Sunday 28 December 2014

From cabaret to career girl

Singer Camille O'Sullivan has ditched the corsets and fishnets to become an international powerhouse, touring with La Cirque, writing and staring in a show based on a Shakespeare play, and releasing her new album 'Changeling', says Ciara Dwyer

'You have to be your own dreamer," says singer Camille O'Sullivan. As she says this, there is a look of determination in her dark eyes. This is no idle chit-chat about the importance of a rich fantasy life, rather this is serious talk about dreaming big and then making those dreams a reality. That is exactly what she has done through hard graft and utter relentlessness. Many years ago, as we cycled home together after one of her Bewley's shows, I remember her pointing out a local shop which sold cheap toilet paper. (She was my neighbour and soon became a friend.) Now, her talk is about investing in her career and how you have to take risks to get to another level.

These days, she plays in Ireland only about twice a year and the rest of the time she is busy setting the musical world on fire in places like Australia and Germany. This year, for a full month she played to houses of 800 people a night during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as performing in the Edinburgh International Festival. Her star is shining brightly. You can see her in action tonight in the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, where she will be performing songs from her new album Changeling.

"There is no book on how to be a professional singer," she says, "but I'm a big believer in learning from people who make things happen, be they artists or entrepreneurs like Richard Branson. Now I find myself reading business books about achieving goals. Decision-making and strategy is so important in this business."

These sober words don't quite match Camille's well-known image. Once upon a time, this smiling, red-lipped woman was all fishnets and feather boas but now, although the smile is still there, she has grown up a little. Her French mother Marie Jose told her to ditch the corsets and fishnets as they were giving out the wrong signals – people began to think that she was a burlesque performer instead of the serious singer, and now song-writer, that she has become. She and her ex-boyfriend and musical director Feargal Murray (with whom she lives) were commissioned by the RSC to write and perform a show based on Shakespeare's epic poem The Rape of Lucrece. It was a big success in Stratford-upon-Avon and beyond. This has been one of the many milestones in her varied international singing career.

But still, some people couldn't get beyond her satin corset with her voluptuous figure oozing out. The image was her own creation, but she knew that she needed to change.

"I love to dress up, and it was fun," she says. "I'm not slow to realise the power of a good image. That's how I ended up on the cover of Time Out. But you have to be careful. I was in danger of turning into a Jessica Rabbit caricature and that is the cheapest route."

"There will be a moment in my life when I'm not going to be young any more and you have to be more than your appearance. Yes, I can look great but I can look pretty ugly too and I don't give a damn. There's a lot of power and freedom in that."

Over time she has realised that less is more and simplicity is best of all. She talks of sharing a concert with the French singer Jane Birkin. "I stood in the wings and watched her walk out on stage in jeans and a fitted jumper. She stood there with one hand in her pocket and sang. She had the audience in the palm of her hand. I was there with my hair done, and full make-up, all trussed up. Suddenly I realised, that's what I want to be like. I don't need all the sex-kitten stuff. All you have to do is sing."

On the day I meet Camille in her home off the South Circular Road, she is happy to be back in Dublin. This is a break from touring before the madness starts all over again.

"When you come off the road from touring you realise that you don't have much of a personal life. I miss my friends. The girls look up my website and see that I am on the other side of the world. It's hard."

Being home for a short break gives her time to do simple things like varnish a work-top, escape for a few days with her architect pals and cuddle her cat Bertie. It is a bit of a gypsy lifestyle, but she has signed up for this global working life, so she's certainly not going to complain. She slogged long enough to achieve it. There came a time when she knew that Ireland wasn't big enough to sustain her career and so, she ventured forth.

In a demure Coco Chanel-style dress, Camille looks and means business. She has become a powerhouse with an international career. Her speech is peppered with references to "different territories", and how when you go there first, you almost work for nothing establishing yourself, before you return the next time to a bigger venue. This could be Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, the Netherlands, London or New York.

"You have to move your career up a gear every few months," she says.

Just as she was licking her wounds, she was spotted. She was asked to join the Famous Spiegeltent's show La Clique which resulted in her touring the world and from that the film director Stephen Frears cast her in his film Mrs Henderson Presents. She starred alongside Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins.

"That's when the light bulb went," she says.

"Edinburgh isn't about money. It's the biggest showcase in the world and I realised that you had to spend a lot of money to lose it to eventually get it back. Money isn't important for me but it's important to make it so I survive to get to the next gig. I always have to have money there to pay the band and cover those expenses."

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