Camille O’Sullivan

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A love letter in song to the band’s music, and perhaps more personal to her then any of the shows she has done before, Queen of the Fringe’ (BBC) CamilleO’Sullivan brings her acclaimed show CAVEback to the UK, exploring the light and the dark of NickCaveand The Bad Seeds – one of her favourite writers – in her dangerous yet fragile theatrical style. 

In her spectacular new show, Camille embarks on a personal discovery of a man of many guises: violent, beautiful, crazy, devout and religious. Chameleon-like and celebrated worldwide for her five-star sell-out performances, Camille explores the beauty of Nick Cave’s music, and his life story, with her fierce and mesmerizing voice to give you an unforgettable night of madness, beauty, darkness and love.  

I had the opportunity to interview her before the tour kicked off……

HC: Your style is emotional and dramatic, is that how you would describe it?
Camille: Yes, people have likened the gig to a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s about storytelling and inhabiting a song so you can be vulnerable one moment, or let go in a rock song the next. Being joyful, dark, light, funny, showing all the different aspects of yourself so there is an element of surprise in a live show, sometimes the band doesn’t know what’s going to happen or myself! Lyric is king, stillness in ballads let the words speak for themselves, and then yourself go, dance and fall apart on stage which suits me now at this age when the wheels are coming off!

HC: What influences/motivation took you down that musical route?
Camille: Listening through the bedroom wall to my older sister’s tape cassette playing of Pink Floyd, David Bowie, John Lennon. Music played all day in the house, my parents eclectic taste of Brel, Deep Purple, Beatles, classical music and then a chance meeting with a lady called Agnes Bernelle in her late 70’s becoming different characters in song, an amazing woman who escaped Berlin during the war and was an incredible interpreter of songs.

HC: What was the role of music in your early life?
Camille: I had an unusual route to becoming a singer: portrait painter first then architect then singer. Looking back, my sister and I created shows for our parents in the front living room becoming all different characters of swan lake, I loved spiritual hymns in musty old churches with ten people all singing out of tune, my parents record collection and then later shows in Secondary School and University whilst studying architecture I did a show ‘Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well’ and that signalled a lifelong love of his music and that type of narrative song full of passion and emotion.

HC: You’re known for the covers you have created, why do you think they have been recognised?
Camille: I suppose like an actor saying a monologue, you say it like you wrote it. Don’t copy original, make it your own, be honest, let the lyrics stand out, then change the song musically love atonal orchestrations, hymnal simplicity and also explosive charged builds!

HC: How would you describe the evolution of your sound?
Camille: Drawn to simplicity in piano ballads like hymns, like Pink Floyd/Bowie/Waits strangeness in music, don’t like business or obvious playing, can drive a wonderful musician when you say play it wrong, play it as if you’re singing to yourself in your bedroom (forget you are performing for real for and audience), play it like you hate me/someone, play it as if you don’t know the chords for sure yet, now let yourself go, just play madness, I like it when there is fragility and vulnerability (no problem for me when you are scared of going on stage and audiences!). But very happy to be childlike and abandon yourself on stage to the music. I learnt piano with an incredible pianist and remember him saying you are now the wolf, he became like an animal shy, threatening, playful in the music…that memory came back recently and realised it must have influenced me.

HC: Tell me about your song writing process?
Camille: Well I don’t write lyrics, but the process when I put music is to sing by myself first until a melody comes and then make sure each chorus has some sort of build and then resolve, happy for it to be sparse and be as if in conversation with the person listening sharing some sort of secret.

HC: Which song do you most like to perform, and why?
Camille: Eeek that’s hard to choose. One I can sing all day long, Ship Song just beautifully written, feels you are being so truthful and open with the audience giving them a big hug through the music, love when the band explodes after long rise and the audience sing back when the music disappears, always think of those I lost in that song. The other two which are tough to sing, Marieke by Brel acapella and Look Mummy No Hands by Dillie Keane, feel like I’ll fall down after singing the, just beautiful heartfelt songs of loss.

HC: You are certainly a unique artist, do you like being so different? And does it have its challenges?
Camille: I’m not confident enough to like being different and yes it has lots of challenges! I get frustrated, I go for difficult uneasy openings, songs that sometimes are very dark can divide an audience, hence mixing it lots of black humour and joyful dancing to get us all over the sadness or an angry song! My sister says you don’t make it easy for yourself, I wish sometimes I just sat on my chair and sang normal songs, but I’m drawn to singing these songs that I feel are thought provoking. You give yourself over in the songs and then after it’s over I go through my Irish shyness and embarrassment what the hell did I just do. People say “I loved your dancing!” Me: “What dancing?” half the time I can’t remember what I just did and then suddenly it all floods back. ‘Stagger Lee’ was a song I refrained from for years but now think if you are going to show the beauty of Cave you have to go to hell also and show that, people have been startled and enjoying its madness.

HC: If you could choose any singer/musician to join the band for one gig, who would it be?
Camille: Earl Slick, glorious guitarist and though gone David Bowie, loved him

HC: Tell me about the tour which starts in May, what can the audience expect?
Camille: Think my cat will be in shock I’m leaving the house after being at home so long! I want people to have a great night out, have some wine, these have been tough times for all and I am so delighted to be with the band and a lovely audience. This tour is all about the music of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, I’ve been a fan for so many years and but this was the first time I looked at his music in one show, so wanted people to experience all the different facets I love about their music, also I feel most natural singing his songs. It’s pretty cathartic for me on stage each night entering Cave’s world, possibly the most beautiful love sings ever written, very spiritual world versus the darkest most explosive rock songs, he shows the beauty and the darkness, I’m always delighted when you get someone in their 80’s going I loved Mercy Seat!

HC: How would you describe your fans?
Camille: Lovely, gorgeous, passionate, quiet, loud, shy, friendly ranging from 8-80 years old and hopefully as emotional, eccentric and crazy as I am, I love meeting them afterwards, have had the best chats with very varied colourful wonderful people, like all sorts sweets! You can learn so much about music and different views of life from them and have visited a good few of them making friendships over the years.

HC: What would you tell those who’ve not heard your music, to encourage them to come to one of your gigs?
: I think people think oh she looks dark and enigmatic (poster propaganda!) but lots have said I love that you’re a bit bonkers, funny self-deprecating, so they enjoy that it’s quite funny and then very emotional and are surprised by that. Suppose I’m an old school entertainer so like to create a wee journey for the audience. At this stage of my life I’m falling apart in a fun way, embrace life’s madness a bit so share that through the music, I’d like to think they enjoy the openness, hearing the songs new for first time (if they know Cave) and just give them a great musical rock gig, where they feel like they want to dance and sing out the door or hug their friends!

HC: Tell me about your worst performance.
Camille: Oh god, plenty.. I wake up in the middle of the night to those kinds of memories, not kidding you! There have been a few, falling of stage is tame, somebody heckling you very nasty comments, I was in shock luckily audience turned on them and scolded them.

HC: How do you deal with nerves before a show?
Camille: One or two red wines, and remember my best friend saying don’t be scared people like listening to your singing, breathe and then suddenly the nerves leave as you step on stage, it’s the weeks and months running up that nervousness happens. The band says it’s like a rocket going off when I hit the stage…

HC: Is there any music style you don\t like?
Camille: Not much I tend to love everything, well maybe not full on house music…

HC: How different is it playing festivals versus regular venues?
Camille: You just have to be a bigger Tiger in a festival! Can’t do subtly like a venue or start a show slowly to reveal. Suppose it’s like a horse out of the traps (I’m usually doing circles about to kick the stable door before going on) the first few minutes have to capture an audience or they will walk off to the next field! But it’s important to be real and chat too to connect

HC: Do you think it is easier or harder these days to be a musician?
Camille: Eek I think it’s harder, financially its tougher. Spotify, people listening for free, radio stations play certain music so getting played is tough. Performing can be tougher for a girl growing older in front of an audience, things don’t zip up like they used to, but in other ways having missed playing for so long there is great joy in being with dear friends on stage performing, I feel really lucky to sing those songs I love, that people come to shows and hang with dear friends on stage

HC: What would you do differently if you were just entering the industry today?
Camille: Started younger, got a lawyer for manager or accountant, (got a manager full stop!) been more confident, not care what people said too much, chase people more. Just do it, think there are so many ways to get started and kids seem to really understand social media I still have no clue, but wish I did..)

HC: You’ve had a varied career, have you enjoyed the journey, and do you still paint?
Camille: Yes in many ways though I don’t find it easy due to the confidence issue so struggle with that and just learn how to handle it the best you can, remember someone calling me the reluctant performer asking what am I doing on stage, but as Feargal who plays piano says it’s a vocation just need to sing. And I love to keep painting along the way or keep a visual diary when I tour, not great at writing but love to sketch, really feel like you see a place and it has a nice meditative isolated quality away from the mayhem of stage.

HC: What types of music do you enjoy listening to when you are hanging out?
Camille: Listening to Mahler Symphony no 5 at mo, revisited Beatles White Album, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Dylan, Leonard Cohen records. My partner in the car was just listening to all the 80’s music Culture Club, Prefab Sprout, Depeche Mode, as he has bought a singles juke box!

HC: When you are not making music, what hobbies do you enjoy?
Camille: I learnt sewing recently love that, tried trapeze (ok) and circus silks (bad), roller skating (bad!),

HC: When did you last wish you were invisible?
Camille: A few hours ago when I looked in the mirror.

HC: What was the last book you read?
Camille: Sing backwards and weep by Mark Lineman (sadly departed)

HC: What’s your most treasured possession?
Camille: Maybe my rusty old Volva Amazon Car 1962 or Goo Goo our cat but she may possess us..

HC: When did you last remember a dream?
Camille: Been having some bad ones lately probably due to the worlds mad state but had a lovely one yesterday full of different coloured balloons and people dancing in white outfits with red setter dogs, think that’s cos I’m heading to my best friends wedding today!

HC: What’s your biggest vice?
Camille: Wine… Cadbury’s twirls multi pack

HC: What’s your favourite condiment?
Camille: Marmite…English mustard

HC: Any special skill outside of music that we don’t know about?
Camille: Yoga headstands, handstands, can ski backwards and carpentry

HC: When and what did you last dress up in fancy dress?  
Camille: I love fancy dress! I wear it quite a lot, was wearing a rabbit costume at home last week just hoovering around the house I just bought, and got my cat mask back yesterday, spent long time looking for a real looking cat head after loving that viral zoom call where the guy in USA couldn’t turn off being a cat whilst talking to a judge, cat head will appear in next Dreaming in Edinburgh festival.

HC: Who was your first gig?
Camille: Bowie – Glass Spider tour, loved it

HC: If you were a flower, what kind would you be and why?
Camille: A buttercup (though my partner just said snap dragon!) golden, kind gentle flower, love the simplicity the wish perhaps is to be like a buttercup

HC: If you could only eat one thing for a whole week, what would you choose?
Camille: Twirls

HC: If your pet could talk, what would it say?
Camille: I told you didn’t like this food

HC: Who was your most memorable teacher? Why?
Camille: Mr Knott for art, Mr Daunt for English, they were just wonderful inspiring teachers who made you believe in yourself and had such passion for what they taught.

HC: What’s your favourite sandwich filling?
Camille: Two pieces of dark chocolate

HC: What’s the least cool thing you’ve done recently?
Camille: Refresh my holy water font

HC: What’s your favourite word?
Camille: Nape

HC: What’s your go-to karaoke song?
Camille: All the Single Ladies

HC: What cartoon character do you most identify with?
Camille: Roadrunner

HC: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
Camille: Rudeness

HC: What album has got you through some hard times?
Camille: Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan and The Boatman Calls by Nick Cave

HC: Name your favourite uplifting songs that always cheers you up.
Camille: Taylor Swift Shake it Off, Stevie Wonder For Once in My Life, Age of Aquarius Hair musical

HC: What’s your favourite season?
Camille: Winter

HC: What is the most irrational superstition you have?
Camille: Walking under ladders

HC: What is the weirdest food combination you enjoy?
Camille: Tattoo crisps chocolate (which I just discovered I’m not alone and there is now a bar of that combination!!)

The short version of the interview appeared on GrapevineLIVE

Camille O’Sullivan


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