Interview: Camille O’Sullivan on her 2012 Edinburgh Festival and Fringe shows

Sultry songstress on her ballsy, ballad show hitting Australia and Edinburgh

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This article is from 2012.

Interview: Camille O’Sullivan

Camille O’Sullivan is the tireless workhorse and sultry glamourpuss who has Edinburgh in the palm of her hand. Kelly Apter meets the woman who is breaking new ground at this year’s festival

‘Jesus, look at the state of me!’ Camille O’Sullivan is peering over the shoulder of a fan who has just snapped her with their iPhone. ‘Sometimes I look like that,’ she reminds them, and herself, gesturing towards the wall, where a glamorous Camille clad in emerald green strapless dress and full make-up peers down. By rights, the Irish chanteuse should look a state. Since stepping off the Queen’s Hall stage in Edinburgh an hour ago – having completed a performance the following day’s press will call ‘sensational’ and award five stars to – she hasn’t stopped.

Autographs, photographs, kisses and hugs are all forthcoming, as she works her way down the long, snaking queue of devotees. Coming from the mouth of a politician, the ‘thank you so much’ with which she replies to each gushing compliment would sound disingenuous. But nothing at the Camille O’Sullivan post-show meet-and-greet feels remotely fake. Rushing around in her stocking feet, she treats each fan like they were the first.

Waiting patiently to interview her, I’m given a drink, a biscuit and eventually Camille’s own chair (along with a dozen or more ‘thank you for waiting’s) as she fusses over me like a young Mrs Doyle. It’s a comparison that begins and ends with kindness and a broad Irish brogue, however, because despite her earlier proclamations, Camille O’Sullivan looks wonderful. Yes, the eye make-up is slightly smudged, the hair strewn and the heels off. But whether she’s just walked on stage freshly coiffured, or bustling about signing CDs and hugging the likes of Tom Farmer and Ian Rankin (both of whom hang around in the bar to meet her) Camille – for we must surely call this captivating creature by her first name – exudes sexuality.

It’s not the cleavage, the tight dresses, the shapely legs or any of the other on-stage paraphernalia that sets her out as such (maybe others would disagree). It’s the unabashed confidence, the ability to be whoever she wants to be, the capacity to metaphorically pull us to her breast with the slow songs, and set the room on fire with the up-tempo numbers.

But who is she, which one of the characters we meet on stage is the real Camille O’Sullivan? Is it the poised performer who opened the show dressed as Little Red Riding Hood for Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’? Could it be the emotionally charged singer who left the room breathless after Nick Cave’s ‘The Ship Song’? Or the wild woman who sat on Tom Farmer’s lap during Kirsty MacColl’s ‘In These Shoes’?

Now that I’m finally sitting backstage with her, maybe I’ll find out. Having been warned that Camille can ‘talk for Ireland’, it transpires her tongue has been loosened yet further by the red wine she glugged from the bottle onstage, and sipped delicately from within a glass during the stop-and-chat. ‘Sorry to rattle on,’ she apologises at regular intervals.

A few minutes into our conversation, it becomes clear that Camille is none of the people we met onstage – and all of them. ‘Some of my best friends came to the last big show I did,’ she recalls, ‘and they said to me afterwards, “you know Cam, you always talk about playing characters, but really it’s you, we all know it’s you; it’s just you multiplied”. I’m darker in one song, more vulnerable in another, or just more full-on, but they’re all me. In my real life I’m slightly shyer, and I’m slightly embarrassed about what I do when I go on stage. But all those characters reveal something about me, and it’s up to the audience to go, “is that her?” Or, “is that song her?”’

The current tour will travel across the UK, then move on to Australia before heading back to Edinburgh for the Fringe. It’s a powerful mix of emotive ballads, rowdy rock numbers, sexually-charged cabaret songs and bizarre animal masks and noises. In particular, there’s lots of the infamous Camille ‘miaow’, which goes back and forth between her and the audience, like a kind of feline love-in.

‘The more I grow older, the more I’m showing the madder side of me. I used to think you have to be more sophisticated on stage, which is how I like to start a show. But as the show goes on, I like to unravel. And I don’t have a flippin’ clue where the animals or the jumping around on stage comes from. That’s probably the eccentric side.’

Since her first performance at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004 as part of burlesque circus ensemble La Clique, Camille has built up a fiercely loyal following. Each year they return, hoping to find her wearing a new frock but singing the same songs. As an artist, however, Camille has to move forward, and striking a balance between old favourites and new ground isn’t easy.

‘It’s terrifying,’ she says, ‘because you know people love what you did before, but the Fringe is the one place you have to push yourself and prove you can do something different. You always feel like falling back on the old reliables, and yet if I do them, people will say you’re just traipsing out the same thing. So we’ve kept songs like “Port of Amsterdam” and “The Ship Song”, that are loved by the audience, and then added lots of unknown ones.’

That ‘unknown’ quantity will be there in spades with Camille’s other Edinburgh project this August. A far cry from her usual stage shows, she’ll be making her International Festival debut with The Rape of Lucrece, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic poem set to music and song by Camille and right-hand man, Feargal Murray. As far as anyone is aware, it’s the first time an artist has performed as a headline act in both the International and Fringe festivals in the same year. But it almost didn’t happen.

‘The International Festival doesn’t usually allow you to do the Fringe,’ says Camille, ‘so we had a bit of a stand-off. Not in a bad way, they were very kind to me, but I said I really want to do my dates at the Fringe. I have a very emotional relationship with Edinburgh, and it means a lot to me. So they said you can do four, which is a bit of a nightmare because I’d have done 20 feckin’ nights given the chance, I’m a workhorse. But they said four, so that’s what’s happening.’

She may end up being glad those ‘20 feckin’ nights’ weren’t available to her, because The Rape of Lucrece is no small nut to crack. Commanding the stage alone (save for Murray’s piano) for an hour and 40 minutes, Camille has to take on all three of the poem’s characters: the narrator, Tarquin (the rapist) and Lucrece herself, a woman who finds living with the memory of rape so unbearable she takes her own life.

Talentspotted by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the 2008 Fringe, Camille and Murray have spent the past few years transforming the poem into a play with music and songs. ‘I love theatre that looks at the darker side and asks the bigger questions about why people do things; this poem is all about that,’ she says. ‘I’ve had to put down my own views as a woman, and show why Tarquin does what he does. Shakespeare’s words are incredible, and it’s been amazing to get so close to those words by singing them.’

Earlier in the night, while informing the audience of her upcoming theatrical adventure, Camille warned them, ‘don’t come to the International Festival and miaow’. Is that a genuine concern? ‘I know they’re going to do it,’ she says, clearly resigned to the fact. ‘I prepared myself for that possibility when we performed it at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and it didn’t happen. But I know that in Edinburgh, it feckin’ will.’

Camille O’Sullivan: Changeling, Assembly Rooms, George Street, 0844 693 3008, 4–7 Aug, 10.25pm, £16; The Rape of Lucrece, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, 0131 473 2000, 22–26 Aug, 9pm, £10–£30; Conversations, The Hub, Castlehill, 0131 473 2000, 25 Aug, noon, £6 (£3).

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