Throughout the years, I have approached cultural events like a crow seeks out shiny objects. I see an advert for something or someone and for a variety of reasons, I am drawn to the new experience. Every so often, I see someone and then find myself going to see a variety of their work over the years because something about their personality and performance has gripped me. The performer, Camille O’Sullivan has had that effect upon me. I have seen her in a variety of venues ranging from the Royal Festival Hall to the Wilton’s Music Hall. She is both a versatile interpreter of the works of singer/songwriters such as Jacques Brel, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and David Bowie. Also she has had an acting career starring in films such as ‘Mrs Henderson Presents’ and the play ‘Woyzeck In Winter’. Her well received interpretation and performance in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘The Rape Of Lucrece’ demonstrates her ongoing love of experimentation.
Camille O’Sullivan has very kindly consented to allow me to interview her, so without further delay, let’s begin and miaow!
When you were growing up, was music an important feature in your life? Were your parents musical or lovers of music?
Yeah, growing up music really was an important part of my life. Lived in quite an isolated situation in a small village in the South of Ireland and we didn’t go out much. But what we did was kind of live an internal life in this big old house with my father working at home and there was this record player in the living room and I remember a kind of library of records such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Deep Purple and Jacques Brel. A really eclectic taste of different music. Listening to this music and also hearing music through my sister’s wall such as Pink Floyd and David Bowie really inspired me to become a singer. I’ve ended up with quite a deep voice and I think that has developed as a result of singing along to the likes of the Beatles and Bowie and as I have now ended up actually putting that music into my set, so I have kind of returned to it. So that was something I think everyday we’d kind of sing and dance around the living room and music was always really part of our life. Now when I tour and sing certain songs, I feel connected back to my youth, happy memories reconnecting me back to my own parents and sister.
At what point, did you decide to become a professional singer? Did other people encourage you to become a singer or did you feel that it was a calling?
At what point did I want to become a professional singer? I didn’t really realise I wanted to be a singer until I had a massive car accident, which was life-changing. I was in hospital for awhile and had to relearn how to walk and how to use my hands again and it was when I was an architect. Up to that stage, I had done school plays and I had sung a little in them. When I was in university, I had acted and then I had been asked to do a show called ‘Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living In Paris’, which is the music I had been brought up with by my mother who is French. Both my mother and father are big fans of his music and up until that stage, I had done a bit of singing. Actually, I must admit in secondary school, I had done a show called ‘Anything Goes’ by Cole Porter and there was a woman who came in to orchestrate that and she said you really do have a talent as a singer and you should listen to this tape. So I listened to it and it was Ella Fitzgerard and Sarah Vaughan and I learnt everything off it. Now I tried to sing a little bit of jazz when I was in college but I never really got it or felt comfortable or kind of understood or felt connected with it. But when I sang the Jacques Brel show, the music and learning Kurt Weill at the same time and I was living in Berlin on my year off as an Architect student, I suddenly just felt this intensity and a strong cathartic engagement with this music and the emotion it evokes. I did the show and I remember my dad coming in. I think he went twenty times and brought all of his friends and that was the first time I saw that kind of response from him. I really thought that my career was in jeopardy then because I realised I had never really felt that level of intensity in my life before, singing. It wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to go out and perform in front of people but I certainly felt something about the emotion that it made you feel when you sang. Maybe being French and Irish, I’m quite an intense and emotional person and it was a real way of expressing my self honestly. So later on when I had done some small shows and had the car accident, I think it became clear to me that I had this one life to live and my lack of confidence about going on stage had to be put aside. I said to myself, who cares what people are going to say or what the critics do? I want to go and become a singer which was a massive shock to my sister who never knew that I really loved singing and my parents were very supportive, although they worried, ‘oh God, what is going to happen to you?’ So I stayed true to myself. I used my left hand to write on the wall in my living room, where I was stationed and when I couldn’t walk upstairs, that I wanted to be a singer. I gave up work and then I started writing to venues and people trying to see if I could get gigs and to talk to people. So that was the start of it.
Having seen a number of your performances, I feel that you are an extremely versatile interpretative singer. You seem to live the songs. As a performer are you attracted to the lyrics of the songs that you cover or the melodies or a combination of both?
I think it’s definitely a mixture of both. Ah, lyrics are king for me. You know, that’s kind of what moves me. A story moves me at least; especially with the likes of Nick Cave, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Their songs feel like poems set to music and when I did Jacques Brel, I appreciated how his work is very much focused around narratives and stories. As I performed his songs, I realised I was almost a storyteller in song, they were touching the parts of me that loved to act, it was like doing a monologue. So when I saw a song with lyrics, I could almost see a kind of geography to it and maybe, that’s my architectural side coming out? I could see the dark, the light, the silence and the pause and I learnt to find the moment in a speech or in the story and I am constantly exploring how to make a lyric stand out in a song. That’s very important to me. That’s probably come about after spending years thinking to myself, oh God have I learnt anything as a singer? But I think what Feargal Murray, who works with me on piano and I discovered, especially when we did that Shakespeare piece (‘The Rape Of Lucrece’) was to take the poem and to simplify the musical arrangement at the start and end of the piece to give it a clarity, a sense of this is what it’s about and now, we’re going on this journey. But then you see, that’s just the narrative songs. You’ve also got songs like ‘In These Shoes’, which I performed on ‘Later With Jools Holland’ and ‘Moonage Daydream’ by Bowie, where the main appeal is the joyous music. It’s not the story, it’s completely the music, the rockiness and the rhythm. So I think any music really moves me for different reasons.
I think in some respects as I have developed as a performer, I have become quite like a chameleon. I become different characters in every song and although that may sound like I am not being truthful, I am. To be honest, all of those characters are an aspect of you, so it’s you being even more truthful than you’d ever be in your real life, you really expose yourself presenting your vulnerability to the audience. You’re fragile in front of people, for example, when you’re upset about a relationship gone wrong and sharing a Nick Cave ballad like ‘People Ain’t No Good’ or ‘Into My Arms’. Then singing a song like ‘The Mercy Seat’ enables you to delve into a darker place with yourself that you would never be like in your own life, which is really exciting as a woman because usually a woman is seen as a femme fatale and sexy. This persona is okay for songs like ‘In These Shoes’ but with songs like Tom Waits’ ‘Misery Is The River of the World’, you can be a haphazard, drunken man. Performance allows you to cross between being a man, a woman to a child. You can be vulnerable or strong. That’s an aspect of storytelling but also rock ‘n’ roll allows you to do that because it provides a sense of wild abandonment. I do feel that I inhabit it and I feel that sometimes, I live my life more on stage than I do naturally off stage. Offstage, I am probably a shyer, although very friendly Irish person but definitely wouldn’t get up to half of the things I do there. I sometimes come off stage completely embarrassed and say to myself,’ I can’t believe that I did that.’
So it’s a combination (of both the music and lyrics) for sure. Possibly, when I think about being brought up on classical music, I just find you are haunted by certain melodies owing to the lack of words. I think about dancing to ballet. I also like bands like Pink Floyd and I am a big fan of Radiohead. Sometimes, I don’t know what the lyrics are about but God, the music is so mind-blowingly amazing. So yep, I hope that explains that.
In performance, I have been mesmerised by your almost acapella approaches to such songs as Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’. At what point did you realise that sometimes the only percussion necessary is the sound of a pounding foot hitting the stage?
Yeah, it’s interesting about the acapella approach to certain songs, it doesn’t work for all of them. But I remember that came about because we used to do that song (‘Amsterdam’) with a full band. It started off with just one instrument, an accordion or guitar and then as each verse progressed as you sometimes do, another instrument was added, piano and then drums. But I got really frustrated as time went on. Something about the rhythm. I am not great with rhythm full stop as every person in the band will tell you, don’t follow her foot because it’s doing its own thing. I use the foot for different things especially in acapella to keep me in time. I sometimes use it as a method by which to take power on the stage. Not to get attention but definitely stamping my own foot to get into what that song is. So it’s doing several different things and I’ve had to watch out what my foot is doing because it’s just become part of me and my performance. I think our whole family on the French side does it, but the ‘Amsterdam’ thing was interesting. I just started finding that I was hemmed in when the band were doing it and I wasn’t able to express what I wanted of the song. The band got frustrated because I would go slow down here, just take a pause there, feel here and then I thought I can’t wait anymore to do this. I can’t teach really great musicians how to do this song because I am trying to live in the moment when I sing it and the only way I am going to do that is if I start doing it by myself. You’ve definitely got to be brave to sing the song alone because there is a moment in that song that you go, Jesus, I haven’t a clue where I am and what is that tempo? I still to this day get quite nervous of forgetting the words and you can feel the fear shoot through your body when you are half way through it. Even though, certain songs are almost embedded in your body, they will find their way out even though, you think oh God, I am going to forget what the next line is. But something like that song I find is very kind of feral and vulnerable. Someone compared me to a fragile soldier when I performed it on one occasion. I think sometimes when you sing acapella, it does show a kind of courage in a way as a performer and what I find interesting is the fact that I always think great songs can stand on their own. The best songs can be sung without any instrument and that goes to show the calibre of how great that song is. The song ‘Amsterdam’ plus ‘Marieke’, which are my two favourites of Brel, they’re the two songs I sing acapella most often in live performance. I think they are the only ones and they both have a kind of mountain to climb and yet there’s a certain amount of embarrassment when you going full out emotionally, but with Brel, you just can’t go there 50 percent, you’ve got to go 100 percent. It’s like a calling, it’s like a yearning and it’s a defiance and you are spent at the end of it and the foot just comes out because it’s just giving everything you have in it. Singing it gently or quietly or trying to make a rationale of it, doesn’t make sense. Those songs you just have to engage with, feel them and give yourself over to them. The only other way I can say explain it is sometimes people say I love your dancing on stage. I’m like what do you mean I was dancing? You get into a song, you don’t even know what you are doing and that’s how those acapella songs are. I have realised as time’s gone by with acapella songs and shows, silence is as important as the singing. So sometimes, the time you take to start a song and explain it and deliver it quietly first of all is a way to bring the audience to you. Also as the years have gone past, I sing that song (‘Amsterdam’) really differently to how I did it twenty years ago. So it depends on what mood you are in on that day or if the audience is more you know, loud or quiet. So every time you sing it is a different way. I hate not including it in sets but sometimes, you do that because you have done it so many times and I think if there is a stage that I don’t feel it anymore, I will try it with the band again. But at this moment, I feel closest to the song when I can do it acapella. Sorry for that long explanation.
You often describe in concert, how you have favourite artists such as Brel, Cohen, Bowie, Waits and Dylan. When faced with the enormity of their back catalogues, how do you choose the songs that you decide to perform? In relation to that, I have heard you perform Cave’s ‘The Ship Song’ at almost every show I have seen. What does the song mean to you? Melodically, the song has always held my attention but I still struggle with the verse ending ‘When I must remove your wings and you must learn to fly.’ I think I struggle because emotionally, the lines resonate with me but rationally, they are hard to define. What does the verse mean to you in performance?
Yes, it is difficult. I love all their music but there will be specific songs that make me feel I need to listen to it a thousand times. Like any person who loves music, there’s a certain song that really moves you. Albums such as Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’ are mind blowing to me and Cave’s ‘The Boatman’s Call’. There’s certain CDs and you know, ‘Ziggy Stardust’. I cannot… I will never tire of listening to those albums. Then there’s certain songs like ‘Five Years’ and ‘Moonage Daydream’, I just feel like crying when I listen to them. So if I have a very strong emotional reaction, whether it’s happy, sad, a need to dance or cry, I know I probably should try and sing it. It was a bit like every night I used to get ready for a show in Edinburgh and I used to listen to ‘Revelator’ by Gillian Welch alot and I knew then after a month that I had better try that song and record it. Now I think what’s interesting is the fact that I don’t do a tribute to the artist, I think it’s really important that if I am singing somebody else’s stuff, I try to make it my own. Even if that’s really making it hymnal and simplifying it down or rocking it up like ‘Revelator’. What I’ve found in the past is that certain songs belong to you and some don’t. So however much you love a certain song, doesn’t mean you will be able to sing it. Regarding ‘The Ship Song’, I don’t think I loved it at the start as much as ‘Into My Arms’ or ‘People Ain’t No Good’ but I tried to sing it on and off for two years. I tried every time but I could not get a grasp how to sing it and then one day with a certain piano player, we just did it really simple on chords, which is how I unlock a lot of my songs now, just playing chords first and sing the song… Slow it down, speed it up and slowly, I felt a connection to the song where I went oh that beginning, that gentleness or the kind of lullaby version. I found the song belonged more to me like that. I find things being in time and rhythm really throws me out. I find being out of time liberating. I am a big fan of Mary Margaret O’Hara who I was very lucky to work with once on stage. She was singing and I realised that the sensation of being slightly out of time and also not knowing what that person is going to do next was very exciting to me. Back to ‘The Ship Song’, years ago, I did wedding band stuff which was really tough to try to make money from and I always said to the band, I am not going to do this song if it sounds like a wedding band version. I needed to feel like I owned it. Anyway, we started off really quietly with the song and as time went on, we added the band as the verses grew into an explosive kind of rock moment and now of course, the show ends with us singing either really gently as a band or getting the audience to sing. The song itself has many different kinds of meaning. I think it’s more the essence of the feeling of the melody mixed with the lyrics rather than the absolute meaning of those lyrics. What they mean to me, I’m connected more to… ‘And let you hair hang down’ (Camille sings the song). ‘We make a little history baby/Every time you come around’ is something I feel that refers to me and the audience who are there in front of me. We all matter to somebody and we all matter in the story and then ‘Come loose your dogs upon me/And let your hair hang down/You are a little mystery to me’… Those are the lyrics that touch me because ‘let your hair hang down’ almost feels like a gentle invitation to people like myself who are shy and reserved. They are expressing the wish to be a child, let yourself express yourself and also that there’s a mystery to all of us and isn’t that true of everyone, whatever they are like? So lyrics mean a lot. The ‘wings’ verse… I am not always literal with stuff but I think sometimes, you just take the essence of let yourself be liberated and free. I wouldn’t take it as a literal thing.
For me, I always dedicate songs such as ‘The Ship Song’ to people who are maybe gone in my life and people who I really loved who aren’t with me anymore. I dedicate it to them and I have a memory in my head as I sing it. A very similar memory every time of a situation between me and a friend. It is a very conscious decision on my behalf that I sing it to them as I am singing the song and that locks me into a very kind of personal, intimate thing in my head. I am also including the audience but I am remembering somebody that I really treasure. So that’s a song that matters a lot to me because it’s like a constant farewell between me and that friend but it’s also a way to keep that person very close to me in my life. Recently, I had to sing that song at a funeral for someone who had almost been a paternal figure in my life and I couldn’t even get through the piece. As a singer, you think that you can do these things but of course, you can’t all of the time because all of those songs mean something and you can sing them every night and every show and they mean something different to every audience member. That particular song holds a resonance that when you are spent at the end of the gig, you are both saying farewell to the audience but you are also including people in your life that you care for, hopefully that doesn’t sound too weird.
You ask me why I choose the other songs? I suppose for all different reasons. ‘Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)’ represents defiance and anger. I always tell the band if you are pissed off with somebody even me take it out on them now in this song, I say really let it rip and they are kind of looking at me with a ‘what do you mean?’ look in their eyes. A song like Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’, I include because it’s a very beautiful, hymnal thing about the world and where we’re at. It was very suitable for when we did that show, ‘Where Are We Now?’ but also I think it’s a timeless piece, you couldn’t even base an era on that piece, it feels like it is of now and yesterday but it’s everybody’s song. Then other songs like ‘Five Years’ made me feel like crying when I heard it. So I just wanted to express it and I think that when I sing it now, it has a different feeling attached to it because I miss Bowie so much. Before I was kind of living that story, now I am almost saluting Bowie when I perform the song. So there’s all different reasons. But definitely, as I explained earlier, some songs do belong to you and some don’t. A lot of the time to lock yourself into a song when you are singing the very quiet songs like Cave, you don’t move an inch but you are thinking of a scenario and sometimes, it feels like a little film is running through your head. You are very connected to the audience, it’s very present, but sometimes, it’s like you’re singing to yourself and that’s what makes you inhabit it, making it personal to you.
I also choose songs in a set to reflect what is dark, light and funny. Songs that rock and ballads. Also songs that encourage dance. You are drawn to certain songs but then in a show, you’ve got to make it a varied journey and a surprising one for the audience.
Relating to the above, when planning your set list each performance, do your band mates contribute to the set?
Not really… The band mates don’t contribute to the set. Occasionally, one or two of the people I have worked with have recommended a song. So yes, there have been some great suggestions and they have also come from the audience, which I think is really lovely. Hopefully, they come to the show because they like what I do and the music I sing, so they have a great back catalogue too and I can listen to their ideas. But usually, I sit there by myself. The only person I have really shared that much with would be Feargal Murray who I have worked with for over twenty years. He is really supportive and regularly says I believe in you, I think that’s truthful and that moves me when I am performing. When I worked with Cathal Synott for ‘The Carny Dream’, he was great at encouraging me as we would work through songs and when I had no confidence to sing songs such as ‘Lullaby’ by Billy Joel, he would say ‘that was so stunning’. So sometimes, I don’t believe in my own thoughts. I sit for a long time, collecting songs, listening to them and some I put on the back burner. Occasionally, I return to a song that I didn’t think really suited me and it did actually but at the point I started working with the song, I wasn’t at the right place in my life, I hadn’t had enough bad relationships to relate to the song. Now I know how to sing it. So I’d sit on it. I’d probably walk around singing to myself then I’d bring it to Feargal and he and I start working out how we might perform it and then we bring it to the band. But during rehearsals, I must say sometimes the band are good at telling me, I liked that but I didn’t like this.
Your stage sets have altered quite a bit over the years. I remember lots of dresses and outfits suspended from the ceiling at the Southbank Centre at one show. Are you responsible for the stage design or do you work on it collaboratively with others? One element recurs, the rabbit. Please can you explain what the rabbit means to you?
Yep, I do all the stage sets myself and all the design of the posters and CDs. You know I did painting before and architecture? I am a control freak in my own way of not wanting to… I want to kind of envisage a world for each song and each show. The show you mention in the Southbank Centre, I spent a very long time doing the dresses in the air and then we put lights in them. I think around the same time, I saw this really great photographic exhibition, which had the same idea of the dresses with the lights in them. So that inspired me to want to include that element in my set design. The various others things I included as part of the mise en scene, I had been thinking about for awhile such as Dorothy from ‘The Wizard of Oz’, the rabbit, the little piano on stage, the poor bird being hit in the song ‘All The World Is Green’. Recently, we did the masks… I made these masks that you wore on stage, whilst there were dresses on the ground floor and a gingerbread house. Then the last show was the simpler set design of the moon and the earth and a computer that was lit with different LEDs lighting my face whilst I was singing ‘The Crack of Doom’, which is about the internet almost driving you crazy and Trump. The fun aspect of creating can be the experience of realising your ideas. For example, I said to various people, can you make a book that lights up your face when you open it and you are told that previously we have only done LEDs for kitchens and haven’t done anything like this before.
The rabbit? I remember seeing the rabbit somewhere and just loving it. Its quirkiness really. The rabbit appeared probably about ten years ago. I used to say that the rabbit knows everything and that’s not much and the audience used to laugh. I didn’t really understand what I mean either but it was like a character and now the rabbit has its own painting! There was a painting done in an exhibition in France my father came across and it was the rabbit that knew everything and that’s not much. It shows a very abstract representation of the rabbit with the dresses and my father bought it for my birthday. Then the rabbit appeared somewhere else in London in another painting, so that rabbit has its own thing. I actually can’t remember if the rabbit came before ‘Changeling’. But I do remember the album cover shoot for the ‘Changeling’, my hair was messy and I was like ‘oh Jesus, I’ll put this wig on’ and I remember suddenly asking the photographer for the rabbit. The rabbit was then used in the shoot, it was brilliant. So everybody asks after the rabbit and on stage, I feel that he is my little good luck mascot. It has no name, it’s just the rabbit and he travels everywhere with me. There’s actually two of them, so I have one at home and one that is ready to go on tour. Both are much loved. It’s not really as out there as Dada and Surrealism, but the band are always laughing, wondering what is going to happen next. But I like those little quirky things.
Another recurrent motif of your shows is the dulcet tones of the audience, miaowing and you responding in kind (I too have made the cat sound at your shows). When did this start and are cats and animals in general important in your life?
The cat thing is weird. I found a little card recently with my name on it, miaowing, it was from when I was in architecture. I think I have been miaowing since I was little. I love cats and think I would just miaow at somebody if I was happy about something and I have no clue how that came about on stage and then just turned into a thing. In many respects, I think it’s a positive thing, don’t argue with each other, it’s better to miaow and the audience pick up on this feeling and miaow back. I mean it was very funny when we did the RSC production (‘The Rape of Lucrece’) at the Edinburgh Festival, I heard that the people minding the audience before they came in, they were all advised to make sure the audience don’t do this and if they miaow, tell them once, then one more time not to do it and then if they do it a third time, remove them. I just laughed at the fact that they had been told this thing could happen in my show. I don’t do it all the time now because I think… You know even my partner says just be careful not to repeat things like the dresses or the miaows or things like that but I find that hard because I think for me it represents the purest kind of childhood affection. The world is hard enough as it is, there’s something very sweet about being eccentric and making people miaow. It’s connecting you to people and it’s making fun of yourself and it’s a joyful thing and music is all of those things too. Maybe, as time went on, when I started I wanted to be more enigmatic and my friend said, ‘you’re quite eccentric, Camille, so why don’t you share that stuff on stage?’ So I think that’s where this joyfulness and miaowing came from and it’s always been part of my life. It’s funny because there’s another Camille who is French and I have heard that she miaows and woofs on stage, so I don’t know whether it’s a Camille thing… But I think sometimes those childlike things unlock something in the audience and they go, oh yeah, okay we’re going… it’s left of centre, we are going to open up here and not be maybe as reserved. You know, we are going to miaow.
I have seen some of your theatrical work such as a play you performed at the Barbican called ‘Woyzeck in Winter’. For me, this was memorable as much for the play and performances as the set comprised of pianos. Do you enjoy acting or do you prefer the experience of musical performance, owing to the space it provides for improvisation and spontaneity. I felt that your performance in ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ brought the text to life. How demanding was it to perform such a tragic yet strong figure each night?
Yes, I do enjoy acting but I think I enjoy singing more. Well, I suppose you get different things from acting and singing. I am really nervous about singing because that’s me on stage and I have a real problem with people being critical of me or not enjoying the show. I am anxious each time I create a new show. I hope that the show I have created will please the audience and the great thing about acting is I can say to myself, well look, Shakespeare wrote it and I am just being directed, so it’s not my problem. Maybe, I am not the best actress but hopefully, I don’t have the weight of the people who wrote and directed it? Whereas, I have all of that pressure when I create my own shows. It was really brilliant to be part of ‘Woyzeck in Winter’. I think the hardest aspect of being in that show was being hemmed in on how I had to sing. I couldn’t sing the way I would have liked to. That’s an advantage to producing my own shows, I just do what I want and I decide what I want and that’s where I feel very lucky, how I have managed to orchestrate a career to do my own performing. ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ was very similar. I mean when Elizabeth Freestone who directed me saw me in Edinburgh at the Fringe, she noticed that I could perform all of these different types of characters as a storyteller and embraced both the dark and the light of human nature. So when she brought us the poem, it was like a perfect gift. I can never thank her enough for letting us perform the poem. At first, Feargal and I were not sure how to approach the challenge of bringing the poem alive on stage. We knew how to take a song and in principle, we felt that we could bring this four hundred year old poem to life, allowing this woman’s voice to be heard, one of his biggest voices within this poem, women not always being heard within Shakespeare. The challenge was how to make her feel like a three dimensional character. So I felt very lucky that Elizabeth Freestone really let us try and understand how to create that music. So it really comes from us. There was nobody saying, oh you’ve got to sing in time and this is your key, which had to happen with ‘Woyzeck’ as you had to be a certain type of singer for that production. ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ felt closer to me as Feargal and I could fight over a chord. Feargal is an amazing musician and it’s so beautiful what he did on it and I was lucky that I could go with a certain melody if I wanted to or if I felt it, I could sing it in a certain way. It made me feel as though I was singing from the heart. It was an amazing experience doing ‘The Rape of Lucrece’. There’s an anxiety of you being involved with the Royal Shakespeare Company and I felt anxiety as I had never done this kind of thing before in acting. But what they wanted from me was not to be the perfect actor. They wanted Feargal and I to create something that felt real. Music can bring the truth out of a composition a hundred times more effectively than saying the words alone. Singing can make the words emotive very quickly, you can be very dark, very angry or very violent with a song, in a way that might seem overblown if you were acting it alone. What interested Feargal and I was the way the words, the lyrics and music worked together. The rhythm of it. We worried that everything was going to sound the same but luckily because it was a poem in royal rhyme, this wasn’t the case.
We found whilst working with the poem, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ that the way the words were spoken on each monologue informed how I performed each character, they each contributed to the rhythm of the piece. For example, you just took the timing from such lyrics as ‘daughter, dear daughter, oh Lucretius cries’ which enabled every song to feel very natural. The spoken lyric would bring you to natural rhythm. As a piece to perform, it was so incredible. I’m still so connected to it. I remember trembling… my knees trembling. I felt like I was going to collapse on the first night we ever did it and I didn’t know which verse was going to come after the other, but I found it a really challenging experience to be the voice of this person (Lucrece). You don’t have to go to a psychiatrist to understand the human experience, just read Shakespeare. You know this woman because she is wronged goes on this tremendous journey of defiance and in the end, exhibits a very dignified response to it. It was incredible to swim in Shakespeare’s words and be that close to the poem by singing it. I loved the fact that as a singer I was used to letting it rip. At points, in my career, I have felt very embarrassed performing full force on stage but I realise that’s the only way I can be. I’d love to be a different type of singer but I have learnt how to be gentle on the quiet stuff and crazy on the wild stuff. My performance style actually helped during that massive moment, ‘Comfort Killing Night’, that song where Lucrece is essentially questioning everything. I was able to convey her anger and annoyance in a way that I maybe couldn’t have if I had just acted the role. I am so proud of Feargal and I for that piece of work. Probably the proudest I have been of anything we’ve ever done. I felt that it was such a challenge and we both kind of looked at each other in Stratford-Upon-Avon, going I can’t believe we are all the way from Ireland doing this thing. So it was a major moment in our lives.
You are about to perform a show at the Wilton’s Music Hall based on the songs of Nick Cave. How have you chosen which songs to perform for this show? You have been performing such songs as ‘Red Right Hand’, ‘God Is In The House’ and ‘The Ship Song’ in your shows over the years. Are there any particular albums by Nick Cave that you particularly like? Also have any of the artists you have covered ever commented on your interpretations of their songs?
I am really looking forward to doing the music of Nick Cave. As you rightly pointed out, I have sung a number of his songs over the years but I am a little bit nervous to be performing a complete show of his songs. The only other person I have created a show around was Jacques Brel. Also recently we did a night of Bowie (‘Lady Stardust’, a one off concert involving such notable performers as Duke Special and Eliza Carthy) but I suppose I was scared of that performance being a tribute thing. So I have approached this show in a different way. I have involved somebody, Joe Fletcher who is an incredible lighting and projection artist, so it’s a very theatrical evening. I wanted to create a mood to it. I mean the favourite songs of course are going to be in there, ‘Red Right Hand’, ‘God Is In The House’ and ‘The Ship Song’ and also some other songs I have sung over the years. Then some songs from the latest album and other songs I have never sung before. I have even taken on board, ‘Stagger Lee’, which is one of my favourite songs but I was terrified to go near it because I thought that is so outrageous as a song and as a woman like what is going to happen when I perform it? Am I going to have people walking out but I thought, look, if you’re going to do Cave, you’ve got to do Cave. So again, this show has been about offering a varied look at Cave’s song book, some of my choices being very much about the storytelling aspects of the songs such as ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘People Ain’t No Good’. ‘Skeleton Tree’ is in there, ‘Girl In Amber’.
I think my favourite Nick Cave album is ‘The Boatman’s Call’. I mean that has the most extraordinary love song at the start of its tracks, you know with the opening line, ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God’ (‘Into My Arms’). I mean I use a lot of Nick Cave songs to open shows because they are so provocative, enigmatic and dark. As my sister says you never choose songs that are going to be very easy and pleasing to the audience, why are you doing that to yourself, Camille? But I definitely choose something that makes them question what is that show about or what is that song about. Also that particular album has some of the finest love songs ever written, ‘Brompton Oratory’, ‘People Ain’t No Good’ and ‘(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?’ My two favourite albums are ‘Blood On The Tracks’ by Bob Dylan and Nick Cave’s ‘The Boatman’s Call’. They happen to both be about the break ups of relationships. Dylan’s album came towards the end of his relationship with Sara and Cave’s album explored his relationships with his wife and P.J. Harvey in some respects. So I don’t know why I have zoned in on them but they’re the ones that have moved me the most. Then there’s the wonderful album to Cave’s wife, Susie, ‘No More Shall We Part’, which has ‘God Is In The House’ on it and ‘Darker with the Day’, which is one of my favourite songs. I have only recently had the courage to perform that song… Well, not the courage, it’s not a big thing to sing someone else’s song but I was scared of messing it up. I am glad that I had the confidence to sing it. Some of those songs only come to life when you are singing in front of an audience. I have always tried to do ‘Brompton Oratory’ in front of people but I think it’s more of a recording song than a live song for me. I think when you perform Nick Cave’s work, it’s important to find the different parts or guises that he represents. You know, the preacher, the dark demonic side, the religious side, the lover, the vulnerable man and represent each of them as fully as I can. So there will be a lot of narrative stuff but then of course, you can do songs like ‘Jubilee Street’ and ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’.
Also you ask if any singers I’ve covered have ever commented on my interpretations? I did meet Nick Cave, he was very nice and he said,’ I hear you’ve done my stuff’. I can’t really remember if he thought it was good or not as I think I was so freaked out, but he was very kind to me. I remember we were having dinner with Shane McGowan and he said, ‘Oh come on, Camille, sing us one of your songs’ but of course, I wouldn’t. I couldn’t even open my mouth. Other people? I don’t know actually, I mean other than the wonderful Dillie Keane who wrote ‘Look Mummy, No Hands’, which is one of my favourite songs. She has come to see me several times and really said how much she loved it, which meant so much to me. Then at one point, I worked with Earl Slick on a Yoko Ono gig, he had previously worked with John Lennon and David Bowie and he told me that he thought they would have loved the way I interpret songs. I never go searching to find out what the artists I cover think of my interpretations because I am too terrified to know. I think just keep your idols right there in the corner well respected and do not go near them. Even though Cave’s been lovely to me, I just think I’d be too nervous to know what he thinks… I do want him and the other artists to know that I respect what they do and that I am really grateful to be able to perform their songs. That’s another thing, I am putting myself on the line here doing a Nick Cave show because I am sure that I will get his followers and we’ll see what they think of it. But I am excited to bring it to Wilton’s Music Hall. It’s one of my favourite venues in the world. I was delighted when we did our first show, ‘Brel’ there, reading that same weekend in the ‘Evening Standard’ that Cate Blanchett’s favourite venue was Wilton’s Music Hall! It’s an amazing, very intimate space. I mean we make a choice of going there. You can always play far bigger venues to make your money back but I think at this moment in my life, I just want the audience and myself as a performer to have a magical time. I am very lucky that they have opened their doors to us and we have returned there a few times. I certainly know that the audience regularly express how much they love the venue when I meet them afterwards. The performance space also contributes to the evening and how it is experience by the audience and I, which is probably what led to me being in the Spiegeltent for so many years. So let’s hope that the Cave show goes well and that you enjoy it.
Finally, what else do you have planned for the future? Are there any other goals that you would like to achieve?
Um, my plans for the future? Oh my God! The thing I’ve never really done is write my own stuff. I suppose I am a bit terrified of doing that. After singing the works of such great musicians, I ask myself, can I even do anything as good as that? That is something I will have to do and other than that we will tour the Nick Cave show. We are heading off to New Zealand now (gigs have been performed) and we are going to bring it to Edinburgh. Probably bring ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ back on the road with the Gate Theatre Dublin. I am always trying to keep up with the admin side of what I am doing and trying to sort out my emails. That’s why you will never hear from me all the time. I am just trying to keep on top of that and once that’s finished, I feel as though I can work on the next project. I mean there’s always something in the pipeline. Luckily, people come along and say, ‘oh, do you want to do a film or do you want to do a play?’ I would love to work with dancers. I am going to be doing a charity gig for the homeless, which is really important to me because sometimes, I don’t have the money to give back but I think through music at least, we can help and do something different. Taking a break to record, I get into the studio and sometimes, you forget you are on the road and you forget to do those things but taking some time just to look at learning new music and be inspired. Also going to other people’s gigs and really enjoying theirs. So I hope that makes sense and thank you so much again for asking these questions, I really appreciate it. Thank you.
My thanks to Camille O’Sullivan for allowing me to interview her, whilst she continues to prepare and tour her ‘Cave’ show.
Camille O’Sullivan has a website where you can learn more about her work and touring activities. Also there are links to her performances on the website:
Camille O’Sullivan is coming to the Wilton’s Music Hall in April 2019 and the Union Chapel in November 2019, 1st and 2nd November 2019:
The songs and other works mentioned in this interview are copyright to their respective owners and I have used Nick Cave’s lyrics without permission and will remove them if necessary. I have used them to explore the creative process involved in the interpretation of other artist’s songs. I recommend that you all listen to Nick Cave and his work. He has a website:
‘The Rape of Lucrece’ is available from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website and from other suppliers and is lovely:
Camille O'Sullivan with the eponymous Rabbit.
Barry Watt – 22nd March 2019