Steve Bell has a way with words. The award-winning Canadian folk singer is known for some of the most thoughtful lyrics in Christian music, as well as for his come-on-in-and-pull-up-a-chair storytelling on stage. And in this interview, we learned that he's also got a lot to say on the topic of songwriting—specifically, what's wrong with much of today's writing, especially on the modern worship front. Bell wishes the Christian music industry "had more scruples about art," and calls the modern worship trend "one of the low points in the history of music writing." He says many of the songs are "poor work, poor theology, poor poetry, poor melody," and compares much of that music to "crap." And he's just getting started. We recently met with Bell to discuss the craft of songwriting—not just what's wrong, but how to get it right. Hint: It's very hard work.
You grew up in a musical family, right?
Steve Bell Yeah. My mom is a wonderful piano player and singer/songwriter. And my dad is a preacher. We did the typical family ministry thing. We had this family band, and I sang and played, but I didn't write much. When I did write, in high school, it was always really self-indulgent. One day I was looking at my songs and just realized that every one of them was about me. So I decided I wasn't going to write anything until I wrote something that wasn't about me. That started the longest writer's block of my history! It was about ten years before I really turned it around. I didn't really start writing till I was in my 30s.
What triggered that?
Bell I had been playing music in bars, mostly other people's stuff. Then when I quit the bar scene, I went through this really horrible year. Didn't know what to do with my life. I was 31—no money, no career, no nothing. I ended up staying home that year with my kids, and my wife Nanci went out working. It was a depressing year—but that's when I discovered the Psalms. And that's when I started writing.
That year, I think I ended up writing probably 80 percent of my first four albums in a period of six months. Almost every time I opened up the Scriptures, especially Psalms or Isaiah, I would hear melodies as I was reading. I've got a couple of songs that literally got written as fast as I could read. I've never had a time like that since. I've had to work a lot harder for it.
So, good songwriting is hard work?
Bell Yes. It's a labor. You're wrestling with words and melodies to try to create a place where meaning can reside, and half the time it's meaning that you don't even know you want to express. It's a discovery process. I don't discover what's important and then write a song. I write a song and then discover what's important. It's like the songs teach me; I don't teach them. It's very much of a spiritual wrestling and journey. I find it really, really hard work.
What does that hard work look like?
Bell It comes in different ways. Reading is really important. Every one of my songs is a synthesis of about 30 books. I have to read to write. I get a lot of my lyrical components from Scriptures and ancient poetry and other writings. I often will start a song with something I've read, maybe a sentence that was so perfect. And then I kind of get lost in thought. Two or three hours later, I come out of this fog where I've been pondering that thought. And usually then I know a song is somewhere around the corner.
I also think there's something about making yourself pay attention—to really, really look and really, really attend to something. That's hard work because there are so many distractions. And it can often feel self-indulgent, when you have a wife and kids and life gets crazy and the bathrooms haven't been cleaned in six weeks—and now you want to sit down and attend to an inner impulse. It's hard to give yourself permission to do that, but that's part of the work—getting over the barrier that this is real work worthy of doing.
Your website includes a message board where people are lamenting the lack of depth in modern worship music. You chimed in, saying that one big reason for that is "simply that the art itself has been devalued and sacrificed to the god of the seeker-friendly pop culture churches and radio stations. But when a 'lowest common denominator' aesthetic precludes any serious thought about art and excellence, the result will be music that tickles the ear and animates the body but rarely will it provide access to the interior castle wherein the King of Peace resides." That's quite a statement.
Bell I'll be very surprised if this season isn't one of the low points in the history of music writing. It's all because of an unbridled market economy where absolutely everything gets commodified within seconds—no matter what you do, it is a product in a very short time. Everything becomes cheapened and market-driven. That's what happened in worship music—it's been commodified, and the same forces that are driving the market are driving the music. That always, always means dumbing down—it's a homogenization, a flattening of imagination. And when sales become the indicator that something is good, right away it's sort of the death of the form.
I get a little Gandhian about this sometimes. If we buy it, they'll sell it to us. But if we stop buying it, it will force them to go back to art again. As long as we're just firing our money at the industry every time they give us something with a shiny picture on the front, in the end we are still choosing this. It's really easy to get all upset about the industry or CCM, and I wish they had more scruples about art. But they don't, because it's not about art. It's about business. Fine. Then it's up to us to control. If we didn't eat at McDonald's, McDonald's would have to change. Right? If we didn't watch crap on TV, they'd give us better shows.
But that type of thinking is apparently in the minority. So how can we effect change?
Bell I think it needs to start with the seminaries. I think pastors have to get a little bit more bold to say we do not support poor work, poor theology, poor poetry, poor melody. There's nothing about the music that's coming out that's even remotely reflective of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There's no mystery. There's no nothing. It's just all platitude after platitude after platitude. And half the time one line actually is not a logical flow of the last one. It's just bizarre—but it sounds right, so everybody goes for it.
I get very upset about this whole thing. I have a very difficult time going to church because I can barely get through the worship part. And I'm finding that there's more of us than you think. People are feeling like, "What's wrong with me? I hate this music." Well, that's because it's not sustaining music. It's not leading us into the mystery of God—or the mystery of humanity and human interaction and suffering and joy.
You're on a roll. What else concerns you about modern worship?
Bell Another part of the problem is the cult of the young, letting 17-year-olds write worship songs. I'm not saying that young people can't write great music. But for the most part, great music takes work, and it takes discipline and it takes years. And our culture will not reward that work for the most part.
My own story illustrates it perfectly. About 10 years ago, a Nashville A&R guy got hold of my music and loved it and shopped to several major record labels. He was in tight with all these record companies. Two weeks later, he calls and he's all embarrassed. "I'm sorry," he says. "Nobody listened to your music. Every meeting started with the question 'How old is he?' And when I said 'Thirty-five,' you were done." I was dismissed by five major record labels because I was 35 years old. He could not convince one of them to break cellophane and listen to a CD, just on the basis of my age.
Bell Isn't that stunning? I think that was the point where I went, "OK, this is not a community that it's going to bother me that I've been passed by."
Let's get back to your message board. You said you'd asked some songwriters what they'd been reading lately, and you got a bunch of blank stares.
Bell Yeah. I was with a bunch of songwriters. I won't say who, but you'd know a bunch of them. Anyway, I was just very keen to find out what they were drawing on. It wasn't a sucker punch at all. I was just looking for good leads.
There was one fellow who's turned out a lot of songs, and the guy just didn't read. I think that says something when you're supposed to be a person who is making, ostensibly, meaningful music. I want to ask, "What are you drawing from?" For someone who's supposedly doing meaningful art to not be in the discipline of reading, I don't know …
OK, so what are you reading?
Bell Sometimes I'll grab a missalette from the Catholic Church, their monthly reading book. It's daily readings through the liturgical calendar. The concept is that there is something wonderful about reading the same thing that millions of other people are reading on this day. You're joining your voice to the collective voice of the church.
Which brings me to another point. I think we live in a cult of self-expression right now, people who think that what's really, really important is my deep, dark feelings. But I don't agree. I think the feelings and the thoughts that have survived centuries are more important than mine at the moment. As a songwriter, to submit to the masters, and to the work that's survived, is a really important thing. But in our day and age, what we value is, "What I think, right now. I need to express myself." And whenever someone expresses themselves, we all clap. That results in lots of stuff that's immature and dumb.
So how do you keep it mature and smart?
Bell By submitting to the poetry and deeper thoughts of the ages, the prayers that have lasted for centuries. When I write, I really try to join in line with the best thoughts of the ages, to be part of that flow, rather than try to create something new in a world that's addicted to novelty and self-expression. There's something to be said for joining the great traditions and the wisdom of the ages. So why don't we do that anymore? Probably because there's no money in it. It's the dumbing down of our culture.
Now I may contribute something beautiful to the church's language and history, but I just won't know it in my lifetime, because it's not for me to decide. I'd rather write a song that's sung two hundred years from now than one that's a hit now. But I'll never know, not this side of the Jordan. So it's a different approach to creating by saying I want to put out something sustaining. It's just a longer view.
You go into the average Christian bookstore today, and how many are contemporary books and how many are from antiquity? They always have a "classics" section, but it's like four books, and very few of them are from before the 20th century. It's indicative that what we really value is all the new thoughts. Now, I'm not against new thought. But it hasn't been tested. Why would I trust it?
Same thing in music. It's all part of the malaise; they want a hit now, success now. And they want novelty. That thinking has really cheapened the life of the church. And I think it's cheapened our witness in the world.
My last question actually comes from a mutual friend, Carolyn Arends, a darn good songwriter herself. She asked me to ask you about the role of getting personal in your songs. She says you're very personal, anecdotal, and humorous when you tell stories onstage, but your songs are universal, cerebral, serious, and analytical—they engage the intellect first. Carolyn asks if you tend to be less personal in your writing because you want your songs to be more communal? Also, do your songs just come out that way, or is it more intentional?
Bell That's a really good question. Carolyn's a clever person. I'm a big fan of her as a writer and musician but also as a person. Anyway, to answer her question, I'm not as intentional as one would think. True, I don't write a whole lot of story songs, but have lots of stories behind every song. But I think for a song to be really useful across the ages, you want language of good poetry and you want all kinds of access points. If you take that song and make it too personal, you can shed a tear over it or whatever, but it's not going to impact ultimately. I think the more I force my story into a song, the less access you have with your story to the song.
Steve Bell's most recent CD is Sons & Daughters, and he's currently working on a new album of all Bruce Cockburn covers. Bell also heads up Signpost Music, which features some of the best independent Christian music you'll find—including himself, Carolyn Arends, Bob Bennett, Spencer Capier, and others.
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