Raleigh, N.C. — Ask Omar Ruiz-Lopez whether he plays fiddle or violin in Violet Bell, his Durham-based folk duo with singer/guitarist Lizzy Ross, and he has a ready answer.
“I play both,” he says with a laugh. “The difference is that the fiddle dances while the violin sings, and I like to think I do both. I really enjoy the contrast. Classical and jazz is where I started from with violin, and fiddle is based on folk-dance traditions. Whether Irish or Scottish or bluegrass or old-time, they’re all associated with movement. When I go to a party, the fiddle is what I bring.”
Violet Bell is one of the musical acts playing this year’s WRAL First Night, New Year’s Eve in downtown Raleigh, with three sets scheduled over the course of the evening. Even though they’re an acoustic duo, Violet Bell isn’t nearly as subdued onstage as such a label suggests – especially Ross’ powerful vocals, and the occasional flourish of surpeti (an instrument of Indian origin that produces a distinctive droning sound).
“Yes, we’re a male-female duo in North Carolina, which has a lot of groups traditionally associated with peaceful, gentle, charming sounds,” Ross says. “We mix things up a lot with the instrumentation, and there’s a lot of spice and intensity to the show, a good bit of fire. Some covers, too. We’ll cover Prince and maybe things like ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun.’ We’ll have some surprises worked up for New Year’s Eve.”
Violet Bell has been a going concern for about four years, but Ross and Ruiz-Lopez first met when they both played on a program at UNC-Chapel Hill back in 2011. A musical omnivore, Ruiz-Lopez studied classical music at Florida Gulf Coast University while playing in a wide range of bands, from orchestras to jazz groups. After college, he moved to North Carolina to delve into the state’s bluegrass and roots-based folk traditions.
Ross, meanwhile, landed back in the Triangle following an unhappy stint in Nashville trying to make it as a songwriter. Things hadn’t gone well for Ross in Nashville, leaving her feeling burned out on music. “I felt like I was just too weird for country because I could not write great songs about my truck,” she says.
They met again, started working together and hit it off. Violet Bell’s latest album, “Honey in My Heart,” which recalls Joni Mitchell moreso than bluegrass or old-time. The album showcases Ruiz-Lopez’s versatility and virtuosity on a range of instruments throughout its 11 tracks, backing up Ross’ dusky voice. And even though “Honey in My Heart” came out just a few months ago, they’ve already got almost enough material for another album ready to go.
They’re both hoping to be able to make that next album sooner rather than later. To that end, they’re spending more time on songwriting than touring nowadays.
“I think we’re more interested in hunkering down with ideas rather than hitting the road again,” says Ruiz-Lopez. “We’ve done that already, playing almost 400 shows in four years in all kinds of places. We want to tour smarter, not harder, leave some room for inspiration to come. Develop a space and run with it.”
Violet Bell is one of the performers at WRAL First Night 2020, Dec. 31 in downtown Raleigh, at Vintage Church. They play at 7:45, 8:30 and 9:15 p.m.
Other First Night performers include Barefoot Movement, African American Dance Ensemble, Boom Unit Brass Band, Honey Dewdrops and Shay Martin Lovette. For the complete lineup of performers and activities, see firstnightraleigh.com/evening-performances-activities.
First Night passes cost $11 in advance from Etix.com or locations including Harris Teeter stores. On-site passes will cost $15. For details, see firstnightraleigh.com/buy-a-pass.
David Menconi was a music critic and arts reporter at the News & Observer in Raleigh for more than 25 years. He has written for Rolling Stone, Spin, Billboard, New York Times and salon.com. His books include the 2012 biography Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown (University of Texas Press), and his next book will be a history of North Carolina music for UNC Press.
He also hosts “That Old North State Radio Hour,” a weekly show about North Carolina music, on Capitol Broadcasting’s That Station, 95.7-FM in Raleigh, from 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays. Download the That Station app or stream online at thatstation.net to listen.
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