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words Stevie Red McMinn / intro Ali Raymond / photography Jake Green
At a first glance it’s easy to put Polar Bear in that Spoken Word box but looking deeper he couldn’t be further from abstract poetry that label usually affirms.
Someone who can tell a good tale, his one-man spoken stories successfully feed our long affection for a good story told well. His pieces aren’t couplets of abstract rhyme or pretentious monotony, that although at first seem deep inevitably evoke a tiresome yawn.
Instead his stories are usually anything from 15 to 40 min customised soliloquies of everyday experiences and adventures. Surprisingly engaging and emotive, Polar Bear has an ability to create an atmosphere unique to any other artist in his radius.
With a big love for hip-hop citing the early flavours of NWA and Public Enemy as his favourites you can get a real sense of wordplay and compelling street attitude in his work.
Beatnik’s Steve McMinn caught up with the main man himself ahead of his new show…. to discuss the beginning, middle and unknown end of his very own fairy-tale.
It’s been almost Five years to the day since it all started for laid back Steven Camden, as we sit and he recalls his own story – the lights from the window reflect on his face and the sounds of the streets of London echo fittingly throughout our conversation.
After his very first gig, Slam, he was asked to perform at Glastonbury in 2005 in front of 300 people. His accelerated and somewhat accidental rise to fame was unlike so many Spoken Word artists but something he seemingly went along with at first.
“In between then (Slam) and June 2005 (Glastonbury) I didn’t have a clue what was going on, I was just rhyming at the time,” remembers Polar Bear, known to us as Steven. “So I did a little research and thought right okay, people are either angry political or kind of trying to be funny. I didn’t want to do either of those things, I just wanted to tell stories.”
A first timer at a festival, the City dweller from Birmingham felt completely out of his comfort zone or as he puts it ‘like Frodo Baggins”, mixing with new people and attitudes. But as Steven explains, it opened him up to new experiences and after two days he felt like he had fallen in love with the people around him.
After Glastonbury Steven was asked to go on tour as Polar Bear as an artist representing the Midlands, getting paid and commissioned to write.
“I was like hold on a sec … [laughs]… it blew my mind, yes I think I can do that… I remember hanging up the phone and thinking – this is an opportunity now, this is going to be shit hot! That’s when I first realised this existed.”
“I was temping at the time, so I came back and quit. I was like – right, I’m gonna start doing this now. I had to deal with the consequences afterwards (he laughs).”
Returning to that very first gig Slam, which he was encouraged to take part by a friend, it’s questionable
Whether some kind of fate had intervened to bring us Polar Bear, or simply a stroke of luck that changed Steven’s life forever.
“So (at Slam) they put your name in a hat and I swear if I hadn’t gone on first I would have left. The guy after me got onstage, turned his chair around and read a dark gothic story.”
A Graduate of Psychology, like a lot of young people leaving University, Steven left education with the stark realization of what to do next.
“I was an idiot, I went to Uni in Leeds to mature when I was 18,” he says of his younger days.”By the time I was 21 I was slightly more mature but before then it was a blur.”
For the next five years he would work temporarily, go away, work some more, go away and live in that cycle before stumbling across Spoken Word and doing that first gig at ‘Slam’.
What was it about spoken word that made you realise you had found something special to pursue?
“What excites me about Spoken Word is the sink or swim nature of it – it’s on it’s own. One of the reasons I didn’t run a mile is because I thought this is a real test, this is like go on then, say something.”
“Since I started I’ve been battling with the idea that – this is weird, they’re gonna pay me to talk. To going – you know what, I feel alright now, this is what I do, and I feel completely justified in doing it… but it’s still a bit weird though innit? (he cheekily smiles)…”
If you weren’t doing this now, what do you think you would you be doing?
“Not a clue lad, literally not got a clue… Luckily my time doesn’t revolve around me, at least half my time is concentrated on projects I’m either leading or am involved with other people.”
As well as writing and performing Polar Bear teaches at The Roundhouse in Camden. At the Battersea Arts Centre he holds creative writing workshops for kids and all over the country helps people with script development and other spoken word artists with their writing.
“I feel like I’m part of something rather than carrying it on my shoulders.”
How do you feel now knowing you’re an inspiration to others?
“Well to tell you the truth, I don’t know”
he smiles modestly and for the first time appears speechless…
“If I can help you craft something for your mouth, I can’t make you be a poet that’s for damn sure, I can’t make you be a writer, but I can make you realise you can do it and make it real. If I can help people do that by what I do then that’s wicked!”
What are your plans for the future?
“I’m planning on putting together a collection of short stories, each one with a different producer, in effect an album of musical tracks with Spoken Word over the top of it. Some people may call it Spoken Word with music, in my head it’s just music.”
“I like popping up on people’s stuff, I’ve been asked to do a lot of things including an album but it feels like – right why am I doing that? Am I doing that for what, chart success? Definitely not chart success, but notoriety for this?
And it’s not like Polar Bear does not have commitments elsewhere. “I can’t really commit to going on the road, 300 days out of the year, I’ve got a family, so I can’t do that and I don’t wanna do that. I couldn’t do the same thing 300 times every night, I’d punch myself in the face.” He bursts out laughing
“But it’s a choice and although saying all that, now we’re talking, I do feel ready to put together what could be an album.”
Polar Bear explains his love for the underground nature of what he’s doing, for the feeling of a new audience, when nobody knows who he is, knowing that a new audience is thinking ‘who’s this then? Go on then.
“It feels wicked, because now they’re listening, and it’s not the applause that’s the fun it’s knowing that people are listening, when you’ve got people it feels great, and you kinda want more of it.”
But you don’t want to get used to it?
“Exactly! Exactly – I did that last night I can’t do the same thing again.
For me someone who is interesting is someone who is different, a character. It’s like a playground politics thing; if i’m needing you all the time you wanna play with him over there who’s doing kick-ups. It’s not like I’m saying I’m the cool ‘Fonze’ kid, I’m just doing kick-ups. Come and do kick-ups if you wanna do kick-ups, if not we’ll still be over here doing kick-ups… and I hope there is an element of that in what I do.”
I turn the conversation to more mainstream artists and the type of Spoken Word in America.
“I don’t like most of it, because I still like the experience of watching something interesting, something I wasn’t expecting, and even when things are good I don’t find a lot of it very interesting.”
What’s the future for Spoken Word?
“Spoken Word will always be an underground thing, it’s always got to be fun and it can’t be easy, I could be gigging every night of the week, whether it be open mic or a feature thing but you’re gonna see the same people performing, to the same people clapping, to the same things, and what’s that?!”
A man who manages his own affairs I ask him about Labels and Management, and the business side of things.
“Why would I put myself in a position where my hands are tied, y’know when I’ve got all these ideas waiting to go. Luckily for me I can say this from a position where people are liking what I’m doing and there’s loads more to come!”
“As long as people are giving me the opportunity to do it, I won’t stop!”
For more information about Polar Bear including new shows and to listen to his brilliant work hit up: Polar Bear Online!.