An Interview with Steve Bell

len: Steve, you have been around a while man! I think I first heard your music around 20 years ago. Come to think of it, it was with Elias, Schritt and Bell in 1980. Does it feel like that long to you? Tell us a bit about your journey over the years.

steve: I grew up performing music with my mother and sisters in a gospel family band called the Alf Bell Family Singers. We recorded our first album when I was around 13 years old and that LP has some of the first songs I’ve written.

After high school, I started playing in night clubs and over the next ten years performed in numerous bands ranging in style from folk, to jazz-rock, to novelty and country. Then, in the late 80’s I started writing, recording and performing the music I’m now known for.

So yeah, it’s starting to feel like it’s been awhile. Recently, at a public function I was introduced as the “Grandfather of Christian Music in Canada.” I laughed and feigned indignation but oddly enough, I wasn’t all that surprised by the introduction- I’m definitely starting to feel the weight of the years I’m dragging around behind me.

len: There is something unusual about your music. And i mean this in the best possible way :) If I had to identify it I would say that there is a reflective quality.. and a grounded quality.. that is too rare for artists of faith. And I would guess that it has to do with the broader context of your own family and your life in community. Is this accurate? Tell us a bit about your own faith context and its impact on your life and work.

steve: I grew up in a Christian family where the constant rehearsal of platitudes to maintain identity simply didn’t work. My mother battled crippling depression for most of her adult life and has spent long periods of time hospitalized for anxiety disorder. My father as well has lived with and managed bi-polar disorder while serving as a prison chaplain. I learned very young that suffering is a mystery far too terrible and wonderful for simple pietistic solutions and slogans. God and humanity are mocked and dishonored by such things.

I’m not sure how to respond to your appraisal of my music. I am certainly very pleased if it generates reflection. So much of contemporary Christian music is not really art in the truest sense. It asks precious little of the artist or the listener. It is mostly clever rehash of well worn platitudes and sentimentalities that resemble more of a Thomas Kincaid painting than a probing, challenging or healing work of imagination, reflection and skill.

I just came through the States on a driving holiday with my wife and had the opportunity to check into several Christian radio stations along the way. This is going to sound rather harsh I know, but is seems to me that contemporary Christian music (experienced through the medium of the CCM and its media outlets) is, for the most part, to art what McDonalds is to healthy diet, true feasting or fine dinning. And the damage is far reaching (read Fast Food Nation and let the metaphor work on you.)

I’m not claiming that my music is the antidote, but I hope at least that it is moving away from recent trends rather than toward them.

len: Though my entire family has enjoyed your work, we only got up to date on your albums this past year when we bought “Burning Ember.” The title song I had not heard til this past Christmas, and it has become a favorite, one of those songs that is growing with me. Tell us a bit about this piece..

steve: I think Burning Ember is certainly one of my better songs. It has always fascinated me that the song seemed to know much more than I did when I wrote it. In many ways it was a signpost, pointing toward an understanding I would grow into much later regarding the fundamental dignity of the human person created to “house the fullness of God.” The song came to me while on a silent retreat at a monastery just north of Winnipeg. At the time I was reading the diary of Father John of Kronstadt – a Russian Orthodox priest from the late 19th century who understood that the human person was much like a cold piece of iron which, when left in a fire, has the capacity to take on the qualities of that fire - heat / light. His encouragement was for us all to lay our lives in the fire of God’s divine love by which we become by grace what God is by nature insinuating that anything less is beneath our dignity as human beings.

I’ve never looked at another person the same since. All of a sudden each person I meet is a freakin’ miracle of potentiality before whom I am in awe.

len: One of the things that resonates with me about your music is your anchor in history and tradition.. the “ancient-future” thing if you like, or your attraction to the mystics. This not only gives you depth, it enables you to express a quality of spirituality that is too often missing in artists. How and when did you connect with this broader tradition? And is this an ongoing intentional part of your life?

steve: I discovered the Catholic tradition in my mid teens. My father was the protestant chaplain of a federal prison in Canada and we as a family got to know and love the Catholic chaplain, Father Bob MacDougal. Fr. Bob was also the parish priest of the town that had grown up around the prison and since there was no one in his congregation that could provide music for the Sunday mass, he asked my mother, my sisters and I to be the “worship band” which we ended up doing for a couple of years. That is where I developed a deep appreciation for the liturgy and the notion that God is a mystery to be reverenced rather than a problem to be solved.

Later, in my late twenties a good friend of mine discovered and converted to the Orthodox church through the writings of Peter Gilquest. Through my friend I discovered the mystical tradition of the church, the Desert Fathers, and a deeper understanding of liturgy and tradition. By nature, the ancient church traditions are much less rational and more poetic in their way of “knowing”. So I suppose, as an artist I was and am quite naturally drawn by them. Currently I am worshiping in an Anglican congregation.

len: Here’s a question I don’t really know how to phrase. Not long ago I read an article by Robert Bellah where he argued that the possible recovery of the sacramental tradition may be the only hope for the survival of western Christianity. But so many artists are already there.. living outside those traditional boundaries… looking beyond the surface level of life.. and living as Catholics with a small “c”… Does this make sense?

steve: Oh I think so… the sacramental, the symbolic, the way of negation –these are the landscape for the artist. It is not the only legitimate landscape of course, it is just that with the enlightenment and modernity, this particular way of knowing has been largely suspect, ignored or dismissed. The result is a tragic disease in the body of Christ, especially in the west, that is increasingly bordering on the insane.

len: There is so much talk about culture, church and change these days. It’s a good conversation, but one that also makes some people nervous, not unlike the impact of George Barna’s new book “Revolution.” What is “church” to you? What is the gospel? Are you engaged in the conversation about the gospel and culture, and if so, who are your mentors, who are you reading?

steve: That’s such a difficult set of questions to answer. I have been distraught to despair at the evangelical church’s response to the Iraq war and the ongoing destruction of the Palestinian people by Israeli state malevolence. It all points to a rather bizarre interpretation of the gospel that leads (rather smugly I might add) to the destruction of whole peoples and the environment while somehow hiding behind Pro Lifey slogans. “For God so love the WORLD…” is a line of scripture that looms frighteningly large for me; “Love your enemies….”, “Those who live by the sword…”, “Some trust in horses and chariots but…”, “I desire the death of no one…”

I am currently re-reading Jaquque Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity where he opens with the question, “how has it come about that the development of Christianity and the church has given birth to a society, a civilization, a culture that are completely opposite to what we read in the bible?”

Thomas Merton writes, “It does not even seem to enter our minds that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God Who told us to love one another as He had loved us, Who warned us that they who take the sword will perish by it, and at the same time planning to annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians, soldiers, men, women, and children, without discrimination, even with the almost infallible certainty of inviting the same annihilation for ourselves!”

I must admit that in the past few years I have lost all confidence in the gospel as we have typically understood it. Rather than the highly individualized notions of personal salvation that have developed and thrived under Capitalism’s reign, I am finding hope and energy from cryptic statements like “the Kingdom is at hand,” or “among you.” And the more I step back, quiet myself and adopt the disposition of an observer/discoverer rather than a conquerer the more I am starting to recognize the inbreaking of God into our history in powerful ways – but powerful in the way that beauty (in it’s many forms) is powerful rather than the crass brutish power we’ve become so addicted to. Powerful in the way that a tender plant drawing inspiration from the sun and hunger for the deep down freshness of soil will break through concrete.

What am I reading? Since the invasion of Iraq and a subsequent trip to Palestinian West Bank a couple of years ago, I’ve been reading mostly history of the Middle East and Islam. I’ve laboured through several volumes by Bernard Lewis but also most of Karen Armstrong’s works: Battle for God / The rise of Fundamentalism within Christianity, Islam and Judaism is a must read. Also, her books Islam and Muhammad are the best introduction to the man and the faith I’ve read. She is not uncritical, but her telling is compassionate, reflective and fair.

Elias Chacour is a Palestinian Christian who was eight years old when his family lost their home and village in the 1948 Israeli/Palestinian war. His book Blood Brothers is a beautiful story of his own history and remarkable dedication to the work of forgiveness and reconciliation.

I’ve also been following the reflections of Brian McLaren as of late. I just finished Elie Wiesel’s Night, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and currently I’m re-reading Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity.

So the last few years, I have not been into the Mystics much and am starting to feel the need to return to that well.

len: You have been one prolific songwriter! Who are the contemporary influences on your music? Who are your favorite poets?

steve: My mother has probably had the greatest influence on my music. When I was young, she would often sit at the piano for hours in the evenings after we were put to bed. She is a wonderful player and loved the classics, hymns, Gershwin etc. I was bathed in beauty most nights as I would drift in and out of sleep under the spell of those melodies in service of her joys and sorrows.

Bruce Cockburn is certainly a huge influence; Leo Kotke, Billy Holliday, T-Bone Burnett, Prince, John Michael Talbot, Jennifer Warnes, Joni Mitchell, Gillian Welch, Allison Kraus, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Gillian Welch, Bjork – these come to mind pretty quick.

As far as poets go, I read less poetry than I like to admit, but certainly Richard Wilbur is a favorite. I love Margaret Avison as well. Gerard Manley Hopkins!! Then, of course, there are the mystics: Francis of Assis, John of the Cross, Rumi to name a few. And I adore the poetry of G.K Chesterton.

len: You have travelled a lot, and more than once I’ve heard you refer to the impact your travels to India had on you. Tell us why that journey touched you.

steve: I’m not sure why I connected so deeply to India. I suppose there is an inherent mysticism undergirding the society that attracts me. I love the people – the most hospitable folks I’ve ever met. And I was deeply moved by the polarity that is India’s joy and suffering, intense beauty alongside the grotesque and ugly, robust health and tragic disease. Metaphorically speaking, it felt like I was on familiar ground.

I also really love the music. I sat once under the spell of an amazing tabla player in Calcutta and another time in a bamboo hut in the Himalaya mountains listening to the bitter revolutionary folk songs of what was left of a band of defeated Nepalese freedom fighters.

The highlight for me was ten days up north on the border of Tibet in a Catholic monastery with a few dozen Jesuits novitiates. They were the ones who taught me the song Deep Calls to Deep which became the title and engine of my second album. These young men carried a hope and humility that motivates me still.

len: Ok, the prompt for this interview was the release of a new CD, “My Dinner with Bruce.” Cockburn was once called “Canada’s best kept secret,” but I think that’s a bit dated now. How long have you followed his work? What attracts you to Bruce as a person?

steve: I can’t say much about Bruce’s person as I don’t know him other than a few brief chats here and there over the past several years. He seems to be a surprisingly shy person and quite gracious.

I have been listening to his music since the late 70’s after going to a concert in Winnipeg. The universe changed for me that night – became much larger, scarier and much more intriguing. It marked the beginning of a different sort of search for truth and meaning. I was used to Christian artists who used their craft to flatter and bolster what we “know” rather than one’s like Bruce who lament, and cry and stammer and sigh. Like I suggested earlier, my life wasn’t as tidy as most Sunday school songs and so I grew up often feeling quite alienated from my faith. I felt a great relief and gratitude after Bruce’s concert.

He was also the first instrumentalist I experienced whom I would classify as a “master.” It was very inspiring and clearly changed how I viewed and approached the acoustic guitar.

len: How did you select the songs you chose for the album? What is your favorite Cockburn piece and why?

steve: Selection of songs took a long time simply because his work is so vast (some 25 or so albums). But the song list presented itself once I eliminated the songs I felt I couldn’t do a good job of, or that I couldn’t connect to out of my own experience.

I couldn’t possibly claim a favorite B.C. song. I love them all for different reasons. Currently however, the song Beautiful Creatures off of his new album is getting a lot of my time. It’s a breathtaking lament on the destruction of the environment. I am ever in awe of his melodies – something most people don’t talk about much when discussing his music. Most folks think of his guitar playing and lyrics - but Bruce is a tremendous melody maker as well – and that is probably the thing I most appreciate about his work.

len: The first time I heard “Pacing the Cage” I wept. Oddly, about a week before I heard it I had been sitting with a friend who is a baptist pastor as he was telling me why he thought Bruce was not a Christian. I was arguing pretty passionately about how and why my friend had missed the boat… Bruce has been almost completely marginalized by the evangelical mainstream. I was going to ask if you think this could ever change, but maybe the real question is.. Do you think there is hope for us?

steve: I don’t think Bruce will soon be accepted by the evangelical mainstream because so much of what drives him is critical of the mainstream. But evangelicalism is changing and changing fast. It is certainly not a monolithic group and as the ultra fundamentalist/conservative wing is loosing credibility and power, a more nuanced, informed and compassionate progressive evangelicalism is emerging. It remains to be seen what shape that will take as so many of the structures we still rely on were created out of the logic of a dying paradigm.

There is a lot of painful and difficult transition ahead of us – I pray we have the courage to move ahead. “All creation is straining on tiptoe to see the children of God come into their own.”

I do think there is hope – mostly because I don’t think God has any intention of abandoning us to ourselves.

len: If we could gather 500 Canadian church leaders in a room and you were doing a concert, which songs would you choose and why? What message would you want them to hear?

steve: I think there are four songs I’d pick for sure. Certainly Burning Ember. If we don’t recover a profound understanding of the fundamental dignity of all persons we will continue to brutalize each other’s mothers and fathers, daughters and sons while we continue to confess Christ. I assume God has amazing patience, but according to biblical accounts there seems to be an end to it.

I’d also want to sing This is Love which is a song I extrapolated from the prayer Jesus prays for his friends just before his capture and execution (John’s gospel). I am always amazed that in the face of brute violence Christ responds not by taking a life but by giving his. He didn’t participate with evil on its own terms – he simply absorbed it into his body. To me this is such a fundamental aspect of The Way. And when I ponder the idea that the Way is narrow and few find it – I wonder if this is at least in part what is being referred to. And I have to wonder if I believe in the Son myself – enough to really trust that this way leads (paradoxically) to life – and enough to then follow.

I’d also want to sing Ever Present Need – a song I wrote from a poem of St. Francis. “What of sadness can endure, when love divine makes insecure, the crowing claims of shame’s allure?” And: “In our ever present need of thee, grant we fathom peace. Fashion instruments of souls set free, for don’t the caged ones weep.”

In the end, true and full humanity is a gift – and if we ever do “get it” it will be because God will not abandon us to our sorry selves. I don’t believe God loves us out of some sense of reluctant duty or contractual obligation. The bible doesn’t teach that God endorses love; it teaches that God is love. It is not something God wants to do, but can’t help but do. And so I’d want to close with The Wellspring: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord. God of power and might. Heaven and earth of your glory are full! Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!”

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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on April 18, 2008