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.