Camille O'Sullivan: 'Even if the life of a performer isn't stable, it's made me aware that I don't actually need much money'
Camille O'Sullivan tells Joanna Kiernan about stage fright, motherhood and staying power
Singer, performance artist and actor Camille O'Sullivan is just back from a three-month tour in Australia. It was her 14th such trip since 2004, despite the fact that she has a desperate fear of flying.
"Essentially, it's like the birds that follow the sun; singers follow the gigs," she muses as we settle in for our chat in the Library Bar of Dublin's Central Hotel. "I have a big fan base there, which is wonderful."
For those who are unfamiliar with Camille's work, her shows are an eclectic mixture of interpretative musical performances, taking in the likes of Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen amongst many more. In fact, even if you think you know what Camille does, unless you have seen her live, one could never fully grasp the full extent of her very special, magnetic, and moving shows.
I first saw Camille perform in the Olympia Theatre about four years ago, with very little knowledge of what to expect, other than the handful of times I had seen her perform for a few moments on the Late Late Show, and it was an experience that quickly converted me into an avid fan.
Despite Camille's fierce stage presence, however, she is incredibly down to earth.
"I'm always scared that it is not going right or that it is not going well, and a bit of that uncertainty and fear is what gets you up in the morning to make it happen," Camille smiles.
"Sometimes, then, I'm surprised - like, you are standing in the Sydney Opera House thinking to yourself, 'maybe I am good at this'. That sense of doubt can be both a blessing and a curse."
Born in London to a French mother and Irish father, Camille moved to Ireland when she was a child. She studied fine art for a year but then moved to UCD where she later graduated as an architect. However, her heart was never in it.
In 1999, Camille was involved in a near-fatal car accident, which left her unable to walk or hold a pen for months afterwards. Camille's right hand went through the windscreen in the impact, her hip was broken and she suffered six other fractures.
This horrific event and her subsequent long and arduous recovery period was a turning point for the star. Once she was back to full health, Camille set out to pursue her dream of becoming a performer, which she had harboured since childhood.
"When I was an architect and then switched, I didn't know how the hell to get gigs or be a singer," Camille explains. "At the time - I left at the height of the Celtic Tiger - everyone thought I was crazy and now they're all going, 'I can play the banjo, I'll come with you!'" Camille laughs.
"So even if this life isn't stable, it has actually made me aware that I don't need much money. It's amazing how you can just take a left turn and put your mind to something and do it."
"Mum and dad were always music lovers and when we came to Ireland, we moved into this big old house in Passage West and the living room was just full of music," Camille explains. "It was something that was on constantly. My sister and I loved playing these cartridge eights and records, and I just remember thinking 'this really moves me'."
After a secondary school - where Camille met her first boyfriend Mario Rosenstock - filled with drama and performance, Camille continued to perform with the Dublin Youth Theatre, throughout her college days.
"I really did try to keep my paw in it, but I thought it was never going to be me because I wasn't confident enough, and my mother kept telling me 'you are too sensitive and you shouldn't do art either because that will end badly!'" Camille adopts a finely tuned French accent.
"Around that time though, there was this great woman called Agnes Bernelle and I don't know if I ever would have been a stage performer if I hadn't seen her," Camille tells me. "She was in her 70s and she was just this jewel. Unbeknown to a lot of Irish people, we had the incredible performer in our country singing before a riotous crowd throwing beer cans around the place.
"She was very still and would just become something else. I think as a younger girl, I was just enthralled by the fact that she was so beautiful, but it wasn't a typical beauty. She had this wonderful presence."
Agnes encouraged Camille to follow her heart. "I think a lot of people do it and I still do it; we put obstacles in our own way," Camille tells me. "I thought 'well I've trained as an architect and my dad and mum have spent money on this and a lot of people have invested and you should really be 16 starting anything'. Every flipping excuse, and Agnes just said 'Oh darling, you just need to do it!'
"I think there are certain times in your life that there is this light bulb that goes on and I will never forget her saying that."
Camille describes the experience of being on stage as 'cathartic,' yet almost two decades into her career, she is still plagued by stage-fright.
"After, I am like 'that was brilliant!' It's before going on stage that is the hard thing," she smiles. "I find it quite weird being in front of an audience. The audience to me is like some wild lion or tiger and you have to be a bigger one than them."
"I think it's a childlike thing," she says softly. "You want to be something else on stage. Your own personal life doesn't exactly function the way you might like, you are shy with people and you can't say the things you want, you can't be as strong or as sexy; but, somehow, the stage allows this amazing platform for that. The stage makes you go 'actually, I can do all of that multiplied by a hundred'."
"I suffer from bad nerves though," Camille adds. "Backstage, I am like a horse in the stalls at the Grand National. The connection with the audience is a major thing.
"I wish I was a singer who just sat there and sang lovely songs, but the songs that I have chosen like Tom Waits God's Away on Business, where you are rolling on the floor or then doing the beautiful Ship song by Nick Cave. It's about fluctuating very quickly between things and there is an embarrassment to it, but there is also a huge importance in the fact that you are not letting the audience sit there passively. They are feeling something."
Camille admits that some of her best performances have come at some of the worst times in her life.
"Usually when you are going through heartbreak, that's when you really nail it because the world is falling apart. Sometimes, when you are in the worst states, that is when the best things happen," she flashes me a grin. "So you are working through things in your life through the songs."
Camille became a mother in 2013. "It makes you see these in a new way and it is wonderful," she says of the experience. "The funny thing is that loads of people didn't even know I was pregnant or had had a baby.
"My neighbours didn't even know I was pregnant until I had her because I wear so many cloaks, so they were like 'and who's baby is this?'" she laughs.
Camille soon found that mixing motherhood and touring could be a difficult slog. "I worked far more than I should ever have after she was born, but I was scared," she admits.
"Three weeks after she was born, I had this mad and amazing request from Yoko Ono to do the Double Fantasy Live at the Royal Festival in London and everybody was going 'you can't do that!' and I was going 'I know I shouldn't, but Jesus it's Yoko Ono!'
"You don't say no to her! I was completely out of it," she giggles.
"I took a few months off then before going on the road with the Royal Shakespeare Company," Camille adds. "And I learned that the one thing everyone warns you about after having a bab - that you lose your memory - is true, by losing it during a 90-minute Shakespeare show."
These days, time is precious and at a premium.
"I can see how special the moments are now," Camille beams. "So now I slot things down and think about things in terms of what really matters and what doesn't. So that is one good aspect of it all."
Camille is intensely protective of her private life and loved ones. She has a strict policy of not naming her two-year-old daughter publicly or allowing her to feature on any social media.
"Of course I adore her, but I made this choice when she was born. I think being a performer everything else is for the taking, and you never realise until you're in that position," she smiles.
"That is my view on it and it is her father's too, and I think it's a good thing because it means that she will have her own little life. I want to protect her."
Camille is not a big fan of social media and rarely reads any correspondence she receives on Twitter or Facebook for fear it will contain negativity.
"I want to start 'Nice-book' or something where people say nice supportive things to one another," she laughs. "After I had my car accident that's what I wanted too. I just thought I am going to tell everyone who was nasty to me that I have had enough of it and I did. And from then on, I just wanted to hang out with nice people."
"And I also think that people put up this 'Hollywood reel' of their lives and say their life is great and you think then 'Jesus my life is shit!' and then you put up something like 'I've had a wonderful time touring in Australia look at this tree' to counter it," Camille bursts into a giggle.
"It's a bit like Photoshopping your life."