Camille O'Sullivan on music, motherhood, love, her previous life as an architect and a near-fatal accident
Ireland’s favourite chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan opens up to Barry Egan about loving her partner Aidan Gillen; her five-year-old daughter Lila giving food to the homeless on the streets of Dublin; and her previous life as an architect
'Fuck. Exit! Christ.
Jesus. Fucking exit!"
Long of leg, short of temper, Camille O'Sullivan is trying, without success, to get the app for the bus on her mobile phone. We've been talking for four hours in a cafe on Dawson Street (earlier, there was lunch in House on Leeson Street). She's going to Los Angeles the following morning with her boyfriend, movie star Aidan Gillen. He is at home cooking the dinner for Camille's five-year-old daughter, Lila. Camille rings to say she is on her way.
Once she finds out where and when the bus goes from.
Why not just get a cab? "I don't like taxis. My parents never got taxis, either."
Apropos of nothing, rock star Mike Scott, Camille's ex, and Lila's father (they passionately co-parent her in Dublin) rings from a holiday in Japan with his wife, Megumi Igarashi, and their two-year-old son.
It is 3am in Tokyo.
In Camille O'Sullivan's head, it always seems like it is 3am somewhere. She is on the go permanently; in a state of creative chaos, jumping on and off planes to play concerts all over the world. She is not long back from sold-out shows in Sydney.
After her week in la-la land with Aidan - she is bringing Lila, too - Camille is off to New Zealand for shows, and then back to Australia for shows in Adelaide, followed by five shows in London. Camille never does anything by halves. She is probably frightened to.
Camille personifies that line uttered by Greta Garbo when she played a Parisian courtesan in the 1936 movie, Camille: "I'm afraid of nothing except being bored."
Despite the manic diary, a few days before our interview, Camille pitched up with Lila at my daughter's fourth birthday party, with a present she made herself. They don't make them like Camille O'Sullivan any more. She says a man in Speedos she met in a cafe in Sydney in January told her that she is an introvert-extrovert.
When Nick Cave met Camille last year in Dublin, he said to her: "I hear you do my songs." It was his way of saying that he approved of what she does. Camille takes it all in her stride. Yet you never really know what she is going to do or come out with next. Before she became the Lady Macbeth of stagecraft, Camille was a supremely talented young architect who worked for a Dublin company in 2000; in the office, she sat next to a fellow called Graham Dwyer (In 2015, after a nine-week trial that gripped the nation, Dwyer was convicted for the murder of childcare worker Elaine O'Hara).
"I can't get into it too much, but I certainly was shocked. It made me question what I thought I knew about someone."
Did you actually sit next to him?
"Oh, yeah, for two years," she says. "And I also dined with him, worked with him, shared the car with him. Just he and I, driving to jobs when you are going out on site. We worked together. But the thing was, I would never have thought…" Camille says, her voice trailing off.
You went for dinner with him?
"Him and his wife-to-be, yeah. It makes you realise when you think you know who somebody is - and then it is a real shock when you realise you have no idea who they are at all."
Do you look back and think in hindsight about anything? I read that he ripped the computers out of the office wall one time.
"Well, that was in the news, but that was also probably heard of in the office. But I never went through anything like that with him myself. It was always very genial. How different a personality he came across to what really existed," she muses.
"I remember being in Derry at the time, coming off stage after having done The Rape of Lucrece, and somebody saying, 'You won't believe this... an architect [has been accused of murder].' I was like, 'What the hell is going on?'
"He was excellent at his job. We were Facebook friends. I knew him, like you do when you work with a colleague. That was a surreal moment in time. It definitely made me look at the world differently, but I think that is the same for everyone.
"If you suddenly hear of someone in your life that has done something so shocking…it's a bit like when I had the car accident," she says referring to her near-fatal accident in 1999. "I never thought that would happen to me. So you never think you're going to hear of someone you know doing that."
Camille graduated as an architect from UCD with first-class honours, and won the Architectural Association of Ireland Award in 2000. "Still," she laughs, "my friends will say: 'you might have come first in your year, but you didn't ever believe once you were good enough.'" She has carried that often theatrical low self-esteem onto the stage.
A narrative interpretative singer, mixing rock and theatre, Bowie and Brel, she has performed alongside Jane Birkin, Marianne Faithfull, Jarvis Cocker and Diamanda Galas, and puts on one-woman shows to international acclaim all over the world. Yet, inside, the worm of self-doubt wriggles more violently than ever.
"I would have dysmorphia as a performer," she says. "I would be anxious about what I am doing in my career. I have a perfectionist nature, and I don't need anyone to be critical of me, as I am doing a very good job myself at being critical. Sometimes I suffer from fear and anxiety as a performer."
That doesn't go away, even when you were personally picked by Yoko Ono to perform Double Fantasy at the Meltdown Festival, at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013?
"Lila was three weeks old when I worked with Yoko," Camille recalls. "Sean Lennon said to me: 'We will go into this cupboard and have a whiskey. If my mom meets me, she'll kill me for having the whiskey. You've got to be my stylist!'"
"My biggest conversations with my dad were always going up in a ski lift somewhere in the French Alps, where you were trapped and you couldn't escape," she adds. "My dad would always say: 'Don't worry about what comes next'. He told me about the time work went belly up for him. He said, 'No matter what happens, family comes first. Enjoy your life, find the money to travel, because you never know what is going to happen'."
What goes on in Camille's head now?
"I always think, 'What I am doing?' Then I am doing it! I am always madly busy. Then I think it would be great to just stop it all for a year or two," she says. "When I became a singer, I stopped being an architect. That was stopping then and doing something else."
In 2016, the deaths of her heroes, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, shook Camille "deeply and completely" and made her question whether she wanted to go on in the music industry. "They were my guiding lights. You wonder suddenly 'What is it all for?' Because you sell your soul on stage sometimes. And it takes a toll. And when Bowie and Cohen died, I thought, 'What is the point? What is it all about?'
"I would love to do some dress designing or some painting one day, and maybe stop performing for a while." Camille taking early retirement from the stage, however unlikely, would have distinct echoes of Greta Garbo, who, at the age of 36, retreated from the world, and movies, to live in New York until her death at the age of 84.
I could imagine Camille living in Paris.
"I already live in Paris in my head," she says.
The half-French girl from Passage West in Co Cork is often light-hearted and bleak in the same bizarre moment, like Taylor Swift and Sylvia Plath slamming tequila shots together on a hen night.
"I am drawn to both sides of life. I am a joker and whatever the other one is - the black ace," she says. "I find it important to express both, and I don't have a clue why; maybe it was listening to Jacques Brel and Tchaikovsky growing up. But I remember doing ballet, and listening to Sleeping Beauty or Chopin, I would hear the sadness. I would be crying, and there are no words to this [music]. It is like Verdi. I don't understand why this moves me. It is not happy, but I feel I have got to listen to it a hundred times. It makes me feel real. With Shakespeare, too, you know it is not going to end well and several people are going to die, but what you learn on the way is going to be pretty riveting, and probably life-changing. So the artists that I'm into, like Dylan and Cohen, I always feel you learn something from them."
Camille uses performance to unlock something inside her, and the audience. "I find absolute joy and absolute sadness in performance on stage. It takes its toll."
Apart from 1999, and the car crash when Camille almost died, what have been the lowest points in her life?
"Losing close friends. Being alone as a mum, at the start. Not the lowest... but..."
Camille says that years ago, because she was from Cork, she would have been quite shy about things. What would have happened, say, if she had met Aidan 10 years ago?
"We would have been together. I think we would have been together even if we were 17. We would have been nightmares, but you know..." she laughs, "But [we are] older nightmares now! I think with certain people, you are just lucky if you cross paths."
You described yourself earlier as an introvert-extrovert. Is he an introvert-introvert?
"I have no clue. I'm still trying to work him out. That's probably why we're still together."
How does that work, living together?
"It's amazing! Amazing! You can say I said that with a smile and a laugh on my face," she laughs. "I mean, he's shy. He's his own man. He does his own thing. He is a wonderful man. He is supportive. And also our lives are of two people not quite in similar professions... but sometimes he has to live away for months, and sometimes I have to live away for months. So you have to understand that. If you were involved with somebody who worked in a different job and wasn't away touring the way it is for Aidan and me, I think it would be more difficult. "
Is it difficult if you are having a bad day or bad moment, like everybody does, and your partner Aidan is away filming in an another country?
"Not really," she answers. "Because I remember growing up with a father who was continually touring…not touring, but working. He was a speed car racer, but he was also a sailor. So he would go [away] for months on end, working."
Is it that Freudian thing of being attracted to a man that reminds you subconsciously of your father?
"Jesus," she splutters. "I haven't been thinking about that. I don't know!" she laughs, before turning serious. "When my little baby was there, I would have been happy with it just being Lila and me. So I was just lucky that I met somebody," she says, meaning meeting Aidan after her romantic relationship with Lila's dad, Mike Scott, ended.
Her mother Marie-Rose, a French artist from Bordeaux, and her dad Denis, the aforementioned Irish racing driver who grew up in England, lived a life-long love affair of a marriage. They first met in Monaco, before relocating to England, and then moved to Ireland when Camille was young.
In an "isolated" house in a small port town in Co Cork, her parents would play Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Kurt Weill, while their daughters would put on Swan Lake or Giselle in the front room. When they were not staging a ballet at home, Camille and her older sister, Victoria, were packing up the car to travel around Europe with their eccentric parents. "We lived the life of travelling a lot, not quite bohemian, but nomadic..."
Like you and Aidan now, almost... you have developed your own bohemian rhapsody together.
She smiles. "We laugh about this, but he didn't leave Ireland until he was 18, to go to England."
Camille recently watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians by accident and found the whole experience profoundly lacking. She actually despaired for the world. "It's not where I want to be. [It's fine to] look well, but don't make it all about that. I don't care about pretty dresses. I make my own. DIY. I don't dress up most of the time, and I don't care to. I leave my curlers in sometimes and go out. The madness of the Hilda Odgen look is the way forward for me," Camille says of the legendary curlers-and-headscarf-wearing Coronation Street harridan, before giving her artistic mission statement: "Patti Smith, a force of nature, is where I want to be in my life; not Kim Kardashian."
Things she and Aidan do together in their spare time include singing. They performed a duet of In Dreams by Roy Orbison at Aidan's 50th party in Dublin. "Aidan is a great singer. But he is shy about it, because it isn't his thing. It was a great performance."
Two years ago, for her 2008 rendition of In These Shoes, the Daily Telegraph listed Camille among the all-time top 25 performances on BBC's Later... with Jools Holland (along with Patti Smith for Because the Night in 2002; Leonard Cohen for The Future in 1993; Radiohead for The Bends in 1995; and Bjork for So Broken in 1998). Imelda May texted Camille to convey the good news.
"That was so sweet of her. My head melted. I will put that [what the Telegraph said] on a billboard outside my house when I am a little old lady. To be up there with those artists."
Camille is headlining the Sunday Independent's Rock Against Homelessness concert in aid of Focus Ireland at the Olympia in Dublin on April 23. She was truly sensational in 2016, the event's first year. Three years on, nothing has changed - Camille is still sensational, and homelessness in Ireland is an national emergency, worse than ever before.
"I really wanted to do this show," she says. "I feel pretty upset at the situation. You see someone sleeping in the street every few metres almost, in Dublin. It is heartbreaking, awful. I am now seeing children, and I am seeing women who are vulnerable. I am seeing people who need someone to talk to them. I'm thinking, 'When did we become so cold?' People are passing these people by like they do not exist. And when I hear of children not having a house, that kind of shocks me."
"The Irish have always been good at supporting these situations and problems, abroad. But I think homelessness is worse than ever now. Doing the concert is one thing, but it is raising the awareness that is important to me. Schools need to be taught it. People forget that we are only two steps away from it ourselves... Somebody who had a mental problem, or lost their job, or fell out with their family, and is lost. It is very vulnerable people."
"I was listening to a recording in the car the other day, a comedian from Ireland, who travelled across America, doing a gig every night and sleeping rough [In January, Francis Cronin walked 500 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles over 40 days.] He says after a week of sleeping rough, you don't know what is going on in your head. Never mind the cold, the noise is constant; people being mean and cruel to you. Your faculties are gone after a few days.
"I think people need to be taught what homeless people are going through. I really believe in supporting them. Lila and I see homeless people, and she always says, 'Mammy, get them a sandwich. Can you bring them home?' I try to explain to her that I can't bring them home. I feel, 'Jesus, why can't I bring them home?'
"We go out and we get them the sandwiches. We get them a cup of tea. We have a little chat. Then I feel I give this person tea and a sandwich, but I can't give this [other] person the same. I feel there should be an answer. These are people who need our help. If we can spend three euro on a coffee three times a day and buy a magazine, then we should at least give something every day to somebody who needs our help. Some people hit really hard times, and we need to help them. We have got to be more humane and kind and go: 'I'm here for you'."
Cut to two weeks later. Camille and Aidan are back from Los Angeles - where the latter was honoured at the 2019 Oscar Wilde Awards in Santa Monica.
They are in Windmill Lane Recording Studios in Ringsend, putting the final touches to their version of Roy Orbison's In Dreams - it will be sold as a special vinyl release at the aforementioned Sunday Independent's Rock Against Homelessness concert. It is 5pm, and the alternative couple of the year have been working on this track since 9am.
When I arrive, an exhausted Camille is half-asleep in a chair; her hat covering her face like a sleeping cowboy in an old western movie. She and Aidan have worked tirelessly to make In Dreams their own. The track was immortalised in David Lynch's 1986 movie, Blue Velvet; unforgettably, it featured a surreal scene involving Dean Stockwell miming to Roy Orbison singing In Dreams, with Dennis Hopper welling up beside him, a man dancing with a snake, and Kyle MacLachlan looking bemused.
Camille jokes that she won't be wearing a creepy nitrous oxide mask - referencing the movie's infamous scene with Hopper and Isabella Rosselini - on the cover of the new release, before going back into the recording area in Windmill to do another take with her boyfriend.
"A candy-colored clown they call the sandman, tiptoes to my room every night," begins Aidan, half-singing, half-speaking, before Camille sings, "Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper, Go to sleep..." In unison, they sing the remainder of the line, "...everything is all right."
Having chosen her preffered final take of the song to be sent off to London to John Reynolds (who will produce it, and has worked with everyone from Damien Dempsey to U2), Camille says goodbye to me - Aidan has already left - and dashes home to say farewell to her daughter, Lila. "I won't see her for almost two weeks," says Camille, explaining that she's flying to the other side of the world in the morning for a tour.
"Being without Lila, it breaks my heart," adds the raven-haired chanteuse.
She will, hopefully, take some consolation in the fact that sitting in the adjoining seat on the flight to New Zealand will be a certain star of Game of Thrones.
Camille O'Sullivan headlines the Sunday Independent's Rock Against Homelessness in aid of Focus Ireland at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin on April 23 with some very special guests. Laura Whitmore is the MC. Cadbury is the proud sponsor of the night in aid of homelessness. Tickets, priced €35, are available from Ticketmaster nationwide
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Chloe Brennan
Sunday Indo Life Magazine