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I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord; “plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

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Interview with Steve Bell – Part 1

November 16, 2012

Steve Bell is one of North America’s finest musicians, songwriters and storytellers. I had the honour of meeting Steve in Oxford in 2011 where he was performing for the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute at Oxbridge and I was serving as the official photographer for the C.S. Lewis Foundation. I had not heard of Steve Bell before this event so I did not enter my relationship with Steve with any pre-existing information or biases. It is probably just as well because I think I would have been intimidated. Steve has won an arm’s length list of awards over the wide span of his career and much good material has already been written about Steve and his work. His website is a high polished visual and auditory landscape blending text, image and sound.

His newest release is titled Keening for the Dawn – a remarkable musical offering that re-envisions our celebration of Advent and Christmastide.  This collection of songs bears all the beautiful fingerprints of co-labour with a highly skilled circle of musicians and producers. Every element reflects its rich literary and poetic influences.  And for those of us who cherish the work (and voice) of poet and musician Malcolm Guite, it boasts some lovely bonus elements. Keening for the Dawn is one of most singularly intelligent, lyrical, haunting “Christmas” albums I have ever heard and I highly commend it to you. It will keep good company with Kemper Crabb’s Medieval Christmas and Phil Keaggy’s incredible rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen from his album Welcome Inn. I can hardly think of better praise to offer.

keening-final-cover1-300x300

Steve and I recently discussed the history and reasons behind this most recent work as well as exploring some of the more foundational elements of his life as a Christian Creative. The following interview series is the generous outcome of this discussion.


LES: What is the story behind “Keening for the Dawn”? What is the inspiration for this project – how did it get prompted? 

SB: Keening For the Dawn is a personal attempt to repair a growing, cynical disaffection with the season of Christmas. Over the past 10 years I’ve almost grown to hate the season and I realized I needed to put up a bit of a fight or lose it completely.  Last summer, I found myself at a pub in Cambridge in conversation with English poet Malcolme Guite and theologian Jeremie Begbie. During the course of the conversation one of them used the word keening. I was unfamiliar with the term but it pierced me like a hot knife. I had to ask its meaning and discovered a word that gave voice to the “inconsolable longing” that arises from a tragic sense of life; the knowledge that things are profoundly broken. But keening is not hoplessness. It wells up from a belly that knows there is some One to appeal to and trust in for redemption.  It’s a great word.  I returned home to a book* sent to me by a friend that reflected on the advent season. And in that book I found a “keening for the dawn” that resonated with my deepest longings and from there songs started to flow.

*Divine Intimacy: Meditations on the Interior Life for Every Day of the Liturgical Year by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen O.C.D. and Roman Catholic Church (October 1, 2008). 

LES: What are your aspirations for Keening for the Dawn – what do you hope to call up in your listeners with it? 

SB: I suppose I hope the project inspires a new interest and confidence in Church tradition.  The fuller season of Christmastide, with its advent and epiphany wings is a profound season that, when reverently attended to, easily transcends the shallow sentimentality and crass commercialism that has come to define Christmas. But one has to work for it. Christmastide, like good art, requires investment from the observer.  And the tradition itself is somewhat caked with rotting debris and needs to be unearthed, polished up and re-discovered. 

LES: Can you give some history to how you became involved with Malcolm Guite on this project and the influence that his poetry and friendship has had in it?

SB: I was invited last summer to sing at the CS Lewis Summer Institute in Cambridge and Oxford. Malcolm Guite was the opening keynote speaker and I have never before heard anyone speak with such deeply resourced eloquence. We became acquainted over the course of the conference but when I returned home I started digging into his very fine poetry. Later, in February (2012) I took a personal retreat to write songs for the Keening project. While cozy in a snow-covered cabin in Canada’s rugged Whiteshell, I got a message on my cell phone alerting me that Malcolm had posted a new sonnet on his blog. I was having no success writing, so I thought I’d take a pleasant break and check out the new poem. Within a very short time, a melody surfaced for the sonnet and a song was born.  Over the course of the next few months, several other of Malcolm’s poems inspired song-starts. And then in spring I returned to England to hone the material with Malcolm.  So, Malcolm’s imprint is deep on this project.

Malcolm Guite and Steve Bell, Cambridge, Image copyright Lancia E. Smith and the C.S. Lewis Foundation, 2011

Link here to a deeper telling by Steve of the history behind the creation of  Keening for the Dawn!

Link here to a splendid recounting by Malcolm of the collaboration leading to Keening for the Dawn.

Link here for the earlier interview series this year with Malcolm Guite.

Stay tuned for Part 2

 

The images of Steve Bell and others in the following interview series are copyright of Lancia E. Smith. 

If you wish to use the images please contact me directly regarding their usage. Thank you so much for your courtesy!

Lancia E. Smith

comments

  1. When song reverberates past the notes | Violet Nesdoly

    November 19th, 2012 at 10:01 am

    […] Lancia E. Smith’s Interview with Steve Bell – Part 1 […]

  2. Interview with Kevin Belmonte on new release Miraculous – Part 2 | Lancia E. Smith

    December 10th, 2012 at 7:10 am

    […] that extraordinary gathering. I have written recently about the remarkable collaboration between Malcolm Guite and Steve Bell and the friendship that emerged from their meeting at Oxbridge. You and Steve also have an […]

  3. Malcolm Guite – Sounding the Seasons – Part 2 | Lancia E. Smith

    January 14th, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    […] from Sounding the Seasons, click here. […]

  4. Yes, Virginia – I still believe in Jolly Old Santa Claus | Lancia E. Smith

    December 13th, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    […] me now as it was then. However, to offer a new note of context I would like to add something from Steve Bell today and give you a glimpse of understanding about the history of St. Nicolas from whom the […]

  5. Malcolm Guite – Sounding the Seasons – Part 2 | Lancia E. Smith

    February 27th, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    […] For more about the remarkable collaboration between Dr Guite and Steve Bell using material from Sounding the Seasons, click here. […]

  6. Interview with Kevin Belmonte - Part 2 | Lancia E. Smith

    May 24th, 2015 at 11:56 pm

    […] I have written recently about the remarkable collaboration between Malcolm Guite and Steve Bell and the friendship that emerged from their meeting at Oxbridge. You and Steve also have an […]

  7. Yes, Virginia – I still believe in Jolly Old Santa Claus | Lancia E. Smith

    December 4th, 2015 at 11:18 pm

    […] now as it was then. However, to offer a new note of context I would like to add something from Steve Bell today and give you a glimpse of understanding about the history of St. Nicolas from whom the […]

  8. Advent - making ready & keeping company | Lancia E. Smith

    November 28th, 2016 at 7:19 am

    […] This album from Steve is one of my favourites and includes an extraordinary song titled Descent that still gives me chills after listening to it at least 100 times, at least in part because it features Malcolm Guite’s eloquent poetic voice. You are welcome to explore more about this release and the friendship between Steve and Malcolm in this interview. […]

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