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.
Back in 2000, Camille was putting on her shows in Bewley's Cafe Theatre, singing Brel and songs from the German cabaret tradition. Half singer, half actress, she would inhabit every song. One minute she could be raucous, the next you could hear a pin drop as she'd sing of heartache.
A vamp, an actress and a bit of a comedienne too, there was something unique about her. Soon she had a following. Some nights there were more people on stage than in the audience but she carried on singing. The beginning of Camille's ascent can be pinpointed to her performance in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2004. It was a risk which she felt she had to take but when she found herself singing to 20 people a night in a tiny venue, obscured by a pillar, she was distraught; so much for the notion that it would be worth it.
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."
She tells me that money has never been her motivating force. Her life has always been about following her passion – music.
"When everything was lost to Irish people, the ones for whom money was everything, I felt so sorry for them because they had focused so much on the earnings.
"When you're an artist, you don't want to be screwed over and that's why you think you should get more money because you're vulnerable. There's no stability. Your fear is, 'What if I don't work for the next five years?'
"That's what makes you organise bookings. You have to be six months ahead of yourself. It's not about the money. My big drive is my love of creating and singing," she says.
Camille had always been passionate about singing but for many years her day job was as an architect. A serious car accident in 1999 changed all that.
"Everything became so clear," she says. "I knew that I had to sing." Many people know this story and soon she was labelled as the singing architect.
The week before her car accident, she had broken up with her boyfriend Feargal Murray (they had been together for a few years.) But that did not stop him visiting her in hospital. The bond was too strong.
"I think it was a big shock for Feargal. He cycled from town to Tallaght Hospital every day and he'd sit there and read me books. And then, when I moved out of the care home, I couldn't live with my parents as their place was on the first floor. Feargal moved into the house to mind me and stayed for four years. We got a cat together called Shish."
She says that a lot of people cannot figure out their relationship. I had thought it was very French, living with your ex-boyfriend, but it is more complicated than that. It has been an enriching experience.
"When you have an accident and you have someone who cares for you on a higher level than as a lover or even a friend, there is an unbroken bond. The kindness that comes from that is beyond generous. Feargal fed me and bathed me."
Then in 2004, when Camille travelled with La Clique, they were apart for four years. Both of them were off pursuing their musical careers. In 2008, Feargal came back from touring the US with Celtic Woman. Camille could see that he was exhausted.
"I said, 'There's a back room there, move in, and take care of yourself'. He's been in that back room ever since.
"We got another cat – Bertie. Then we started working together. It's not easy working with the person you live with and have gone out with, but at this stage, we're like brother and sister.
"It's amazing to be on stage with him. He can tell when I'm going to take a breath. If I fall I know he's going to pick me up. When we played the Royal Festival Hall and my musicians were stranded because of the snow, Feargal very calmly, made some calls and found more musicians.
"We've gone through more than the accident; we've gone through a musical journey. He is such a talented musician and he is very modest. I don't think I could be where I am now if it wasn't for Feargal and vice versa.
"We both say thank you so much, even though at other times we want to kill each other. All my friends say, why don't you two settle down but it's not about that. I think if you've been close to a man in your life that you've loved and cared for, you should find a place within yourself to get over the heartbreak and find a place of friendship."
She tells me that they have both had several other relationships since their break up and it can be tricky, but they work it out.
"It's not easy for anyone. I've always tried to look like hell when his girlfriends come to visit. I know they see the glamorous posters for my shows around the house, so I backcomb my hair and look demented with the cat in the backroom."
Camille had a recent relationship with Mike Scott from The Waterboys, but that is no more.
The wound from it still seems raw. Her vibrant face suddenly becomes sad.
"It was intense," she says in measured tones. "Some things are not meant to be ... but the show goes on," she says, then smiles.
Days after I meet Camille, the touring begins again.
She is off to Poland to perform The Rape of Lucrece with Feargal. People might take them for lovers but they are much more than that – devoted friends who share a deep passion for music and life.
Camille O'Sullivan performs in the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, tonight. Tickets from €28. For booking, tel: 0818719330 www.ticketmaster.ie. Her new album 'Changeling' is out now. www.camilleosullivan.com
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