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.
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.
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 (c) of Lancia E. Smith and used with permission for Cultivating. If you wish to use the images, please contact me directly regarding their usage. Thank you so much for your courtesy!
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.