Faith Today: Your song “Moon Over Birkenau”
emerged after a painful visit to Auschwitz. What
is your songwriting process?
Steve Bell: There is no normal, really. Some
songs seem to just happen. Sometimes I
think they’re like angels, pre-existent and
looking about for someone with their
antennas up. When you’ve experienced
something as traumatic as Auschwitz, you
become hyper-attuned. Your soul is malleable and softened, ready to receive.
With the song “Moon Over Birkenau,” I
sat down at the piano, my hands went to
the notes, and I just started to play. That
has only happened to me maybe a dozen
times over several decades.
Other times I’ll be reading a book, and
a particular constellation of words will
strike me as lovely, or I’ll sense a peculiar
energy in them so much so that I’ll “
attend” a little deeper. Inevitably I’ll see a
pattern emerge suggesting a rhythm.
Melody follows. That’s when I know I
have a song coming down the pike and I’ll
clear my schedule and grab my guitar.
FT: Writers are told to rewrite again and again.
Is it the same for songwriting?
SB: I tweak endlessly. I’m often performing
new songs for over a year before I record.
The more I sing them and tell stories, the
more I discover what’s in them. I’ve often
remarked that my songs seem to know
more than I do. Over time, they become
more of themselves until my manager will
say it’s time for an album. We’ll book the
studio, and then they are done. But I still
look back on songs I’ve recorded ten years
ago and wish I could tweak them.
The last while has been a little different
for me. I started plundering the poetry of
Malcolm Guite after meeting him at a
C. S. Lewis conference a few years ago.
We’ve become friends and have since
worked closely together on my last couple
of albums. His influence has renewed my
astonishment at the power of poetry and
STEVE BELL is a Canadian Christian music icon and co-owner
of Winnipeg’s Signpost Music. He has 18 solo CDs under
his belt, including Pilgrimage, his most recent collection
celebrating 25 years of music making. Bell is a two-time Juno
Award winner and multiple Covenant Award winner – among
many other professional recognitions. Bell’s reputation is
that of a thoughtful, musical poet-theologian. He spoke to
Faith Today about the joy and pain of writing, why his music
is not played more often on Canadian Christian radio – and
the beautiful advice he offers young artists.