Camille O'Sullivan: interview

Singer Camille O’Sullivan, currently tearing up the alternative nightlife circuit, has a powerful pull – and a penchant for pool. Simone Baird sinks eight balls and highballs with the queen of contemporary cabaret, and hears her New Year’s resolutions

  • Resolution 1 ‘Cut out (or at least down on) the booze’
    Camille O’Sullivan plonks down her suitcase, stares at the peach Bellinis and sighs. ‘Ah, jaysus. I wasn’t going to drink tonight.’ We’re in Bourne & Hollingsworth, a discreet Fitzrovia basement pub decked out like a ’40s living room, to talk cabaret before the Dublin-based O’Sullivan heads to her sister’s west London house. But as Friday-night revellers throw back cocktails, her willpower lasts all of two seconds. ‘Well, maybe just one wee glass…’

    The cult chanteuse has earned a drink. Over the past eight years she has enchanted audiences across the world – including a sell-out Sydney Opera House show – with her hypnotic performances. When variety show ‘La Clique’ took a break from its usual Edinburgh Festival residency at the Spiegeltent in 2007, O’Sullivan stepped in with ‘La Fille Du Cirque’, and promptly sold out a three-week run. Her return the following year had pundits worrying that her success rode on the intimate, picture-perfect Spiegeltent. Happily, not so: her new ‘Dark Angel’ show at former church Queen’s Hall was every bit as addictive.

    She’s rocked up tonight in a floral Topshop playsuit, black fishnets, killer heels and a black trilby (which takes to falling over her eyes later on). It’s hard to imagine O’Sullivan in her past life as an architect (a near-fatal car crash let her overcome her fear of performance) – much easier instead to picture her bohemian childhood: her Irish racing-driver father, who eloped with her glamorous French mother; a youth spent in Cork with the kids encouraged to wear fancy dress on family outings.

    After multiple Bellinis, talk turns to doing the sensible thing and getting some food. TO’s Comedy editor, Tim Arthur, gallantly heads off to Charlotte Street to find a pizza. And returns with chocolate cake. ‘I love food, but I eat awfully,’ says Camille. ‘Living out of a suitcase means it’s difficult to set a routine. You find after a show you want to eat insatiably – I feel like an alley cat searching through bins.’

    Resolution 2 ‘Reinvent cabaret’
    O’Sullivan has always fallen between genres. She’s a singer, but she’s not a singer-songwriter. She performs with a band, but it’s more a theatrical show than a straight-up gig. ‘It has always been difficult to define what it is I do, and people do like to categorise!’ she says, between mouthfuls of cake. ‘Primarily it is about storytelling. My preference is for bitter truth and black humour, and I love to become the different characters who exist in the songs. I like to feel that I’m constantly transforming myself into a character, inhabiting the song.

    ‘Cabaret has naff connotations – people think it’s all bowler hats, fishnets, corsets and sexy singing, just a form of sexual light entertainment. It is much more serious then that. The cabaret artists I like take risks; they don’t want just to please the audience with pretty songs from the past. Wedding bands can do that job.’

    She ‘draws a link between storytellers’, connecting the dots between cabaret’s Weimar heyday and later songsmiths such as Jacques Brel, Tom Waits and Nick Cave; her commitment to each character is absolute. She’s no mere gorgeous sexpot cabaret singer: in some songs, her face becomes so contorted, so rearranged, she’s almost ugly.

    ‘My love of cabaret comes from old German Weimar 1920s music of Hanns Eisler, Friedrich Hollaender, Kurt Weill. Their songs were confrontational and unforgiving. French and German cabaret originated as a way to discuss and sing about news events of that week in small salons and theatres – holding a mirror up to society. Essentially, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan are the contemporary versions of Weill and Eisler – provocative storytellers creating characters describing the dark and light of life around them.’

    Just as O’Sullivan starts discussing which David Bowie song she should next cover, a Bowie greatest hits album kicks out of the bar’s stereo. Suddenly, she’s slapping the table in time and singing along to ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide’. The secretaries at the next table look on in wonder.

    Resolution 3 ‘Log off’
    ‘Jaysus,’ she says again, her shoulders slumping and hair falling over her face, before she flicks it back and slaps the table. ‘I am so sick of the laptop; I spend all my time on it. All my time! I dream of digging a hole in the garden and putting it and my mobile in it.

    ‘I manage myself,’ she confesses to our horror and amazement. A bedroom band managing themselves is one thing, but an international cabaret star with a full show and five-piece band? ‘I know. I spend most of my time just organising, designing artwork, answering emails, booking gigs and flights and sorting bloody musicians.

    ‘I think I might be a control freak, but I’m very nervous of getting someone to manage me who doesn’t understand what I’m about. So far, none of the offers has suited: “You’re a classical singer, aren’t you?”; “It only involves jumping out of a birthday cake once!”; “Let’s open a joint bank account!” Hmm…’

    Resolution 4 ‘Work less, play more’
    Centrepoint’s Snooker & American Pool Lounge Bar is not an obvious haunt of the glamorous. “You sure you should be in here?” asks a man at the bar.

    ‘I bet you’re really good at this,’ O’Sullivan says, before whipping us soundly over a few glasses of red wine. Played before, have you? She laughs. ‘I’m not sure how good I am; it kicks in after two drinks [or seven, in our case] and then I’m on form. I’m addicted to pool – I’m at my happiest playing in my local with a G&T. Whenever I travel to a new city, I check out where the pool hall is and it gets marked on a map. I’d say I’m fanatical.’ And this pool hall? ‘Ah, jaysus. I don’t think I’d ever be able to find this place again.’

    So, plenty of resolutions thoroughly broken. Any hopes for 2009? ‘My dream this year is to sing with Nick Cave. Someone gave me his home phone number once, but I’ve never called it.’

    Eventually, the barman calls last orders. Final game played, glasses emptied, Camille wheels her overnight bag back into Tottenham Court Road tube station, many, many hours late for her sister.

    Camille O’Sullivan plays the Roundhouse on Jan 14 & 15.

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