Sara Colohan interviews Camille O Sullivan

Camille O’Sullivan. Architect, singer, performer…superstar!

Camille O Sullivan is a star performer summed up perfectly in one line in The Irish Times 'A courageous and singular performer, one of the most gifted interpreters of narrative songs yet to appear'
Camille O’Sullivan. Architect, singer, performer…superstar!

Her dramatic heart stopping versions of Brel, Waits, Bowie and Cave to name a few, have had audiences from Sydney Opera House to London’s Royal Festival Hall fall in love with her… and now Londoners get another chance to see her perform as she hosts a series of shows as part of Priceless London Wonderground. London Calling's Sara Colohan caught up with her.

London Calling: Camille. Welcome back to London. You’ve chosen the Southbank’s wonderful Spiegeltent  to host your latest shows. Some may say it’s your spiritual home, not least because your style of performance has been compared to Marlene Dietrich, who of course started her career singing in a Spiegel Tents in 1930’s Berlin. You also have a history with this famous tent…

Camille O' Sullivan: Yes I think it is my favourite venue ever to perform in and also to watch a performance. It is like a little jewelled box, almost church like and creates such a beautiful atmosphere with its stained glass windows and little velvet awning booths. You really feel the history of the past when you step up on stage, following in the footsteps of all the other 'gypsy' musicians that have passed through.

I've performed in around 12 different beautiful Spiegeltents worldwide since 2003, and was given the lovely titles of Friendly Spiegel Cat and the fun 'Queen of the Famous Spiegeltent'. I first performed in one in Edinburgh 2004, with my own show and a new show they were producing called La Clique. It was such an exciting time to be one of the original performers of that gorgeous mad show which went on to tour worldwide from New York to Sydney and was so delighted to be part of it when it received its Olivier award 2009!

I was also very lucky to be spotted by Trainspotting’s Spud (Ewan Bremner) who told Stephan Frears which resulted in me landing a role in Mrs Henderson Presents.

In a way it's a circus for big kids - us! (I always had the fantasy when I was an architect of running away with the circus). I love that the whole room is all a stage in a sense. You can perform in your allocated space then into the circle where the audience sits (no one is safe from the performer) or one of the intimate booths...and that you can see all the faces including yourself reflected in the mirrors when you are performing.

When I was with La Clique, I used to sit on a swing that was raised above the audience, it was great fun for them. I also loved the fact the tent travels, it comes and goes but your stage is always home wherever you go, though you get a little  confused sometimes - Am I stepping outside into Sydney, Edinburgh or in this case London?!'

LC: Not unlike Marlene, you spent a bit of time in Berlin too – but not as a singer. You earned a degree in architecture (the highest marks your University had seen in a decade, no less!) and chose Berlin as the location for your first architect’s job….

CS: Berlin is an incredible city and was a brilliant discovery for me as an architect and big lover of music and performance. We were there as architecture students – nine Irish girls in a little flat and it was a mad, brilliant, liberating time for us and the city itself.

Berlin was rebuilding itself - it was going through flux and art/music/performance was expressing itself everywhere.  There were brilliant late night smoky venues that stayed open all night long, showing art, film and music 24/7- which is where I discovered old weimar songs and Kabarett performances. I had never heard such haunting melodies or the direct in your face way of performing - it was a real intimacy with the audience where there was no fourth wall on stage, you the audience were part of the show. The performance could be full force or incredibly subtle or emotionally vulnerable (due to the content of the dramatic songs) and not always about pleasing the audience - i.e. went to a darker more provocative place.

I was hooked with these narrative songs and the characters they created. I listened obsessively to lots of Weill and Eisler and picked up my first CD ever - September Songs by Hal Wilner which had great translations by Nick Cave, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey - this is a well loved and worn out CD. I couldn't believe my luck a few years later when I worked with Hal Willner in Sydney Opera House with Rogues Gallery, I was revisiting my past with the great man himself!

LC: Obviously the world of music was calling you even then. You obviously credit Berlin with developing some of those darker traits of your stage persona. Where or who else do you credit?

CS: When I returned to Ireland from Germany I had the great luck of seeing a great artist called Agnes Bernelle. She was born in Berlin and fled the war first to London and then Ireland. She was in her seventies when I watched her, transfixed by her poise and stillness and the stories she told - Weill, Eisler, Tom Waits. After Berlin and seeing this brilliant inspiring lady on stage, I knew my architectural career could be in jeopardy!

I hadn't trained as a singer and she kindly said (drink and cigarette in hand) ''oh darling it doesn't matter, just tell the story - these songs are better from being yourself or an actor then trained singer." That has stayed with me…in a sense all my favourite singers use their own voice, Dylan, Waits, Cave, Brel - sing as you speak. As for stage persona, I'm not sure if it's something I created - I think it's just me magnified by 500. All the songs I choose show aspects of me, which allows me to be chameleon like on stage.

LC: You’re a huge star in Ireland, where you grew up and studied. More people know you from La Clique and your sell out shows in Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but perhaps most Londoners will recognise you from your legendary performance on Later with Jools Holland (almost 100,000 hits!). So legendary in fact, that he took you on tour with him after meeting you on the show! Did you realise after that particular TV performance that things would never really be the same for you?

CS: To perform on Later with Jools was a dream come true! It's such a big thing for a singer, I was absolutely terrified when I was singing live (I suffer from stage nerves at the best of times!) but I was so happy with how it went.

I could see Tom Jones and Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol out of the corner of my eye while I was singing which  was terrifying and so strange! It was brilliant to show the complete different aspects of what we do with the fun of Kirsty MacColl's 'In these shoes' wearing sparkling red Dorothy shoes and then transform into dark veiled singer of Nick Cave's God is in the House. I was really delighted to be asked to perform on his tour. The first date was the Royal Albert Hall - I'll never forget that - it's a coliseum of 5000! My parents were there, my mum watched it though her fingers she was so nervous for me, but it was a great evening for us and Jools is a lovely fabulous gent!

Things did change after that. It's so nice to be able to say we were on Later with Jools! We've had great times doing our solo shows in London since at the Roundhouse, 6 week run at Apollo Theatre and the snowiest day of the year at The Royal Festival Hall - where my mic broke…I've good memories of throwing the mic away and singing was needed after that!

LC: With three live albums already released, Changeling, released this year is your second studio album. Tell us a little about the theme and can you pick a favourite track, or is that a bit like asking a mother to pick a favourite child?

CS: Changeling feels like the first album I've ever recorded and released. I'm known pretty much as a live performer due to the full on roller coaster and drama of the shows. The live albums captured our live shows to date and the first studio album was sweet but I hadn't learnt what my voice could do until I toured all these years!  The theme is close to what the shows are about - to change oneself, to become something, to explore different aspects of oneself i.e. vulnerable, dark, fun, gentle, full force, anger...chameleon-like!  It was big labour of love for me, Feargal Murray (pianist and right hand man) and Eanna Hickey (mad music genius by night and barrister by day).

As an interpreter of songs you love, you have to have a good reason to sing them, so it was important to make them my own, and people have been very kind in responding that they think we did. Some of my favourite writers are on the album, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, Trent Reznor, Radiohead, David Bowie. Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol very kindly wrote These Days, just for me. I designed the cover which includes our little touring rabbit which lights up, he gets asked about it a lot! Inside is a collage of pictures from the years of touring. I like the hands on approach to creating everything, from the artwork to the music. Hmmm - fave song?  I suppose Ship Song is my favourite for its poignancy and gentleness. And for the rocking out madness, it would be Revelator.

LC: So you start off in May with your current touring show Feel, then a rare chance for people to see your highly acclaimed past shows The Dark Angel and Chameleon? What made you want to revive those shows?

CS: I'm on the train heading from Gateshead to London now and halfway through the UK Feel tour. I was really delighted, after the successful run it had in Edinburgh, that we could bring it on the road and people have been lovely and very kind about it!! So I’m wrecked but happy and loving travelling around the UK. I decided to revive the old shows so people who may have not have seen them get a chance to see and hear different songs. The Dark Angel had toured extensively internationally and received a few awards and there have been requests to bring it back. We are currently touring the Dark Angel in Germany so it’s nice to bring it back to the UK.

As for Chameleon, that had 5 star sell out success at Edinburgh but the only place we brought it to was Royal Festival Hall. Feargal and I got caught up writing music and performing for Royal Shakespeare Company (Rape of Lucrece, which premieres at Edinburgh International Festival this year, before starting its worldwide travels) we hadn't time to take that show on tour. It's really lovely to revisit some favourite songs from all three shows, looking forward to Cohen’s Anthem, Oh Lord (Cave), Old Folks (Brel), Five Years and Rock n Roll Suicide (Bowie) and others. I share the stage with great friends and brilliant musicians – we’re all excited to be playing London again in the magical, gorgeous Spiegeltent, tent of mirrors!

LC: In August you’re coming back with all new productions…What can we expect then?

CS: Hopefully we’ll still be standing in August, I could be horizontal by then…only kidding!  We will have to create a new show for the album Changeling which will feature all the songs from the album, I'll have had fun over summer creating ideas for each song. I like to create a little world for some of the songs; for others I like to be still and just sing the words. I'm really looking forward to giving each song its best foot forward, brushing their hair to the right and sending them on their way! The Changeling show will be at the Priceless London Wonderground at the end of August/beginning September. I will also be hosting The Cats Miaow, a variety show we have done in Ireland and London. It's a purrrrfeeect evening of lovely brilliant guests, some musicians, dancers, rappers.  I may sing a few songs in there as well.

Listen and Download Camille HERE.

14/15 May 2012
Duration: 90 min
0844 545 8282

31 May 2012
Duration: 90 min
0844 545 8282

1 JUNE 2012
Duration: 90 min
0844 545 8282

28, 29, 31 AUGUST, 1 SEPTEMBER 2012
Duration: 90 min
0844 545 8282

Author: Sara Colohan