Several qualities particularly strike me about Steve Bell – humility kindness, generosity, discipline and an extraordinary lack of complaint. Reading even his brief accounts of childhood I see deep traces of struggle and difficulty and yet never, ever have I read or heard from Steve anything other than a kind and positive portrayal of those years and those who shared that time with him. He exhibits and expresses a kindness toward the frailty of human beings that gives dignity to conditions it would be easy to portray otherwise. I deeply respect the beauty he finds in his experiences and those of others. Steve’s example encourages me to do the same.
LES: One of the elements of your music reflects a certain fragility of human beings. Where does your understanding of that come from and why are you drawn to it?
SB: My mom was episodically sick when I was young. She suffered from acute anxiety disorder combined with bouts of crippling depression that resulted in extended hospital stays. My father suffered from depression as well (bipolar disorder.) They were both wonderful parents, who surprisingly didn’t dump their sufferings on us kids. But the reality of human fragility was an undeniable fact of my youth.
Often, after putting us kids to bed, my mom would play piano into the late hours of the night. Because of her personal suffering, there was always a gorgeous sunset-sadness to her music. I would drift in and out of sleep being bathed in melody.
Another formational dynamic was that my father was a prison Chaplain, and I spent a lot of time in federal prisons while growing up. The inmates were kind to me and I was quite fond of many of them. I learned pretty quick that although there is a small percent of the population that is willfully criminal, woundedness and frailty are common drivers of punishable behaviors.
It was the inmates of Drumheller prison who taught me to play guitar when I was eight years old. And so, interestingly, the two greatest influences of my early music were my long-hospitalized mother and Canada’s most unwanted men. And the investment of those two has been the bedrock deposit of wounded beauty I’ve drawn on the whole of my life.
LES: All your references to your parents are very warm, respectful, and affectionate. How did you come to faith? What role did your father play in it and your mother? Where have been places in your life that challenged that faith and what restored it?
SB: I don’t have any more memory of coming to faith than I do of learning to speak English. I did have a classic, evangelical conversion experience (praying the sinners prayer with my Sunday school teacher) when I was nine. But for me it was a mere formality. Not unlike a wedding day, my “conversion” was a ceremonial confirmation of something that was already a well-established reality.
The role my folks played in all this was organic. Faith was as much a natural part of our family culture as was eating meals together or making music, or going on holidays, or tending to daily chores. It was the air that we breathed and the mother-tongue we spoke. Throughout my life I’ve struggled deeply with how faith interfaces with the vagaries of life, but not that it does. I do, perhaps, think of faith as distinct from belief, and in the realm of belief (formal creed and doctrine) I have had to, and continue to, wrestle greatly. But, that God is goodness itself, and that my story somehow takes place within the realm and reign of God’s goodness, I don’t think I’ve ever seriously doubted.
LES: There is something I find very compelling about your story of learning to play guitar from the men at Drumheller Prison. It stops me in my tracks and kind of make me shiver and bend the knee. The idea that even the most unwanted and shut away still hold Beauty in themselves and can cultivate the craft and art of making beauty has a powerful impact.
How do you think learning guitar this way changed the way you interpret Music as it comes to you than if you had learned from say a standard guitar lesson type of beginning? How does the music you learned from the men in Drumheller tie with the music you heard your mom playing at night when you went to sleep in context of being in your own home?
SB: First, I like how you frame the process of music making – as something that comes to you. You’re spot on here. In a recent blog, English poet Malcolm Guite reflects on the etymology of the word adventure (from the root word veni – to come), instructing that an adventure is not, by definition, something that you embark on – as if you are the driving agent in the process – but rather something that comes to you from outside. For me, music is very much an adventure according to that definition. It’s something I’ve learned to receive hospitably rather than pursue violently. One learns to sit and wait quietly, patiently. Eventually the adventure does come, and often with an exhilarating and surprising unpredictability you never would have generated on your own.
It is revealing that the two biggest musical influences during my formative years were my mother, a beautiful pianist who bravely battled crippling depression and anxiety throughout her life, and prison inmates (my father was a prison chaplain) who let me in on their Saturday afternoon chapel-jams when I was only eight years old. Both were receiving and making music in tragic circumstances, and both accomplished great beauty from within unlovely, unhappy environs. And so, I’ve always understood, experientially, music to be gospel protest – a “whistling in the dark” that is neither nostalgic or ‘Pollyanic’, but more like the pre-dawn, knowing crow of a cock.
LES: Your description of your early family life about singing together as a family really struck me as an amazing source of richness and identity. I have loved the warmth and sense of humour that you describe your relationship with them. I have also been fascinated with the images of you singing with your daughter and the stories I hear you tell about your boys and sometimes now about your grandchildren.
How have you reconciled the practical needs of life with the life of a creative? How have you struck that balance also in context of being married, being a parent and a grandparent?
SB: I learned very early that real life is sufficient fodder for the creative process. One must never despise the mundane. From the responses I get, it seems that what folks are attracted to in my music and stories is the “in-common” quality of it. All of my work is in response to the adventure that has come to me – and the content of that adventure includes this wife, these children, these neighbors, these obligations and duties, these fears and anxieties, etc. So, I’ve learned that changing diapers, helping a neighbor mend a fence, visiting a sick relation etc. are as much a part of my music as are the arranging of notes and words on a page.
I must also credit my wife here. Nance has had complaints about me over the years, but my vocation has not once been one of them. She knew, before I did, that I have been called to this work. And when I started to travel a lot, she asked friends to come and to bless her and our children to release me for my work. They gathered around to pray and commission Nance and our children to send me out, and to receive me home again. Literally, from that day on, my kids stopped crying when I left for a trip. I think they really did “own” their calling to release me. And each, in their own way, has always welcomed me home. I’ve been truly blessed.
One of the great things about being a grandparent is that you tend to become one right about the time you are becoming weary and disenchanted with the world. There’s nothing like walking a forest path with your 4 year-old grandson to cure you of that crippling malaise. The world becomes magic again when your face is pressed to the ground next to a child inspecting a bug.
LES: Artists by the nature of the calling reach into places mentally and spiritually that hold potential danger. How do you stay anchored spiritually and emotionally and what is the role of both marriage and community in that process?
SB: Definitely, one of the dangers of the musician’s life is the constant dis-connect from home and routine. One gets used to it for sure, but there is a discipline to coming home and reconnecting. Actually, it’s the transitions that have been the hardest over the years. The day before I leave on a tour, I’m mentally preparing to leave so it takes work to attend to the present moment. And then, re-entering the home again takes a certain grace from those who’ve been home all the while. Again, I credit my wife here for having uncommon grace and wisdom in managing the constant changes.
Also – for almost 20 years, my manager Dave has traveled with me to almost every concert. We stay in the same room and travel everywhere together. One isn’t as tempted to be a poser when your buddy, who knows who you really are, is standing right by. There’s a certain, good gravity to friends and family that keeps your feet firmly in the soil.
Finally, having neighborly relationships is very helpful; people who don’t really know you as a performer, but as the guy who borrows tools, who might be helpful if called upon, and who celebrates and grieves with you in season and out.
LES: This is a passage that seems very significant to me from your bio:
“The grind of playing the bars took its toll, Bell explains; “I eventually got married and had kids and the bar scene started to wear thin. It wasn’t going anywhere. I then had something of a spiritual experience, and I felt God speak to me saying, “this time of your life is over.’ I just upped and quit, and I stayed home with the kids while my wife Nanci went back to teaching. I really thought I was hanging up my guitar.”
What did you learn as an artist and family man from your years of playing in the bar scene? Do you see something specific of the Lord’s hand being present during that time that carries over with you now?
SB: Some of what you learn is simply that work is a gift. Those early years were certainly difficult and often quite depressing. But they put food on the table and kept the house heated. This is especially important when you live in Winnipeg. Nanci and I have three healthy adult children and two grandchildren, in part, because we had work. I’m grateful.
I’m also grateful for the chance to get my “ten thousand hours” in. Playing six nights a week for ten years – often to indifferent and sometimes hostile audiences – has a way of honing the gift. People often comment at how at ease I am on stage. This is a hard-won trait.
Mostly I’ve learned to not despise my circumstances. So many circumstances that seemed negative have turned out quite the opposite. I don’t have the bird’s eye view to know what is actually going on. So, convinced as I am of God’s good intentions for me, and for all of creation, I’m learning to receive what comes and trust that despite occasional evidence to the contrary, “all is well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well.”
Ironically, it seems that giving up the first season of his musical career is what really kick-started Steve’s second season of it. Being given time to reflect upon his life and explore his deepened faith enabled Steve to become a songwriter. In his bio Steve says “All of a sudden music just started pouring out of me. Those first six months at home it was like a fire hose, a period of creativity I’ve never had since, or before.”
I find this to be a strikingly repeated experience among creative people who have become deeply productive artists and human beings. Malcolm Guite mentions the same experience of coming to an end of writing poetry for a season in his life and really not having any idea that he would later pick it back up. C.S. Lewis talks about a similar experience in his life as a writer.
LES: Could you talk about the experience and practice of Sabbath in creative life and perhaps something about your experience in laying a gift or calling down without expectation of picking it back up?
SB: I just read an intriguing book by John H. Walton (The Lost World of Genesis One – Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate) where he reflects on the word ‘rest’ as it would have been understood by the early hearers of the Genesis 1 story: God works prepatorily (the first six days of creation) so he can “rest” in his eternal work of sustaining/maintaining his creation (the last, eternal day.) This changes how we may think of rest: we take care of business (prepatory work: duties and chores) so that we can get down to (rest in) the eternal work of love.
Having said that, the experience of laying a gift down as I did when I left the bar scene, only to see it surprisingly re-fashioned and re-gifted back has taught me that my music is God’s way of loving the world through me. My vocation is to participate in God’s work as conduit, not generator. There is great Sabbath rest in this.
Stay tuned for Part 3 !
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.