Born in London to a French mother and Irish father, Camille O’Sullivan moved to Cork when she was just a child. Prior to running away with the circus The Famous Spiegeltent, she spent a year studying Fine Art then moved on to UCD, where she graduated as an architect. As a solo performer Camille has performed 5 Star sell out seasons in Australia, New York, UK and Ireland and sold out her run at the Sydney Opera House and the 3,000 seat State Theatre as part of the Melbourne International festival last year. After being spotted in ‘La Clique’ at the Famous Spiegeltent by Ewan Bremner, aka Spud from Trainspotting, O’Sullivan recently co-starred in the Academy Award nominated film Mrs Henderson Presents directed by Stephan Frears, opposite Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins.
I caught up with Camille on a cold November night to discuss the various meandering strands of her career and this month’s show at the Olympia. As she is fresh from a radio interview where she was asked to discuss beauty treatments we launch straight into a discussion about all things aesthetic. “The looks thing, I think I look much better now than in my late teens and early twenties, and it’s because you get to know really well how to present yourself in the best light possible. I like to have my off days too but when I’m gigging I really love to go for it. I mean I love the fantasy of dressing up and really glamorising myself. I definitely think you find a certain look that suits you. I really like that classic retro look, women like Eva Gardner or Rita Hayworth, Dita Von Teese, I think it’s a really beautiful way that women can look, and you can be really edgy with it, it’s a very strong look. With clothes, when I first started I’d dress quite old-fashioned, whereas now I add a modern twist to it, so it looks more contemporary. You don’t get many occasions to dress up like that, so performing gives me a great excuse to wear unusual clothes and to really go for it”
Switching back to your career, how did you make the transition from painting and architecture to performing?
I think with performing and the dressing up and glamour element, the thing it has in common with painting and with architecture is creativity. I’d always wanted to be a painter but I didn’t quite have the confidence to pursue it so I went into architecture, but I always kept up things like acting and singing and drawing while I was doing that. I still keep up that stuff too, I still draw and sketch when I’m travelling. I always wanted to perform but was never quite sure what form that was going to take, but just always feeling this need to be on stage. When I took a year out in Berlin that saw the beginnings of what would now be the whole reason why I am on stage, that obsession with old Weimar cabaret; which was quite political and confrontational, and provocative. That was the first time I was really moved by music. These songs are all about the truth of life, and about questioning one’s surroundings, which means they always paint the prettiest picture, but there is a lot of pleasure in sharing those stories and experiences. I think I found something I was really interested in there and that kind of performing suited me very well as I’m not very good at doing reality. When it comes to performing I think it’s a great thing getting adulation, and it’s not always ambition that gets me on stage, it’s fear. It was very difficult when I started performing in Ireland, trying to get gigs was hard, I was getting turned away, people need to pigeon-hole you, and if you say cabaret, it then becomes Irish cabaret and it conjures up Jury’s and things like that. Cabaret isn’t a word I even like using because it conjures up Burlesque and it puts a restriction on you already. It’s more individual than that, I don’t write my own music but I am like an actress singing a monologue and interpreting something that’s often dark or sad.
Have you ever thought about writing your own material?
No I haven’t, I think because I am scared that it would be rubbish. I think it’s the things that we want to do most that we keep postponing; I think about it and then I do things like cleaning door handles in my house that have never been cleaned, putting off the big day when I finally sit down to write something. My other excuse is how can I write after singing Brel and Nick Cave, I mean they are phenomenal writers.
How do you choose your songs?
Well the Brel stuff would be because I am half French and my parents had a great record collection, and I started listening to songs that were more like storytelling and had characters, and I like dark and dramatic tales. If I hear something and it resonates with me then I’ll look into doing it. It’s more about the story within the song than singing the song sometimes. So when performing, it is always a personal thing, even if I haven’t written the song, and it’s always about being sincere with a song rather than it just being about my voice. As a woman too I think that it’s important to shake that image of yourself, and not just be the femme fatale in the fishnets and heels singing. It’s important that you show every aspect of yourself; that you can be vulnerable, that you can be tough or angry or gentle. What I love best is humour and charm and that’s what I love about the intimacy of being onstage; you use all these aspects of your personality to lock in with the audience, it’s not just about singing to them, you’re very much with them.
What women are you influenced by?
I love all women, I think women are great. I think PJ Harvey is great, she’s quite out there, and there are so many writers and performers who are very devoted to what they do. I have great admiration for people who are not in the arts. I tend to like people who are talented but who are good with it, who are tongue-in-cheek and enjoy themselves, who work hard but aren’t up themselves.
What can we expect from your upcoming show in the Olympia?
Well, I will do Cave, Waits, Brel, a bit of Radiohead, the show is becoming quite contemporary and a bit rock, and we now play in places like Glastonbury and Oxegen and those were things I never thought I’d be part of. The show will be about these songs, and telling those stories but also about creating a dreamlike world for people, you have to make them believe that you are that character, there will be seven musicians onstage with me. The Olympia is the perfect place to create this intimate show, you feel like you’re in a little jewellery box, so it’ll be a lot of fun.
Camille O’Sullivan plays the Olympia on December 14th, her CD Live at the Olympia is out now. For more info see www.camilleosullivan.com
Words by Jade O’Callaghan