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.
Kevin Belmonte interviewed Steve for this week’s Fridays with Friends.
Kevin Belmonte: What/who/where are your consistent sources of inspiration?
Steve Bell: My father is certainly the most consistent source of inspiration for me. He is a practical pastor/theologian committed to wonder-full, life-long learning, whose faith is held in an open hand and whose journey is marked by authenticity and mindfulness.
Books, most certainly would come second. I read a lot. Strangely, as a musician, I more often choose to read than play. If condemned to a desert island and forced to choose between books and guitars, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the former. My bookshelf is full of Christian mystics from over the centuries. But the contemporary authors whose works are most represented are Walter Brueggemann, Frederick Buechner, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. More recently I’m coming to know certain poets: Richard Wilbur, Rumi, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Malcolm Guite.
This last year I’ve been quite taken with Simon Weil’s Waiting for God and Malcolm Guite’s Faith Hope and Poetry (which I read 3 times in 2012.)
Then, of course, Scripture. Particularly the Psalms and the book of Isaiah have inspired many, many songs.
KB: What artists (musicians, poets, painters, photographers, filmmakers, etc) have shaped your journey as an artist?
SB: No musician has affected me so profoundly as Canada’s Bruce Cockburn. I would be an entirely different artist had I not encountered his work in my mid teens. I was brought up in an evangelical home reared on hymns and gospel songs and as a young man dreamed of joining a gospel quartet. It never really occurred to me I’d be a songwriter. I’m certainly grateful for that rich heritage, but I will never forget the night a friend almost forced me to go to a Bruce Cockburn concert. I had heard a few songs and really didn’t like him. I could appreciate his guitar skills but couldn’t understand the angular and often dissonant quality of his melodies or the sometimes harsh and obscure lyrics. However, two songs into the concert the penny dropped. It’s like a tornado descended on my house and blew all the windows out and I left that concert hall into what felt like an entirely new and expansive universe. The open feeling of adventure and possibility has never left me. Nor has the sense that my art needed to be somehow wed to justice.
I suspect in the second half of my life, the work of English poet Malcolm Guite will have a similar effect. I encountered Malcolm at a conference in 2011. Hearing him speak at the opening lecture was a very similar experience for me as my first encounter with Cockburn. I think the resulting pieces I’ve written since bear witness to this.
KB: How can readers of All Nine get involved in what you’re doing?
SB: The easiest way to get to access my work and related material is through my website at www.stevebell.com. There you’ll find links to my blog, concert schedule and online album sales.