Camilla Griehsel: Finding solace in music after a whole heap of grief

West Cork-based Camilla Griehsel lost three people she loved within the space of a few weeks. It's made her realise how fragile life is, writes Ellie O'Byrne

“THERE’S only so much crying you can do,” West Cork based singer Camilla Griehsel says. And if anyone knows about grieving, Griehsel does.

In the space of a few short weeks in 2016, death robbed her of two bandmates, one of whom was also her ex-husband and father of her three children, as well as her beloved mother.

Griehsel sang with legendary Interference singer Fergus O’Farrell in a band called Dog Tail Soup; also in the band was her ex-husband, singer-songwriter Colin Vearncombe, a UK hit-maker in the 1980s under the moniker of Black.

Vearncombe died of injuries sustained in a car accident, a week before O’Farrell succumbed to the muscular dystrophy he battled throughout his life. Just weeks later, Griehsel’s mother also died.

Song saw her through the ensuing avalanche of grief. “I sang at Colin’s funeral, I sang at Ferg’s funeral and I sang at my mum’s funeral,” she says. “I take strength from singing; it’s a way for me to make sense of everything. There was so much loss: what remains is the gratitude and the love you feel for them. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to release that in song.”

Grief is not the only emotion that song can express when words fail us. Recently, Griehsel, a classically trained soprano, became intrigued with the idea of a universal, non-verbal, human language.

“There’s this language which goes beyond words which everyone is born with, that everyone understands,” she says. “In song, that’s very powerful.”

She even coined her own term for this phenomenon: Mamasongue. “It’s now a powerful concept for me,” she says. “There are things I’ve been wanting to express since childhood embodied in that term.”

Griehsel, and an assemblage of musicians she describes as her “dream team” have worked up a show called Mamasongue, which interweaves elements of storytelling, visual display and song. Now, they’re ready to debut Mamasongue in Skibbereen Town Hall, near Griehsel’s adopted home town of Schull.

Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu, South African bassist Concord Nkabinde, percussionist Éamonn Cagney, former Therapy drummer Graham Hopkins, and composer and pianist Maurice Seezer: it certainly sounds like a dream team.

The show contains an eclectic array of songs in six languages, including compositions by Tsumbu, Seezer and Nkabinde, as well as songs by O’Farrell, Vearnecombe and Griehsel herself.

It’s important to Griehsel to premiere the show in the Skibbereen venue, which became a hub of support and the scene of several commemorative events following the deaths of Vearnecombe and O’Farrell.

Schull became home to her, Vearnecombe and their three young children in 2002, and the sense of community in the West Cork village has become very important in Griehsel’s life.

“When difficult things happen, people just rally around you here,” she says. “People have been extraordinarily kind; there’s a softness here, and people are more mindful.”

It’s a far cry from the superficiality of the commercial world of pop where she met Vearnecombe in the 1980s; a singer with Norwegian pop trio One 2 Many, who reached short-lived success with their upbeat dance hit ‘Downtown’, Griehsel and her bandmates were signed to record label A&M. But Griehsel, who feels strong connections to nature through her childhood in Sweden, found the pressures to be commercially marketable a completely alien mindset.

“I was looking for integrity and truth, and sharing something meaningful,” she says. “When I was doing the pop thing, after six months I felt so compromised and embarrassed that I needed to get out of there, which I did.”

Now in her 50s and having recently become a grandmother through, she feels free to continue to grow as a performer, a singer and a songwriter.

“I listen to South American singers, women so revered in their age and their wisdom, and they still have enormous status as they age,” she says.

“I’m inspired by them. I don’t have time to waste now, that’s another thing that’s coming with age. I want to live! All that other stuff, the commercial side, is nothing at all to do with what I’m doing. For me, my work is about connecting people.”

A preview of Mamasongue takes place in Skibbereen Town Hall on Friday, April 27. More dates to be announced.

West Cork-based Camilla Griehsel lost three people she loved within the space of a few weeks. It’s made her realise how fragile life is, writes

Ellie O’Byrne

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