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Raised Baptist, Schooled By Prisoners, Steve Bell Bringing His Inspired Music To Newtown

Born into a musical family, Steve Bell has been performing and touring since he was eight years old. He will be bringing his talents into Newtown Sunday, May 5, for a performance at St Rose of Lima parish at 7:30 pm. 

During a chat with The Newtown Bee earlier this week, Mr Bell talked about how his career in music was influenced by his father, who was a prison chaplain.

He explained that it was federal prisoners in the Drumheller Penitentiary who taught him to play guitar at an early age. Mr Bell recounted fondly, “I now perform world-over because Canada’s most unwanted men invested in me when I was a boy.”

In the early 1980s he began to make his mark with the acclaimed folk trio Elias, Schritt and Bell. But it wasn’t until he ventured out on his own that his career stats started to shimmer.

Since his first solo release in 1989, Comfort My People, Mr Bell has released 16 CDs, three concert videos and performed over 1,500 concerts across Canada, the US, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Poland, Bulgaria, Ireland, and throughout the Caribbean.

More recently, his work has won him 26 concerts with symphony orchestras across Canada and into the US. In December 2011 a capacity crowd gathered to take in his concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Massey Hall.

In 1997, Mr Bell was awarded the first JUNO Award for Best Gospel Album. He has since received a second JUNO in 2000, and in the ensuing years has been awarded multiple Prairie Music, Western Canada Music and Covenant Awards.

With the November 2012 release of his 17th career CD, Keening for the Dawn – Christmastide, Mr Bell continues to reinforce a commitment to his vocation.

Recognizing that commitment, along with his advocacy work for the less fortunate, he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. In his interview with The Bee, he talked about his many past influences and inspirations, as well as his songwriting process and what attendees should expect at his Newtown performance.

Newtown Bee: You grew up in a family that played and encouraged you to enjoy and appreciate music. Tell us about the roles your father and your mother played in your musical development?

Steve Bell: My mom is a classically trained pianist, and she was a lover of the classical musicals and Gershwin. She was the typical Baptist preacher’s wife, too, so she played piano in church every Sunday. So even in my earliest memories, I recall her playing music after she put me to bed at night, sometimes until two or three in the morning. So I would drift in and out of sleep, sort of bathed in her music. We had lots of records around the house as well. And as a kid I became interested in the trumpet, so I listened to Al Hirt and Herb Alpert. We also listened to a lot of gospel quartets. My first records were by The Carpenters and The Eagles. I loved the harmonies and melodies, the arrangements and melodies are very purposeful. My music is the same way — I describe my songwriting work much like clipping a bonsai tree.

Bee: You sustained yourself financially from a fairly young age playing and singing in bands. Let’s talk about some of the non-Christian inspirations you drew from the material you played that have stuck with you through and since your transition to Christian music?

Bell: Most of my dad’s career was as a prison chaplain, and I was taught by the prisoners who would jam every day in the prison chapel. So many of them were influenced by the classic country artists, so I learned a lot of that finger-picking Chet Atkins style of guitar. Then in my late teens, my world got rocked by a Canadian artist named Bruce Cockburn. I didn’t take to his music on record at first — I guess I didn’t get it. But I went to a concert of his when I was 16 or 17. And all of a sudden, my musical universe exploded. The guitar playing, the searching, the honesty completely changed my orientation about music and what it was played for.

Bee: Your bio talks about a spiritual experience you had as you were facing hanging up your instrument and musical career, that moved you in a new creative direction. Can you discuss that experience and how it helped you re-establish yourself in your art?

Bell: I always thought that I would end up going to University and becoming a school music or band teacher. But when I got out of high school, I needed a break and started playing with friends six nights a week — 52 weeks a year in bars. It wasn’t great money, and you were gone six nights a week. So the possibilities of getting ahead were pretty slim. And working in bars at night was just unhealthy. So now I’m 31 and in a panic about my future. So one night, I was lying in bed and the room filled with a presence — I can only describe it as God speaking to me, telling me there was something else for me to do. So I quit the bars gig the next day and decided to be a stay at home dad while my wife went back to work.

Bee: Besides your parents, another key supporter of your career was “Father Bob” McDougall, who was coincidentally an associate of your father’s. Would you say without Father Bob’s presence, you might be in a very different place today?

Bell: Well during that down time, this associate of my father’s at the prison, Father Bon McDougall – I call him Douggie – approached me and asked me if I would be interested in playing spiritual music. I initially said no, but then he asked if he could commission me to record ten folkie Christian songs from his church songbook, and Father McDougal cut me a check to do the album. That experience opened up the floodgates for me and I began to write new songs constantly. Looking back, I have to say that 80 percent of my first four solo albums material were written in the first four months after that recording session. So what started as a favor for an old friend was my new career launching platform.

Bee: Tell us about the show folks will be seeing here in Newtown this weekend.

Bell: Basically I sit on a stool and tell stories and sing songs for an hour and a half. I don’t usually decide on which songs to play until the audience gets seated and I see the whites of their eyes. There will be lots of Steve Bell originals. I don’t play a lot of mainstream cover songs, but people will hear a lot of new stuff including my latest project which is a Christmas album, but whose songs are appropriate to sing all year round.

St Rose of Lima is at 46 Church Hill Road. Tickets for the Steve Bell’s evening concert are $15 and available at Black Swan, 182 South Main Street, or online at stevebell.com. Tickets purchased online will be held at the door for pick-up starting at 6:30 pm.

Additional information is also available by calling the box office at 800-854-3499.

Black Swan and Honan Funeral Home are sponsoring the concert.

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