Film: BFI London Film Festival Guide


Where Are We Now? An interview with Camille O’Sullivan

Irish-French singer and actress Camille O’Sullivan has a formidable performance repertoire, from cabaret to movies to the RSC. We caught up with her ahead of her new tour.

Culture Calling: You’ve had a busy year so far – what have you been up to?
Camille O’Sullivan: Well the start of the year was a bit mad – but amazing – I was asked by Shane McGowan to sing at his 60th birthday. He also had Nick Cave and Johnny Depp, Bono, Sinead O’Connor, Bobby Gillespie, Cerys Matthews… so I was amazed to be asked. It was incredible and it’s stayed with me because it was once in a lifetime. After that I was preparing to do the Royal Shakespeare Company’s [The Rape of] Lucrece again in Dublin at the Gate Theatre; then Wilton’s Music Hall; my Nick Cave show; then touring…. The year has been mental, doing completely different things one after another.
CC: You didn’t do Edinburgh Festival this year – are you done with it?
CO: Oh no – we did Where Are We Now at the Festival last year – that’s the thing, the tour always comes later, after it’s been tried and tested. The Festival is a good place to push myself to create a new show – but it’s very unforgiving! It’s not like a normal festival, you can’t sit on your laurels. So I enjoyed taking a year off, but it’s a festival where you feel you have to do it again. I could be ready now with the Nick Cave show.
CC: What’s Where Are We Now like?
CO: Well first of all, the venues are beautiful – as an architect I can’t believe I’m on these stages, I’m just going “oh my god it’s so beautiful!” I want to bring people something different; it’s a little bit darker, posing the question using Bowie’s song: Where Are We Now? And it’s a mixture of several different things. It’s a love letter to Bowie, who I was a huge fan of and thought I’d marry when I was about 15 – I heard his music through my sister’s wall and was hooked. It moved me. It’s a good indication if a song gets you every time, you should go and sing it. So it’s to Bowie and to [Leonard] Cohen too, who’s an incredible artist and poet and had a sensitive and thoughtful take on the world. I don’t think we’ll see their like again. Maybe Nick Cave is the closest in that regard. The show’s also darker than what I’ve done before but I don’t mind darkness – melancholy adds its own thoughtfulness. The show is a question, the songs are questions in their way, and like any good theatre it lets you go away and think. Even in the darkness there’s a celebration, and humour, of course – Irish and English people have a lot of dark humour.
CC: Why revisit these songs?
CO: I’d liken it to why we go see Shakespeare. It’s about what you come with, and that language, and how you make it true. Everything is about truth. Even if it’s a joke, it’s about truth. Why do we go and see a play, or listen to Bowie a hundred times? Because you think and you think. Singing is like acting or a monologue to me. Music is the best way to make people feel emotional with words. You could speak Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, they’re beautiful, but when you bring music to it, people’s hearts are suddenly open.
CC: How do you go about singing a song by one of your heroes?
CO: I wouldn’t try to be like them, that’s the first thing. With Ship Song for example I tried to sing it like [Nick Cave] and that didn’t suit and then after lots of trying, one day I decided to sing it like a hymn, very minimal with all the rhythm taken out, and now that’s how I approach all his songs. That’s how we unlocked Shakespeare’s lyrics for The Rape of Lucrece, which are 400 years old. I always say to people starting out: don’t copy anybody. There’s got to be a good reason why you’re going up there – people want fame but that’s not enough. It drives you mad, but we [the band] are obsessed by music. There’s an absolute respect too – I love Bowie and Cohen too much; I cannot bastardise their stuff. I will chastise myself if the song isn’t given justice. I cannot be bigger than the song. It’s almost like I’m singing Where Are We Now to Bowie. I know the audience miss him too, so I’m very conscious of that. I’m saying distil, distil, distil until you can really hear what I’m saying. It’s like I’m one to one in conversation. Sometimes I get scared onstage and close my eyes! I don’t necessarily love performing in front of people but I understand the power of it, it’s something you can’t have in a small room, but when you’re on a stage it is a magical thing.
CC: How do you prepare for that experience?
CO: Well everybody laughs at me because I’m like, “the tiger is out front” and I’m a scared animal – and they say I have to become a bigger tiger. Sometimes I have a ritual, put make-up on. I think of other people I’ve admired seeing on stage. I think of kind words from a friend. I liken it to a date sometimes – a date with an audience. So if somebody laughs, I’ll laugh or say something back to them. It’s very hard if the first two or three songs you don’t get them... You’re conjuring. Your internal fire is on, you are plugged in and zoned in – it’s a mixture of fear, with belief, with no belief, and also knowing this moment will never happen again – not that that’s what I’m actually thinking, but it’s all going on.
CC: What do you want your audience to take away from your performance?
CO: I suppose I want them to have felt something, to be moved. I don’t want to hurt them or anything, but crying and laughing is part of what I go through myself. I want them to feel, but if they’re shy that’s ok, maybe they’ll open up just a little bit. I don’t want to enforce anything, I never say “this song is about that” because I prefer to think it’s their song and can mean whatever. So I bring it, I hand it over and the rest of the work is yours. I’ve also realised that mistakes are wonderful on stage, because they make the audience understand that you’re infallible and this is happening, in the world of social media and TV – they can’t turn you off!
CC: Any favourite places you’ll be sure not to miss on your tour?
CO: Well, Leeds City Varieties itself – go see it – Charlie Chaplin performed there, and Houdini… it’s unbelievable. If you want to step back 150 years and understand English theatres and variety, it’s the most beautiful place. In Brighton, the Mock Turtle for tea, and I’d take a walk on the pier, the electric train down the beach, see the Lanes. The bar at Norwich Playhouse is crazy, I love it. The markets are fantastic, and of course the castle and cathedral are amazing to visit. Cambridge of course is beautiful, there’s a lovely rose garden somewhere. Bath I love for its architecture – I don’t work in architecture anymore but I’m still obsessed. Bath Komedia has great food too, and the band always look forward to it. It’s lovely to realise, talking to you, how much I know these places!

Tour dates and venues:
13th November                 Finchley Arts Depot 
14th November                 Leeds City Varieties
15th & 16th November      Didcot Cornerstone
17th November                 Cambridge Junction
18th & 19th November      Norwich Playhouse
22nd November                Bath Komedia
26th November                 Brighton Theatre Royal
29th November                 London Union Chapel

For more information and to book tickets, visit Camille's website.