A reluctant star: Camille O'Sullivan's dark side and her life with Aidan Gillen
Published 18/04/2016 | 02:30
Camille O'Sullivan sat opposite me on the couch for two hours.
So I had a chance to study her closely. Sitting in a sunlight-filled room in Portobello, this woman from Passage West in Co Cork looks -and sounds - like a very glamorous and beautiful mix of Ophelia, Lady Macbeth and Patti Smith.
"There is no one quite like Camille O'Sullivan in popular music right now," wrote Neil McCormick in the Telegraph in 2012. He had a point. She bristles with neurotic wit. For two hours.
I can't keep up with her.
I suspect no one could.
Her interior monologue tends to linger on self-doubt, and more self-doubt. Those inner voices should, perhaps, be silenced by the facts . . .
This is the same performer who was chosen by Yoko Ono to perform Double Fantasy Live at Meltdown, at the Royal Festival Hall, in London in 2013, alongside the aforesaid Patti Smith. She is a regular on Later . . . with Jools Holland; she won rave reviews for starring in The Rape of Lucrece in 2012 with the Royal Shakespeare Company; she was brilliant as Constance Markievicz in RTE's recent series Rebellion; she sold out the Roundhouse in London in January; she's playing the Sydney Opera House in October; she's just returned from a two-week residency in New York, and will headline Rock Against Homelessness at The Olympia Theatre next Sunday . . .
Yet, none of this appears to quieten her inner demons. Someone who knew Camille from school texted her the other day and said: "It's great that you went for your dream."
Camille was sitting in her kitchen, in her dressing gown in the middle of the afternoon, like Garbo, going on - "Dream? What dream? My nightmare! What have I done, unlocking this Pandora's box?"
"I think artists never feel like they arrive," laughs the cult chanteuse (as Time Out magazine dubbed her).
When friends tell her she is amazing, Camille cackles with laughter and, giving them that look, says, "You are buying the propaganda".
Every time she is on The Late Late Show, the girls in the make-up department, she says, describe her as a reluctant star.
"They say I get so nervous that it seems like I am about to jump off the balcony. In one way that's good, because it keeps me grounded, but in another way it drives me nuts," she says.
"I always wanted to perform, but I am not someone who rushes to the stage. I am, like, trying to find the exit sign. My mum and dad also say, 'What makes you so special on stage is your vulnerability and the fact that you are slightly anxious'.It is like a flame that is lit. It means that you are very present, but it is also a pain, because you are always kind of having this internal dialogue."
What is the dialogue?
"'Oh God! Is it going to be OK?'"
"Performing is the weirdest thing anyway," she continues.
"I think it is weird performing in front of people. I love to sing. When I am at home, I love to sing in the bathroom and in the living room, but suddenly, when there is an audience there, I'm like, 'Get me out of there'. I am hard on myself. I have always tried to talk myself out of doing venues. I want to run away."
Did you run away from things when you were a child?
"I used to run away from answering the door. I didn't answer the phone. I used to hide behind the curtains. I was always quite internal."
You can see why she sings the dark, broody songs of Jacques Brel and Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nick Cave. "You can become this character and you can really go for the emotion," she says.
"It suited me as a kind of schizophrenic Irish-French person who had black humour and melancholia, and who is Protestant. It is destructive and wonderful. I felt I could really be myself for the first time," Camille says, referring to 1999, when she first began to interpret the songs of Brel et al.
I ask Camille what would she write about if she started to write and sing her own words - as opposed to singing other people's words.
"All the mad heartache and blackness I have been singing about," she laughs.
"I have a great humour, but I love the darkness. I get drawn to it."
Why is that?
"It's like when you go to Shakespeare, you know it is not a good ending, but the lessons you learn and what it provokes in you is a cathartic kind of understanding of yourself as a person," she says.
"I wish I didn't have this flux in me that has great happiness and great sadness. Maybe that's why I am drawn to being a singer, because I feel I need to express myself.
"Because if I wasn't expressing myself," she laughs, "there would be a lot of trouble for every person I was in a relationship with."
Have you ever been with a guy who went to bed with raven-haired temptress of song Camille O'Sullivan and woke up with you?
She positively blushes at the question. "I would have been very careful never to have dated somebody who thought I was that other person.
"It would be a head-fuck for me - and for him!" she laughs.
Camille and her ex, Mike Scott of The Waterboys, co-parent their two-year-old daughter. "Mike is a great father, an incredible dad," she says.
Camille lives in Portobello with the child. She has just made a big, cardboard gingerbread-style house for her. It took her three days to make it - and she was thinking about it for a year before she made it. It has a light and a chimney. Her daughter thinks Santa is coming down it at Christmas.
Camille seems as in thrall as her young daughter to the gingerbread house and the magic of childhood itself.
"I am a big kid," she says. "I am fascinated by things like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and gingerbread houses and fairy tales and Little Red Riding Hood. I have already made her a Little Red Riding Hood cape. I've made her two Dorothy outfits from The Wizard Of Oz. I love making her stuff."
Camille's mother was an accomplished maker of stuff, too. "She used to make us the most incredible toys," Camille says. She has an older sister, Victoria. "I have carried on that tradition."
Camille's grandmother was a great seamstress. "I wasn't brilliant at that, but while pregnant, I learned how to sew. I also did a course in corset-making, which everybody laughed at, because I couldn't test it out on myself."
Camille also put up a little circus tent in the house for her daughter. "I like things to be magical," she says. "The magical innocence that she has and how she look at things - there is nothing finer than when she is smiling at you. And all that love between you is really special. I sometimes have to slow myself down and go, 'What am I doing? I would love to play Lego for the rest of my life!'
"I am doing what I want to do, performing, but sometimes I am lost in that. But I don't think I am any different to anyone else.
"We're all there going, 'Jesus, what is gong on?'
"And then you have a child!" she laughs.
"But whether I had a child or not, life would have been brilliant anyway. But there is something so special about when I am playing with her, or when she is looking at a tree.
"And also, the other day I asked her what happened yesterday. She doesn't know what that means. I go, 'That's my problem. I am thinking too much in the past.' And here she is just, like, 'There's Peppa Pig. That's all I want to play with'.
"It's her life and I am a lucky participant, who happens to be the minder. Now, [that is] as a mum of parents who are not together, but we have really worked it out really well that she is absolutely loved," she says of the strong relationship she has with the child's father, doting daddy Mike Scott. (I met Mike pushing the baby in a buggy on Grafton Street the Christmas before last; I'd never seen him look so happy.)
"I'm finding I am not the best at cooking, but I have learned recipes I never thought I would knew how to do before," she says, adding that, "I lost my mojo for about a year because I didn't know how to dress myself properly. I can just about get myself ready for gigs."
Of indeterminate age, Camille O'Sullivan is complicatedly unconventional, and full of eccentricities. She doesn't have a TV; she very rarely sends text messages on her mobile phone, or emails. This is perhaps because she was up half the night working - and listening to Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and David Bowie.
Camille's unorthodoxy comes from growing up in an "isolated" house in Co Cork, where the aforesaid Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Bowie, as well as Ian Dury, The Rolling Stones, and the old German Weimar-era music of Kurt Weill were played as a matter of course, any time, day or night.
It was also a house where Camille and her sister Victoria would stage Swan Lake in the front room for their parents: Denis, an Irish racing-driver who grew up in England, and Marie-Rose, a French artist from Bordeaux. The pair met in Monaco, lived in England, and moved to Cork when Camille was two.
"My parents were exhausted," Camille says. "There were two of us, but it must have felt like there was 12 of us." (The following week, I share a bottle of French wine and cakes with Camille and her parents in Cork. Rather than appearing exhausted, Denis and Marie-Rose seem delighted and proud as punch of their daughter and all she has achieved. "She is a brilliant artist and daughter," Marie-Rose says.)
Before Camille started to take the plunge into the unknown as a singer, she worked successfully as an architect in Dublin. She would come home to her parents in Cork every Christmas, "very unhappy" that she wasn't following her dream.
"I was frustrated that I couldn't express myself. My parents were like - 'That child is too sensitive. It is going to kill her.'"
If you had stayed at the architecture, do you think you would have lived the life of a middle-class Protestant woman, married and living in Dalkey?
"I've never thought of marriage," she answers.
"I appreciate it and I think it is very important and special. I wonder is that a missed opportunity? I have a gypsy spirit. I find performing a blessing and a curse. I suppose what I get out of it is that you have to leave that channel of being slightly vulnerable open."
And stuff comes into that open channel?
"Oh yeah. I look at the pattern of people like Judy Garland. Most of them lost their minds. And I go, 'I've joined the sisterhood!' You need to take care of yourself. I wouldn't be mad or take drugs - I'm not into that - but I am certainly a free spirit."
Isn't that why so-called normal people live vicariously through the nomadic, gypsy lives of bohemian artists and singers? Because they take them to places that they can't go themselves?
"Sometimes when I feel I'm not following my emotions or I can't see straight, I do go to music for salvation. I do go to theatre or films to wake me up. I don't think artists' lives are perfect or in tune. I think that's where they find the inspiration. It's a bit like Nick Cave said: 'The Boatman's Call came out of real strife'.When his life is going well, he has to create anarchy. I think art is about that, when something is slightly unsettled."
Things seems to be sailing along quite nicely for you in life right now, I say to her. (As well as her beautiful daughter, she has a great relationship with her boyfriend, actor Aidan Gillen. I've been in their company a few times and they are a pretty cool - if guarded - couple. I bumped into them last summer in Portobello. They were riding bicycles and giggling. I felt I had stumbled into a scene from an art-house French movie from the 1960s.)
"Yeah, but I think an artist, or any person in their life, never mind an artist, you always feel there's a mountain to climb, and when you get there, there's the next mountain and the next mountain. For myself, fear is a great . . ." She pauses.
"I never feel settled in what I do."
Does that mean it can feel awkward to be in a relationship with you?
"I'd say it is a pain in the ass. People who have gone out with me probably usually find that. My mother says, 'You're not the easiest'.
"But people say I am great fun, too," she smiles. "I would say I am 30pc hard work and the rest is good fun. I would say if you are an artist, being with an another artist, then it makes sense that you give them downtime.
"I suppose the thing is you don't live in each other's pockets, because half the time I am away for two months, or sometimes they are away for three months. So you understand when somebody can't be there."
Isn't it a problem when sometimes you need somebody and they are not there?
"It means that you revisit each other. Of course, having a child slows everything down, and that makes sure you are in one place at one time.
"I think what's exciting about being with any partner, whether they are a performer or not, is the notion that they make you feel like you want to go on an adventure with them, and to try new things in your life.
"So if you choose an interesting character, that means it's probably going to sometimes be difficult because they are not there, but it is going to be exciting, because they are going off doing stuff that impresses you and makes you excited by the life they lead, and hopefully you will be part of that.
"You are supportive of each other. So I think sometimes, in the past, when I wasn't involved with someone, I would find it really hard coming down from gigs. I always heard the story that Bono has to go and check into a hotel for a week. I'm not Bono, but I need to have my downtime too. But things are brilliant for me in my life right now."
I eventually steer the conversation to Aidan Gillen - and, as I do so, the blood slowly drains from her face. She would rather stick pins in her eyes, or mine, than talk about him.
So would you and Aidan be debating until dawn most evenings: Samuel Beckett versus Simone de Beauvoir?
"No! No! No!" she laughs.
"We have too much fun to be doing that! Sorry! We are trying to live our life, not talk about the thing. I would probably drive him more crazy - I won't talk too much about him! - but he is a wonderful thinker, and very funny, too, with a serious side.
"He is very good at giving me practical advice. He is very good at giving me the practical side to how to approach things," Camille says, "and where my head is all emotional, and half-French and sometimes wanting to burst into tears, he can show me the light. And, of course, musically, we play each other music we love and discuss it. He loves August Wells and Sun Kil Moon."
What is the emotional overlap between you? You are intense and sensitive - "and he's intense and sensitive too!" Camille laughs.
"We're like two kids just having fun. I suppose you say living the dream. What is kind of lovely is that I didn't know much of his stuff, because I didn't have a telly in the house. I think the thing is, it can be a curse and a blessing when people are in the same business, but I think I am really appreciative of what he does, and it inspires me in what I do. So I think I get a lot of support in that way. So no talks of existentialism!"
So you're not singing Jacques Brel while he is improving Beckett in the kitchen after tea?
"No! But he comes to the shows. It's funny, because we criss-crossed paths. I had been in Dublin Youth Theatre, and he had too. When he had done Glengarry Glen Ross with Jonathan Pryce in the West End, we discovered that he had the dressing room that I had been in when I did the West End run of my show, The Dark Angel.
"So things have crossed little paths. So I think, 'Don't talk too much about work or it will drive you mad', but I think that is the same for anybody."
I'm curious. How does a relationship with an artist work? Most people at the start of a relationship are putting on an act because they're frightened to be themselves. But if it is two actors putting on an act, how does that pan out?
"You spend all your time shadow-boxing, going, 'Is that them? Is that really them? Or is that me?'
"I think I have always gone: 'Do not go out with a musician. Do not go out with an actor.' But I have been lucky. You have to choose the right ones," she says referring to Aidan, Mike Scott and another ex, Mario Rosenstock. "And any person, never mind an actor, can be a chancer. So I think what is interesting is, as time goes on, you see the way I am now, without my hair done and my make-up, that's the way I am.
"A lot of people are surprised when they do meet me that I don't dress up that much."
Camille does admit, however, to "dressing up" to do the hoovering around the house since her idol David Bowie died in January. She suddenly decided that she was going dress up to the nines whenever the whim took her.
The reason Camille is doing this interview isn't a whim. She is here to promote the Rock Against Homelessness charity concert in aid of homeless charities, which takes place at the Olympia Theatre next Sunday, April 24. It stars HamsandwicH, The Strypes, Mundy, Something Happens, Le Galaxie, The Stunning and many others, and MC on the night is Laura Whitmore.
(There is also a charity CD, Rising Against Homelessness, to which Camille, The Chieftans and Sinead O'Connor, The Waterboys, Dolores O'Riordan and many others have all contributed tracks. Camille sang The Town I Loved So Well.)
The plight of the homeless in this country is something that Camille feels deeply and passionately about.
"I think what is happening in Ireland is terrifying. It looks like Dublin has got out of control. My God, you see young kids with their mothers, sleeping rough. I worry for them. Are they safe? I have never seen it so bad. There has to be a way to sort this out. There must be a country that has worked it out better than Ireland.
"You see empty buildings in Ireland. I may be naive about it, but the empty buildings are there. Can they not be a place of refuge for the homeless?
"It is terrible that nothing seems to be done for these people," says Camille, who gave unstintingly of her time for the Rock Against Homelessness project, organised by Independent News & Media.
"I am walking all the time in and out of town," she adds, "and it is devastating to see so many spots that are filled up with people in their sleeping bags. I do give money. I am almost making a decision of who looks more worthy. That is an awful thing to say.
"They need the money, and also food. A very good thing that they are doing at the moment in Canada is," she continues, "if you have women's stuff, you put it in a little bag and you give it to the women for their time of the month.
"Someone said to me," Camille says, "what the homeless need is: to remember that they are human and they are a person. So that you talk to them on a level that they remember that they are a person. That's what gets me sometimes. I'm nervous of how do I start that conversation.
"I think maybe people have become hardened to homelessness, because there is so much homelessness on our doorstep. I think it is important to keep the awareness up because these people desperately need all our help."
'Rock Against Homelessness' is on at the Olympia Theatre, D2, on Sunday, April 24 - with Camille O'Sullivan, The Strypes, Mundy, Le Galaxie, Something Happens, Heathers, The Stunning, HamsandwicH, Roisin O, Kila, and many more. MC Laura Whitmore. Tickets, €25, from ticketmaster.ie and on the door on the night.
The proceeds raised will go to Focus Ireland's youth projects as part of the One For Ireland campaign
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Claire O'Farrell
Hair by Michael Doyle for Peter Mark, Stephen's Green, D2, tel: (01) 478-0362
Make-up by Paula Callan for Callan&Co, see callanandco.ie
Assisted by Michelle Field
Photographed at Seafood Bar and Funky Fish Cocktail Club by Wrights of Howth, 35 Dawson St, D2, tel: (01) 531-2260, or see theseafoodbar.ie
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