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JOHN KENDLE

, Last Updated: 2:52 PM ET

Steve Bell may well be the patriarch of Winnipeg's Christian music community.

For more than a decade, this soft-spoken, thoughtful singer/songwriter has quietly built a solid following for his beautifully written, carefully crafted songs of faith and devotion.

Signpost Music, the company he runs with his manager, Dave Zeglinski, is one of the most successful Christian labels in Canada. They have sold hundreds of thousands of Bell's eight albums and Bell recently won his second Juno Award for best gospel recording, for last year's Simple Songs album.

"Every year is a little better than the year before, and it just keeps growing and growing," Bell says of his company. "Sometimes I'm not sure how this is happening because I've stayed out of the (music) industry per se. We kept the whole thing in-house, where we are the promoters, the agency, the managers and the record company, and it has just blossomed.

"I must say that Dave (Zeglinski) is brilliant and unafraid and he's been the one who's had the vision of creating our own industry."

Now 40, married and the father of three children, Bell says his Christianity and his devotion have always been part of his life and his music. There's no "recovery and conversion" story for him, just ever-present and ever-growing expressions of his faith. He's careful, as well, to note that he is not proselytizing with his music -- he's simply saying what he feels.

"The whole notion of using music to proselytize bugs me. I never decided to 'become' a Christian musician, it just came to the forefront of my personality and it's constantly growing and evolving," he says. "Lately I'm beginning to think that God in the goodness of things -- it's in a great love song, and it's in a great life sucks song, too.

"You know, some of the psalms are great 'life sucks' songs, too."

Simple Songs, Bell's latest album, is a more sparse and perhaps more anguished affair than some of his previous efforts. Featuring just the singer and his guitar, it strips Bell's work to its essence.

"A lot of the other albums were manicured like a bonsai," Bell says. "So yeah, there was a little more angst in there than on the others, and some songs are not so explicitly devotional. I think that's a good thing."

Bell has already begun working on material for his next album, a full-band record which will feature frequent collaborators such as Fergus and Hugh Marsh, Kevin Breit and Johnny Rutledge. And he's looking forward to a concert schedule this year that will run to 80 dates.

As for winning a Juno this year, Bell says he was a little surprised.

"It's hard to explain but I think I appreciated this one more," he says. "For me, this was a Steve and his guitar album that was more an album for fans so, when the nomination came, I thought this was a nice surprise. To win was very nice."

After winning twice in the gospel category, does Bell fear the stigma of being forever filed away in people's minds as "that gospel singer?"

"I'd really like to break out of that sort of categorization," he laughs, then adds: "But I write who I am and what I am. I'm realistic. I don't want to belittle myself but I know that the gospel award is not one of the majors. It's not that I won like Nelly (Furtado) won.

"Still, I'd love one day to win songwriter of the year," he says. "To me, that is everything."


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