Ahead of this years "Where Are We Now" show, Camille O' Sullivan was kind enough to take some time out from her very busy performance schedule and do a little Q & A interview for us.
1. The Carny Dream” was one of my favourite shows of last year’s Fringe, and the show has not long finished a busy UK touring schedule in March and April this year. How difficult has it been to develop the new show “Where Are We Now?” into this busy schedule?
You hit the nail on the head and it is really difficult. I’m just about holding together to be honest. I could have taken the easy route and just done a show that I have done before and know will work and is popular, but I wanted to create something new. I will only know when I get to Edinburgh, what the show is really about and what it has to offer. But I’m trying as hard as I can and fingers crossed. I’m doing two shows here in Ireland today and I was doing a tour of Australia before and I’ve got Berlin next week, so I have to hope that the magic will happen. It usually does, thank God.
2.How long has “Where Are We Now?” been in development, and where do the Fringe performances fit into the touring schedule for the new show?
The initial thing with any new show is that it’s in your head. Usually I have the month of July but I didn’t this time round because I’ve been doing this other show, so I’ve had to concentrate so much on that. Fortunately, in May I had a few weeks that I could use to focus on Where Are We Now and so brought in different piano people, so here I am now with a cupboard that has a list of 20 songs stuck to it. I spent my time in Australia collecting car noises, hymns and robot noises and now I’m going to meet the band this week with the hope of pulling everything together. We probably have never been as short in time in development, but I’ve done a lot more thinking and work in the last few months. The good thing about creating a new show is that it’s in your head all the time and once I’m booked then I’m thinking about it all the time and finding ways to make it something special for me to perform and for the audience to enjoy. It’s hard to take days off though because every day counts. For example, I was on the phone to a guy in Belgium talking about LED lights and he was laughing at me. I asked why he was laughing and he said ‘we only usually do kitchens, but we can do whatever you want’. That made me laugh too. You have to laugh.
3. Working on and performing two shows so closely together, was it difficult to keep distinct identities for each one, or can you see yourself areas of overlap where ideas have been flowing freely from one to the other?
It shouldn’t be difficult but you’re going to have to throw your favourite babies out of the bathwater when you do two shows so close to each other. But people want to hear Ship Song and other favourites, so you want to give audiences what they expect but then again you can’t put them in if they relate to a different show and wouldn’t be right for the new one. I want to put songs in that are relevant to this show and what I’m saying in it so it has a new life of its own. Where Are We Now is about the fear of the situation that we’re in now with the world around us, to what’s going on politically and artistically and socially and also looking at the loss of such inspirational artists like David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen. But also about hope and kindness and has a different tone. The songs will relate to that side of things too and I think that’s what is important. Because it’s about ‘now’ – before it was about any time and certain types of magic and theatre that life brings, but this is more about what’s happening now and so it’s very specific. That’s very interesting for me. It’s very honed in to what’s going on all around us right now. Life is changing so quickly with each day that passes and I want to grab that and turn it into a piece of art.
4. In relation to the show’s title “Where Are We Now?”, the advance PR tells us “Framing this question through the arresting, final songs of Bowie and Leonard Cohen, and other crucial writers such as PJ Harvey and Nick Cave”, but given how fast events in the world are changing (often sadly, not for the good), has the show itself changed since its conception to reflect some of the recent changes in world events that have potential to impact on everyone in some way?
I suppose this is harder for me to put together. It reminds me of when I did a show with an orchestra after the terrible events in Lyon. I sang certain songs, which were very beautiful, emotional songs and it was a very honest response to it all. The events that are happening in our world are upsetting. I was in Australia when everything happened in London and I was upset at what I was seeing on the news and thinking of the people that I know in London, but then with time something else happens and the world moves on again. If you do a show straight after an event like that you’re going to do a performance that is more heightened and aware. I have my own personal reactions to events and my show is about including Bowie and Cohen to give the love and thankfulness for their music. But the other side is that the world has gone askew at the moment because of how we are with social media. The songs I choose are going to relate to that world. There’s a song by Cohen called The Future, which was written 25 years ago but it related to what is happening now. Things are cyclical in the world and people were scared about things in the 60s, but we’re still scared now but for different reasons. But saying that, I’m also putting in Tiger Lilies to this show that is lighter and more humorous. And Crack of Doom too. And Paranoid Android too maybe.
5. Any Camille O’Sullivan show is always for me a bit of a journey into the unknown, never knowing just where your own very individual interpretation of words and music will take us as an audience, and that is part of the magic of the performances. Is that journey with your audience planned with an end destination in mind, or does the audience interaction on any given night allow you to explore other paths as we go along?
I would say that the show always reacts to the audience and the energy that I get from different audiences on different nights. I’m not the most organised person but I am a responsive person. Everything can be a little upside down when I do a show and it depends on the feeling that I get from the people who are watching the show. It’s a journey and the band sometimes don’t even know what will happen. Even when it’s all set up I like that it’s live and who knows what will happen when it comes down to it each night.
6. There is always a total immersion by you into your performances, and it is always interesting to watch the lines between music, performance, story, song lyrics and your own identity to an extent merge into something that is a new work performance, art and theatre. Does it take a while to come out of that performance space once you are off stage, or is it easier to stay in that performance space for the next show? I think the question really is – where in everything we see and hear is the real Camille O’Sullivan?
I think talking to the audience after the show is nuts but I love it so much that I unravel in front of them. I’m such a girl from a small village in Cork and I spiral and finish what I did that night with the chance to meet people who have bothered to come out and see my show and just have a good chat. I like to talk to people afterwards to connect with them. I really like finding out who they are and what they enjoyed about my show or why they came to see my show when there are so many other great shows out there. I try to get into the zone for a few hours before I go on stage as I think that being in front of an audience is a spiritual thing. It helps to try and get rid of the voices in your head and not think about the things that are happening that day. Listening to the lyrics and music is the important thing when you’re a performer, so I can’t have anything else in my head. When I see people in an audience smile and laugh or look nervous it means I open myself out to them. I’m always affectionate to anyone who bothered to come and be a part of the gig because it’s not just singing, it’s taking them on board and bringing them on my journey with me each night.
7. Your musical choices for any show always seem to be very carefully considered, and often it seems that it is the words of songs that are the driving force in becoming part of the text of the bigger story that you are weaving. What attracts you to a piece first – words or music?
That’s a good question. I think sometimes you hear a song and you just feel teared up or joyous because of the words or the way the music makes you feel. But if things don’t have a great melody then it doesn’t matter about the words – to me at least. Songs I’m looking at just at the moment include a piece by Nick Cave and there’s a gem at the end, but there’s a beautiful piano piece at the start and it makes me feel sad but in a good way. Sometimes, you need certain songs to unravel from the lyrics and listen to the rocky music that hits you from underneath. Ziggy Stardust is one of my favourite albums and it was my mum’s idea to put some songs from that into the shows. Sometimes I do really well known songs but try it in a different way and I try to make them mine, but only because I love it so much. I have to believe in it myself so that I can give the audience something they haven’t seen before even if they know the song. If I thought I was going to be faking it or doing a tribute then I’d have to not do it in the first place. Like Life On Mars - I won’t sing it because the audience know it too well and you need to do it and own it completely so it can confuse audiences sometimes. I am putting in two very well-known songs into Where Are We Now but I’m dying because of the worry – but I trust the songs and that it will all work out. If you are obsessed with a performer and love a song then hopefully the audience will feel that. But if you’re just singing it because it’s nice, then sometimes you don’t get the audience to believe it. I live my own life on stage and I’ve discovered that through the years of break ups then you become a better singer. You have to do that to be a better singer to understand the songs and the meanings behind them.
8. Sometimes your shows seem to have you tight-roping a thin wire between reality and the surreal, a bit like looking into the world through the reflections of a magic mirror. Is this a conscious or an instinctive development as the shows develop as projects?
I don’t know, to be honest with you. I think maybe it’s my own childlike look on the world. I am quite childlike with stuff and bring that to my shows. Last year I had the pig’s head and Dorothy from Wizard Of Oz moments. I live in that world that’s in my head and it’s how I see life. I don’t like to explain songs too much. I like to feel like another person on stage that’s just a bigger version of myself that I’m showing to the world. I like the fantasies and I don’t like living in the present or looking into the future. The songs make you become a different creature, so I belong to the song and get on with it.
9. One often recurring theme to shows is that feeling of approaching a visiting carnival show with its loud music and bright lights, or how I imagine a 1920s or 1930s small Berlin Cabaret bar might have sounded or felt in atmosphere. Are these particular themes intentional?
Well it’s because I love the Tom Waites type of world that is left of centre. That’s why I find myself in the Spiegeltent again this year. I think I love the magical things in this world. Funnily enough, I bought a little toy dinosaur the other day in a shop and I stared at him for ages while I wondered what this little guy would think of our current culture of selfies and Kim Kardashian. Can you imagine putting things like that into his world?
10. Your choices in music and words for any show often reflect very individual artists and writers who have often refused to conform to what is expected of them by others and pursued very individualistic paths in their artistic and personal lives. Do you feel that it is important that we each of us explore who we are as individuals and develop our own unique identities at all times?
I think it’s important because you learn how to behave in a social situation when you’re leaving school and going to University or going to a job. I feel a little lost sometimes and people feel like that a lot I believe. I think it’s important to find the part of you that is a little childlike, so it’s good to find that and experience the one moment in time. It’s important to feel like an individual with your own thoughts rather than just a part of some crazy machine that gives you no control. The mad thing is that we live in this technological age that puts us in contact with everyone in the world and everything we need to know, but we’re losing touch with each other as individuals, because it’s more important to get more likes on Facebook or followers on Twitter. I talk to my daughter and she’s living in a different world than the one that I did. I think performers don’t really grow up but I think a lot of people feel like that to be fair. I was an architect before I became a singer and it took a lot of strength to leave that security for the unknown, but I was in a really serious car crash and it showed me that you have to do what you love in your life because it could all be over tomorrow.
Thank you to Camille O' Sullivan for taking the time out to answer these questions
Interview by Tom King