FATED TO BECOME A FEMME FATAL
Camille O'Sullivan was working as an architect until a horrific crash changed the course of her life completely. Now an in-demand performer, she tells Donal Lynch about that fateful accident, motherhood and being invited to play the Meltdown by Patti Smith
Camille O'Sullivan has never twerked. Well, maybe that one time on that night out in Cork, she confesses. But that was years ago "and I probably thought it was some kind of barn dance". With that in mind, and beholding her buttoned-up look on this crisp Autumn afternoon, it feels quite unfair that those with only a glancing familiarity with her act seem to be under the impression that its principal constituents are cleavage, foxiness and gyration. Over the years she's been asked point blank if she's a stripper (definitely not), a tribute act (she grimaces) or a burlesque singer (no, and she hates the word 'burlesque'). There's something about the combination of her moody, sultry vocals, liberal sips of red wine onstage and fishnet tights – her mother tells her not to wear them so much – which evidently makes people think sex. It annoys her a little, "but on the other hand, maybe it is good to be fancied. I'll take what I can get," she laughs. "Although I would be suspicious of anyone who fancied me solely on the basis of what I look like onstage."
There, in the lonely glare of the spotlight, she is as hard to categorise as her name – a strange blend of French worldliness and Irish homeliness. Her performances mix elements of rock and theatre to moving, terrifying and sometimes humorous effect. You might call it cabaret but the material she selects – Nick Cave and Tom Waits are favourites – hardly fits that genre. She likes the phrase "vocal interpreter" but seems a little insecure about that too. "We live in a country of singer-songwriters" she tells me. "Perhaps there is a tradition of that too – Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone and so on – but here (in Ireland) vocally interpreting other people's stuff doesn't seem to count for much."
She is being modest – it has counted for something. Over the years she has gained a loyal following, has won a slew of awards, and has even shilled for a particular brand of cognac. She has performed sell-out seasons everywhere from the Spiegeltent to the Sydney Opera House – although stylistically speaking her most natural home would probably be Weimar Berlin – and has become an in-demand name with her fellow performers; earlier this summer, sixties legend Patti Smith summoned her to London to play at the Meltdown at the Royal Festival Hall. For the past year or so she has been performing Shakespeare's The Rape Of Lucrece, which she co-created with composer and accompanist Feargal Murray and theatre director Elizabeth Freestone. It's a bleak, emotionally raw piece of work and O'Sullivan shuttles between roles – victim and rapist, bereaved husband and father, the implacable narrator. It has won rave reviews in Britain, where she performed it at the Bard's birthplace, Stratford, and at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh. She tells me that Shakespeare's writing, with its own in-built rhythms, was easy to set to music. On stage she attempts to show the audience "the crack in me". At some level she says, "I am feral. I am unravelling onstage. I'm telling the audience 'all is not right here ladies and gentlemen'."
In a way her whole career sprung from a kind of unravelling – from the respectability of a pensionable job to the circus life of performing on the road. She grew up in Passage West, Co Cork during the 1970s. Her father, Denis, was a Formula 2 driver and he met her French mother, Marie-Jose, through racing. As a child Camille loved to perform for family – she attributes her dramatic contralto to her early imitation of male voices – but at the urging of her father went to UCD to study architecture. She enjoyed it but knew she didn't quite fit in and so did those who beheld her at building sites with a flower in her hair.
The turning point came in 1999. On her way from one ex-boyfriend to meet another she was involved in a very serious accident during which she wrapped her little Suzuki around a set of traffic lights. Her pelvis was shattered and she was left with a long and gruesome list of injuries (never mind, she tells me, the surreal prospect of her two exes meeting in the hospital). The moments after the impact have always stayed with her: "My dad had been in many crashes and he told me something I found to be quite true: time slows down. Not because you're in pain especially, although there was that, but because a lot of your life is sort of flashing before you. I had this overwhelming urge to apologise. Photos went through my mind. In my head I just kept saying over and over again, 'I'm so sorry'."
An ex of hers took care of her during the convalescence. "If you ever had to understand a level of friendship going to another level, you would just have had to look at me and him during that time. (Someone who would do that) becomes family more so maybe even than your own family. It was an amazing and quite precious time."
In her drug-induced wooziness she vowed to tell those she loved that she loved them and those who had done her wrong that they should atone ("Everything was very simplistic," she recalls). One of these Pollyanna declarations was that she wanted to be a singer. Her family rolled their eyes again, she says. Time to turn down the morphine.
And yet even when the medication had long worn off the ambition remained. She felt compelled to give up her career – she worked only three more months as an architect – before committing herself to life as a performer. People were soon calling her a femme fatale although she tells me she "felt more like a six year old dressed up in my mother's clothes".
If that was the first joyous new beginning in her adult life, the second has come more recently, she tells me. Four months ago, Camille gave birth to a baby girl, her first child. The pregnancy had been rumoured – certain gimlet-eyed souls noticed that the red wine was gone from the act – but not confirmed.
She's been quiet about her motherhood to protect her and the child's privacy but she beams with pride when I ask about the new arrival.
"Nobody on my street knew I was pregnant," she tells me, " I had a very discreet little bump the whole time and I've done a lot of Pilates since then. I only told three people. So when neighbours saw me walking around with her they were like 'who is that child?' And then when I told them she still didn't have a name yet you could see the 'call social services' look in their eyes. It's quite unlike me to have a child. I'm more a cat person. So sometimes I call her a cat. What a lovely cat in our family!"
The birth, she tells me, felt as though "someone had injected speed into me. Not that I've ever taken that. But just thinking of all the dresses! If it had been a boy he probably would have been in a dress for the first few weeks. And he would have been given dolls. So we were both very lucky she's a girl. I love children anyway. I love my friends' kids. I always wondered if, as a performer, I would be too selfish to have children. A lot of performers decide they can't, but I planned (a child) and I wanted that. She's going to have a wonderful life. She's being bought outfits and I'm now sewing things for her too. She will be well loved."
She won't reveal the name of the little girl – "I just want to keep some things private" (although it is "just as good as Camille" she adds) and the father's identity is between her and him. When I ask if they are in a relationship she tells me, "it's complicated."
Perhaps part of this complication owes itself to the fact that she is living with her accompanist, Feargal Murray, with whom, she insists, she is not in a relationship.
"Feargal lives in my house because he broke up with someone and lives in the back room. And so people say to me 'oh, well, that's very convenient, are you sure you're not together?' But we're not." Marriage, she says, is not important to her. "Because when two people love each other that is marriage, in a way. Marriage is a social thing but you have to work out what suits you."
Just three weeks after her daughter was born she was faced with a stark choice: stay with the new baby or travel to London to fill in for Yoko Ono at the Meltdown. "They were telling me 'c'mon, Camille, she (Patti Smith) only wants four more (performers) and you're one of them'." In the end she couldn't say no and got to meet and hang out with Yoko and Sean Lennon.
One of the themes of Smith's curation of the Meltdown has been the childlike qualities that we take with us into adulthood. You get the impression that for the right gig Camille would do the same again. Her friends call her "the show pony" because they think that a period of inactivity will have her "backing my hooves up against the stall".
She recently did a meditation course, which she hopes will have given her new calmness. But can the "feral" performer and the earth mother coexist in peace? "Life is all about change and this (her child) is a big one and a great one. The innocence and the goodness of a little baby is an incredible thing. I feel so protective of her. The love is enormous. For her I want everything. For myself I want to weather the storm of life and have a laugh while doing it. And I hope that's what I'm doing."
Camille O'Sullivan will perform William Shakespeare's 'The Rape Of Lucrece' at the O'Reilly Theatre, Belvedere College, from October 10 to 12. Tickets from €25. See www.dublintheatrefestival.com
Camille's new album, 'Changling', is out now.