Singer-songwriter struggles to juggle work, music
By Steve Graham
Bethel Steele almost gave away the gig of a lifetime.
As a production assistant at Bohemian Foundation, Steele helps care for artists at the Armory, and he helped seek out other musicians to open for famed singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky at the venue this month.
Steele has stepped back from a full-time singing career and is excited to support, book and foster local and touring musicians.
“It’s come to the point right now that I would rather put a friend in a room to play a show than play a show myself,” Steele said.
Still, there are some shows that he cannot turn down.
“If I am asked to open for someone like Lucy Kaplansky, who started the New York folk scene, of course, I’m going to say yes to that. That’s just an incredible opportunity,” Steele said, adding that he felt conflicted about the booking.
“It’s hard when you work for the organization that books you. My moral clause to that is that I won’t seek that gig,” he said.
Steele also agreed to a Songwriters in the Round set during FoCoMX but is generally more focused on the Bohemian Foundation and a second job in science.
“I write a lot of code and make data more pretty than it appears on paper,” he said.
Steele is also intentionally focusing on his gender identity and place in the world.
“I know what it’s like to be a non-binary human in this world who has the privilege of being white and also has the privilege of passing as female and using male pronouns,” he said, thoughtfully.
It’s a long way, in every sense, from a childhood and musical roots on a farm in upstate New York.
“I literally stood on a box looking out at the cornfields directing ‘Phantom of the Opera,’” Steele said of his youthful dreams of being a classical composer.
Steele grew up near Syracuse listening to gospel and Christian rock, and his first gig was in a worship band before a “less than stellar leaving of that situation.” Still, his secular songwriting was informed by the upbeat, emotional nature of the church songs.
“It was very Jesus-centric, but it taught me a way of writing a simple song to connect feelings,” Steele said. “That’s part of the appeal of the church is that you’re feeling you’re a part of something.”
Steele’s songs convey plenty of feeling and not just the heartbreak or loss of many folk songs.
“I choose more major chords than minor chords, so that kind of sets me up for success with writing happy songs,” he said.
After moving to Boston, Steele taught himself guitar and released two EPs and two full-length albums while competing with Berklee graduates for Boston open mic spots.
“It’s hard to play in a room where you’re not the sole focus, but that’s how we cut our teeth,” Steele said, noting that he became more selective in his gigs after moving to Colorado.
In high school, Steele had worked at a camp in Westcliffe and “kind of fell in love with the mountains.”
Steele and his partner moved to Fort Collins five years ago to enjoy those mountains.
“A lot of my passion comes from being outside and being in nature,” Steele said.
However, Steele thought there was nowhere to play music.
“When I first moved here, I literally thought that I was throwing my career away,” he said.
Steele did find a place in the local music scene but hasn’t recorded any new music since moving here.
“I have been in a lull of finishing songs that I want to play to the world,” Steele said. “I’ll finish something and it will be OK, but it feels like songs I’ve already written but not better than songs I’ve already written. … I’m kind of in this place of trying to figure out what I want to put into perpetuity.”
He said he also no longer takes every opportunity to play and has been truly considering the value of each gig.
“I’m trying to think of it as more of a business, which is really hard,” Steele said. “Some of my favorite musicians have stopped touring because they can’t afford it anymore.”
Steele said some favorite performers from the Kerrville Folk Festival and other events just fall off the map and quit the music business. He said he wants to forge an emotional bond with the audience and looks forward to making that connection this month.
“If you were crying or laughing or if you were just feeling warm and fuzzy, I did my job,” Steele said. “That’s easier to do in a room like the Armory is easier than a brewery.”
Full full performance dates and Discography visit Bethel Steele online.