, ‘OK, how can I get these songs in the pan in a way that feels authentic and captures the live magic?’”
In 2016, opting to record her latest creations live at The Rooster’s Wife in Aberdeen, near Pinehurst, Ross was content to complete the show on her own. But two weeks before the gig, a mutual friend connected the intuitive songwriter with the classically trained multi-instrumentalist Ruiz-Lopez, and the new acquaintances clicked as a duo.
The live album recording of that show was released under Ross’ name with the title Violet Bell. Keen on continuing her partnership with Ruiz-Lopez, she invited him to play subsequent shows with her, and he was, in her words, “all about it.” In need of a moniker for their new folk/soul group, Ross says it felt right to go with the name of the project that was their genesis, and on Friday, July 13, letters spelling “Violet Bell” will appear for the second time on the Isis Music Hall marquee.
Based out of Durham, the pair have played more than 300 shows in just over two years, resulting in a strong onstage chemistry that’s evident in person and in videos of these live performances. The two share a mutual love of psychedelic music, rock, hip-hop and R&B that, through what Ross calls “mixing medicines,” finds its way into their traditionally rooted music.
“She’s a songwriter, I’m a composer and multi-instrumentalist, and together our ability to meld those abilities and genres has been working out for us,” Ruiz-Lopez says. “The world of songwriting is a very interesting one as opposed to purely instrumental, ‘classical music.’ I feel like there’s an ability to have more space, so being able to combine those singer-songwriter qualities with orchestral technique allows me to create some interesting textures around the message, and together they become one.”
Violet Bell’s momentum also radiates from the experience of recording its debut full-length album, Honey in My Heart, which is set for an early 2019 release. Cut at the Fidelitorium in Kernersville in May and June, with engineer Jason Richmond (Steep Canyon Rangers; Bombadil), the songs were done live, without isolation or click tracks. Full of personality, the raw sounds feel consistent with the duo’s true selves as opposed to hiding behind studio wizardry. Risks were also taken through Ross’ lyrics, which explore such subjects as modern motherhood and her experiences with sexual violence.
In addition to crafting their own tunes, Ross and Ruiz-Lopez are both involved in music education in the Durham area, providing youths with instrumental and vocal instruction as well as teaching them about the realities of life for professional touring artists. Those latter lessons grew increasingly important in late May when, on the North Carolina coast at the Beaufort Music Festival, Ross had a seizure — her second of the grand mal variety. Until then, she says she’d been in great health and had never taken an ambulance ride. While doctors haven’t traced anything back to a dire prognosis, she’s interpreting the seizures as a message from her body to make adjustments to ensure a long professional career going forward.
“We’ve been hustling, and it’s been great, but the seizures are a reminder to go at a sustainable pace. And I think we’re getting to the point where we’re growing and we’re ready to invite some help onto our team. Some conscious, kind, skilled people who can help us with some of the work we’ve been doing,” Ross says. “We’re not just playing music. We’re driving to the gig, packing and unpacking the car, playing the gig, selling, designing and stocking the merch, posting the pages, posting about the shows, talking to the people about the interviews, doing booking — it is a lot of stuff. So we’re ready for any of you wonderful Ashevilleans who are looking for a job. We’re hiring.”
WHO: Violet Bell
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Friday, July 13, 7 p.m. $12 advance/$15 day of show