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Steve Bell is a resolute Christian pilgrim; a spiritual sommelier; a ‘deeper-life’ troubabour…” Jim Van Eerden / award-winning film producer
“Steve Bell is a Canadian national treasure.” Larry LeBlanc / Billboard Magazine
Steve Bell | Short Bio | 2012
Born into a musical family, Steve Bell has been performing and touring since he was eight years old. As Steve’s father was a prison Chaplain, it was federal prisoners in Drumheller Penitentiary who taught the young boy to play guitar at an early age. Bell recounts fondly, “I now perform world-over because Canada’s most unwanted men invested in me when I was a boy.”
In the early eighties Steve began to make his mark with the acclaimed folk trio Elias, Schritt and Bell. But it wasn’t until he ventured out on his own that his career stats started to shimmer. Since his first solo release in 1989, Comfort My People, Bell has released 16 CDs, three concert videos and performed over 1500 concerts across Canada, the US, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Poland, Bulgaria, Ireland, and throughout the Caribbean.
More recently, Steve’s work has won him 26 concerts with Symphony orchestras across Canada and into the US. In December 2011 a rapt, capacity crowd gathered to take in his concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Massey Hall.
In 1997, Steve was awarded the first JUNO Award for the category of Best Gospel Album. He has since received a second JUNO in 2000 and in the ensuing years has been awarded multiple Prairie Music, Western Canada Music and Covenant Awards.
With the 2012 release of his 17th career CD, Keening for the Dawn – Christmastide, Steve displays a rare longevity and commitment to his vocation. For this commitment, along with his advocacy work for the less fortunate, Steve has been awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
- raised in musical, recording and touring family, learning to play guitar in Drumheller Prison when he was 8 yrs. old (father was a federal prison chaplain.)
- member of Winnipeg’s acclaimed Elias, Schritt and Bell in early 80′s and active in Winnipeg’s studio and night-club scene throughout the decade
- since 1989 has independently released 17 solo CDs with combined sales of over 300,000 units
- CDs have been awarded 2 JUNOs with another two nominated
- CDs have won 2 Western Canadian Music awards, numerous Covenant and Prairie Music awards including Producer of the Year in 2002
- since 1989 has performed over 1500 concerts to over a half million people in 15 countries including Ireland, Bulgaria, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Poland, and throughout the US and Caribbean.
- Symphony concert has played to sold-out and capacity crowds in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Thunder Bay, Hamilton, Burlington, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Nashville and most recently with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Massey Hall.
- advocacy work has raised significant support for organizations like World Vision, Canadian Foodgrains Bank, and Compassion Canada
- recently release 17th career album Keening for the Dawn – Christmastide (Nov.12/2012)
- recipient of the 2012 Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal awarded to select Canadians who have “made a significant contribution to their fellow countrymen, their community, or to Canada over the previous sixty years.”
- recipient of the WSO’s 2013 Golden Baton Award
Long Bio | Steve Bell | 2012
Be but your own good friend
And be good to the other
Cherish those sisters and brothers
Along the road…
To attend one of Steve Bell’s concerts any given evening is to see what it’s like when the gifts of a poet and performer take centre stage. Listen to one of his albums, and you’ll discover a magic and artistry few singer/songwriters possess.
These things have drawn audiences around the world to his performances, whether recorded or live. In either setting, his vibrant tenor voice, no less than his mastery of the guitar, shine through. And his peers have taken note. Two Juno Awards are among the many fine marks of recognition he has received in a career spanning more than twenty years.
Abiding faith has indelibly shaped Steve’s artistry, and it’s also the wellspring of his concern for others. Humanitarian work is as much a part of his life as his music. The Canadian Foodgrains Bank, World Vision and Compassion Canada — all these organisations know him to be a committed advocate and fundraiser. Whether at home in Canada, or in places like India, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, Steve has shown himself a friend to people in need.
* * *
Steve’s life in music has had some interesting turns in the road, to say the least. He first learned to play guitar in a medium-security penitentiary in Alberta. As the story goes, his father, a chaplain at Drumheller Prison, had arranged for several of the inmates there to play their guitars in the chapel on Saturday afternoons. Several were talented players in the Chet Atkins style. Bluegrass jams were the order of the day, and young Steve was captivated. As he recalls, “When the inmates realized I wanted to play, they invited me to grab a guitar and sit in.” The memory brings a smile. “One reason I tour the world now is because several of Canada’s most unwanted men invested in me when I was eight years old!”
To be sure, a gift for music runs in Steve’s family. “My mom was a classical pianist and she’s a tremendous player. At night after putting us kids to bed, she’d often sit down at the piano and play until the wee hours. I remember drifting in and out of sleep—bathed in melody—Gershwin, the classics and hymns.”
It made for an eclectic musical setting, heightened by the fact that Steve’s mother also played the guitar. It quickly captured her son’s imagination. “When she was playing I’d watch her hands and memorize everywhere she put them. If she had to leave the room, I’d grab the guitar for five minutes and try it. My parents were impressed that I could play, so they bought me my first guitar.”
When he was old enough, Steve began playing the bar circuit in and around Winnipeg. His talent as a guitarist and vocalist were showcased in the harmony-based trio Elias, Schritt and Bell, a group that found regional success, and many remember fondly.
It was a life crowded with all kinds of performing. “For ten years, late 70s to late 80s, I was gigging full-time. I’d play in country bands, dance bands, rock bands, whatever was needed to keep the bills paid. I didn’t even really see myself as a career musician. I saw it as kind of a stop-gap thing until I figured out what to do with myself.” Over time, he discovered what many musicians have: the grind of playing bars takes a toll. After he married and became a father, it quickly wore thin.
“I then had something of a spiritual experience,” Steve remembers, “and I felt God speak to me saying, ‘this time of your life is over.’” And so, when his wife Nanci returned to her career in teaching, he stayed home with their children. “I just upped and quit. I really thought I was hanging up my guitar.”
* * *
It was then Steve discovered that setting some things aside can lead to a wholly new direction in life. Now, with time to reflect, and to explore his deepening faith, he became a songwriter. “All of a sudden music just started pouring out of me. Those first six months were a period of creativity like I’d never had before—or since.”
Enter family friend Father Bob McDougall, who’d been the Catholic chaplain at Stony Mountain Prison when Steve’s father had been the Protestant chaplain there. One day, out of the blue, he knocked at Steve’s door. In the conversation that followed, McDougall strongly urged him to consider recording an album shaped by Christian themes—centred on faith.
“That hadn’t been on my radar at all,” Steve recalls. “I thought I had quit music. But Father Bob insisted, and offered to fund my first solo project. I checked with my friend, producer Dave Zeglinski, who is now my manager. We came up with a cost figure, and Father Bob wrote the cheque. The initial print run was 200 cassette copies, which I hoped I could either sell—or at least give away.”
The resulting album, Comfort My People, took on a life of its own. Requests for Steve to perform began to come in. Reluctant at first, he finally relented. “One pastor,” he remembers, “wouldn’t take no for an answer. I kept insisting I was a failed bar musician, but he said ‘just come and do three songs and I’ll pay you $200’—so I said yes.”
Soon after, Steve played a full set for the congregation of a Mennonite community in southern Manitoba. It proved a life-changing experience. “That’s where I caught the simple vision of it. You can take the stage, tell an honest story, sing an honest song and go home. There are worse ways to spend an evening.”
An unmistakable momentum followed. As Steve learned to trust his instincts onstage, he started storytelling. His songs were complimented in a wholly new way. Album sales steadily increased, and more calls for concerts came in. “It grew organically from there,” he recalls.
* * *
Twenty years later, the stories and songs have only grown, and become more compelling. Success unlike anything he’d ever experienced had come his way; sixteen albums, hundreds of concerts, and emergence of a style and song-writing gift that is wholly Steve’s own, yet rich at the same time with echoes of his musical influences. And Steve is quick to credit the artists who helped him trace his musical journey: “I grew up on people like Kenny Loggins, Dan Fogelberg, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.”
Bruce Cockburn, in particular, has been a crucial influence. This led Steve to record his 2006 album, My Dinner with Bruce, a project that garnered praise from Cockburn himself.
Beyond this, Steve’s performances with some of North America’s finest symphony orchestras have ushered in some stellar career highlights. To date, he has performed 24 times with nine different symphony orchestras, including the prestigious Nashville Symphony at Opryland, U.S.A., and the Toronto Symphony at Massey Hall. Added to this, Steve’s 2007 album, Symphony Sessions, captured his magical collaboration with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. And 2008 marked the release of an acclaimed concert with The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, filmed and released on DVD.
For Steve, this new side to his career was an unexpected thrill. “We got a call from the Winnipeg Symphony, asking me to consider a concert with them. It seemed a daunting task, but we decided to take the risk.” And so, enlisting the help of keyboardist Mike Janzen, orchestral scores were crafted for the performance to follow. The concert sold out. “It was a magical evening,” Steve says. “I remember looking out at my father who was weeping. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a higher moment than that.” Many symphony concerts have followed since.
* * *
Fast forward to the present. Fresh off the success of 2011’s critically-acclaimed release, Kindness, comes as superb a recording for the Advent season as one might hope to find: Keening for the Dawn. An album rich in the company of artists, it was written in collaboration with the British poet Malcolm Guite. Ever one to work with a cast of gifted studio musicians Steve Bell has set this finely burnished lyric cycle in an aural landscape that beckons to the heart and spirit. Seldom has the Christmas season come so near in song.
And so, whether onstage for an acoustic guitar solo set, with an orchestra, or with a band performing “pop-jazz” material that spotlights the prowess of the gifted artists who tour with him, Steve Bell has come into his own with artistry and talent shaped by faith, music rich in the seasons and things to savour in life, and stories to tell. His is an extraordinary journey—one that holds much promise for the future.
For more information, contact:
Dave Zeglinski / Signpost Music
Long Bio | Steve Bell | 2010
Call him the best-kept secret in Canadian music. Winnipeg-based singer/songwriter Steve Bell has enjoyed serious commercial success over a prolific solo career that has spanned two decades, yet he has flown rather under the radar in terms of music industry and media recognition. Despite this, his large and loyal fan base has continued to grow, both here in Canada and the U.S. With the imminent release of a new album, KIN.DNESS, Bell is offering to a wider audience, his eloquent and heartfelt material. “We’ve managed to develop an niche audience that is very receptive to my music,” Steve explains, “and now we have a new album coming out that I think can potentially cut a wider swathe than previous ones.”
Steve Bell’s career statistics are certainly striking. Since releasing his first solo project – Comfort My People – in 1989, he has put out a total of 15 CDs, and they’ve sold over 300,000 copies independently. Add in three concert videos, four songbooks, and an estimated 1,500 concerts, and you have a body of work equaled by very few artists in any genre. Bell’s work has also brought him numerous industry accolades, including two JUNO Awards (Romantics & Mystics, 1998; Simple Songs, 2001), multiple Prairie Music, Covenant, Vibe, and Western Canadian Music Awards.
Beyond the numbers and the crowded trophy shelf lies the fact that Steve Bell’s songs, music, and concerts resonate deeply within the hearts and souls of his fans, providing both solace and inspiration. It is this connection, rather than platinum plaques to hang on the wall, that is Bell’s true goal and his most real achievement. “This is a social thing we are doing,” Steve explains; “It is public work, not just a musical commodity where we are trying to sell as many albums as we can.”
Steve takes his role as a storyteller very seriously. “When you tell stories, whether through song or through speaking, it is thrilling to watch people engage and respond so deeply. You realize what a service it is you are offering people. They might suddenly imagine a different universe or simply take needed, brief respite from their daily life. You can help them laugh or cry, and perhaps make emotional, social or spiritual connections they would not otherwise. When you’re onstage you can see it happening to people right in front of your eyes. That’s really magical.”
He is most commonly described as a Christian music artist, but it is perhaps more accurate to call Steve Bell an artist who happens to be a Christian. The responsibility of a singer/songwriter is to be true to oneself, and in Steve Bell’s case, that means continuing to explore his personal faith. “If that didn’t come out, I wouldn’t be a good artist because by definition I’d be dishonest,” Steve says; “I wouldn’t be mining what is going on. It is not that I ever chose to be a Christian artist. That is just what I am.”
Bell is quick to stress that his goal is to strive for excellence and honesty—”When I write my music I don’t have an agenda for the audience. I just want to write a good song. If my faith-walk sheds a light for someone and they can take a step forward in some way that they couldn’t otherwise, that’s great. But if a listener simply enjoys the melody and the poetry, that’s fine too. I don’t mind being known as a Christian musician but what I really want to be known as is a good musician. I still feel the goal is excellence and honesty,” —consider that, a goal achieved.
Steve Bell’s life story is a fascinating one. For instance, he first learned to play guitar in a medium-security penitentiary in Alberta! Steve picks up the story; “My father was the chaplain at Drumheller Prison. Some of the inmates were great guitar pickers in the Chet Atkins style. They asked my dad if they could have jam sessions in the chapel on Saturday afternoons, and he arranged for the guards to stay away so they had a place to play that wasn’t shrouded by relentless, penal authority. They’d sit in a circle and have these wonderful bluegrass jams. Once, my dad let me sit and watch and I was absolutely enthralled. When the inmates realized I wanted to play they invited me to grab a guitar and sit in. They treated me like a real peer, so not only did they teach me guitar, but this was the first circle of adult men to not treat me like a kid.” Looking back, Steve notes that, “One reason I tour the world now is because some of Canada’s most unwanted men invested in me when I was eight years old!”
Steve’s passion for music had revealed itself even earlier, and he credits his mother’s influence; “My mum was a classical pianist and she is a tremendous player. At night she’d often put us kids to bed, and then sit down at the piano until the wee hours. I remember drifting in and out of sleep being bathed in melody: Gershwin, the classics and hymns.
His mother also played electric guitar, an instrument that instantly captured the youngster’s imagination; “When she was playing I’d watch her hands and memorize everywhere she put them. If she went out to the garden, or into the basement to do laundry I’d grab that thing for five minutes and try it. Eventually I was caught, but as it worked out, my parents were impressed I could play and bought me my first guitar.”
Post prison education, Steve began playing the bar circuit in and around Winnipeg. His talent as a guitarist and vocalist were best showcased in the harmony-based trio Elias, Schritt and Bell, a group that found regional success. “I did that for about ten years full-time, from 1978 to the late ’80s,” he recalls; “I was jobbing. I’d play in country bands, dance bands, rock bands, whatever was needed to keep the bills paid. I didn’t even really see myself as a musician. I saw it as kind of a stop-gap thing until I figured out what to do with myself.”
The grind of playing the bars took its toll, Bell explains; “I eventually got married and had kids and the bar scene started to wear thin. It wasn’t going anywhere. I then had something of a spiritual experience, and I felt God speak to me saying, “this time of your life is over.’ I just upped and quit, and I stayed home with the kids while my wife Nanci went back to teaching. I really thought I was hanging up my guitar.”
Ironically, it was giving up his musical career that really kick-started his career. Being given time to reflect upon his life and explore his deepened faith enabled Steve Bell to become a songwriter. “All of a sudden music just started pouring out of me. Those first six months at home it was like a fire hose, a period of creativity I’ve never had since, or before. Every time I read something a song would come out. I’d go to church, hear a psalm and I’d write a song.”
Fate then intervened in the form of family friend Father Bob McDougall, who’d been the Catholic chaplain at Stony Mountain Prison when Steve’s father had been the Protestant chaplain there. “Bob suddenly showed up at my door, saying ‘you should do a Christian album’,” Steve recalls. “That hadn’t been on my radar at all. I thought I’d quit music. But he insisted, saying he’d pay for it. I checked with my friend Dave Zeglinski, who is now my manager, we came up with a cost figure, and Father Bob wrote the cheque. The initial print run was 200 cassette copies I hoped I could either sell or at least give away.”
In fact, Steve’s 1989 debut album, Comfort My People, took off, thanks to word of mouth. Pressure mounted on a reluctant Bell to return to performance, and he finally relented. “One pastor wouldn’t take no for an answer. I kept insisting I was a failed bar musician, but he said ‘ just come and do three songs and I’ll pay you $200,’ so I said yes.” Steve ended up playing a full set for the congregation at a Mennonite community in southern Manitoba, and this proved a life-changing experience. “That’s where I saw the simple vision of it. You can just go up, tell an honest story, sing an honest song and go home. There are worse ways to spend an evening. Things took off from there. I learned to trust my instincts onstage, I started storytelling, albums started selling, and I got more calls for concerts. It has grown very organically from there.”
More than 20 years later, Steve Bell is still telling honest stories and singing honest songs. You don’t need to be a Sherlock Holmes to detect the reasons for his phenomenal success. Aside from being a compelling storyteller and charismatic performer, Steve Bell writes (and covers) eloquent songs, frames them in accessible musical settings, and sings them in a gently melodic and charming vocal style. He cites the singer/songwriters of the ’70s as key influences on his music, noting, “I grew up on people like Kenny Loggins, Dan Fogelberg, James Taylor and Joni Mitchel.”
Another crucial creative inspiration has been Bruce Cockburn, as shown by Steve’s 2006 album, My Dinner with Bruce, a superb collection of Cockburn songs given fresh new life by Bell and awarded an enthusiastic thumbs-up by Cockburn himself. Back in 1997, Bell covered another Cockburn song, “Can I Go with You,” on his Romantics and Mystics album, and this led to a lovely Bruce-linked story; “I won my first Juno Award for that album,” Steve recalls, “On the night, after the ceremony was over, a gentleman came up to me in the hall and introduced himself as Bernie Finkelstein, Bruce’s manager. He said ‘I want you to know Bruce and I think that’s the best cover of any Cockburn song to date.’ I’d have traded in my Juno in a second for that! When one of your heroes speaks well of you, that’s a nice moment.”
The production and instrumental values of Steve Bell albums are of the highest order. He has long recruited some of Canada’s very best players to record and tour with him, with that impressive list including the likes of Hugh Marsh (Bruce Cockburn, Loreena McKennitt), Fergus Marsh, pianist Mike Janzen and guitar virtuosos Kevin Breit (Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson) and Steve Dawson. “I always ensure that in any Steve Bell Band, I am the weakest link,” he says. “I learn like crazy and I play better when I’m around people like that. Those guys will suck the ego right out of you. You realize they’re in it for the music and the beauty of those moments.” Bell is being unduly modest about his guitar-playing ability, for fans attending his solo concerts are routinely impressed by his fluent mastery of the instrument.
Steve Bell has developed his own unique musical style, one that shines in vividly contrasting settings. Like any true troubadour, he can enchant—both in concert, and on disc—armed only with guitar and voice; something demonstrated on his completely solo 2000 album, Simple Songs.
On the other end of the scale, he now has a flourishing career performing and recording with many of North America’s finest symphony orchestras. In fact, in recent years Bell has performed his material 24 times with nine different symphony orchestras, including the prestigious Nashville Symphony at Opryland, U.S.A. His 2007 album, Symphony Sessions, captures his magical collaboration with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, while his 2008 DVD Steve Bell in Concert features the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
To Steve, this new side to his career is a happy accident. “Little good that has happened to us is because we thought of it,” he laughingly notes; “We got a call from the Winnipeg Symphony, and I assumed they wanted me to sing a Pops concert. They came back and said ‘no, we want a Steve Bell concert.’ It seemed a daunting task, but we took the risk. I hired my keyboardist, Mike Janzen, to do the scores, and the concert sold out. It was a magical evening. I remember looking out at my weeping dad in the audience. There I was onstage with the symphony and it was my music being celebrated by my community. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a higher moment than that.”
This musical magic has been replicated at numerous symphony concerts since. “We realized we are uniquely set up to do this, because of all the work we’ve done and the style of music,” says Bell; “There is something you can say with a symphony you can’t any other way. There’s a depth of beauty and majesty there. I believe we’ll spend a lot of time on the symphony concerts over the next 15 years.” The inherent melodic strength of Steve Bell’s material and its potential for musical expansion renders it perfect for translation to an orchestral setting. “I grew up being bathed in classical melodies,” he says; “When Mike started working with songs I’d written, we realized how easily they lent themselves to expansion.”
In the middle of the solo-to-symphony spectrum are Steve Bell Band gigs, described by Steve as, “pop-jazz oriented,” and spotlighting the prowess of his ace accompanists. He enjoys all formats equally. “Whether I’m on a stool by myself in rural Saskatchewan or singing with a symphony to 2,700 people.”
Amidst his intensive North American touring schedule, Bell has always found time to work on behalf of such worthy organizations as World Vision, Compassion Canada, and Canadian Foodgrains Bank, and his advocacy efforts have been worth millions to these causes. He has also traveled extensively in the Third World, spreading hope via his music and message to communities in India, Thailand, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Palestine, Kenya, Guatemala, and many other countries.
Steve views such work as part of his responsibility as an artist. “To some degree, it is our job to go and have those experiences, bring them back, and find a way to articulate them. We are given unique opportunities and I think we have a social responsibility to help others experience things they wouldn’t otherwise. And perhaps, through our witness they become self-motivated to engage with some of the issues. If I can tell a story or sing a song that places someone in Calcutta or the Afar desert of Ethiopia, they’ll never be the same.”
Steve Bell’s current focus is upon the release of his keenly anticipated new album, KIN.DNESS. Sharing production duties on the disc are Steve, long-time production partner and manager Dave Zeglinski, and Murray Pulver, from top country band Doc Walker. “Murray has really good ears and is very musical, so it’s great to have him on board,” says Steve. Bell is brimming with excitement over the new record calling it, “…possibly our best one yet. It is a little more groove-oriented, a little vibe-ier. You could say it has more of a New York singer/songwriter feel.” Players on the album include Bell’s long-time band mates Mike Janzen, bassist Gilles Fournier and drummer Daniel Roy, plus rising young guitar star, Joey Landreth.
KIN.DNESS will feature new original songs alongside tunes from some of Steve’s favorite writers. “Several of the songs on the album turned out to have a general underlying theme of kinship,” he says; “Kin is the root of kind, so we’re focusing on that meaning, whether between us and creation, or between peoples. I don’t usually have a preconceived theme for an album, but when I look back I often see one there.”
Do yourself a kindness. Check out the music of Steve Bell for yourself.
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