Irish enchantress turned chameleon on stage Camille O’Sullivan is currently jet-setting around Australia on a tour that sees her performing Ancient Rain (to which O’Sullivan has written the music) with Paul Kelly in an evocative show that pays tribute to W.B. Yeats and that blends musical and verbal story-telling techniques, calling forth a rich visual Irish imagery and touching on themes that are ultimately universal.
A young O'Sullivan realised that a female singer, rather than having to feel the need to primarily play on her femininity or be a femme fatale, comes into her own and to fruition when she not only captivates the audience through songs but is able to narrate a story through words and music that move and provoke the audience all at once.
Camille O’Sullivan photographer: Jytte Holmqvist
Only two weeks ago the singer and vocalist also staged her own more intimate and personal music gig as part of the Melbourne Festival, held at the intimate venue The Toff in Town, and fans could thus enjoy watching her at least twice in one week. O'Sullivan's extraordinary talent, her voice, exuberance and electrifying presence on stage enables her to captivate, move and seduce the audience all at once. She is unique in her ability to be herself, be natural and smoothly professional on stage and yet still straight after a performance requiring high levels of concentration, energy, narrative talent and great memory skills mingle and engage with her fans - always being very forthcoming, pleasant and exquisitely graceful when interacting with us all.
I was fortunate to be granted an interview with O'Sullivan while she was still in Melbourne, on 13 October 2016, and she gave me comprehensive and sincere answers revealing the essence of who she is both as a person and a performer; in the case of O'Sullivan two interrelated concepts that cannot be separated. Born in London in 1974 to a French mother and an Irish father advocating a simpler lifestyle, O'Sullivan (who resides in Dublin) grew up in Passage West, near Cork, in a nationalist village which she claims "didn't really like English people, so what then happened was we ended up living in a house quite isolated."
Her childhood years were quite internal resulting in her becoming a listener and an observer (or, as she calls it, "kind of a watcher and maybe a bit of a mimic") all at once; open and sensitive to the rather eclectic music she and her sister were exposed to at home, and appreciative of varied music repertoires, singers and genres. Years later, while based in Germany as an architect, O'Sullivan began frequenting local cabaret clubs, felt drawn to Weimar cabaret and started to appreciate Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill, known for their more narrative music styles.
O'Sullivan would also later become deeply influenced by German singer and actress Agnes Bernelle and the two formed a special bond further strengthened through Bernelle's connection to Ireland, where she moved during the latter part of her life thus making "the transition from a comfortable and highly cultured upbringing in Berlin to a new life in Ireland, where she created a special place for herself in artistic Dublin" (as noted by David Alexander in The Independent ).
Agnes Bernelle (1923-1999) was instrumental in shaping O'Sullivan's own attitude to music and her musical development. Having artistically distanced herself from predominantly Irish traditional music, the latter began to adopt a more experimental approach to music, embracing the narrative aspects of select songs. O'Sullivan speaks of her German mentor as delivering songs that were a bit "left of centre" and she expresses admiration for Bernelle's ability to bring "stillness to a room" through a song. Bernelle also instilled a conviction in O'Sullivan that it's "all about the story." More specifically; "[t]o do this right, you have to be a better actress than a singer, it's all about the story."
A young O'Sullivan realised that a female singer, rather than having to feel the need to primarily play on her femininity or be a femme fatale, comes into her own and to fruition when she not only captivates the audience through songs but is able to narrate a story through words and music that move and provoke the audience all at once. O'Sullivan's success as a now both nationally and internationally renowned singer lies precisely in her belief in the narrative qualities of a performer. In her shows she connects and becomes one with the multiple identities of the characters she sings about and thus inhabits on stage. In her extraordinary ability to become someone else, Camille O'Sullivan is a singer, actress and a chameleon all at once.
She has compared her role on stage to the experience of an actress engaged in a Shakespearian drama: "If all actresses try the role of Lady Macbeth they don't write the play themselves so in a way I felt I became an actress in song." Her transformative nature, where she gives her own twists and interpretations to her favourite songs, is perfectly suited for the type of performances she so thoroughly prepares for. In shows performed inside Spiegeltents at fringe festivals, in intimate venues at city festivals, inside grand concert halls including e.g. The Royal Albert Hall, Apollo Theatre, the Sydney Opera House and soon also the heritage venue Wilton's Music Hall in London's East End, O'Sullivan covers songs by Jacques Brel, Tom Waits, Nick Cave and others; singer-songwriters all capable of narrating a story through music.
Camille O’Sullivan photographer: Jytte Holmqvist
The Irish/French architect turned singer, who stresses that "if you want to be a good architect you do think about the senses", is highly audience-oriented and clarifies that her "conversation is with them." She chooses her songs carefully, always with the audience in mind and in her musical repertoires, preferences and predilections she is particularly moved by Cave's music. In The Ship Song, which O'Sullivan describes as "very beautiful and very poignant", she stays true to the essence of the song by the Australian native, in the sense that she respects its original slow pace and further highlights Cave's lyrics through a calm beat that slowly builds up to a crescendo. O'Sullivan adopts an almost confessional approach to the song, stressing that
I slow things down, I make things almost cordial at the beginning. It's like a hymn that you are singing. Slowing it down means that the words really stand out more because when you take out the rhythm at the start it just means people can really hear each line what you're saying and then when you introduce rhythm back in there they already know what that song is about.
O'Sullivan can be seen adopting a similar approach in her interpretation of Amsterdam, a powerful song by Brel. Initially taking it slow, the Irish singer and performer seamlessly moves between characters and personas on stage and in the song fluidly interprets a drunken and down-and-out sailor and a prostitute in equal measure, while all along she "moves through sentences."
The result is a respectful interpretation of Brel’s original and yet empathy, anger and compassion can be sensed behind the words as she seeks to understand the position these characters are in, making us glimpse perhaps a bit of the singer herself between the lines. She declares: "I never think in terms of male or female. I only think in terms of I've got quite a male or a female side" and adds, with regard to characters sung about, that "I think they are all me because I think that's ... the closest I get to understanding that song".
In her many performances on stages worldwide, O'Sullivan takes on repertoires ranging from Shakespearian discourses (as in her 90-minute solo performance of The Rape of Lucrece where a 6.5-month pregnant O'Sullivan interpreted a number of contrasting characters) to Cave and Dylan, to Brel, to now even Prince (in her beautiful interpretation of Purple Rain) and many others. Her wide array of different songs again reflects and highlights the transformative nature of her own personality and identity. This fusion between her own self and the identity of the different personas that she inhabits in each performance is verbalised in writing in the inside cover of her CD Changeling (2012), where O'Sullivan writes that she becomes a different character in each song.
When I ask her if she ever feels torn between her own personality and the character she inhabits, her response is in the negative and she candidly stresses that "I think all of them probably are me. I think my interest in shows is always what are the different aspects of your personality, people always think that they're one thing, but actually. " She refers to David Bowie and his idea that we have facets of ourselves that we never think are there and she says that "inhabiting other people's songs allows you to really inhabit them, to transform yourself as if they were your own."
Now a mother, O'Sullivan seeks to keep her young daughter "out of the limelight completely" and she adds that "[t]his life is public to me but it's got nothing to do with her." Still, she spiritually brings her daughter with her into her gigs by writing down her name on her hand; something which makes the singer at once at peace and grounded, and also in touch with reality back home. A song like Dillie Keane's Look Mummy No Hands also becomes so much more poignant now that O'Sullivan not only keeps singing about the changing attitude on the part of a daughter to her mother, their relationship and the gradually reversed roles they play – but also as she herself a mother, the song is more "devastating because it's not just thinking of a mother, it's being a mother."
Camille O'Sullivan is thus an artist driven by a calling; that of involving and indirectly triggering a response in her audience to the musical and narrative drama played out on stage. Always crossing over the often fine line between harsh reality and sometimes more dream-like and surreal fiction she challenges our senses and juxtaposes light and darkness, the serious with the more light-hearted, while all along inviting us to partake on an emotional journey into our own psyche. In doing so she also challenges our perception of what is real and not.
Habitually introducing onto the stage a toy rabbit as part of her "little collection" - her "menagerie" as she calls it - this unique Irish performer always reminds us that on the other side of darkness there is light and playfulness and she perfectly summarises her approach to her own profession by declaring that
I like eccentricity and I like red sparkly shoes and I like sparkle coming from umbrellas. I like magical things. I've always loved fantastical things... of not being in reality – that you create this wonder world and the rabbit is just an extension; it's this little friend on stage that I find it hard to travel without – I don't even know if it's a he or a she. It's an interesting thing, it's like when people go to a circus show or they go to the Spiegeltent, they're like a child again...
Again with reference to the rabbit, she compares it to her songs - as being "a bit provocative. It's also letting them know it's not going to be all dark depression but there's other worlds out there."
The whole world is a stage to Camille O'Sullivan and that global stage acts favourably towards her. Her shows are not to be missed and they will alter the way you think about reality, the world and the many different roles we all ultimately play.