At eight years old Steve Bell honed his skills with notorious Canadian men.
They were not award-winning musicians sought after by promoters. Rather, they were Canada’s most unwanted men: prisoners in Drumheller and Stony Mountain federal penitentiaries where his father was a chaplain.
“I remember the first time the door to the chapel opened up and the inmates filed in. I was so disappointed how human they looked,” Bell recalled. “Jamming with them probably shaped my view of humanity more than anything else.”
Part of his success in the music industry, that has led to a 25-year solo career, is thanks to several of those inmates who invested to him. Their Saturday afternoon jam sessions in those chapels helped him hone his skills as a musician and as a songwriter.
“These guys were well-worn but very human. They had spouses, children and for whatever reason got caught up in something. I learned that no matter what, people are people and each one has a gift. We are all wounded in some way or another and the interactions I had brought this wide scope of humanity into my vision,” said Bell.
Those experiences helped him develop messages of love, hope and faith in his songs, stories and writings. He went on to release 18 albums and earn several accolades and awards including two Junos and three Western Canadian Music Awards. Bell’s recording career began at 13 with his family’s gospel band, the Alf Bell Family Singers. After graduating from high school he was a member of a number of bands playing music ranging from folk to jazz-rock and country. Bell eventually left the Manitoba folk trio Elias, Schritt & Bell, a band which toured with the Pointer Sisters, and then formed the Winnipeg-based independent record label Signpost Music and released his first solo album.
Celebrating over two decades of music he is set to release a four-album package called Pilgrimage, funded partially through a Kickstarter campaign. The box set includes Pilgrimage, featuring 12 new songs; Unadorned, were songs selected by friends and fans re-recorded with just vocals and guitar; Good Company songs recorded by his friends and Landscapes which is 17 previously released songs remixed as instrumental versions.
“Good Company was the secret work of some friends that wanted to help me celebrate my career. It is probably the creative affirmation for me when other songwriters choose to sing your songs. It was supposed to be a gift just for me, but after the secret got out we decided it should be included in the box-set,” said Bell.
A relentless touring musician, Bell still has found time to live out those lessons in compassion he learned at an early age.
He has worked on behalf of aid organizations such as World Vision, Compassion Canada, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank in advocacy and awareness roles. He also has a close association with the National Roundtable on Homelessness and Poverty and sits on the board of Street Level, a Canadian forum on homelessness designed to support those who serve the poor and disadvantaged.
With 25 years behind a microphone, Bell said he is excited to see what the next 25 will hold.
“Each record is almost like a photo album; you listen to it and see what happened in your life at that time and it can be definitive of who you are at that point,” said Bell. “I’m at a shift in my life of looking backwards as much as I am looking forwards. I’m very reflective and put value on the things I have done while still adjusting my course into the second-half of my life and music can be very reflective in doing that.”
Bell is also the focus of a feature-length documentary, Burning Ember, that tells the ups-and-downs of his career and musical journey that has inspired countless lives. For the past year a film crew followed him from Seattle to Prince Edward Island and San Antonio to Los Angeles. During this time Bell performed in countryside halls for 150 people, the president of CBS in their studios, to a capacity crowd at Massey Hall with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
“They picked a really good year to do this because I performed in front of such a wide swath. It is one of the things I love doing. I think it is just like a painter with so many different mediums. There is something you can do with watercolours that you can’t do with acrylics. I think in many different mediums in my art and it brings so many different possibilities for me,” said Bell.
Bell is currently on a 31-date tour across Canada performing on Oct. 18 at the Summerland Baptist Church. The concert starts at 7 p.m.