After 1,500 concerts spanning more than two decades on the road, Winnipeg singer/songwriter Steve Bell knows a thing or two about touring.
But lately he's come to realize his musical journey also has the markings of a pilgrimage, a term describing intentional travel for a spiritual purpose.
"A pilgrim doesn't have to say 'this is what the world is,' but 'this is what I've seen,' " says the 53-year-old Bell, about to release his 18th album, a four-disc set titled Pilgrimage. "And (my songs are) a spark for people who have been wounded to the point they've stopped travelling."
After 25 years as solo artist, Bell has collected a huge following for his reflective stories and songs based on Christian scripture and themes, says Rev. Jamie Howison, a long-time friend and creative partner.
"Very early on he was already able to wrestle with difficult subjects, with lament themes and loss themes in a way that's not typical of the genre of contemporary Christian music," says the priest at St. Benedict's Table, the Anglican church Bell attends.
Bell's mid-September release includes an album of new material on the theme of discovery and journey, a new version of favourites, covers by fellow musicians and a disc of instrumental music. The package also includes a short biography written by Vancouver theologian John Stackhouse, an occasional bass player for Bell.
Filmmaker Andrew Wall of Refuge 31 Film presents his own take on Bell's pilgrimage with Burning Ember: The Steve Bell Journey.
The 90-minute documentary opens to the public for one screening on Sept. 18 at Landmark Cinemas, Grant Park. The showing is at 7:30 p.m.
"Midway through (shooting) I really had the idea this wasn't going anywhere, yet. He's still midstream," says Wall, 39, whose young children have adopted Steve Bell songs as their bedtime lullabies.
Bell, a two-time Juno winner takes another view of what he describes both as an artistic endeavour and a music ministry.
"It feels like I've had these things (in my career) offered to me over and over," says the grandfather of two, pointing to opportunities such as playing with symphony orchestras.
"Each one births something new."
Howison says that's a mark of a true pilgrim -- setting out to do one thing and ending up somewhere entirely different.
"Steve has consciously or otherwise enacted this principle through his music vocation," says Howison.
Whatever the path, Bell credits his wife Nanci and manager/producer Dave Zeglinski, along with a huge team of supporters, as instrumental in getting him to the quarter-century milestone.
But it hasn't always been easy, says Zeglinski, pointing to several bumps in the road, including the bottoming out of the retail market for music albums five years ago.
Bell employed a crowd-sourcing website to raise more than $50,000 for his latest album.
"It's constantly having your ear to the ground to see what the changes will be and trying not to be too far behind," says Zeglinski, who travelled about 90,000 km with Bell over 100 days in 2013.
Whether or not there's a big break ahead, Bell hopes to keep traveling with his guitar and a song or two for another quarter-century. For this next leg of the journey, he's conscious of being a pilgrim, and recognizing the importance of just putting one foot in front of the other.
"I do feel God has been pouring God's good in me, and I've been blessed to be a blessing."