Musician’s journey tough but fulfilling
Demise of CDs forced singer-songwriter to diversify
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/10/2019 (1145 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Thirty years ago, Steve Bell released his first Christian album. What happened next was a bit of a surprise.
“I had no vision of this being my career,” he says. “It just sort of just happened to me. The train started and I never got off.”
On Oct. 25, Bell will celebrate three decades as a Christian singer and songwriter with a concert with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Called The Beauty of the Infinite, it will feature new songs and old favourites.
Bell’s start in Christian music happened in 1988, while he was playing bars in Winnipeg. That’s when he heard God tell him: “This time of your life is over. There is something else for you to do.”
Soon after, a friend encouraged him to produce a Christian album, even putting up funds for it. The rest, as they say, is history.
While fulfilling, the journey has had its ups and downs. The past few years have been especially challenging. Starting about 10 years ago, the bottom dropped out of his CD sales as hundreds of Christian bookstores closed and listening to music went online. Over 40 per cent of his revenue disappeared.
“I was blindsided by it,” he says. “Nobody could have predicted the death of recorded music. Suddenly, you couldn’t give CDs away.”
Bell has responded by diversifying — writing devotionals, leading spiritual retreats, taking on speaking engagements and doing fundraising, in addition to concerts.
Since he has a long track record, raising funds to support his music-making is easier for him than for artists just starting out.
“My heart breaks for younger musicians,” he says. “In the 1970s when I started out, you could earn enough for a house and a car playing in bars,” he says. “Today, it’s burger and beer money.”
While saddened by the changes, he says there’s no sense crying about it. His biggest regret is for younger musicians who won’t be able to stay with it long enough to see their music mature.
He’s also changed spiritually over the decades, leaving his evangelical roots to become an Anglican.
“I’m attracted to the more contemplative, mystical aspects of faith now,” he says, noting this is reflected in his lyrics.
The way he expresses faith may have changed, but it has also deepened, he says.
“I have a more profound belief in Jesus than ever before,” he says. “I have confidence in who God is, rather than in a set of dogmas and doctrines. I trust in the good news that God is good, and that God created a good world.”
Those who have only come to know Bell more recently might know him best for his activism on behalf of Indigenous people, including his strong support for Freedom Road — the all-weather road that links Shoal Lake First Nation to the mainland.
But addressing poverty and injustice “has always been a part of my life,” he says, due to growing up as the son of a prison chaplain.
“I saw racial and injustice issues early,” he says of seeing a disproportionate number of Indigenous men in prison. From a young age, he knew something was broken in society that had to do with systemic issues, not just people making poor or bad decisions.
One of his most profound experiences came in 1992, when he visited India and saw extreme poverty first-hand.
“It’s one thing to see it on TV, another to touch it,” he says. “Something broke for me, my soul broke.”
But he also came away with a “deep love for humanity, and an increased desire to address the systemic reasons why some people are so poor,” he says — something still an important part of his life today.
Another change is age; at 58, Bell — married with four children and six grandchildren — is experiencing the usual limitations of getting older. He’s also is dealing with the effects of wrist problems that require therapy so he can continue to play.
Then there was the death of his father, Alf, this summer, and his mother’s dementia.
But overall, it’s been a great, if unexpected, journey. “I’ve been overwhelmed with gratitude, joy and wonder,” he says looking back. “It has been a grace.”
Tickets for Bell’s concert are available on the WSO website at my.wso.ca/stevebell or by calling the box office at 204-949-3999.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.