February, 2015 Interview with Composer, Performer Steve Bell
Len: 25 years is a good career — and doing something you love! Along the way there have been plans — and surprises. Tell us about a few of the surprises.
Steve: I’m surprised to be doing this at all. The chances of a folksy, devotionally minded singer/songwriter from the Canadian prairies sustaining a long-term career in this field is fairly remote. But I’ve managed to find good people to work with me; people with different skill sets and intuition than mine who have contributed enormously to the success of this work. I’ve been very fortunate that way.
There have been more specific surprises: I didn’t expect to see as much of the world as I have (India, Philippines, Thailand, Poland, Bulgaria, Ireland, Ethiopia, Egypt…), or to experience a war zone (Israel / Palestine during the second Intifada, 2004). I never once thought I’d be given the opportunity to perform with symphony orchestras across Canada. I never thought I’d put out the volume of work that I have.
It’s all been a surprise really. Growing up, I assumed I’d be a high-school band teacher. I formally studied trumpet in my teens. Guitar playing and song writing were hobbies I never imagined would blossom into anything significant.
Len: “My Dinner With Bruce” was in some ways a departure, and maybe partly explains why it was less well received. If you knew then what you know now, would you still have taken on that project?
Oh…certainly. I did that album for me. I had just been to Israel / Palestine and experienced things that shut me down creatively. I couldn’t write for several years, but during that time, for refuge I returned to the music that inspired me in my late teens and early twenties. I’m so grateful for Cockburn’s music. I would have been an entirely different (read: lesser) writer / performer without his influence.
Speaking of surprises however, I was surprised by the noticeable lack of reception for the album. I’ve been crowing the virtues of Cockburn’s music for decades. But my fans just didn’t seem very interested, and Bruce’s fans were, at points, openly offended I mucked with Bruce’s work. But I met Bruce briefly, at about the halfway point in the production, and he looked me straight in the eye and said “please bring something new to the table.” I was proud to re-present his brilliant work in a different voice, and on being interviewed about my project, he commented on just that… that I honoured the songs without being a slave to his interpretation. I took great pride in that comment.
Along the way you became a representative for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Tell us how that story evolved and where it’s at today.
I was a good friend of Stu Clark who for years was the senior policy advisor for the Foodgrains Bank. We met often for lunch and we’d talk for hours about the dynamics of food security, scarcity, development, sustainability and the gender / cultural / geo-political factors that render simple, one-stroke solutions ineffective and often harmful. Stu was a wealth of information and wisdom, often traveling to high-level international meetings to offer his insights. I was terribly interested in it all, and through Stu, became impressed with the nuanced work of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Eventually I was introduced to their publicity officer, Heather Plett, who realized I was keen to learn and help. And for a season I became a public spokesperson for CFGB, travelling with my wife Nanci to several projects around the world to experience and film the work, and returning to share what I’d learned with my audiences.
I’m not involved now in any meaningful way. After a while a spokesperson becomes ineffective, and I sensed my effectiveness was waning. I’ll re-engage at some point for sure.
Len: “Devotion” marked a kind of turning point, representing not only a new flavour but some changes in your life. The Baptist boy growing beyond his roots? Tell us a bit about how that project came to be and what it meant for you.
Devotion is primarily a collection of songs written (mainly by Gord Johnson) for the liturgical life of the Anglican church I attend: St. Benedict’s Table. Without getting specific, let me say that the last few decades of “worship music” have distressed me to no end. Gord started writing these very simple, elegant, contemplative congregational songs inspired by the work of the Taizé Community, which I thought needed to get to the public. At one point I offered to pay for and produce an album of Gord performing the songs. Gord was hesitant as he was not very interested in the roadwork that would be necessary to promote the album, so I went ahead and did it myself. It was a labour of love.
At that time, my ministry partner / producer / manager, Dave Zeglinski, was a little burnt out from all our roadwork and wasn’t particularly keen to begin another project, so I headed to B.C. to work with producer Roy Salmond on the album. It was a wonderful learning experience for me to work so closely with another producer, and the project bears the distinct imprint of that new experience, as well as my own growing love for historically rooted liturgical worship.
Len: The collaboration with Malcolm Guite has the feel of inevitability! His work is unique, and there is a resonance with your music and also your own path in spirituality. Talk a bit about your work with Malcolm and his impact on your work.
Honestly, when I met Malcolm a few years back at a C.S. Lewis conference in Oxford, England, I was feeling like I had pretty much exhausted all I had to say musically, lyrically and theologically. That guy gave me another 20 years I’m sure. He is a magnificent fellow, and a wonderful co-belligerent in the fight for the recovery of imaginative vision for the arts and theology. You have to meet him to know what I’m talking about. But he has definitely inspired me to jump back in the ring; to work much harder for those rare, enchanted constellations of words and notes that stir the soul to pine; and to watch for the “light behind the light which makes the day.” We’ve worked closely together on my last couple of projects — Keening for the Dawn and Pilgrimage. His stamp is quite evident and I couldn’t be more pleased to bear his imprint in my work.
Len: You have long occupied a place in my extended family – and I know this is true for hundreds of others. And that family sense comes across in your concerts. What has it been like for you to cultivate that soil and grow in it yourself?
I grew up in a ministry family. My father’s parents were missionaries in early 20th century China, which is where my dad was born. The stories of sacrifice, joy, intense suffering and loss, adventure, danger and discovery fed my imagination as a young boy and gave me a keen sense of belonging to something meaningful.
My father went on to become a prison chaplain and included his children weekly in his work. My mom was a terrific musician who taught us kids to sing and play. We had a traveling family gospel band, often singing in the prison, and often traveling on weekends to various churches where my dad would preach and we’d sing. Again, I had a keen sense that our family mattered beyond ourselves. I think that really did keep us together in a way that we may not have otherwise experienced.
Having said that, the family has been raised to almost cult status in the conservative Christian world. Like the ancient Hebrews, we need to remember that we’ve been blessed to be a blessing… not so much as an end-stop receiver of God’s gifting, but rather as a transducer or conduit, as well as a shock absorber for the brutalities of a fallen and broken humanity. Families have become fortresses against corruptive forces rather than schools of virtuous, self-donating life.
Len: Also as a result of much travel across Canada and many connections, you’ve had a unique opportunity to observe the landscape of faith in Canada. A song like “Turn it Around” represents both painful and hopeful reflection on that landscape. Talk a bit about your relationship to the wider church here.
There’s a lot going on in that song for me. Probably more than I can explain. But fundamental to that song is the Christian West’s relationship to the Israel / Palestine situation, as well as our dark history with Canada’s First Nations. Both, in my view, represent an error in navigation that has resulted in confused disorientation and caused profound harm. I fear we’re so unmoored from the revelation of God to humanity—as expressed in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus—that much of what we call Christianity bears little resemblance to the Trinity apprehended through revelation already received and yet unfolding. Sometimes, moving ahead requires a turning back to repent, re-orient and re-start.
Len: “Pilgrimage” just feels to me such an appropriate title for an album 25 years in the making. The word and concept are so rich and have obvious resonance with you. Tell us a bit about pilgrimage as it is woven into your work, your career, and this place in your life.
The thing about a pilgrimage is that the pilgrim doesn’t really know what he or she will discover along the way. That’s kind of the point. There’s expectation for sure, but the point isn’t to control the outcome. It’s an adventure in the true sense of the word. The advent of something is the coming of something truly other. An advent-urer is the one who deliberately goes out to receive that which is coming at her. In our western need to dominate and control, a true adventure is rarely experienced because by definition, outcome-control kills adventure.
I inherited a theology of smug certainty, not from my parents, but from the surrounding Christian culture whose air we breathed unwittingly. It didn’t really make sense to me as a kid, and it certainly makes little sense to me now. I’d rather be a seeker than a knower any day. It’s much more exciting, it causes less suffering, and its possibilities are eternally endless.
Len: The Pilgrimage project, with four CDs and a book, is another milestone in itself. There’s a story in that evolution — tell us a bit about it, as well as the film project. How does it feel now that it’s out there?
The Pilgrimage project sort of unfolded in front of us. It started simply as the next album. I had some songs kicking about, mostly Lenten themes I thought might make a great collection for pre-Easter devotion. But realizing the release would fall on the 25th anniversary of my first solo album, we thought we should to something to commemorate the passage of time and the body of work. Initially we thought to add a second disc with newly recorded, unplugged versions of fan favourites. Then I got wind that several musician friends were conspiring to gift me with their versions of Steve Bell songs, so we decided to make it a three disc set. Finally, my manager Dave suggested we include a disc of remixes (sans vocals) he had put together to use as prelude music at concerts, and it became a four-disc set. At that point we threw restraint to the wind and decided to add a book written by John Stackhouse Jr. documenting and reflecting on my work over the last quarter century. And that’s how Pilgrimage came to be. It’s somewhat immodest I suppose, but a 25th is possibly the sole instance one can get away with it.
At the same time, quite independent of Pilgrimage, Refuge 31 Films decided to make a documentary on my career. A camera crew followed me across the continent for the better part of a year, and Burning Ember: The Steve Bell Journey, a feature length documentary, was released simultaneously alongside Pilgrimage. (This film won Best Documentary at the Real to Reel Festival in Winnipeg on Feb. 22)
It’s all very gratifying. Like I said at the beginning, I’m surprised to be doing this at all, and am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to contribute something meaningful to the landscape of our times.
Len: Where to from here? Is it a bit intimidating when you think of following up this huge milestone?
I will likely write songs, record and perform for the rest of my days —as long as it seems to be meaningful to others. I would like, perhaps, to spend a little less time on the road. I’m beginning to feel less like the young person I was. But I doubt I’ll ever fully retire as long as I’m capable. I do hope to write more… prose, I mean. I suspect I have a few books in me, and have already started to delve into writing a series of multimedia e-books, under the banner PilgrimYear, reflecting on the spirituality of the Christian calendar year. Other than that, I really don’t know. Mostly I hope to pilgrim on… looking ahead for what’s coming toward. God is good…that I seem to know. All else is guesswork, and I’m happy to await and greet the reveal.
I had the strongest inclination to make pancakes for lunch yesterday — but didn’t get to it. Only later did I find out it was Shrove Tuesday, which means today is Ash Wednesday. (The idea of ‘ashes to go’ is kind of appealing!)
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, and the beginning, for many, of a fast of repentance. But also strongly connected to this day is the other kind of fast — Isa. 58 — to divide our bread with the hungry. The Isaiah chapter strongly echoes Jesus words that announce his ministry in Luke 4. The good news is about God’s kingdom of shalom come to earth — so good news especially for the poor! In the presence of the king there is peace. And of course, peace is not possible apart from justice! Therefore wherever the king’s people are, justice and care for the poor should be a common practice. .
But mostly we have expected secular agencies to take that role. We outsource justice and mercy, even as we offer other goods and services for the religious club. But “these things should not be!” And coincidentally, an acquaintance of ours was injured on the job over the weekend, so that’s an opportunity for us to step in with some meals and some care. It’s a leg injury, so I’ll pick him up this afternoon and get him to the doctor’s office, as well as making sure he has enough food in his small apartment.
It’s an appropriate way to spend my time on this Ash Wednesday. We started the day with pancakes, but we’ll finish by making sure one of God’s precious sons is not lacking what he needs.
For more on justice, and how righteousness in biblical terms is restored relationship not just a legal status before God, see this excerpt from Fitch, The Great Giveaway.
I’m still working my way through the collection edited by James McGrath, “Religion and Science-Fiction” (Wipf & Stock, 2011. Earlier post HERE). It’s striking how many movies are opening up the question of what it is to be human — I’m thinking in this past year of Transcendence and Lucy and Her, and now of the coming British film Ex Machina.
In previous years there have been other great entries in this exploration, including I, Robot (based on one of Asimov’s volumes), and of course we can’t miss Star Trek the Next Generation’s Data. If we subscribe to Phyllis Tickle’s axiom, then every five hundred years or so the most fundamental questions are explored again, and given the prominence of worry in the media lately as to the dangers of AI, it’s cool that we have movies that help us seriously address these issues.
It all began with Alan Turing in some ways — as seen in The Imitation Game (a great film I recommend!). The Turing Test is the subject of Ex Machina.
McGrath’s own chapter in the Wipf & Stock book happens to be, “Robots, Rights and Religion.” Would the church accept such beings into its membership? Would we allow them sacraments? Would they take faith seriously? Could androids learn to pray? What would it mean to create non-human beings “in our image?” Is that a contradiction in terms? Fascinating questions to explore. I confess I have gradually been forming a personality in my mind that would appear in Volume II of Dominion. I don’t have a name or gender for the character yet, but it would help me push some of the questions more personally, as well as offering a great foil in the ongoing plot.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
– david wagoner
“History is [now] found materialized in varying spatial arrangements; history becomes a matter of how space comes to be organized. Space, in short, is now understood both as the product of social processes and as an influence upon them. Capitalism, for example, is not simply temporalizing — always revolutionizing the production process, dooming to obsolescence, and chasing the new. It is also a force for ever new spatial configurations — pushing the people out of settled agrarian existence, concentrating populations and production sites, connecting disparate regions of the world (raw materials becoming inputs for far-off production; products then shipped away for consumption elsewhere), creating and feeding off of divisions between town and country, city and suburb, developed an undeveloped regions of the world. As such a social .. product, space .. has always been a political process… The social production of space, therefore calls for an interpretive geography — a hermeneutics of suspicion…”
Kathryn Tanner, ed. Spirit in the Cities, x-xi
Scot McKnight comments on Simply Good News (Wright):
“If your eschatology gets skewed, your present follows along. Or, as NT Wright puts it, ‘Wrong future, wrong present.’”
We only lead truly when we lead with a memory of the future. Huh? How is that possible?
Because the future has already been given to us, and shown to us. We know where it ends: a new heaven and a new earth. Moreover, we live in the reality of that future today because the kingdom has come and is coming. And we have been given a foretaste of the coming kingdom in the present power of the Spirit.
Memories of the future keep us on track in the present. This is why anamnesis, the participation at the table in the life of the present-future body of Christ, is so important. We remember who we are by entering into the mystery of the broken and shalom body, the presence of the future kingdom.