From Faith Today interview with Steve Bell, March/April 2015
Steve Bell is a Canadian Christian music icon and co-owner of Winnipeg’s Signpost Music. He has 18 solo CDs under his belt, including Pilgrimage, his most recent collection celebrating 25 years of music making. Bell is a two-time Juno Award winner and multiple Covenant Award winner – among many other professional recognitions. Bell’s reputation is that of a thoughtful, musical poet-theologian. He spoke to Faith Today about the joy and pain of writing, why his music is not played more often on Canadian Christian radio – and the beautiful advice he offers young artists.
Faith Today: Your song “Moon Over Birkenau” emerged after a painful visit to Auschwitz. What is your songwriting process?
Steve Bell: There is no normal, really. Some songs seem to just happen. Sometimes I think they’re like angels, pre-existent and looking about for someone with their antennas up. When you’ve experienced something as traumatic as Auschwitz, you become hyper-attuned. Your soul is malleable and softened, ready to receive. With the song “Moon Over Birkenau,” I sat down at the piano, my hands went to the notes, and I just started to play. That has only happened to me maybe a dozen times over several decades.
Other times I’ll be reading a book, and a particular constellation of words will strike me as lovely, or I’ll sense a peculiar energy in them so much so that I’ll “attend” a little deeper. Inevitably I’ll see a pattern emerge suggesting a rhythm. Melody follows. That’s when I know I have a song coming down the pike and I’ll clear my schedule and grab my guitar.
FT: Writers are told to rewrite again and again. Is it the same for songwriting?
SB: I tweak endlessly. I’m often performing new songs for over a year before I record. The more I sing them and tell stories, the more I discover what’s in them. I’ve often remarked that my songs seem to know more than I do. Over time, they become more of themselves until my manager will say it’s time for an album. We’ll book the studio, and then they are done. But I still look back on songs I’ve recorded ten years ago and wish I could tweak them.
The last while has been a little different for me. I started plundering the poetry of Malcolm Guite after meeting him at a C. S. Lewis conference a few years ago. We’ve become friends and have since worked closely together on my last couple of albums. His influence has renewed my astonishment at the power of poetry and melody to say what can’t be said. I was becoming a little tired and cynical, I think, but am enchanted once again.
FT: Tell me your thoughts about contemporary Christian music in Canada.
SB: There’s really no effective Christian music industry in Canada. We don’t have vigorous, well-resourced record labels, publishing houses or management companies. We have a handful of radio stations and in the last few years our modest retail industry has been decimated.
We’re mostly a group of moderately successful independents trying to do meaningful work while staying one step ahead of the bank. Those who are tied to industry are tied to U.S. industry.
This is one of my frustrations with the Canadian Christian music awards organizations. They have made attempts to posture after the Americans, even though we have a completely different reality here. I’ve been to award shows replete with smoke machines, whirling lights, video graphics and booming-voiced announcers. I suppose it’s kind of fun, but I sit there and think, “Is this anyone’s reality?”
I just wish we could be more Canadian about it. I’m proud of us, even as I have a lot of respect for much of what goes on south of the 49th. I wish we could be content with humbler gatherings more focused on our craft.
FT: When I turn on Christian radio, I don’t often hear Steve Bell. Why is that?
SB: It’s true that I get far more airplay from CBC than I do Christian radio. I’m not sour grapes about this. I understand that I don’t go out of my way to produce “radio-friendly” music as it is defined primarily by the Nashville Christian music industry, but it saddens me that we in Canada still seem to have a cultural inferiority complex. We already have an America. We don’t need two. We have something to contribute in our own unique way that can be extremely valuable to other cultures. It seems to me that a faith that understands God as triune – a unity of difference – would be eager to celebrate variety.
FT: Who do you listen to?
SB: Oddly, I don’t listen to a lot of music. I’m more likely to read a book. Having said that, I have every album Bruce Cockburn has made. I love Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. I love the whole Emmylou Harris camp, The Bros. Landreth, Jacob Moon is magnificent, Leo Kottke, James Taylor. My favourite singer would be Billie Holiday. Bob Bennett’s music has been significant for me.
FT: I’m thinking of you as an artist who makes his living from art created from his faith. Have you had a faith crisis and how did you cope with that?
SB: Yeah, I mean without making too much of it, our family has suffered a lot with mental illness. My mother has lived her life with a sometimes crippling anxiety disorder. My dad is bipolar and I’ve been prone to depression. We’ve had suicide in the family, financial terrors, eating disorders and like anyone, all manner of disappointment and loss. These are the things you wrestle with in the middle of the night when you question God about the content of His “friendship.”
My dad was a prison chaplain and I grew up going to church in prison. When you awaken to the profound dignity of every human person, and to the social dynamics that exclude and alienate, you begin to ask how this can happen in a culture that claims to be foundationally Christian.
Other crises of faith have been brought on by trips. My first time to Kolkata and Palestine shut me down from writing for long periods of time. I felt I had nothing to say in the face of some of the tragedies I saw. I have a First Nations foster daughter. I’ve gotten a clearer picture of how brutal this society can be if you are not in the mainstream. If you look at the wounds that colonial Christianity inflicted on First Nations people, you have to ask, Is there a fatal flaw in this faith? That’s the kind of thing that gnaws at me at 3 o’clock in the morning.
But I can’t stay there. I’m constantly overwhelmed by resilient beauty. My foster daughter lived with terrible addictions she financed through prostitution. Now she’s a beautiful mom with great kids, struggling and yet overcoming. She awes and inspires me.
I’ve been criticized for writing beautiful or even light melodies to sad or dark lyrics. I can’t help it. Darkness does not have the last word. I believe that in my bones.
FT: What guidance do you offer young Christian artists?
SB: I’m in the happy place of life now where I have some resources to share. My manager Dave Zeglinski and I own a nice little studio we’ve increasingly made available to young artists. I love to tell them they belong to a noble, meaning-making guild that has brought comfort and beauty for thousands of years, and the commercialization and celebrity that goes with it is an almost criminal distraction.
Ours is an honourable and indispensable craft, and we need to take it seriously. We need to think deeply, feel deeply and avoid anything that is simplistic and cliché.
I had a wonderful experience recently with a new Canadian band. Dave and I had a little bit of money kicking around that we thought might help them get started. We invited them over to my house for burgers and beers, to offer them some financial assistance and, if they wanted it, counsel.
I was out cutting the lawn that morning, and God spoke to me very clearly that this was not to be a burgers and beer thing – this was to be a feast. I cleaned the house. I thought through the best meal I could remember my wife making—she was away at the time—and I went out and bought a few great wines. I felt strongly that God wanted me to bless them. This was potentially awkward because there was no consensus of faith between us. We had a great time, and just before we were about to eat, one of the brothers—who would probably not identify as Christian—looked at the bountiful table, held out his hands and said, “We need to thank somebody.” I knew it was blessing time. I affirmed their gifting, impressed upon them that they had the honourable charge of leading people through their music to experiences of the transcendent divine, and then asked if I could bless them. They bowed their heads as I prayed over them and blessed their journey.
That is what I want to pass along – more than how to get a gig or a grant. That’s important, but not as valuable as fostering the dignity of the work we’ve been called to do for the sake of the world.
FT: Thank you so much, Steve. /FT