Music Q&A: Camille O’Sullivan

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With her background in acting Camille O’Sullivan has developed a reputation for her interpretations of the narrative songs of the likes of Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill, and her new tour features the music of Bowie and Prince. She might have an enigmatic persona but it unravels on stage, she says.

Tell us a bit about your sound and your influences.
Well, the sound is based on my influences. It’s a real mixture as the show is about being a bit of a chameleon on stage – the quirkiness and strangeness of Tom Waits, the dark piano ballads and rock of Nick Cave, the theatrical rock with dramatic guitar solos of Bowie and also very inspired by Radiohead and Johnny Greenwood’s guitar playing. It goes from a whisper to a scream, sometimes just a simple piano ballad, quite hymnal, and then explodes into madness rocking out on stage!

How have you evolved as a musician over the years?
I think and hope I have! I wasn’t trained as a singer and had been an architect before. The band joke I rehearse more like an architect – dark, shadow, light. Imagining things as if in spaces or a cinematic reel is going through my head when we are performing each different song. It’s definitely got more rock ‘n’ roll over the years, but I still love the hymnal songs of Cave, Cohen and Brel. I would have been nervous of mistakes on stage but now embrace that as it brings the show to life, happening here and now. I realise less is more, don’t try to win an audience over if they’re a bit distant. Sit back (a bit like a date going badly!), be liberated and let yourself go, music is the place you can be uninhibited, be braver, be more vulnerable, sing to yourself more on stage in quieter numbers rather than sing at the audience. Don’t fake it. Whatever mood you are in that day just try to bring that person on stage. Before I would have tried to create an enigmatic persona. Now that element remains at the start but I show myself unravelling on stage as it builds.

What are you up to at the moment artistically?
Finishing a live Brel CD. We just performed at Wiltons Music Hall London on the UK tour of The Carny Dream. A new film, Pick Ups, directed by Jamie Thraves is out. Then off on tour to Australia with Paul Kelly and Feargal Murray with a show we wrote music for to Irish poetry, then doing a theatre show of Woyzeck in Ireland and the UK, and Jim Jarmusch music in the Barbican. So it’ll be nice and busy the next few months. I’m always nervous there will be no work so I try to make sure there is!

How do you stand out from the crowd in a saturated industry?
Think I’m more lurking round in dark shadows than standing out. Which is just fine. I kind of prefer it. I feel I have been lucky as I don’t release big albums – it’s always been about being a live performer who constantly tours these emotional dramatic shows. I’d say maybe the difference is I’m quite a chameleon on stage, not that interested in being Camille O’Sullivan but liking the fantasy of inhabiting songs, becoming different people, so that allows you to change from dark to light quickly, sadness to joy. You are really displaying many different aspects of yourself. It has been likened to a rollercoaster of emotion. It wouldn’t be easy to understand the quirkiness of the show from one song – you’d have to YouTube maybe 10 different songs from a show. I think it’s this variety of songs and the kind of music I’m into singing, like Cave, Radiohead, Bowie and Cohen – people who enjoy those great writers and the show’s madness!

What’s on your rider?
Red wine, a banana and some sweeties (all colours allowed!).

Tell us about your worst live show.
Jaysus, I’m sure there has been a few. I’ve been electrocuted on an opening night, fallen off stage whilst still managing to sing while climbing back up. At the start of my career I sang to less people than was in the band – that hurts. I’ve been heckled once quite horribly in Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I gave as good back but burst into tears, which embarrassed me. The audience were lovely, shouting kind words to me. This wasn’t the worst but could have been. We had a big headline gig at the Royal Festival Hall on the snowiest day in years. Half the band couldn’t get to Heathrow, so we had to teach new musicians the whole gig that afternoon and then my microphone stopped working in front of 2,700 people so I threw it away and sung acapella. It actually turned it into a great gig but it was the worst feeling in the world when it happened!

Camille O’Sullivan is performing The Carny Dream at Stockton Arc, 8 March, Leeds City Varieties, March and the Lowry, Salford, on 13 March. For information and tickets visit

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