As its name implies, Violet Bell’s Shapeshifter is all about blurring rigid definitions.
The song suite at the center of the Chapel Hill duo’s pensive but passionate second full-length album—which tells a version of the Celtic myth of the selkie, a seal-like creature compelled to assume human form and marry a fisherman—shifts through multiple perspectives as it finds the selkie pulled by both the sea, her true home where she can assume her true form, and her landbound daughter, entrapped by her devotion to her child and the actions of a desperate and obsessive husband.
“I can feel your eyes on me / I can hear your mind on me,” the selkie shudders on “I Am a Wolf,” her anxiety expertly conjured by Lizzy Ross’ strong but plaintive vocal. “I’ll never stop thinking about / How to get free.”
With accompaniment that subtly but purposefully pushes the boundaries of Appalachian folk tradition, the suite grounds the record. Shapeshifter evokes both the internal struggles of those coming to terms with nontraditional identities and the outside perspectives that contribute to and amplify that trauma.
“The selkie story itself is a story of otherness,” Ross says over the phone from Boston, where Violet Bell was taking part in bassist Zach Hickman’s (Josh Ritter, Ray LaMontagne) Power Outage Party residency. She and Omar Ruiz-Lopez, who have played together since 2016, also recently opened a few dates for intrepid Americana voice Valerie June.
“It’s a story of having to shrink one’s identity into the acceptable space in order to survive,” Ross says of the selkie suite.
True to that sentiment—while the experiences of those who have had their gender or sexual identities challenged or curtailed is the first and most obvious thematic layer at play on Shapeshifter—its exploration of how we define ourselves, how other people define us, and the expectations that come with those outside definitions pushes beyond this singular aspect.
More refined, focused, and cohesive than 2019’s Honey in My Heart, the album does the expected (tracing the Celtic roots that became part of Appalachian music) and the less-expected (bucking the notion that such traditional sounds belong to any singular group or can’t mingle with other cultural hallmarks).
Violet Bell finds kinship in their boldness with such adventurous North Carolina acts as Joe Troop (who contributes to the album), Rhiannon Giddens, and H.C. McEntire, joining a growing swell of modern Americana artists who use the South’s musical hallmarks to probe the region’s complicated history and lingering prejudices.
In an email suggesting topics of conversation for their chat with INDY Week, the duo put a fine point on their position in this regard: “be[ing] queer, Black/Indigenous/Latinx, and female in the often white boys’ club of bluegrass-adjacent NC music/Americana.”
The way their music fights against that boys’ club codification feels both intentional and organic, Ross says, and Ruiz-Lopez (her partner in life and music), who takes the lead on composing it, emphasizes the way his journey from Panama, where he was born, to Puerto Rico and eventually North Carolina, contributes to the freshness of Violet Bell’s sound.
“I grew up listening to Latin American folk from the Caribbean through my father, as well as salsa in Colombia and bachata merengue,” Ruiz-Lopez explains.
He didn’t experience rock until he came across Jimi Hendrix at 14, and bluegrass didn’t cross his radar until 12 years ago, when he moved to the Tar Heel State and experienced it in person at a concert featuring Town Mountain and Bobby Britt.
“Those sounds, that is just fresh to me,” Ruiz-Lopez says. “And I feel like this album is a combination of Lizzy and I’s experience with these traditions and melding it together.”
Helped by a lively assemblage of similarly minded musicians—Tatiana Hargreaves (five-string fiddle), Joe Troop (banjo), Joseph Terrell (guitar), Libby Rodenbough (vocals), Sinclair Palmer (upright bass), Austin McCall (percussion) Joe MacPhail (piano/organ), Ken Stewart (cello), Mario Arnez (guitar)—Shapeshifter proceeds through metamorphoses that, while never really stark, bring new and distinct energy to familiar textures.
Ethereal, drone-leaning fiddle enhances the bounding bluegrass rollick of “All the Stars,” sending its determined optimism—“I don’t need no telescope / To see that there’s no velvet rope / Keeping us from where we’re going / When we fly away”—soaring through the twilight.
The treatment of the instruments on “Fish to Catch” blurs the line between what’s electric and what’s acoustic, heightening the unease of intersecting worlds as the selkie suite opens, its protagonist bemoaning how the “chill never leaves my fingers / And the damp never leaves my bones.”
Equally impressive is the way Ross convincingly occupies the album’s evolving moods.
She’s the primary singer throughout. During the suite, she not only takes the role of the selkie but also the rapaciously self-centered fisherman and a more benevolent and empathetic admirer of the fisherman’s daughter.
The first verse of “I Am a Wolf” finds Ross, who takes the lead on writing Violet Bell’s words, mirroring the phrasing she sings as the selkie, instilling the fisherman’s “I can feel her eyes on me / I can hear her mind on me” with urgency and emptiness.
“Fisherman’s Daughter,” the record’s other truly boisterous tune, finds the admirer heaping keenly perceptive praise upon the titular offspring (“Moves like wind / Laughs like water / Mind just like a wild nor’easter”).
But unlike the fisherman, they accept that the daughter isn’t something they can own: “Love is strong but the sea is stronger / Some hearts were made to wander.” Ross sings the song with deft emotional balance, tinging the narrator’s beaming affection with traces of regret.
As the music reflects Ruiz-Lopez’s experiences, Ross’ complicated lyrical themes have personal roots.
“As a girl, as a kid growing up, I found my gender identity somewhere between the—I’m not gonna say poles, because I don’t think it’s linear—but beyond the subscribed boundaries of what qualifies as feminine,” she says.
Her adolescence was split between Maryland (where her mom lived) and New York City (where her dad lived) before she came to North Carolina at 18.
“And as a kid, we don’t necessarily have the language or the agency to identify and name that,” she continues. “We just have these somatic perceptions. And as I began to understand myself, in the eyes of the culture, as a woman and what that meant, and how certain slices of the culture perceived my value or my selfhood, there’s a reckoning with realizing that a culture sees you as less than the ideal standard.”
The album’s final song, “Junkie,” cuts to the quick of Ross’ perspective here, stripping the instrumentation to just Violet Bell as an acoustic duo. She takes stock of people’s crutches, be they sugar or weed or something else, reflecting on how maybe what we’re truly hungry for is understanding.
“Some say we’re born, some say we’re made,” Ross simmers. “Don’t know how but I got this way.”
And that, in the end, may be what the album is most about—the importance of coming to terms with the feelings and needs that make us who we are.
“On some level, I feel like the fisherman could be analogous to the ego or the hungry ghost—that grasping part of the self that is afraid and is never satisfied and so deeply wants to be loved but doesn’t really know how to receive that,” Ross opines.
“The solution is not to condemn that part of the self or to try to split ourselves into pieces and shove that little orphan splinter into the shadows. In order to function, we have to find a way to integrate and to be in an active relationship with that part of ourselves.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.