Cover Story You Magazine: Camille O Sullivan


Full interview:

French-Irish singer, actress, and musician Camille O'Sullivan is very well-known, but not exactly a household name. She’s steered away from clichéd pop stardom, never releasing a single. Instead, she has become internationally renowned for her unique, chameleon-like performances on stage, singing lesser-known, often tragic, dark songs about love and loss. There’s a unique raw energy to her live performances that even her die-hard fans might struggle to explain. She seems to live and breathe each story and song. Some are solemn tales, some are fun and sexy; most are written by her own personal favourite songwriters, including Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Radiohead and Jacques Brel.


The BBC hailed her as the ‘Queen of the Edinburgh Festival’. The Guardian wrote “her singing voice is a deep, sultry instrument that might have been created to express desolate love or to wrench bleak triumphalism from existential despair.”
This multi-award-winning singer has wowed audiences around the world with her sell-out performances, including at the Sydney Opera House, Royal Festival Hall, and Ireland's National Concert Hall. One of her preferred venues is still the intimate setting of a Spiegeltent, not least because it’s where she forged her international solo career after doing a run with the famous La Clique show. If you're new to her work, her performance of "In These Shoes" on BBC’s Later with Jools Holland  (The Telegraph voted her one of the top 25 performances on Jools Holland of all time, alongside Kayne West and Amy Winehouse)  and her rendition of "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" at The Olympia Theatre in Dublin are excellent introductions to her powerful, theatrical style. O'Sullivan's ability to switch from dark to sexy to funny in an instant is part of what makes her performances so unique. She performs with a tour de force, cementing her place as Irish musical royalty after over two decades in the limelight. 

We chat about her unconventional career path, her life with partner actor Aidan Gillen, and discuss her ever-evolving passion for music and her talent for reshaping the boundaries of musical genres.
Back in the early 2000s, Ireland’s cabaret scene was considered traditional, typically featuring nights at Jury’s cabaret with singers like Sonny Knowles or Brendan Grace. There was an alternative scene with artists like German-Irish singer Agnes Bernelle and the novelty drag act Mr. Pussy, but there was little in between. As a young architecture student in UCD, Camille was influenced by Agnes Bernelle’s enigmatic, age defying, theatrical style and decided to give it a go herself. She became known as "the singing architect" and started performing small gigs, meeting other influential singers like Jack L, who were also starting out at the time. They brought an edge to the genre, taking cabaret out of the 70s dinner-dance format and reshaping it, creating unique takes on classic vintage songs from Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill and others.
“I’m so grateful for that early time in my career, especially the intimate Bewley's Cafe gigs. They really helped me shape my style and taught me so much about live performance. It was a tough place to perform because it was so intimate. Most performers will tell you bigger venues are easier than small ones, where you are so close to the audience. But I loved those early shows because I discovered who I wanted to be as an artist there. Jack L invited me to quite a few gigs he was doing after that, and they were formative too.”
As word spread about her captivating live performances, Camille started to get booked for bigger venues, a spot on the Late Late led to more headline gigs. Her ‘pinch me’ moment was when she played The Olympia for the first time. “It had been a dream of mine from the beginning. I don’t really do much of that manifesting stuff, but I had decided that’s where I wanted to perform. I had asked Jack L’s manager for advice a few years before that I wanted to perform at The Olympia, so when I was standing there on that stage that first time, I felt something magical happened that night.” Her Jools Holland appearance is up there as one of her favourite moments too. 
Her international fame, she says, was thanks to the Edinburgh Fringe. “I would say to any new artists coming up that Edinburgh really is a window to the world. I got so many opportunities from doing gigs there.” She was approached by La Clique to tour with the original line up of their world-famous cabaret and was offered a part in Stephen Frears’ hugely successful Mrs. Henderson Presents on the strength of her Edinburgh shows. Will Young was her dance partner and she starred in the movie alongside Judie Dench and Bob Hoskins. Her love for Edinburgh Fringe is not just lip service; Camille will perform a series of shows this year to celebrate her 20th year performing at the festival.
Home life is busy too, and after three years of renovating an old Georgian house with her partner, actor Aidan Gillen, their South Dublin home is finally finished. When she met Dubliner Gillen, she had no idea he was a world-famous actor, with leading roles in some of the biggest TV shows on the planet, including The Wire and Game of Thrones. She had just split from her daughter Leila’s father, Waterboys lead singer Mike Scott, and really wasn’t looking to start another relationship. “I didn’t respond to Adian for months or show any interest in dating him because I was just totally focused on raising my daughter. Then when we finally started to see each other, it was lovely because he is such a down to earth people, and we just connected. One of the first dates, I was wearing one of those mad plastic headscarves old ladies wear, but it didn’t put him off, and I still wear them.”
She went back to her roots as an award-winning architect to help create their new home. “The house was an old Georgian building with an incredible history to it. I mean, we learned Blondie and Elvis Costello had stayed there at one stage. Flan O Brien has a connection and Patrick Kavanagh used to actually live there. Isn’t that incredible?” she  says, clearly in awe of the Irish greats.
“I loved getting really involved from the start and was determined to keep lots of the history, to show the old with the new alongside it. The house is now full of little design quirks like a type of mini Japanese garden, and there’s a bath hidden under seating with a movie screen, and we put a swing in Leila’s room. There’s a brass line drawn in the polished cement floor running through the house following the line of the canal. The only thing Adian put his food down about was a slide I wanted, going from upstairs down to a little bar downstairs. I might get it yet!”

Designing the house came naturally to her after years away from her first love, architecture. “One of my bandmates was here the other day and he said, ‘Camille, it’s like visiting one of your shows, funny little twists and surprises along the way.’ I thought it was a lovely compliment because the band are always saying I rehears the shows like an architect, paying attention to every little section separately from lighting to sound to set list.” 

Was a move to Hollywood something they had ever considered? “Well, we won’t rule anything out, but we both love Ireland so much. And we both love roughing it in the countryside! We stay in swanky hotels every now and then, when Adian’s working, but we love camping and getting out in the open. Aidan’s really into cycling and hiking but I usually sit with a glass of Prosecco while he climbs up a big hill!”
In her career of nearly 25 years, she has championed individual style and non-conformity, musically and image-wise. While some of her peers were singing traditional ballads or being moulded for pop stardom, Camille was dressing in ripped fishnets and red lipstick, singing about death and heartbreak. Maybe that’s why she admires anyone who breaks from the norm.
“Look at Irish singer CMAT. She’s fearless, and I absolutely love her. She’s a wonderful singer and has such an assured sense of her own style. I look back at Sinéad O'Connor, and I think she paved the way for so many singers to act, and sing what they want to sing. I was lucky to meet Sinéad many times, and she was soft-spoken, gentle, and very funny. She was a visionary ahead of her time, alerting us to things we weren’t ready to hear. The other day my daughter was listening to Taylor Swift, and I asked her to listen to Sinéad. We played a few of her recent albums, and there’s some incredible work there. She was just so real and authentic. It’s nice to see the new generation of Irish singers being authentic and real too.”
She continues “The loss this year of Shane, Sinead and Christy Dignam that been so monumental. I toured with Shane and The Pogues and listening to his song now that he’s gone, well, they all sound so different. I sang Shane and Sinead’s duet called Haunted with Mundy at Shane’s funeral which was very emotional, and that’s what I’m exploring now in my new show: Loveletter. I feel like I’m singing the love back to them, if that makes sense”. 

Camille has also returned to acting, recently appearing in Barber, at the 2023 Irish thriller starring Gillen. Contrary to the Hollywood curse of couples struggling when working together, they are currently busy filming a new project with director Jim Sheridan Re-Creation. Also starring Colm Meeney its a film about one of Ireland’s most shocking unresolved crime whose victim, French TV producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier. 

Camille shows no signs of slowing down. The 12th July in the National Concert Hall Camille sings Edith Piaf & Jacques Brel with national symphony orchestra then she will perform a three-week stint in her beloved Edinburgh. Later in November she will perform her new show Loveletter in The Olympia, Dublin. She won’t be changing things too much or succumbing to any pressure to reinvent herself. She will be doing it her way, like she’s always done, and we love her all the more for it.

Upcoming events: 
12th July : National Concert Hall Camille sings Edith Piaf & Jacques Brel with national symphony orchestra

July 31-17 August 2024 
Assembly Roxy, Central  Loveletter celebrates dear friend Shane McGowan, Sinead O’Connor, Cohen, Bowie, Radiohead.

3Olympia, Dublin Nov 22 Ticketmaster for dates and new CD releases