Camille O'Sullivan fans of Australia, get excited now; the French/Irish performer is bringing her bag of tricks to town. Those tricks include a new album, live versions of songs by the likes of Nick Cave, David Bowie, Tom Waits and more, as well as the wonderful, sometimes chaotic hilarity you'd expect from this former award-winning architect.

In the middle of a punishing world tour and recovering from ill-health, the very gracious cabaret crooner/rock chick/raconteur made the time to chat with Australian Stage about her love of music and entertaining, the car crash that changed her life, and the time she totally ruined The Spiegeltent.

Camille O'SullivanWhere are you right now and what are you doing?
Just returned to Dublin from a mad six week UK tour and about to board my flight to Abu Dahbi then Melbourne! I'm a nervous flyer but will have a few gin and tonics to get through it!

The first time I saw you perform was in Sydney in The Spiegeltent. It was also the first time I had seen anything in The Tent, and after your show I didn't want to see anything else there because nothing was going to be as perfect as that performance. How do you feel about totally ruining The Spiegeltent for someone?
Oh that's a lovely sweet thing to say, I'm delighted you enjoyed the show! I fell in love with the Spiegeltent the first time I went there, I think nothing can take away the wonderful feeling you get the first time you walk inside it, so it's the mixture of that and seeing a show in it for the first time maybe... Though I hope you're joking – I don't feel good that it's ruined it for someone, but very happy you liked what you saw!

No, not joking. You ruined it. Like, totally. But moving along... What has been your favourite venue to play in?
The Spiegeltent is my all time favourite, like a mini jewelled circus tent, a venue that stays the same but the countries change. So intimate and being circular everything is the stage, in front of the audience or sitting with or behind them. Then the Sydney Opera House, the lovely old Victorian Olympia Theatre and I love to perform in churches, lovely theatrical ones like Islington Church in London.

Your performance seems more suited to intimate venues. How much does venue size affect what you do on the night? Is it harder to connect with the audience in larger venues?
I prefer venues of 300-500 that create a lovely intimacy for the audience and performer, when you feel like you're in conversation. But when we perform to 1500 you just remind yourself to sing with the same notion of intimacy, of connecting with the audience, or singing to a particular person so you bring the intimacy to you even if it's a large stage – I feel for the audience who maybe too far away to see your face. When we do big outdoor festivals of 3000–6000 it's a different, joyful type of performance larger than life, compare it to being like a big fearless tiger on stage, presence has to be strong.

Given your background in architecture, have you ever found yourself midway through, say a song and been distracted by the venue's roof structure?
Hmm... usually I'm immersed in the song, but yes recently we sang in a beautiful Church in Brighton Festival and I was really moved and enjoying the beauty of the roof, its sculptures and the the height of the church singing into it. It's so different singing into a vast space like say The Roundhouse, Royal Festival Hall to one like the gem of the Tent. I remember when I was an architect swimming in one of my favourite buildings, thought it was the most wonderful way to experience the building in a physical sense, but now singing emotional songs in beautiful buildings is even better!

Okay, no more venue questions. That terrible car accident is often cited as the catalyst for your decision to apply yourself to performing full time. But you are such a born performer that surely it was a matter of time before you would have made that decision anyway, no?
Hmm Not sure, I have quite bad stage nerves that would have kept me from performing up on stage. Also I was very conscious my parents had paid for my college years... but when the accident happened the decision was made swiftly and very easily: just do it. All the clichés were so true – life is too short so just get on with it. I recognised that whether I was nervous or not wasn't going to change but I just had to accept that and do it anyway!

You cover a pretty cool bunch of singer/songwriters, all guys. Why is that?
I do sing some women's songs too but the majority I suppose are men. Just happen to love the work of Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan as they happen to be great, unsentimental writers of narrative songs, which have characters in them. I like that I can add a vulnerability to a harsher lyric, female singing from a male point of view or it allows me to express myself in a different way sometimes.

How much contact have you had with the likes of Nick Cave and Tom Waits? Any feedback from them?
Sadly have never been in touch with Tom Waits, although I had the luck of working with some of his band. I have met Nick Cave several times and he has been very supportive and kind – he is a real gent.

It would be interesting to see you do a duet with guys like that. Any chance of that happening?
If I pray really hard! Would love that to happen, just too shy to ask. Must ask, must ask...

Nick Cave's The Ship song is so iconic and has his stamp all over it, so much so that the first time I saw your version I started out thinking nope, she's not going to pull it off. Seconds into it I realised how wrong I was. Are you ever daunted by how much someone has made a song their own?
I always think that the writer has done the definitive version, the one I became obsessed by was their version. Sometimes I try and sing it and reinterpret it and make it my own – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. If it sounds dodgy it won't go in the show no matter how much I love the original. I find Dylan and Cohen are sometimes very difficult to cover but I have given it a try and not been given out to yet.

Do you take requests? Because I'd love to see you perform Nick Cave's Stagger Lee. It wouldn't make much sense being sung by a woman but it would be loads of fun.
I'd love to do Stagger Lee, be great fun, may have to whisper some of those lyrics though!

Speaking of fun, you have quite a lot of it on stage, don't you. Which is something people might not realise if they just trawled through youtube clips. How challenging is it to control the mood and shift from deep emotion to hilarity and back the way you do?
It feels quite natural to be quite chameleon on stage with my emotions, I love a big laugh and enjoy following that swiftly with the dark, vulnerable songs. It's made easier when you really decide to inhabit the songs. It helps that I may be slightly hyperactive and have a few personalities going on in me.

Can you tell us a little about the new album? Why those particular songs?
It was really my reacting to fans who asked for recordings of The Ship Song, Hurt etc and my thought to get off the road girl and record your voice. I really wanted to try and record where we were at in our live shows, singing more contemporary songs, showing the variety that is in the shows... having said that, not one song solely represents the album. There were song I've been longing to perform and others that by chance had been written for me in mind, the luck of Gary Lightbody writing a song for me!

Reading through quotes from reviews of your performances, they are universally glowing. They are very colourful and make it a challenge to come up with something original when reviewing you. How do you feel when you read the reviews?
Eeek! I never read reviews, good or bad! I'm scared to be hurt by a bad review which will make me wary of getting back on stage and even though it is so brilliant to get a great review – I don't want it to change what the show is about – 'Oh this is what she/he liked about the show' at a certain point of show and then mess it up. I just try to rely on audience reaction and prey they like it!

Thanks in advance for your Melbourne show. I'm sure it will be brilliant... just try not to get distracted by the venue's structure while you're singing.
My absolute pleasure. I can't wait to return to lovely Melbourne, and perhaps have time to revisit Philip Island and my adopted penguins...

Camille O'Sulivan 2012 Tour Dates

21 JUNE PERTH ASTOR THEATRE | (08) 937017777
22 JUNE SYDNEY THE BASEMENT | (02) 9251 2797

Most read reviews

TakeOver | Bangalow Theatre Company

The audience for any one night is divided into five groups of twelve people, each of which walks between the venues, so that there is only a Covid-safe number of people in any venue at any one time.

Gaslight | State Theatre Company South Australia

Gaslight is an entertaining, non-convoluted, engaging and superbly written piece, so that it stands up well after 80 years, especially when its traditional strength is imaginatively blended with some non- traditional contemporary casting.

QPAC Unlocked: An Evening with Amy Lehpamer

The night progressed, Amy showcasing her many talents, singing and playing the violin, and then indulging us, inviting her partner to perform alongside for a few songs on the acoustic guitar.

Most read news

Victoria’s Dance Studios Under Siege

Ausdance Victoria reveals an alarming 92% of studio owners are worried their business won’t survive to March 2021. 

Sydney Theatre Company Returns to the Stage

Sydney Theatre Company today announced its current plans for the remainder of the 2020 season including a return to the stage with a COVIDSafe, socially distanced season of Angus Cerini’s Wonnangatta.

ACO to resume live public performances at City Recital Hall

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) has today announced its musicians will return to the concert hall for the first time in six months.

New research shows arts increasingly important to Australians

Australians increasingly recognise the vital role of arts and creativity in almost every aspect of our lives, from education to mental health to strengthening local economies.

New grant initiative for disadvantaged and POC artists

Be You Inc. have recently launched a new grant initiative to provide financial assistance for disadvantaged and POC artists auditioning for tertiary performing arts programs this year.