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Camille O’Sullivan on Bowie and latest show The Carny Dream

PUBLISHED: 11:08 15 March 2017

Irish-French chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan has since gained an international reputation for her dramatic musical interpretations. Picture: Submitted

Irish-French chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan has since gained an international reputation for her dramatic musical interpretations. Picture: Submitted

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Dark, sexy, fierce, amusing and mesmerising, the Irish-French chanteuse transforms each song into an intense, emotional and theatrical experience.

She has previously been firm favourite at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, now she is bringing her latest show, The Carny Dream, to Norwich Playhouse. Picture: SubmittedShe has previously been firm favourite at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, now she is bringing her latest show, The Carny Dream, to Norwich Playhouse. Picture: Submitted

She’s starred on Broadway and wowed a sold-out Sydney Opera House. She’s had hit shows at Edinburgh, become a poster star of the resurgent cabaret scene and performed on Later…with Jools Holland.

Dark, sexy, amusing and a mesmerising live performer, Irish-French chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan has since gained an international reputation for her dramatic musical interpretations.

She first came to prominence when variety show La Clique took a break from its usual Edinburgh Festival residency in 2007. She stepped in with La Fille Du Cirque, and promptly sold out a three-week run. Her return the following year with her show Dark Angel saw a star born. She recently won the coveted Herald Angel award for her Royal Shakespeare Company solo performance The Rape of Lucrece.

Her spellbinding performances fall between genres. She’s a singer, but she’s not a singer-songwriter. She performs with a band, but it’s more a theatrical show than a straight-up gig. But her success has firmly established her at the forefront of a renaissance in alternative nightlife.

To say see covers songs of other artists isn’t the half of it. She completely inhabits the work of artists like Jacques Brel, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, David Bowie and more, making the songs her own in a theatrical, almost schizophrenically emotional style.

She has previously been firm favourite at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, now she is bringing her latest show, The Carny Dream, to Norwich.

What can you tell us about The Carny Dream?

It’s songs by artists including Nick Cave and Radiohead and there’s a love letter to David Bowie at the end of the show. It’s based around my love and fascination of carnivals and shows – it’s pretty much like a crazy and vivid dream and really I’m living a dream up on stage by singing these songs. It’s full of really emotional songs and I’m being a chameleon on stage to become different people with each song. I love story telling with lots of rock and roll and drama and emotional and theatrical.

Camille O'Sullivan is a singer, but she’s not a singer-songwriter. She performs with a band, but it’s more a theatrical show than a straight-up gig. Picture: SubmittedCamille O'Sullivan is a singer, but she’s not a singer-songwriter. She performs with a band, but it’s more a theatrical show than a straight-up gig. Picture: Submitted

Are you going for a certain atmosphere or mood with this show?

I love fairy tales and darkness and the show goes from being enigmatic to bonkers to crazy, so I suppose there’s always a surreal quality to the show and it goes from dark to light, laughter to crying. It’s a really surreal world onstage with ginger bread houses and lighting. It’s like being a child going to a circus – I want to recreate the magic.

What songs feature and how do you go about choosing the music?

There’s Radiohead, Exit Music For A Film, Utopia by Goldfrapp, Is That All There is by Peggy Lee, Ship Song by Nick Cave, Black Star by David Bowie – I perform some songs from his latest album and some old favourites – there’s Look Mummy No Hands and Simple Twist of Fate by Bob Dylan. They are songs that I’m obsessed with listening to myself to the point that I need to go out and sing them, I choose songs that have variation in them. I show vulnerability in one, anger in another, femme fatale in another. No show is the same and I bring people on a different journey. I can go to a dark place and then a funny place.

Do the songs of some artists, say Tom Waits and Nick Cave, lend themselves to dramatic interpretation — and do some just not work at all?

Yes – I think Nick Cave is someone I adore to sing and I feel that as a woman singing a male song, they fit hand in glove. The worlds that are created in those songs I can inhabit. But the Ship Song took me two years to sing differently to him. I wanted to make it my own and there are certain songs you just shouldn’t try to sing – sadly you learn that sometimes in front of an audience. You have to rehearse a song to see how it can belong to you. There are some songs that just never belong to you and you have to learn to not sing them. There are also songs that don’t move you any more, even if they have done in the past. I’ve been through really bad break ups and I always perform better with some songs then at those low points because they fit the mood I’m in at that time.

David Bowie has long been part of your repertoire — in the wake of his death does performing his songs have an extra special feel?

Yes it does actually. I would say that I find it quite sad to sing his songs. When I was a teenager and listening to his songs playing through my sisters walls, I used to feel like crying as I’d never heard anything quite like him. I felt that a part of my youth was taken away from me and then gone along with him. I am sharing some sort of love letter to David Bowie in the show and I do that with Nick Cave too regarding the terrible thing that happened to his son. I really love those people and I’m obsessed by their music and you do really care for them. When you sing on stage it’s amazing the things that go through your mind, the song, the person who wrote the song. With Bowie I think of my sister and my parents. He was the only person I ever wanted to marry back then. After he died I watched so many interviews of him and really saw that he was such a beautiful person and I feel closer to him when I perform his songs now.

The Carny Dream has the setting of a mirrored Spiegeltent. What makes these traditional cabaret-style venues so special for cabaret performers?

They are a really beautiful thing and a piece of art in themselves. They carry the ghosts of the past, with the velvet and the mirrors so you see yourself and the audience all wrapped around each other. The stage is surrounded by the audience and they are everywhere around you. It’s so intimate and you feel like you’re in a church. There’s a magic to it – like being a child again going into a circus. I sing emotional and dramatic songs with the audience close in the round, so I feel like I’m right in the middle of them.

You’ve played in the real Spiegeltent as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. What are your memories of that?

My memories are just wonderful. I think I have played in the tent since 2004 and with Norwich, what I loved was that the audience was as involved as I was. I remember two marriage proposals. I remember the people who had come to see me in my first gig there too. I also think that people in Norwich dress in a really cool way, so I have to raise my game whenever I’m there.

You’re known for getting hands-on and participating with the audience. Is that an important aspect to your shows and performance?

I used to be more hands on, I would have sat on them during a song years ago, but as time goes on I probably feel like going out to them more for a hug of affection. I feel like it’s important to sing to the audience as if they’re one person. I want to give people the memory and I am including them during the performances by looking at them and connecting with them. I want to bring them into the world that I inhabit. I think it’s important to be vulnerable in front of an audience. I don’t have to touch people physically but I want to have a conversation with the audiences. I have to hug some members because I can be scared sometimes when I’m performing and I want to feel their love back so it comforts me.

You’re touring this spring, but what other plans do you have for 2017?

After the UK tour is over, I do another tour in Australia and also a show with Paul Kelly, we wrote a musical together called Ancient Rain. Then I do a theatre show called Roycheck in Winter – that will be in the Galway Arts Festival and Barbican and the Dublin Theatre Festival. And I’ll be doing the music of Jim Jarmusch in the Barbican. I’ll also be release the CD of the live show that I did at the Wilton Music Hall.

• Camille O’Sullivan: The Carny Dream, Norwich Playhouse, March 16-17, 7.30pm, £20, 01603 598598, www.norwichplayhouse.co.uk

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