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Getting back on the horse

Camille O’Sullivan told us how she has to conquer her shyness to get onstage and how a near fatal car crash made her determined to give singing a go.

Camille O’Sullivan has returned to Wilton’s Music Hall in London.

Although she has played live in Belfast, Galway, Cork and Wexford, these are one of her first live performances since the start of the pandemic.

Known for being chameleon- like onstage, Camille interprets the music of Nick Cave, Radiohead and Brel to make them her own.

Born in London and raised in Passagewest in Cork, Camille has an international reputation that includes sell-out and awards for her performances at venues like Sydney Opera House and Edinburgh International Festival.

As an actress, she has shared the screen with Bob Hoskins and Dame Judi Dench in Mrs Henderson Presents and played Countess Markievicz in Rebellion.

Camille told The Irish World what it is like to be returning to the stage: “I always knew if I came off the horse, it would hard to climb back on.

“I do love the stage, but I have a certain amount of anxiety before I go on, and usually I’m fine once I hit the stage.

“I had forgotten what that feeling was.

“I suppose I probably talked a little more, joked a little more because there was a certain shyness being in front of people.

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“It was just a delight to see other faces and really grateful to be back on stage.

“Not singing for a while was really weird.

“Because usually when you’re on the road all the time, you don’t think twice about it but because you’ve been domesticated and cleaning your house all the time and hanging with the cat, you have a bit of a heart attack being in front of people.

“I usually equate going in front of an audience with going on a first date.

“The nerves are strong, but the love of it and excitement of it is really big too.

“In a way you forget that you were a singer, you were offstage  for so long.

“It’s great to feel that connection again.

“I was almost tearful seeing some of the faces I recognized on the tour.

“Because they’re people you’ve gotten to know over the years and you’re wondering, ‘God, what happened to them?

“Aidan’s always giving out to me because I’m always trying to hang out with them and go to their houses. I remember one time in Belfast I said, ‘I’ll come and sing in your kitchen’.

“He said, ‘You’ve gotta stop f**king telling people that’.

“But I said, ‘I do want to sing in their kitchen’.

“He said, ‘I know, that’s the trouble’.”

The Aidan she mentions is her partner, the actor Aidan Gillen well known from shows like The Wire, Game of Thrones, Love/Hate and the current RTE crime drama Kin.

Although she oozes confidence in her performance, Camille has to conquer shyness every time she takes to the stage.

“I would absolutely be shy of things in my own life.

“I love people and I love singing but the notion of an audience watching me sends me into a tailspin.

“Most people don’t see it because they don’t see you before you go on stage.

“They just see the end product.

“And yet when the show is over or you’re halfway through it and it’s going well, there’s nothing nicer.

“I remember one guy going, ‘Jaysus, you’re like a mouse. Then you’re like a tiger when you come out onstage. Like two different people’.

“I think that’s the way it’s always going to be.

“I feel schizophrenic. I feel like when I’m up there, I become 100 times stronger or more powerful than myself.

“And I think it’s not becoming something different. It’s like I become all these different things in the song but to be honest, they’re all me.

“But I like to hide away in my own life, that it means you can be angry or be sexier or be funnier but do it through a song.

“I used to wake up in the middle of the night, and Feargal was like, ‘Oh, Jesus. You’re not waking up again, are you?’

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got the fear’.

“And the fear is going, ‘What the hell did I do on stage?’

“I believe in letting it go onstage and absolutely giving yourself over, then you have the Irishness that you have to counteract the embarrassment of, ‘What did I say to people?’

“People used to say, ‘You sat on my knee’, or ‘That dance was great’.

“And I was like, ‘What dance?’ You do so much of that onstage that you don’t even know what you’re doing.

“It’s a bit like being a child, you just let it rip and you go for it.

“So that was the experience of the tour recently, was me having a great time, being nervous before shows, and then absolutely dying inside going, ‘Oh my god..’

“And the crew would be laughing at me going, ‘But you’re really just fun. You’re like a comedian onstage’.

“I wouldn’t say it’s exactly putting on a show for people as it is revealing yourself completely onstage.

“The sad songs are the ones that people love the most, and the ones where I really feel moved myself, and yet, they’re the most kind of vulnerable and fragile.

“And I realized early on it’s a good thing to feel that, especially if the songs aren’t your own because it means you’re making them your own.

“Unfortunately probably the worst times of my life, when I’ve been going through a terrible heartache, is when I’ve been the best singer because you bring everything to it that’s really real.

“I realized you have to have an aspect of yourself vulnerable and open.

“The battle of having this shyness is you realize you just have it and you need to deal with it.

“It’s terrible. I remember once there was another really good Brel singer and we had to do an interview with each other in Edinburgh.

“And they were like, ‘What you do before a show? And she was like all these exercises and not eat this food and I was like, ‘Two glasses of red wine’.

“I still probably need a glass to get up on stage which is a terrible thing.

“I remember talking about this with my parents because my mum and dad always worried about me becoming a singer.

“Once I really revealed to them that I wanted to be a singer one day.

“They said, ‘You’re too emotional, you’re too sensitive, it will kill you’.

“I think they were anxious about that.”

Listening to her parents, Camille chose the career of an architect, a steady and stable job that she worked in it for years and work she won awards for.

It was when she was in a near fatal car crash that she realised she had to really go for what she wanted to life.

“I am very close to my parents, and I’m probably a scaredy cat.

“So I did listen to them.

“And I did go and study architecture instead.

“I kept my paw in performing  by doing dramasoc in UCD, but I didn’t really think I was good enough or I suppose because I wasn’t trained as a singer.”

Born to an Irish racing driver and world champion sailor and a French artist, Camille grew up exposed to all sorts of music.

“When we were little, we used to listen to all this music, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Deep Purple and then the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and Tchaikovsky.

“There were loads of different types of music, but it wasn’t until I sang Brel that I was like, ‘Wow, you can really express yourself, and really be emotional’.

“The other things, I felt like I was faking it a little, trying to be like other singers that sing jazz song or something.

“It was only later that my mum said, ‘Remember when you used to listen to Ziggy Stardust? Why don’t you sing that stuff?’

“It was only putting the pieces together. I didn’t really realize how much he (Bowie) loved Brel and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but they’re all connected as storytellers and that all those songs are very similar in their dramatic kind of nature.

NO REPRO FEE 29/3/2018 Pictured is President Michael D Higgins meeting Camille O’Sullivan at the Opening Night of The Rape of Lucrece at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. The President attended the production, which stars Camille O’Sullivan, and runs from March 28 – April 7. Photograph: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland

“Like with Cave and stuff, they can become different things and you can show different aspects of yourself.

“So I didn’t really realize until I was kind of left college, and I was still doing kind of gigs with other people.

“And then every Christmas, my parents would be like, ‘What’s up with you?’

“And I would say, ‘I feel like I want to perform, but I don’t know how to do it’.

“And they’re like, ‘Jesus, put yourself out of your misery and try’.

“I was performing but I hadn’t gone about it myself.

“And it wasn’t until I had that car accident.”

The crash left Camille with a head fracture while her pelvis was fractured in six places, her hips displaced and the tendons in her hand were shredded.

It was months before she could walk again, and she was hospitalised for a year; she still has a metal plate in her pelvis.

But the accident encouraged her to follow her dream of singing and she performed her first show after the accident while still in crutches.

“I think that was probably the reason I ever really had the balls to kind of go for it.

“Sorry, that’s the wrong word to use, but it had to be something really strong that would make me kind of leave work.

“I’ve met a lot of people who I think are great kind of musicians and performers who kind of work day jobs.

“It’s like you put your own obstacles in front of yourself going, ‘Oh, I’ll leave when I’m ready’. Or, ‘My parents spent a lot of  money on my university, so I better stay a bit longer there’. Or, ‘I’m not good enough, I wasn’t trained’.

“Really the accident changed that.

“You don’t have enough time to be putting up these obstacles, you just need to get on and do it.

“I always think I had these two lives, the one before the accident and the one after.

“The one after, I think I was just so happy to be alive.

“I had to learn to walk again and use my hands again, that was a very kind of surreal thing.

“I was like, ‘Jesus, all these years I’ve trained to do one thing and the accident kind of made me go, ‘Look, audiences might not like you, you might not be good enough and you might be criticized, but you just have to do it’.

“Now, unfortunately, your life goes back to normal and all your nervousness comes back to you.

“So you have to kind of pinch yourself sometimes and remind yourself what that moment, the accident, taught you.

“It really shows you what is important in life, the people who you love in your life, just get on with, and then try and enjoy it as best as possible.

“But real life comes back and you worry about little things that are still not important.

“My parents probably had a good notion of what I was about.

“And they could see it. And they were right to tell me but in the end I had to just find out the hard way.

“It was funny because my mum always said, ‘No, we’re your parents and we think you’re great but we’re not sure if it’s because we’re parents’.

“So when she came to shows she said, ‘Other people think you’re good too’.”

Camille also remains shy in the face of her heroes. She would like to ask Nick Cave to write her a song but shyness prevents her from making the approach.

“It would be awful to be rejected.

“It’s like you have a shopping list: ‘I must get milk. I must get Nick Cave to write a song’.

“I think it’s terrible because you shouldn’t have regrets but there are things that you could have pushed more for but some people have a feeling of how far they can go.

“I have met him.

“I had to do a gig there recently. There was Bono, Shane MacGowan and him.

“There’s never a good time to ask those things, but I have it marked down in a big notepad.

How was lockdown for Camille?

“As a performer coming off the road, kind of hiding away was actually kind of a good thing for me in a way and the only trouble is now leaving my house. I’m like, ‘I’m not sure I want to go’.

“I actually probably enjoyed being in a hidden place for a while.

“I think everyone was so nervous at the start, you were just glad health wise you were okay.

“And then after a while frustrated that you couldn’t go back to work.”

What can audiences expect from her forthcoming London shows? “It’s going to be a new show because it’s just me and Feargal in that very intimate way. The band always brings something kind of heightened to it.

“After going through the pandemic, the songs I’m looking at at the moment  are relating more to what we’ve been through.

“Not necessarily anything about isolation but certainly, people are a bit more fragile.

“I think everybody has gone through some thing.

“I’m not sure how theatrical this show might be but through the course of the show, there’ll be things that are uplifting and funny.

“Feargal’s always nervous about it just being a piano for the whole gig but I always think there’s something very honest or truthful about things like that.

“I remember seeing a gig with Elvis Costello in the Royal Festival Hall. It was just him and his guitar.

“I suppose it’s like singing in someone’s living room.

“And that’s what I want it to feel like in a way. That it’s that intimate.”

Camille plays Wilton’s Music Hall in London until 21 November.

For more information, click here.

The live CD Camille sings Cave, recorded in London in 2019, is available from the website.

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