Americana duo Violet Bell‘s new album, Shapeshifter – out October 7 – tells a story of the mythological selkie, a mermaid-like creature from Celtic folklore that embodies a form that’s half woman, half seal. In their retelling and reshaping of this ancient folk narrative, they tease out its connections to the transatlantic journey of American roots music, to the cultural and social melting pot of the “New World,” and to agency, intention, and self-possession.
A concept album of sorts, the music is remarkably approachable and down-to-earth, while the stories and threads of the record tell equally ordinary and cosmic tales. At such a time in American history, with fascism once again on the rise and attacks on bodily autonomy and personal agency occurring with greater frequency at every level of governance, Shapeshifter offers a seemingly timeless lens through which to engage with, understand, and challenge the overarching social and political turmoil we all face on the daily. Moreover, it’s an excellent folk record, demonstrating Violet Bell’s connections to North Carolina, Appalachia, and the greater communities that birthed so many of the genre aesthetics evident in the album’s songs.
Shapeshifter is a gorgeous exercise in community building, an artful subversion of societal norms, and a stunning folktale packaged in accessible, resonant music with a local heartbeat and a global appeal. Read our interview with duo members Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez and listen to a brand new single from the project, “Mortal Like Me,” below.
BGS: I wanted to start by asking you about community, because I know it’s always very present in your music making. I feel it, definitely, in Shapeshifter. Not only because you’ve got Joe Terrell and Libby Rodenbough (Mipso), Joe Troop, and Tatiana Hargreaves on the project, but because I can feel that community is a tent pole of this record. What does community, musical and otherwise, mean to you in the context of this project?
Lizzy Ross: It was such a wild time to be making the record because it was March of 2021, so vaccines hadn’t quite happened yet and we had all been on lockdown for about a year. We were obviously really missing our community and the live music community. There was also this strange thing, where our friends who would normally always be on the road all the time were at home. So we had an incredible opportunity to call up people, like calling up Tati and Joseph and Libby and Joe Troop – who lived in Argentina but came home because of COVID! The way that it worked out, people were around and we were able to convene and make this album in circumstances that probably wouldn’t have been possible, because everybody would have been on the road.
Omar Ruiz-Lopez: Or, [we would have had them] recording remotely. Which is not the same. One of the reasons why I play music is because of the community. That ability to bring people together and share music and hold space together, the energy that comes from that is so vital to the human experience. Getting to create that space, to bring an album to life, there’s not much else in this world that I live for, besides that. Getting the opportunity to bring everybody together, especially after such a big isolation, was so life-affirming and helped bring me back to why I make music in the first place.
That’s definitely palpable in the music itself, but also in the overarching viewpoint that y’all have within this record. I also find that it’s very grounded. You might have heard BGS just released our first season of a podcast called Carolina Calling, about North Carolina’s history through music. One of the through-lines that keeps coming up in all of our interviews is that North Carolina specifically has such a strong sense of musical community. Even though this is kind of a story record and kind of a concept record, it feels very grounded in North Carolina and in the South.
LR: Omar and I are kind of mongrels from the non-South. But we’ve come and steeped ourselves in this land and these traditions and this community, so I think that what our music reflects is the internal sort of “musical diet.” Our musical diet is probably atypical when you consider what most people think of as North Carolinian or Southern music. The music we were listening to going into this even, we were listening to a lot of Groupa –
ORL: Groupa is a Scandinavian folk band that makes these albums based on music from different countries, like Iceland, Finland, and Sweden. I feel like anything that’s not from here is called “world music,” but their brand of folk music is very beautiful and out there and organic and grounded in the different traditions they represent on their albums. It’s mostly instrumental music, it’s pretty powerful. We were listening to that a lot, as well as Julia Fowlis, a singer who sings in Gaelic primarily. Those cultures – Scottish, Irish, Scandinavian folk – they’re related to the music here like old-time, bluegrass, and Appalachian folk traditions of fiddle and banjo.
To bring it back to the question, I’ve been here for twelve years. I was born in Panama and raised in Puerto Rico listening to Spanish and Latin folk. When I say Spanish, I mean Spanish-speaking, the language of our colonizers. But there’s something still not-from-Spain in the native, Indigenous musical and cultural influences in that music. Like in Bachata and Cumbia. Then I moved to the States and fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll and more of the singer-songwriter tradition here.
LR: Originally I came here for school. I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, where I didn’t really find a musical community. There was one, I just didn’t find it. When I came to North Carolina it was the first time I saw people gathering together over a potluck and music, with like shape note singing and like the Rise Up Singing book. Having this experience of big, group harmonies I had this realization more and more that music could be a part of my daily life in a way it hadn’t been as a child. Or, rather, as a way of public, shared daily life. Because it was always part of my life, but it was part of community life here in North Carolina. That was a big element of how music and North Carolinian music in particular drew me in and captured my heart.
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Can you talk a bit about the central storyline of this album and how you picked up the mythos of the selkie and turned it into this project?
LR: The story of the selkie came to us and it’s something that is in the culture, it’s floating around. Many folks have seen the movies Song of the Sea or The Secret of Roan Inish. The first song that came to me, Omar and I were at the beach one day and I was playing on the banjo and this song came out. It was “Back to the Sea.” We were in the Outer Banks of North Carolina at that time, at the ocean, and I was kind of just listening for who this character is and what they are saying. It was a selkie. It was a selkie singing of getting to return home.
I would say that coming home to ourselves is one of the central themes of this album and one of the themes the selkie story really brings into focus. The whole myth is centered around a being, a mystical ocean being, who gets yanked out of her native waters and forced to live in a world that doesn’t understand her and wasn’t built around her existence. To me, there’s a really clear connection. That story is a medicine for the cultural wound of when we don’t fit into the prescribed paradigm of power. If we don’t fit into white supremacy or if we don’t fit into normativity or if we don’t fit into patriarchy. It’s the sense of feeling like we have to cut off parts of ourselves that aren’t compatible with those power structures so that we can be acceptable to the power structure at-large.
This story says, “No, don’t do that.” You can reclaim the parts of yourself that you’ve had to orphan in order to survive. You can reconnect to those pieces of you and you can come home to yourself. It speaks to integrating who we are, the characters of the land and the sea in this story are really powerful to me. The sea, to me, is this cosmic force. It’s a pervasive, creative, destructive, loving, mysterious force that the selkie comes out of. It doesn’t follow the rules of the land-bound world. To me, it’s like the structures and hierarchies of our culture – whether it’s capitalism or something else.
One of my questions was going to be about how queer the record is, and not just Queer with a capital Q, but also a lowercase Q, the idea of queerness as just existing counter to normativity. But it’s not just a story of otherness, it’s a story of otherness in relationship to embodiment. In the South right now especially, but in this country in general, embodiment is under attack. Whether we’re talking about COVID-19 or abortion access or trans rights. There’s something in this record that speaks to all of that.
LR: I think one of my experiences [that informed this music] is that I’m in a female body. There’s a line in one of the songs, “I Am a Wolf” – that song is two parts. First is the fisherman speaking, he’s kidnapped the selkie, taken her out of her native waters, he’s made her come be his bride, and he’s like, “Why isn’t this working?” It sucks, he’s lonely, he thought things would be better. The second half is the selkie responding and she says, “I am a wolf, not a woman.” That’s the first thing she says. That was something I said at one point, when I was connecting with a sense of deep grief and rage within myself around what I felt were the prescribed cultural parameters of my existence.
ORL: The people who made this album were mostly by BIPOC people and [people who fall outside those norms]. Joseph Sinclair and I are not white and Joe, Tati, [Lizzy], and I are not straight. I feel like a lot of different perspectives went into making this album. We didn’t just get white, straight dudes to make this album and it felt good that way, getting different musical perspectives on this. We could have just made it ourselves, that’s the other thing. I’m a multi-instrumentalist and Lizzy is a harmony singer, we could have overdubbed to kingdom come. Part of the reason why we got all these people together into the same room is because of their unique perspectives on the traditions they brought to the table.
LR: This thread about embodiment is really important and by asking this question you’re helping me articulate something that I’ve been sitting with for months, a year, as I’ve been thinking about the writing and the words and characters in this story. And also, what is it for me in this story that I’m trying to unravel with this album. Also on a cultural level, what are we talking about here?
The selkie, her skin is taken away from her in a moment of innocent revelry. The story starts with her dancing in the moonlight on a rock and that’s when the fisherman steals her skin. When I think about the people that I know and love, I think a lot of these systems are violent towards people whether or not they fit within the system’s perception of dominant power. When I think about the six-year-old version of a person or whatever version of a person was able to un-self-consciously dance or feel good or go into their mom’s closet and put on her clothes and makeup and not feel ashamed – there’s a different version of this for literally every person and what that means. That innocent revelry, it’s experiencing oneself not through the eye of an external observer but through the juicy presence of embodiment and joy and a sense of wholeness and rightness in your being.
Everybody’s had the experience of having their “skin” stolen from them. When you get yanked out of your sovereignty, your joy, your bliss. You get catcalled, you get shamed, you get this or that. There’s violence done to you, whether it’s physical or not, there’s that sense of losing your skin, when we start to separate from ourselves and regard parts of ourselves as less than. I think that dysphoria is a really important part of this story and this album. When we don’t experience ourselves or feel ourselves as the cultural perceptions tell us we’re supposed to be, whether it’s a question of gender or color, this feeling of not being at home in our bodies, I think that was a lot of what really resonated with me, even unconsciously, about the selkie. One of the ways that it took root and grew in my consciousness and eventually in our shared consciousness, between me and Omar and the folks who are on this music.
As a picker I have to talk about “Flying Free” and “Morning Girl,” because I think having instrumentals on this record makes so much sense. I have some ideas about how they fit into the story, not just based on the titles, but also based on how the tunes are so evocative like the rest of the project. Why, on a record that feels like a concept record, why instrumental tunes?
LR: Words are our inheritance from so many of the same structures that can oppress us. And they’re also our freedom. Words allow us to develop and communicate concepts and they also contain hierarchies and power structures that we may or may not really need. The name of the song, “Flying Free,” and the fact that it’s instrumental, to me it’s like this somatic sensation of the selkie plunging back into the sea and the joy of being reunited with her home waters. Which to me is her sense of self, her sense of worth and safety and agency.
ORL: Sound, organized sound inside of space, one of the powerful things about it is that we are able to attach emotion to it. It’s kind of beautiful how two people could feel similar things listening to one piece of music. When it came time to put together the songs for this album, there were a handful of tunes that came up that weren’t asking for words. But that totally helped paint the picture of the world of the selkie and what she was going through.
Photo credit: Chris Frisina