Steve Bell is a singer/songwriter from Winnipeg, Manitoba. He recently released his 16th album, Keening for the Dawn (Signpost Music). He answers a few of our burning questions.
Q. Your newest work is a Christmas album—actually, more of an Advent album—which you wrote with poet Malcolm Guite. Could you tell me more about that process?
A. I met Malcolm Guite in 2011 while singing at the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute in Oxford and Cambridge. Malcolm was the first keynote, and he was absolutely electrifying. We got to know each other, and upon returning home I started following his blogs and poetry postings. It was his Advent sonnets that initially stirred me, and quickly songs started to come. I finally had to contact him to say I was plundering his work for song content and he was thrilled. I ended up returning to England last spring, and we spent the better part of a week honing the material that has become Keening for the Dawn.
Q. Did you ever feel like you were torn between using his words and your own? What strengths did each of you bring to the task?
A. No—I’m not young anymore and really don’t feel the need to assert myself like I might have 25 years ago. I’m just interested in what makes for the best song and don’t really care if it’s my phrase or someone else’s. Malcolm, I discovered, is quite the same. We both love a good song, a good lyric—what was best for each song seemed rather apparent.
Malcolm is quite obviously a master wordsmith and poet. I don’t think there were many, if any, suggestions he made that I didn’t happily take. I’m more of the melody guy, and Malcolm trusted my instincts there. We also brought in theologian Jeremie Begbie (a renowned musician and thinker) to listen. Jeremy offered many great suggestions both musical and lyrical. It was a wonderful and fruitful process.
Q. What appeals to you as a songwriter more, the melancholy nature of Advent waiting or the joyful celebration of the newborn King? Which relates more to your own life?
A. Just before I saw these questions in my email box, a friend sent me the news of the massacre in Connecticut. The inky darkness of Advent is too much to even begin to fathom. Unspeakable.
Here is some of my back story:
My mom was sick when I was young, and so there were a couple of Christmases that were unhappy. My father was also a prison chaplain, and every Christmas Day we would go to the prison and sing for the inmates. Unfortunately, the only inmates available for a Christmas Day service were the ones who couldn’t get a day pass and who no one was coming to visit. It was a brutal day for those guys, and to this day I carry some of that grief, regret, and sorrow in my bones.
I’ve also traveled much in the developing world and in war zones like West Bank in 2004 during the Second Intifada—and was personally exposed to the profound agony of the Palestinian Christians.
As a result these and other experiences, I feel deeply the agonizing distance between the pre-dawn darkness of Advent and the blazing light of the Incarnation. Although I believe in the Incarnation and gratefully trust the process it has unleashed, the reality of life in this “time between times” pretty much keeps me in perpetual waiting—in Advent.
Q. What music do you enjoy listening to during Advent and Christmas? Is there any one recording or song that you couldn’t celebrate without?
A. I like instrumental music mostly—but I think my favorite Christmas album is one put out years ago by the a cappella group Take 6. It’s magnificent. John Michael Talbot's “Magnificat” is probably my favorite song. “In the Bleak Midwinter” stirs me deeply. And I love the simple narrative offered so elegantly in “While Shepherds Watched.” Mostly I love the line: “Thus spake the seraph and forthwith. . . .” It makes me happy for some reason—just the sound of it.
Q. How much does music figure into your holiday celebrations? Do you come from a family that comes together to make music or are you the lone musical twig on the family tree?
A. My whole family is quite musical—but I can’t say music is much a part of our gatherings. I’ll speak for myself, but it’s almost odd how little I engage with music. I rarely listen—I’d rather read a book. Music, for me is not an entertainment or a pleasant, ambient soundtrack to my life—it’s intense personal journaling and so I don’t really associate it at all with holiday or visiting sorts of events.
Q. What Christmas-related song do you hope you’ll never hear again?
A. There’s a bizarre little ditty called “Christmas Shopping” that somehow manages to pair that noble activity with “people everywhere singing praises to the newborn King.” I could happily live without that one.