Culture that made me: Camille O'Sullivan

From ballet and piano lessons in Cork, to her introduction to the music of the Berlin cabaret scene, Camille O’Sullivan tells Richard Fitzpatrick about her cultural touchstones

Camille O'Sullivan:'You make a fantasy world for yourself. Music was what kind of liberated me.'
Camille O'Sullivan:"You make a fantasy world for yourself. Music was what kind of liberated me."

Living in isolation and falling in love with music

We moved to Ireland from London when I was about a year old. 

We lived in Passage West, Co Cork. We were very isolated. We didn’t really go out. My father worked from home in the basement. 

We lived a very introverted life. Being self-isolated now is bringing me back to when I was a child. I’m still nervous about answering doors. 

I don’t know if my father was running away from the taxman but if someone knocked on the door we used to hide behind the curtains to see who was there! I used to think I was in this kind of weird castle. 

You make a fantasy world for yourself. Music was what kind of liberated me.

Performing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in the front room

My parents had an eight-track cartridge (tape-recording device) and a record player. 

Music was on all the time. 

In the living room, we had a massive library, full of encyclopaedias. On the bottom row were all the records. It was an eclectic mix. 

I used to sit in there and take out The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, Jacques Brel, The Dubliners, Tchaikovsky. 

We used to do performances of Swan Lake for our parents in the front room. 

I definitely think I became a performer from listening to Brel, listening to The Beatles, which was great rock ’n’ roll, and my deep singing voice came from singing along to The Beatles. 

I can sing in those keys; a lot of girls have to sing higher. 

It was the beginning of a journey. I listen to those albums and they still stir such emotion in me.

Gilbert O’Sullivan

My father was a big Gilbert O’Sullivan fan. 

What was weird later was that I met Gilbert O’Sullivan three years ago after a gig on a train.

I said, “Oh, my God, I’m such a fan.” 

Then I wrote to him. I sent him a picture I did of one of his albums. 

I must be so introverted because I couldn’t even open the email he sent back to me because I was too scared. I had friends read it for me!

David Bowie’s Moonage Daydream

My sister who was five years older started playing the likes of Pink Floyd, David Bowie and Kate Bush. I used to hear them through her bedroom wall. 

Later on, all the stuff influenced me and came out on stage. They all have a theatrical, darker quality to them. 

I clearly remember getting my first single from my sister of Bowie’s ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’. 

To this day, if I ever hear those songs it brings me right back. 

Bowie was brilliant, fantastical music. I remember taking a hairbrush to sing out loud Bowie’s ‘Moonage Daydream’. 

All these things connected later on. When I became a singer, my mother said to me one day, “Why don’t you sing ‘Moonage Daydream’? That’s the song you always danced to?”

Camille O'Sullivan: 'I definitely think I became a performer from listening to Brel, listening to The Beatles, which was great rock ’n’ roll, and my deep singing voice came from singing along to The Beatles.'
Camille O'Sullivan: "I definitely think I became a performer from listening to Brel, listening to The Beatles, which was great rock ’n’ roll, and my deep singing voice came from singing along to The Beatles."

Jan Cáp and finding emotion

I had an amazing piano tutor called Jan Cáp. 

He was a Czechoslovakian concert pianist who became head of the Cork School of Music.

He used to instruct me: “Forget yourself. You are now an animal moving through the forest.” 

Sometimes I’d talk to my band and they’d say: “What forest? Where are we going?” I only realised later that I was recounting what he said to me. 

I gave up piano but he gave me this brilliant gift of emotion. Emotion is what you’re trying to capture in performance.

Ballet and learning about presence

My mother gave me this chance to do ballet. She sent me to Cork’s School of Ballet which was run by Joan Denise Moriarty. 

This cold little room with wonderful pictures on the wall. I was transported. It was falling apart, but I thought I was part of an elite universe. 

She was the most amazing little lady but she scared me. You were quiet. You didn’t speak. You moved gracefully. 

She always talked about presence. Even if you’re standing still, you have to have presence. I always remember that. 

I find it an amazing thing because a lot of people when they meet me say: “You’re smaller than what I thought you were.”

Agnes Bernelle

When I started performing, Agnes Bernelle was the only person doing Kurt Weill’s music in Ireland.

She was from Berlin. Her father Rudolf Bernauer had run a lot of the old Berlin theatres. She was the real article. 

People like Tom Waits and Marc Almond have talked about her as being someone influential to them, too. 

Here was an unbelievable woman to find living in Ireland in the 1990s. She really inspired me as a woman. 

She was in her seventies singing these old Kurt Weill songs so it wasn’t about having sex appeal. I thought: Wow, I can do this singing when I’m 90! It mixed acting and singing together to conjure something. 

I was an architect at the time. It lit something in me as a performer.

It was what David Bowie was doing: you could become something else.

That allowed my introverted self to realise that when you’re on stage you can be all these things and be emotional.

I didn’t distinguish between male and female artists. I thought: why can’t you be like a man? 

When I started singing I hardly ever sang women’s music.

I sang men’s music because there was a harsher, darker quality to it, it was the work I liked and I could transform it more because I was lending a girl’s voice to it.

TV touchstones

If I remember TV stuff it was Wanderly Wagon, Sesame Street

To this day, the theme music from Wanderly Wagon is the ringtone on my phone. Certain people have a big smile on their face when it rings. 

I’m a bit addicted now to murder mysteries and my partner (Aidan Gillen) hates them. It must have come from my days of watching Columbo, which was a wonderfully written series. 

I’m so glad my parents introduced me to Kenny Everett or even Benny Hill, which is supposed to be non-PC, but the humour today of certain people in their forties is brilliant because of those kinds of shows.

Films

They played great old movies on Irish television when I was growing up: Dr Zhivago, Billy Wilder’s films, Some Like It Hot, wonderfully rich and sharp, very real, sad stories. 

Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz— I’ve used their recordings in my shows.

That’s what I was inspired by growing up, watching those old classics.

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