Over the past 25-plus years, Steve Bell has been one of Canadian Christian music’s best-kept secrets. Burning Ember, a recent documentary from filmmaker Andrew Wall showcases just how relatively unknown Bell has been throughout the course of his longstanding career. And while being so criminally underappreciated might be seen as discouraging to some, Bell himself has taken it all in stride, and this past September celebrated a quarter century in music through the release of Pilgrimage, a part-new, part-commemorative four-disc set. For those who’ve been lucky enough to see Steve Bell in concert, it’s no secret that sharing stories is integral to what makes him so captivating. But for those unfamiliar with Bell, or even those who’ve only heard his music, getting to know the man behind the voice is at the core of the experience. It’s for that reason that we decided to sit down with the travelling troubadour himself to talk music, family, and what might be ahead in the years to come.
WHAT HAS RECEPTION BEEN LIKE FOR THE PILGRIMAGE PROJECT? The response to the new project has been very enthusiastic and several people have said they believe it to be my best work, which is nice considering I’m getting old in this business and not many of us get to stay in it into our later years. What I’ve enjoyed is that I now have listeners who’ve been tracking with me for decades, and many have become dear friends that feel very much like fellow pilgrims on the way. More and more I’m looking out, from my vantage on stage, at people who are a little weathered like me, and who listen to my current music with a deep connection to my previous work. It feels very much like “we” have been on a significant journey together. WHAT HAVE SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS BEEN FROM THE RECENT STRING OF TOUR DATES? Since Pilgrimage came out last fall, I’ve been hitting the same major cities I’ve been playing for years. So, it’s been mostly familiar towns and familiar crowds. What’s different is that this is the first new-album tour I’ve performed solo in over a decade. Usually, we celebrate a new project by putting a band together for the major cities. This time, however, the songs seemed more personal, and with themes more theologically introspective and nuanced than past projects (largely the influence of co-
writer [and renowned poet] Malcolm Guite). This album also includes a couple finger-style instrumentals, which I haven’t done for some time. It just felt like I should do the tour alone, and surprisingly, I’ve rather enjoyed it. GIVEN THE SOMEWHAT RETROSPECTIVE NATURE OF THE PROJECT, HAS THIS TOUR DIFFERED IN ANY PERSONAL OR MEANINGFUL WAYS FROM PREVIOUS TOURS? Usually, with a new album tour, I’ll pull four or five new songs for the concert and then fill out the evening with songs folks are more familiar with. I still frequently perform songs from my first albums. But this time I’ve opened the concerts with only one or two favourites, and then performed most of the new album. Initially I wondered if it would be too much of a stretch for an audience to hear so much new music, but folks have been incredibly hospitable to the fresh material. So, ironically, in a tour that was meant to be a celebration of 25 years of work, I’m doing more new material than ever. It’s been fun. AFTER A CAREER THAT’S SPANNED AS MANY YEARS AS YOURS HAS, DO YOU EVER HAVE DIFFICULTY FINDING THE INSPIRATION TO START NEW PROJECTS? Surprisingly, not really. I’ve already got most of my next album written and ready to record even though
my last album, Pilgrimage, is still a new release. Having said that, I have had long (years-long) spells of writer’s block, but I’ve always enjoyed putting my own spin on other peoples work, so there’s never been a shortage of songs and projects to record. A keen observer might notice that in the years between 2005 and 2011 I didn’t write or record a single new Steve Bell song, yet I put out several albums during that time: Solace in 2005, My Dinner With Bruce in 2006, Story and Song in 2006, Symphony Sessions in 2007, and Devotion in 2008. When Kindness came out in 2011 it had the first new Steve Bell songs that had been written in years. The albums in the meantime were projects that recast older songs (like Symphony Sessions) or that were cover albums like My Dinner with Bruce, which was entirely Bruce Cockburn songs, and Devotion, which was mostly Gord Johnson songs. So, as horrible as seasons of writer’s block are, and they really are desolate times, I’ve always managed to find something worthy to do while I await whatever it may take to unleash the next flood of songs. More recently, a writing friendship has developed between myself and Malcolm Guite, which has been the distinctive mark of my last two albums. Malcolm’s gifting is truly remarkable, and his impact on me has been immeasurable.
JULY / AUGUST 2015 SEVEN 25
Published on Jul 6, 2015
Music. We’re surrounded by it, entertained by it, inspired by it, moved by it. But what lies beneath can often be equally as compelling as t...