‘I had a kind of midlife crisis’, says Camille O’Sullivan.
A conversation with Camille O’Sullivan is not quite what you might expect. A delightfully chatty and open interviewee, she immediately contradicts any preconceived idea I may hold of artists being oh so serious and self-conscious.
She’ll be in Northern Ireland next month for a gig as part of The Open House Festival at the Walled Garden and while she’s never played the venue before, Bangor is a place she knows well thanks to her father — Irish racing driver and World Champion sailor, Denis O’Sullivan.
“One of my dad’s best friends is from Bangor and we used to come up in a little van all the way from Cork and go sailing all the time when we were little,” she says.
“I’m excited and scared at the same time as it’ll only be the second gig I’ll have played since lockdown ended. I’ll probably be having a heart attack with nerves,” she laughs.
Camille is talking on the phone from a holiday cottage in Connemara, which her partner (actor Aidan Gillen) had rented so that the couple and Camille’s eight-year-old daughter Lila-Elodie (from her previous relationship with Waterboys singer, Mike Scott) could enjoy a short break.
“Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite gone to plan,” says Camille as Lila races around the house shouting for their cat.
“Aidan is stuck in a hotel after filming in Canada. He had to quarantine for two weeks over there before doing two days work, then arrived back planning to come with us to the cottage, but ended up having to quarantine again when he came home. So I’ve been sending him pictures of the beach,” she laughs.
Accompanying her at the Open House gig will be her long-time friend and collaborator, pianist and composer Feargal Murray, who hails from Londonderry. The pair have been working together for more than 20 years.
“Because of the venue, we are planning a very pared down intimate gig, just me singing and Feargal on the piano.”
However, anyone who has watched her perform knows that anything can happen at a Camille O’Sullivan show.
“The way I perform tends to depend on the venue,” she says. “I’ve seen pictures of the setting for the Open House festival gig and it looks amazing.
“Being in a garden is very authentic and beautiful and spiritual — I always love performing in unusual places — and with the naturalness of that, you can sing some very touching songs yet also create a bit of drama.
“Who knows if you’re going to end up near a tree or in a plant.
“I love in the moment stuff,” she adds. “You get your gauge from who’s in the audience and whether people are shy or laughing or, you know… and although, I’m very present when I gig, I’m not always aware quite what I’m doing, if that makes sense.
“Someone once said to me, ‘your dancing is great’ and I said, ‘what dancing?’ Once I’m in the moment, the horse is off.
“Sometimes I’ve fallen off-stage and I’m singing as I go down and singing as I come back up.”
Feargal and Camille met many years ago in Dublin when she was working as an architect by day and singer by night. They dated for a while and remained firm friends even after the relationship ended.
“He moved into a house across the road with a girl who I was singing with at the time,” recalls Camille.
“I had a cat that always climbed into their house and went back and forth, so that’s how I got to know him. But even though we stopped going out, our friendship endured and after I had a really bad car accident in 1999, he moved in to look after me and helped me get better.
“That took the friendship to a level that you can never forget.
“We’ve been working together now for 20 years. He says, ‘we’re like two old slippers who put on our dancing shoes when we go onstage’.
“And I know all of his family from Derry — all 13 of his brothers and sisters. I know all of their names.
“I feel very lucky because we’ve said to each other several times that we don’t think we’d be who we are as performers if it wasn’t for each other.
“During the past year, when I had forgotten what it was like to be a musician, I rang Feargal and said, ‘Let’s just go and record some songs — just you and I — and it was wonderful. It was like chatting to an old friend through music.”
Camille does admit though that the pandemic lockdowns have changed her priorities somewhat.
“I had a kind of midlife crisis,” she laughs. “At the beginning I was full of ideas and baking and learning how to hula hoop and do handstands.
“All my friends seemed to be going through their midlife crisis too, because it was all ‘let’s learn how to roller skate’ and we can meet each other.
“I was apprehensive about doing online gigs because I wasn’t sure how that would translate, but I’m from Cork and the Cork Midsummer Festival contacted me and asked me to do an online gig and I agreed, but said that I wanted to do it differently.
“And they were like ‘Oh God’,” she laughs.
“I wanted to do something like ‘A Day in the Life of Lockdown’, from morning to night and going from room to room in my house.
“Aidan and I made these little videos where I woke up, put my hair in curlers, did the hoovering and danced on the table.
“I was highly embarrassed when I saw it and was like ‘Jeez’,” she laughs.
“I love performing and taking songs seriously, but I have this other side to me that also likes a bit of a laugh. So, I was trying to bring people on a kind of varied journey.
“Aidan told me I was losing it,” she laughs again.
“After that, I just became domesticated and tried to learn how to sew badly and cook better and clean the house like I’m demented. Having an eight-year-old, you turn around after tidying and you look burgled again.
“I did go down the rabbit hole where I felt upset about not gigging, but then I realised I was very lucky that my health was okay and you’ve just got to hold on tight.
“And actually, I’m sitting here staring out the window at nature and cows and I’m kind of thinking, ‘I like this’. I think I prefer this to touring,” she jokes.
“And what’s weird is, I’ve always measured myself by what I’ve done in my life, and what’s happened this past year is kind of telling you what’s really important and what it is that you really love in your life, such as your daughter and your partner and being with friends. And how the simple things are most important.
“My friends joke that it took a car accident and a pandemic to make me stop work and take a break. And I have enjoyed the full-stop, even though financially it’s scary.”
Camille originally worked as a successful architect (she won the Architectural Association of Ireland Award in 2000) and painter before becoming a full-time singer and performer. Growing up, there was no hint of the chanteuse she would become.
“You might not believe it, but I’ve always been quite shy,” she says. “My mum (who’s French) and sister say that as a child I always had my eyes squinted because I didn’t want to be seen. They were surprised when I became a performer.
“I still battle with nerves before going on stage. I will pace the whole back of the building before a show. Then once you’re up there, it’s like you become something else and that allows you to become this bigger than life personality.
“But my parents did instil a love of music. Mum and Dad listened to very eclectic range of music, from French to classical, to the Rolling Stones. And coming through the bedroom wall I could hear my sister playing Bowie and Pink Floyd.
“When Feargal and I decided to record during lockdown, I asked them their favourite songs because I wanted to make a little album, which might never see the light of day, just for them to thank them.
“My parents and my sister are my biggest supporters and also my toughest critics, but in a good way.”
It was the car accident more than 20 years ago that prompted Camille to leave architecture and pursue her dream of performing.
“My love of singing came from going to Sunday School. There was a little choir where there was a lady in her 80s and a woman in her 60s and they sang out of tune, but I loved it. I thought it was the realest thing. They were singing out of tune, but were singing anyway just for the joy of it.
“Working as an architect was wonderful and I’m still friends with my colleagues from those days. When I moved to Dublin, I tried to hold on to my dream by performing at night, but I wasn’t confident enough to believe in myself. And I still do this today — find and use every obstacle possible as an excuse to not pursue something.
“But the accident resulted in me spending a year learning how to walk again and two years to get well. I was grateful to be alive and realised that you only get one life and if I didn’t follow my dream, I’d regret it.
“The pandemic has kind of made me do the same thing. You sometimes need reminders that you have to review your life. A lot of my friends have lost their parents in the last year, and I’ve realised that you just don’t see the people you love often enough.
“I do love performing though, and I have lots of things coming up in the next year, but I think the pandemic has taught us all that it’s good and okay to slow down every now and again and live in the moment.”
Having made A Day in the Life of Camille with partner Aidan, have they any plans to work together on something again?
“We’ve actually done a few things together,” she says. “One was a film called Pick Ups a few years ago, which I really enjoyed because it was Aidan as himself.
“Also, we recorded a cover of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams in 2019, to raise money for a homeless charity. Aidan’s a great singer, but he’s a very shy singer. And last year, he did an Irish film called Barber and I played his love interest which was good fun.
“It was like going on dates. We were like, ‘Jeez, we’re never like this with each other in real life’,” she laughs. “It would be lovely to do more, but I tend not to venture into that world too much.
“However, I do enjoy him coming home with a lots of different haircuts when he gets a new role,” she laughs. “Thankfully, he’s not a method actor, so he doesn’t bring his characters home.”
Camille’s latest CD, Camille Sings Cave Live, sees her covering some of Nick Cave’s best compositions. I suggest that a proper writing collaboration between the two would be something to consider?
“If only I had enough balls to ask the man,” she says seriously. “I am such a fan. But I’m too shy — I think I’m scared of the possibility of rejection. In case he said, ‘What? You?’ Someone once gave me his number and I think I hid it because what am I going to do? Call and say ‘Hello Mrs Cave. Can I speak to Nick please?’ Maybe I should bite the bullet. The album was just me and Feargal on piano and I’m really proud of it.”
And on that note, Lila is back demanding to go and look at the cows, so Camille heads outside in pursuit of her daughter (who insists on shouting to me over the phone that she was actually eight two-and-a half weeks ago), and the cattle, enjoying every minute of downtime before hitting the road and the day job once again.
Camille O’Sullivan performs at the Open House Festival at the Walled Garden in Bangor on Friday, August 20. www.openhousefestival.com. The CD Camille Sings Cave Live is out now. www.camilleosullivan.com