An Interview With Camille O’Sullivan

The Dublin Diva talks to…

Camille’s Live Dates »
Camille O’Sullivan is a Dublin-based performer of dark and dangerous music. Her repertoire covers the blackly humorous works of the Weimar Cabaret years, the songs of Kurt Weill, Bertholt Brecht, and Freidrich Hollaender, and includes more recent songs by Nick Cave and Tom Waits.
I was on her website, reading about her wide musical influences, and I wondered how she got into all of this stuff. And since no one else was asking…
B: What draws you to the music you perform?
C: I suppose I don’t take things at face value, and I’ve always been quite curious and investigative. I’m quite a humorous person, and I’m interested in all aspects of people. There’s another side to people’s personalities, there’s another world that exists, that people don’t show socially, because it’s too emotional or it would be too dark to show it, and I think I’ve always been drawn to that.
I like to express myself so when I hear these songs, and if I’m moved by them, I’m trying to work out why… it has a particular edge to it, and I’m drawn to that left of centre…
B: There’s danger to it?
C: Yeah, and I don’t believe that things are rosy. I have a dark side to me too, even though I don’t really use it. But if I sing, I can use it, so that’s where I’ve been drawn in. I don’t think I’ve ever followed a typical social path. Like, I went to college, went to school, I did all of the bloody educational stuff, I kept on the straight and narrow, I didn’t act crazy or anything.
But I never really thought ‘it’s going to end up with me working for ever’, I thought that I had to find a way to express myself through these songs, performing, or my painting. I suppose it’s about the intense part of the human condition, like the way Nick Cave talks about love and death and murder, they’re all very, instinctive… they’re all real human conditions, compared to what we’re listening to right now [gestures upwards… Mary Black is playing on the hotel stereo].
I love all kinds of music, classical, rock, blues, but sometimes, like Pink Floyd or Kate Bush, you’ll hear something almost glorious in a classical way, but slightly off-kilter, and I like that side of it. I’ve realised I’m a bit obsessed by it, to the point where I’m making a living from it, which makes me happy, as I’m doing the work I want to, and able to explore that side of myself.
It differs from the path I was on from my education, which was pretty set out – ‘you’ll be an architect for the rest of your life’. where’s this is great. Now its you might get married, you mightn’t you might have kids, you might not. You mightn’t ever meet somebody, or you might. But I’m bound to meet interesting characters along the way, work with other musicians who are going to influence me.
I don’t write my own songs, but I have a wealth of stuff to look, so I initially started looking at things from a theatrical point of view of telling songs, but now I’m more interested in the rough edge to it. That’s what I liked about the Spiegeltent gig, it was pretty hard for me to take that step, it’s only natural, as a performer, to want to please the audience. Whether like ‘this is a lovely song’ or, ‘did they smile?’… but most of what I did was kind of dark, I thought. Afterwards people said to me ‘why didn’t you do a nice song in it?’
That’s a really Irish condition, pleasing people – ‘sure it’s got to be entertaining’. I hate even the word cabaret because it’s not describing what Irish people know as cabaret. In France and Germany it’s a real tradition, a way of looking at life. People here just think [puts on German accent] ‘you know cabaret is vamps and fishnet stockings’… I think I get frustrated by the term, because everyone’s got a notion that it’s quite camp, and nothing else.
It’s funny, 10 years ago I would have been more tuned in with the more romantic side of music, and I still love that, like I love in a lovely Brel tune or Cave, People Ain’t No Good or something like that, but now I kinda see there’s a dark side to it… so that I don’t get to get too poignant about these things.
B: Some of those songs are pretty hopeful too
C: Yeah. But I think it’s really funny though, because Cave’s songs are written in a major key, so the songs sound very uplifting than minor ones, but he’s singing about minor things, so he’s doing two different things at the one time. I don’t know if that explains it what I do…
B: Yes, it does, I think what I’m trying to get to here is that there’s something primal about this music.
C: That’s the word I was trying to look for! Whenever I talk to my parents on this issue, my father says to me ‘you’re like a complete child in your ways of handling things, because you do it on the absolute basic level…, and that’s why you’re crying, and that’s why you’re happy…’ and that’s why I love to sing these things…
I’m shyer talking between songs that I am singing them. When I’m singing, I can have the freedom to just, y’know, live in that world, and sing. And these songs interest me because they’re primal, they’re pretty direct. And if I can make people get that idea, that’s encouraging as a performer. Some people are slightly uncomfortable with it, other people enjoy it. Whatever’s the kick!
B: The first time I saw you play was in Club Absinthe, when I was only dimly aware of Weill and Brecht’s music. After that, I started tracking down the best versions Mac the Knife and Pirate Jenny, because they’re such frightening songs.
C: I’ve actually stopped singing Pirate Jenny, for a while, because there’s a moment when songs, when you get good at doing them, then you’re not really doing them, you’re doing then because you know the words.
B: You don’t really hear it anymore?
C: Yeah, so you have to let them go for a while, and they comes back in a different way.
In Club Absinthe I used to hit that song all the time, with the band and that whole lot of us [in Klub Kabaret]… it was just perfect. After doing it with other people it became too refined… like Mac the Knife, it needs that edge.
When we did Mac the Knife in the Spiegeltent, we were arguing about the end, and Trevor (one of the band) was right, because the typical thing to do is the American version, which is to rise, rise, rise during the song.
A lot of people do that changing of the keys even in the German version, but Trevor was saying ‘you have to keep it on the same key the whole way through’ and we realised that there is a penultimate moment, because Brecht is writing about some child that has been murdered… I saw that in the show as the moment when he’s killing the child and then the song is brought down.
I think it’s interesting that musically you can tell that story – we sang in German and my German was bit messed up on the night, but I think it’s important to sing in the original language. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand, because sometimes, the guttural thing will get it across, and it will be far stronger in the end for people. I sang the last verse in English, but I think it was necessary for people to explain something of the song.
B: It was like was the dark point of the night
C: Well people aren’t expecting it, they’ve never really listened to Mac the Knife before. They’ve heard Frank Sinatra sing it, and it’s like Hey Frank, let’s swing… but then they hear it, and Mac is such a horrible character… the white gloves, the teeth like shark’s.
B: Yeah the swing version makes him out to be a total geezer
C: Yeah, while he’s burning houses, and that whole notion of the ‘child bride’, that she’s been violated… but I suppose that things get lost in translation.
B: There’s some words I’ve been reading about, Nick Cave mentions some of them in his Secret Life of the Love Song . Duende , saudade, sensucht . They seem to refer to this kind of music.
Let’s take sensucht – do you know it?
C: You mean’what you yearn for’?
B: Yes, what I’ve read about it, it’s supposed to be part of the German psyche.
C: In A Little Yearning, the song by Freida Hollander, I saw it as a yearning for the way it was, the way it could be, what they were going through, coming out of the war, it was about yearning for innocence again.
B: I was led to that word while reading about duende and saudade. As I said, Nick Cave talks about them.
C: Does he go on about what they mean?
B: Yes, he talks about them both. You know Garcia Lorca? He refers to Lorca
C: Yes… the Spanish writer..
B: Lorca describes duende as being ‘black sounds’. Cave pitches saudade as beautiful melancholy. It’s a Portuguese word that apparently refers to people waiting for their loved ones to come home from the sea.. It’s also been defined as ‘nostalgic longing for what’s been lost’. Which I suppose proves that these words are not easily definable. But they do seem interchangeable, they seem to refer to a particular aspect of human nature.
C: Songs, I suppose, don’t have to be literally happy. Life isn’t necessarily, ‘hey everything’s great, everything’s wonderful, everything float’s along happily… ‘
If you look at life realistically, which I suppose is how Garcia Lorca looked at things too, the most amazing things that happen to you in your life are not that important, it’s actually the little, menial things that are so incredible.
With Waits or Cave, you won’t get a yee-hah, ‘up’ song from them, instead you’ll get something that’s so uplifting… that it’s stronger, in a way.
B: With Nick Cave, I think sometimes people don’t see the humour – and he’s so funny!
C: But he does it in a tragic way, and that’s the most potent kind of mixture, creating very biting, tough songs, and a bit of humour with it, because people aren’t expecting that.
And with People Ain’t No Good, I was thinking recently that it is so sad, but there are parts to it too that are just… know, ‘let the pink-eyed pigeons coo’… it’s a very dry humour…
I think it’s interesting because Cave’s songs are often stories, they’re not a Vaudeville Cabaret thing, it’s very searching…it’s more serious in its way of searching, yet it still holds life within it,
It’s funny, you first listen to the stuff, and you go ‘Oh God’ [throws eyes to heaven], and then you listen again, and you’re really hearing it.
And with Waits too, he does the same thing – It’s so hard to concentrate with this woman singing [laughs, gestures towards speakers still blurting out Mary Black]
B: We were talking earlier about Weill and music that’s sort of off-kilter – there’s something slightly discordant in his arrangements, isn’t there?
C: Well, back then, they had a format of a leader song, with classical singing, and Bertholt Brecht wanted to make the audience pay response, get them to do the work… there was melody, but a bitter twist in the song, and slightly discordant with odd harmonics,
The rhythm is what has to make it work… it’s bom, bom… bom, bom… the songs often have a quite monotonous rhythm, so through that, you’ve got to either speak the song or sing it, and typically, singing and speaking is what suits the Weill/Brecht songs best.
Because they’re telling you something, but not in a ‘sit back and relax’ kind of way. You [the listener] have to work bloody hard, and with the German songs, I think a lot of them, not necessarily Weill’s, but other peoples – they’re quite political, quite feisty, holding up a mirror to things, ‘get off your ass and listen to this’.
So it was very ‘in your face’…
B: I first came across this idea of making music deliberately ‘off centre’, so that it’s impossible to ignore, while reading about Joy Division… they were deliberately offsetting the timing of the drums, to create an aural hook in the music… but it’s like they were making the music ugly to make it more beautiful, and it makes the song stick in your head.
C: It’s funny, some of the people I work with give out to me for speaking the songs, because they’re so used to singers… I never trained to sing, so I always have that kind of feeling I’ve lost out on something, and I’m now I’m quite happy that I didn’t train.
Performing these songs is quite instinctive, they’re like monologues in a way, and the words are as important as the melody. The melody makes you listen to the words more, because there’s either an monotonous or discordant thing, it alerts you to something that’s wrong.
B: Sort of like ‘destructive interference’?*
C: That would be a good term for it…
I suppose it’s tougher for people to listen to, but the songs still have a beautiful melancholy. Even Pirate Jenny, which is scary, has melodies and choruses that are so strange… The verse will tell you one thing, and the chorus will tell you something else.
It’s not like pop songs – you sing these songs and they’re six-seven minutes long, and you think ‘what the hell’ – they’re not simple, so you don’t know if you’ve hit the button in the performance. But they have a life of their own, they’re not just jazzy, these German songs are very specific. When you hear them you think, ‘right, that’s bloody 1930s!’. When you listen to Waits and Cave, some of their music sounds like that.
B: Have you thought about performing your own stuff?
C: I’d like to give it a try, but I’ve never had the confidence yet. I’ve been singing other people’s stuff, which I deem as wonderful, and thinking ‘can Camille do these things?’ because I love their music so much. It’s hard. Then there are people are singers for years, who have just been very good singers. I mightn’t ever be a good writer. I’ll try, but everything is very zoned on whether you are a songwriter or not.
B: There’s a very narrow interpretation of what a performer should be able to do
C: Compared to some people, I perform more, but I can’t write, and then there are people who can sing and write fantastically, and maybe it’s in the joy of listening to them that which is its own strength,
C: I always used to regret it,. and then I think, I have to be fair on myself too, I can take those songs and make something happen, I will definitely try… this year…
B: Tell me more about the the Black Angel show…
C: When we were working on the Black Angel, we thought, maybe we need to explain what the Black Angel is…? I was thinking that I should speak less to the audience, just take on the persona and sing the songs… it all refers to a time, when Germany had four of five years of democracy, and they really looked at things differently, sex, women’s rights and all that. Then those things were suddenly gone. And there was lots of writers, mostly Jewish were, really trying to tell the public to strive for all these things, or we’ll be in trouble – and it took until the 1960s for people to come back to that way of thinking.
And even now we’re kind of complacent…It’s happening again. In the Weimar period, they really were far ahead of their time, trying to push the boundaries. We haven’t come any further, we’re still a bit racist, we’re still conservative, and the notion that what was great about the dark side of the German psyche was that life is shit, and get on with it…but there’s a humour in it. They don’t hide it.
Whether that’s singing songs about the broken woman in Surabaya Johnny or Pirate Jenny’s dreams of killing… I think it’s more truthful.
Like The Mercy Seat [by Nick Cave] for instance, it’s about the inside of some messed up person’s head, and everyday we read about this stuff in the newspaper…about the Mac the Knife paedophile characters, so it’s all they’re and we’re just brushing it away. These songs are quite wonderful, because they say it out, in a very dramatic way.
B: It’s so different – you’re saying that German approach is to say ‘Things have been shit, let’s get on with it’, while in Ireland we’re hung about how bad things used to me, and we can’t move on.
C: I always think that Irish people ‘believe in their own’ only after they’ve gone…or when they come back from abroad, never while they’re here.
I’m very inquisitive, so I find there’s a kind of a shutdown valve for the masses here, a kind of ‘accept it as it is’ attitude. It could be down to religion. I’m quite spiritual, not very religious… there’s a certain kind of nervousness and a kind of a giggle, about why anyone would talk, or sing about these issues. People just shut down. It’s easier to be safe.
My very close friends understand me, but they laugh at the way I do things, but they do introduce me as ‘Here’s Camille, she’s a bit mad, but you’ll love her’,
And then there’s people who didn’t relay understand that my avenue isn’t an easy one to take, they think that I’m not facing reality, but I think I’m facing the hardest thing I can face, and that’s myself. I’m emoting all the time, up on stage, or trying to make sense of what I’m doing. It was easier in a job – someone took care of things, and paid me. That’s not taking away from anyone working in a job, but for a while I thought I was running from things – I was so tuned into the 9-5 life.
I used to get frustrated around Christmas – it’s a time of year when I would gauge my life. Am doing what I want? Every year it’s getting better. It’s sort of nomadic life, trying to exist for each day…it’s not that I can’t see what the end of the year is, but I’d like to think that it’s a journey I’ve chosen to take… Even if it is driving me a bit mad.
Camille’s Live Dates »

Chief Bottle Washer at Blather
Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and "known troublemaker" Dave Walsh is the founder of, described both as "possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River", and "the nicest website circulating in Ireland". Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.

1 comment

  1. (As Count Basie put it one April in Paris: ‘One More Time!’)
    Ah…Mack the Knife is such a song! It was my choice for the song of the 20th century, but who listens to me?
    Die Moritat von Mackie Messer. There’s quite a bit of lore around this song. Stop me if you’ve heard it all before’
    Let’s begin with the whole palimpsest quality of Brecht’s play in which the German gangster underworld of the early twentieth century is coded through the London Victorian equivalent of the same, with all its Dickensian charm. But Brecht still drew from the John Gay’s original ‘Beggar’s Opera,’ a contemporary satire set in the year of its debut: 1728. A much more honest time in its viciousness than the nineteenth century – and in many ways more akin to the emerging 20th century of Brecht’s world. Reading Gay’s savaging of the shinola of moral pieties over the shit of deeds and motives in his day is like finding your sainted grandmother’s diary – and learning she was a wharf-side whore who dealt smack to children. A friend of Swift’s, Gay could write himself a sharp line or two.
    (With what weapon does a Restoration dramatist attack his themes?
    A rapier wit.
    And how is it deployed?
    It is brandished.
    In what manner?
    Parodying the fashionable Italianate opera style of the moment, Gay’s play also used street ballads and broadsheet songs of the time including:
    Over the Hills and Far Away
    Bessie Bell and Mary Gray
    Fast-forward to 1928 and our son of a German Jewish cantor Kurt Weill. So here’s this play he’s writing songs for that’s drawing from three cultural reference points, and here’s this fantastic role: Mackie Messer. Legend has it that the rather vain actor in that part pestered Weill for a big song to build up his character. Weill, whose earlier drafts of the play had the original Gay songs as well as songs from Rudyard Kipling, obliges his prima donna with a last-minute masterpiece cataloging the criminal deeds of the amoral blade-wielding Mackie and then gives it to Kurt Gerron, in the role of the ‘Ballad Singer’. The song makes Gerron a national star: first in Germany, then Paris, then Amsterdam, then behind the walls of Therensienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Gerron?s last recorded performance of ‘his’ song is in a Nazi propaganda film he directs at the government’s behest.
    ‘Und Schmul Meier bleibt verschwunden. Wie so mancher reiche Mann?’
    Now you can pick any number of reasons why Weill’s songs earned themselves the label of ‘decadent’ under the Nazi regime. With escalating riots and orchestrated propaganda campaigns attending each new premiere, Weill leaves Germany for America in ’33.
    I tell you this, pal: Mack the Knife was destined for America. John Gay’s original opera was the first musical play to be produced in colonial New York, and there’s a legend that Alexander Hamilton’s fatal antagonism with Aaron Burr began with their competition for the charms of the stage actress playing Polly Peachum. Sure, from 1776 to 1954 is a long time to wait for a revival, but when Lotte Lenya reprised her role as Jenny Diver on a Off-Broadway stage in an English-language production of her late husband’s work and, in his role as the Ballad Singer, Gerald Price evoked the mordant cheer of Gerron’s spirit once again with ‘Mack the Knife’, it didn’t take no German rocket scientist to see that Cold War America found its anthem.
    Tell me that Frank Sinatra or Bobby Darin or Louis Armstrong dumb the song down and I’ll suggest you read up a bit on the lives of each and listen again. In particular, Armstrong – king of Jazz in a world where buses, lunch counters, and musical concerts were still divided down a color-line – like Weill, choosing exile from his beloved New Orleans after a return in 1931 resulted in a white radio announcer snubbing him and a free concert scheduled for an African-American audience was cancelled. Armstrong came back once more in 1946 to wear the crown of Zulu King in the Mardi Gras parade designed to lampoon the upscale white counterpart of Bacchus. And in Armstrong’s entourage, and certainly in Sinatra’s and no doubt in Darin’s, were those gentlemen who wore the gloves so that none might see the blood.
    Lost verses? Do you really need to spell out the rape and the arson in J. Edgar Hoover’s America? A shrug adjusting your tailored suit, a lift of the eyebrow during the swingin’ instrumental break, a smirk at the big players in the front row ‘you?re lookin good’, Mr. Giancana – with their dolls in diamonds by their side and everyone in the joint knows the rest of the lyrics without being told.
    I’m a bit of a collector of great performances of ‘Mack the Knife’. There’s Ella Fitzgerald in Berlin, 1960. Ich bein ein Messer, eh? There’s Uta Lemper. There’s Nick Cave on ‘September Songs.’ There’s Harry Connick Jr. – another great musician from New Orleans – whose version haunts the end credits of ‘Quiz Show,’ a movie about the game show scandals of the ’50s. Then there’s the strange and compelling ‘Mac Tonight’ – an ad campaign in the ’80s promoting McDonald’s as a suave, dinnertime kinda joint. Consumer response to that ad was delightfully Brechtian. People loved the song and character: they simply forgot the product it promoted.
    As for losing something in the translation, yes, the last verses of the song never went Vegas. And yet, if the twentieth century had a monument and that monument needed an epitaph, I’d nominate this one:
    Denn die einen sind im Dunkelr
    Und die andren sind im Licht
    Und man siehet die im Lichte
    Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.

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