Belfast Festival: Camille O'Sullivan

The cabaret star on designing Notre Dame, interpreting Tom Waits and dreaming of a hole in the ground

Who/what inspired you to becomer a singer?
I can blame a few things and people. When I was growing up in Cork, my parents had a fantastic eclectic record collection and music was at the heart of the house. My French mother introduced us to the music of Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg and classical music while my Irish father loved the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Deep Purple and Irish/Scottish balladiers. They would let us play music all the time and my sister and I used to sing and dance around the living room.

Later I used to listen through the wall at night to my sister playing Bowie, John Lennon and Pink Floyd. I remember feeling so moved emotionally, but didn't recognise that I may want to sing until years later. As an architect student living in Berlin I heard the music of Kurt Weill, Hollaender and Eisler and became obsessed with their bittersweet narrative stories. When I returned to Ireland I saw the late great Agnes Bernelle perform their songs and realised that I was obsessed.

You become a professional architect nonetheless. Was the eventual move from the office to the stage a difficult one to achieve?
I had a bit of a circuitous route as I had always really wanted to be a painter, then an actor and instead became an architect. I loved being an architect and lecturing in college, but had realised the urge to perform was very strong and that I would need to give it a real try or I wouldn't forgive myself. I could always return to architecture if it didn't work out.

I don't do reality that well and the fantasy of becoming something on stage was very exciting. I wasn't trained and I wasn't confident enought to leave work, so started by performing while I was working and got labeled the Singing Arhictect by friends. Things came to a head after I had quite a serious car accident which made things very clear and simple. This was a big dream for me - just go and do it, I told myself, make it happen.

You interpret the music of others in your shows and in your recordings. Which performers to do you most admire?
People whose music I sing are Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, Jacques Brel. There is a ferile aspect to them as performers and a theatrical quality, but you always feel there is a real truth barred on stage that is not put on. Cave commands the stage as a brutal preacher, all flailing arms and defiant moves. I watched him and the band recently from the side of the stage hypnotized - it was powerful, frenzied and magnetic. Waits has a wonderful way of delivering his strange stories. At times he seems like a mime artist, with his distorted moves and stomping feet. Old clips of Brel are electrifying. He usually sang on the one spot, but eminated extreme passion or vulnearble poignancy.

Your live shows are very theatrical, and you mentioned that you wanted to be an actress. If you could have starred in any cabaret, what would it be?
I love the film Cabaret with Liza Minelli, but my voice would not be suited to the songs. They are not classed as cabaret, but the Threepenny Opera would be amazing for the beautiful, disturbing Kurt Weiill songs, or the modern day The Black Rider by Tom Waits. They are dark, left of centre shows and contain some of my favourite songs. In a way you could be more of an actor who sings, as the songs are long narrative stories.

If you could have four cultural figures from any period in history around for dinner, who would they be and why?
Difficult one. Jack Lemmon to add wit, charm and cheekiness; fellow Cork man Michael Collins to discuss the politics of the day; Le Corbusier to discuss architecure and art; and Einstein to explain exactly what E=mc2 is all about, as I still can't get my head around it. Also I heard he was mischevious and fun!

If you could have produced any piece of art in history, what would it be?
3D art would be the Chapel Notre Dame de Haut Ronchamps, in Paris, designed by le Corbusier - a primitive, emotive and sculptural piece of art. I went there when I was a student. It was the most wonderful site and has many similarities with the Acropolis in Athens - starting from the ascent at the bottom of the hill, before finally terminating at the sanctum sanctorum itself, the modest chapel. The shell-shaped roof, the rounded walls, the towers of stone masonry, the facade with its colored glass.

Which Irish cultural figure to you most admire and why?
The poet Seamus Heaney. I get great comfort reading his poetry again and again - his beautiful observations of everyday life, family and history. He brings the written world to life in a poignant, thought-provoking way. I saw a documentary on him recently and and he came accross as a lovely, humourous, kind gent.

What has been your cultural highlight of 2009 thus far?
Latitude Festival in Norfolk was fantastic. I camped in a tent with my band after performing on the opening night. That's where I got to watch Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play. I saw Thom Yorke [from Radiohead] perform solo, which was divine; Vivienne Westwood discuss art; Royal ballet perform beside the lake; Grace Jones storm off stage; poets, jugglers, multicoloured sheep, discos in the forest, a flutist performing within a huge plastic bubble rolling down the stream... I don't take drugs, but I think this is what it must feel like!

What cultural event are you most looking forward to?
The Hot Press music weekend, October 3-4, giving an insight into the music industry in Ireland and abroad. I'll be performing with some of the artists on a Brel show in the Barbican in October - Diamanda Galas, Arnaud and Marc Almond. Can't wait to see them perform and hear their interpretations of the great man!

If you could write your own epitaph in no more than 10 words, what would it be?
'Let's drink, let's dance until I'm put in the hole in the ground.' - Jacques Brel.

Peter Geoghegan

Camille O'Sullivan will be performing her The Dark Angel show at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's, in the Grand Opera House on Sunday, October 18 at 8pm. Check out Culture Live! events listings for more information on Belfast Festival events.