Steve Bell is best known
throughout the United States and Canada as a quality songwriter and performer
of pop / folk music and notice we did not say he is a Christian artist.
The reason we did not differentiate whether Bell plays mainstream or umm
(clearing our editorial throats) that other kind of music is because Steve
Bell wants the quality of his music to be appreciated without the burden
In addressing people who
seek to put labels on his music Bell says, “Well, for one, 'Christian'
now is such a huge word. Are you talking Christian pacifist or what are
you talking about? It’s a word really that is so huge that it is
hardly helpful.” He says the word Christian when applied to music can often
be a hindrance, “because they say, 'Oh--I know what that means.'”
Bell goes on to say that
largely why he objects to having the label put on his music is because
it puts him in a group that he feels often is more about propaganda than
it is about art. “There’s a place for it and I am not saying there
isn’t a place for it.” The fact that I am a Christian certainly informs
through my lyrics. It also informs that I am from Manitoba (a Canadian
province) and that I am a prairie guy. That makes me a little different
than eastern folks so that informs as well. Do you need to say that too?
Do I say Canadian prairie Christian songwriter? I’m also a dad. I’m also
middle-aged,” he concludes with a chuckle.
Bell can never be one who
is accused of dumbing-down his audience through his lyrics. They are thoughtful,
poetic and always come from the heart, prompting well respected author,
motivational speaker and professor Tony Campolo to say, “Steve Bell creates
music that speaks to me, and gives me a sense of Christ’s presence. There’s
depth to his message and his own comments give ample testimony that all
that he does, he does to further Christ’s Kingdom.
“In the end it really comes
down to is the art any good?” says Bell.
George Flores, the host
of WWJD Live at the Lambs in New York City, certainly thinks Bell creates
good art, “With pure guitar artistry and a lyrical power of the Psalmist,
Steve Bell is truly Canada’s finest and best kept secret.”
Understand that Bell’s remarks
are not directed specifically at the Christian music scene but at the music
scene in general. He says he wishes that the mainstream music-listening
public and music professionals would drop the need to classify music as
Christian or not.
He says, “I sometimes suspect
that the term "Christian," when we have to put that in front is either
a prejudice for or against and it has nothing to do with the quality of
the music. The number one question for me isn’t whether it is Christian
or not. It is whether or not it is any good. I find people say, 'Well,
we can listen to this artist because he or she is a Christian.' I would
rather my kids listen to good secular artists than bad Christian artists,
or vice versa. Good art is important and it needs no justification.”
Well, Steve, moving right
along, can your friendly journalist from The Phantom TollBooth lead
you into another controversial subject? What do you think when people say
Christian artists or authors should only write about or perform Christian
Bell responds thoughtfully,
“I think it is a terrible heresy to think that God isn’t involved in the
day-to-day things of life like, for instance, love between a man and a
woman. How is a love song that I write about my wife not a Christian song?
I just don’t know how that is. For me, it’s a disembodiment that
all things Christian have to have a Christian theme. This is all
God’s stuff. We are in God in a sense. I’m not quite sure how you
write a non-Christian song. I know you can write songs that are anti Christian
but I don’t think there is a topic that by definition is non Christian.
How you treat it may be but not by definition.”
When you sit down and talk
to Bell, it is clear that this is not a man that is outspoken and careless
with what he says but quite the contrary. This is an individual who over
the past fifteen years and through the creation of his ten CDs has been
on a journey of discovery. That journey has taken him to a place where
he cares passionately about the world in which he lives and how as Christians
we are viewed within that world context.
The winner of two Junos
(Canada’s Grammies) and twice the recipient of a Shai (voted on by the
public) Male Vocalist of the year award, Bell is humble when discussing
the music he creates, “I don’t write music to tell you what I know.
It’s my way of discovering. It’s the actual method I use to discover something.
My music isn’t so much a proposition that after I have done all this work,
here is what I have come up with and here’s what I’m going to tell you
from the work that I have done. What I am doing is exactly the opposite.
What I’m doing is saying I don’t know. One of the ways that I learn
about my God and about truth is to write music. It’s a discovery
process for me. It’s different than a didactic type of teaching.
I’m the one learning here and you just get in on the process. People say
to me all the time, 'What is the message you have for the people?' I don’t.
I honestly don’t have a message. I am doing what I do with my discovery
and my prayers. This is how I relate to God. It seems to be helpful
and if other people are in on it so be it.”
Bell was equally humbled
by his experiences when visiting India as part of a mission effort. “The
folks of India are some of the most hospitable and lovely people that I
have ever met. That really deeply moved me. Any village I visited in the
Himalayas (mountains), I would have these impromptu concerts right in the
middle of a village. I would finish a song and then they’d sing a song,
then I’d sing a song, then they’d do a dance.” He says what really
struck him was how this was a mutual thing. “The attitude of the villagers
was, “you give us something and we give you something. It was beautiful.
In the end I would be invited to every single hut in that village.
You could see them rummaging through things to find me a present.” He says
he felt both embarrassed and humbled that the villagers would want to give
him a gift from their meager possessions.”
Bell says he grew tremendously
through his interaction with the people of India. “The world was never
the same since.” Bell becomes passionate again as he says, “You realize
that God is getting to a lot of people in many different ways and I need
to be a part of it and not in the way.”
He says he found the whole
experiencethere’s that word againvery humbling. Often times he
says we in the wealthier countries fool ourselves into believing we are,
“Obviously more clever than they are. We are richer. We are more powerful
and you have these things in the back of your mind. You get there and you
realize that we are not a smarter people and that we are not further ahead.
In many, many ways we are desperately behind some of these people that
live in the most remote areas and we have lost a lot of our heritage.”
Bell, the owner of Signpost
Music, a small distribution company for Christian artists, made a decision
many years ago about what was important in his life and where his career
fit into the picture. “Right from the beginning when Nanci (wife) and I
decided that I would do this, we just decided how much time we felt was
okay, safe and wise for me to be away. We set up a kind of grid and said
let’s transgress that as little as possible. Every once in a while you
have to because you can’t always do what you want. Basically we set up
a routine where I go out every second weekend. I don’t do long tours.
I don’t go away for six weeks or six months at a time. I’ll go away
every second weekend” He may leave on Thursday and come home on Monday.
He says one of the keys has been to, “Hire people to manage my office so
I don’t have to be there 24 / 7 as well. Part of it is deciding you can’t
keep all the money you make and hiring people to do the work so you can
be home from time to time.”
Bell’s face lights up when
you ask about his performing with his twenty-year-old daughter Sarah. “When
I’m sitting there on stage and I look over and there’s my daughter--right
now, I can’t think about it too much or I will cry, I suppose. It’s
just an honor that my kids talk to me at all. So many families are
under stress today that I am just thrilled that the relationship is there.
I’m thrilled that she has this voice that people appreciate hearing and
she’s also a great kid. She has some inner struggles. Seeing her on stage
and knowing the struggle that is behind that I am just proud of her courage.”
In 2003 Sarah and her dad recorded the CD Sons and Daughters.
Steve Bell is never going
to be the guy you see on the Corn Flakes box first thing in the morning.
He is not going to be the guy that fills up a football stadium. He is,
however, the man who has left a lasting impression on the music industry
and countless artists talk about the positive impact he has on their own
Perhaps most telling are
his own comments about the success of Signpost Music. He gives a lot of
the credit to his manager and producer Dave Zeglinski, “Dave is really
the guy who is behind the building of the business. I’m the guy who does
the music. I have some involvement with the business end but I’m
really not that helpful. Dave is really quite gifted.”
He also plays down his role
in helping other recording artists. He says when he started talking
to other artists who perhaps weren’t as attractive to the bigger boys in
the music industry because they were the wrong age or demographic he saw
an opportunity to assist these artists who were despite being ignored very
musically gifted. “It was really no big deal for us to let them piggyback
off the work that we had already done. We started as a bit of a ministry
to enable other people to take advantage of the work that we had already
done. It wasn’t difficult to do. We already had the accounts. We
were already in the stores anyway.
Steve Bell may not be a
household name for some but he is a mentor for many.
By Joe Montague, exclusive
This material may not be
redistributed without prior written permission from Joe Montague.
|Joe Montague is a
freelance Christian journalist / photographer who has been published in
a variety of community, daily and Christian newspapers coast to coast in
Canada and the United States. Joe Montague's ministry of journalism
is dedicated to the memory of his late son Kent David Montague who went
to heaven far too early at the age of 18.