Saturday, December 20, 2008

Camille O' Sullivan at the Olympia Theatre

Take a stage with cello, a harp, a piano and keyboard, steel drums, ordinary drums, a saxophone, three electric guitars, a banjo, an accoustic guitar, a trumpet, a clarinet, a flute, a harp, five gold dresses - one a sparkly, glittery gold - a handbag and a shawl all suspended from the ceiling, a mannequin head, a bottle of wine and wine glass and the sweet strains of John McCormack's Mo Chuisle echoing through an expectant Olympia Theatre and you get some idea of the set up for Camille O Sullivan's concert this week.

It's my first time to one of her shows, though I've seen her perform at the Olympia before. Born in London of an Irish father and French mother, Camille grew up in Cork, studied Fine Art and graduated as an architect from UCD. As a performer though she's performed sell out seasons in Australia, New York, the UK and Ireland.

The transition makes sense to her: "I think with performing and the dressing up and glamour element, the thing that it has in common with painting and with architecture is creativity" she says in a recent interview. "I think I found something I was really interested in and that kind of performing suited me very well as I'm not very good at doing reality".

She sang to us of her death, waiting. However Bowie performed the song, surely Jacques Brel wrote My Death to be sung like this. Huskily, emotion filled, angrily. While it waited for her, she sang to each of us. Individually, her incredible voice came to tap us on the shoulder, embrace us and let us know she was happy we were there, that somehow, in some small way, we were her salvation.

My death waits to allow my friends
a few good times before it ends
so let’s drink to that and the passing time

But what ever lies behind the door,
there is nothing much to do
angel or devil I don’t care, for in front of that door…
there is you.
No happy tune this, no fanfare to life, no forced jollity, ah isn't life great mentality. Here was a woman, her songs and her bottle of wine. The audience loved it.

If you've ever been to a Camille gig before, you'll know costume changes, fishnets and that fantastic body of hers plays a part. As the music started for Marc Almond's The Bulls, she began her transformation, rawwwrring at the audience, greeting the front row with "See, if you're scared, that's when I'm gonna come for you". The percussion provided by a curtain rail and rings, she indulges in the evocation of the bull ring, of the crowd and of the audience reaction.
On Sundays the bulls get so bored,
When they are asked to show off for us

There is the sun, the sand, and the arena
There are the bulls ready to bleed for us
The moment of triumph when grocery clerks become Nero
The moment of triumph when the girls scream and shout the name of their hero.
"I'm exhausted", she says at the end of the song. "Someone took up the hem of this dress. I need to talk to them. It's highly undignified. Are you having a drink?" She turns again to the front row as she sips her own wine. "You'll need one. For those of you who might not have seen me before... good luck."

She speaks of her obsession with the music, of her love of cabaret songs, of characters and stories as in the writing of Nick Cave, of Tom Waits and of course of Brel. In the recent interview with Jade O' Callaghan in Temple Bar Magazine, when asked how she chooses her repertoire, she said
"Well the Brel stuff would be because I am half French and my parents had a great record collection, and I started listening to songs that were more like storytelling and had characters, and I like dark and dramatic tales.

If I hear something and it resonates with me then I'll look into doing it. It's more about the story within the song than singing the song sometimes.... It is always a personal thing, and it's always about being sincere with a song rather than it just being about my voice".

As she starts into Rock 'n' Roll Suicide, one of Bowie's last songs for Ziggy Stardust, you begin to understand where Camille is bringing us. The journey she has started is no fairy tale, we're invited into her life, into her space as she shows us who she is
Oh no love! you're not alone,
No matter what or who you've been, no matter when or where you've seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain, I've had my share, I'll help you with the pain. You're not alone
In the same interview: "As a woman too I think that it's important to shake that image of yourself, and not just be the femme fatale in the fishnets and heels singing. It's important that you show every aspect of yourself; that you can be vulnerable, that you can be tough or angry or gentle.

What I love best is humour and charm and that's what I love about the intimacy of being on stage; you can use all these aspects of your personality to lock in with the audience, it's not just about singing to them, you're very much with them"

As she starts into the Tiger Lillies' Crack of Doom, she laughs. Here's one she will delight in, indulge in, have fun with.
And so your life's been a success, and you have pleasure in excess. Don't worry it will all end soon,
The crack of doom is coming soon
And so your future's looking bright and you've reached the giddy heights. Don't worry it will soon end.
It is all shallow and pretend.

And so she continues through Act One. Harpist Sinéad Ní Ghearailt joins her for Nick Cave's Little Water Song. Tom Waits' All the World is Green is next - "The moon is yellow silver on the things that summer brings. It's a love you'd kill for" - followed by Cave's Brompton Oratory. "I wish that I was made of stone so that I would not have to see a beauty impossible to define". Time and time again I'm impressed with the lyrics - I haven't heard (m)any of these songs before, so being new to me, the way Camille communicates them seems the way they were written to be sung, composed to be performed.

The Port of Amsterdam comes next with crowd favourite In These Shoes rounding out the first act. A new friend comes down to me, a lover of music, a new Camille disciple, just over from London for the weekend "She's amazing mate. Really stunning. That vibrancy and energy is incredible." He's right. it is that energy that is infectious. It's that that has us clapping along to her version of Mack the Knife, intertwining Nick Cave's version from September Son into a sordid bilingual feast. Her version of Hurt rivals the Johnny Cash version for fidelity to the Nine Inch Nails original. It is her talent to make the song sound original, sound believable. There are no theatrics here other than her voice. It's enough.

Dillie Keane's Look Mommy, No Hands has the girls reaching for the tissues. Knowing her own mother is in the audience seems to amplify the intensity and cause her to cry all the more. It's her hesitant phrasing, her understanding of when to pause, when to inflect and when to go for the jugular.
Remember the daughter and all that you taught her
She's grown up at last with a child of her own
She struggles alone as the years all fly past
But now you're no not there to answer her calls.
You're not there to catch her when she stumbles and falls.
Look mummy no hands.
I'm having to do it all by myself
Look mummy no hands.
I used to dismiss you. Now I just miss you.
With lyrics like this you can understand how she feels she is "like and actress signing a monologue and interpreting something that's often dark or sad." When asked if she's ever thought about writing her own lyrics, she says "No, I think because I am scared that it would be rubbish. How can I write after singing Brel and Nick Cave, I mean they are phenomenal writers."

Image from here.

The Weill/Brecht 1928 What Keeps Mankind Alive brings us further into harsh reality. No fluffy kittens or rainbows here. She dons her white make-up to sing:
The fact that millions are daily tortured.
Stifled, punished, silenced and oppressed
Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance
in keeping its humanity repressed.
Bowie's Suffragette City follows, then Nick Cave's People, They Ain't No Good. She seems too young to sing this, but does so despite that and with a vengeance. As her foot stomps to herald the opening of Waits' Misery Is The River Of The World, we're drawn back into this spinning dervish existence.

"I'm exhausted." She says after, "I don't know how the hell you are." She goes on to thank her parents for being there "If you want to know how crazy I am, they look like me. You can find them." and amid the applause and laughter she says "If you thought I was mad, I'm now going to go a bit further with you."

And further she goes, introducing us to meow, an audience and performer making cat noises at each other. "It doesn't make sense to anything or anyone. It's just makde me happy in the last few months." she says. "You've got to do it subtly. Walk past a stranger and say meow. If it gets to eye contacts, it's over. Over." she laughs.

Her last song. Will she leave us on a high? Something jaunty to send us on our way in a cold December night? Not a bit of it. We get a haunting version of Bowie's Five Years "News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying. Cried so much, his face was wet, then I knew, he was not lying" before the encore of Brel's Marieke and then, she's joined onstage by the wonderful Jack L who dances and duets with Camille for Fairytale of New York.

It is though when she starts the opening lines of Nick Cave's The Ship Song that we are reminded that though we may want to, we can't spend the evening in the company of this siren, songstress and artist, who has painted the evening with lyrics of heartbreak, of life, of solace, and, as Lottie says, afterwards "We stepped back into the colour and cold of a 21st Century Dame Street".

She left the stage with this, singing the last verse without any music, just her and the band. No better way to end it.
Your face has fallen sad now for you know the time is nigh
When I must remove your wings and you, you must try to fly.

Come sail your ships around me and burn your bridges down.
We make a little history baby every time you come around.
Camille O' Sullivan plays London's Roundhouse on January 14 and 15, 2009. Her website is here and My Space is here and you can buy any of her four CDs or live at the Spiegeltent DVD through Celtic Note.


  1. Glad to hear you enjoyed the show!

  2. It was an amazing gig! Nice review.
    Think you may have missed out the trombone...!
    but you covered everything else tho :-)