It wouldn’t be the Edinburgh Festival Fringe without the singing storyteller Camille O’Sullivan and for a couple of years there it wasn’t, but this year she’s back with Dreaming, a new show born of her experiences during the pandemic. A fixture of an Edinburgh August since 2004, and stages worldwide, the award-winning Irish singer and performer has been storming the festival every year with her band, performing songs ranging from Bowie to Brel, Cohen to Cave to rave reviews but the past few years have changed us all, and none more so than O’Sullivan. That’s why this year is a departure as she takes the stage with long-time collaborator and best friend Feargal Murray on piano in a more stripped back show that embodies the journey we’ve all been on, using song to spotlight both the dark and light in our lives with her trademark honesty, humour, passion and joie de vivre. Never one to hold back - shoes abandoned, tables danced on, soul laid bare, O’Sullivan intends to deliver an evening of storytelling in song that is even more intimate and spiritual than before, acknowledging what we’ve all been through yet still sparkling with celebration for the moments of joy to be found in life.
“I love singing and I love working with Feargal and it’ll be joyful. Maybe it’s vulnerable, because I’ve usually been supported by the band, but here we are just going ‘this is us’.” At sold-out runs in Dublin, London and the new Irish Arts Center in New York since returning to performance, O’Sullivan and Murray have re-connected with their audience on the other side of the pandemic.
“It was very noticeable when we were just touring that the audience is fragile and they’re shy. They’re coming back now. And it’s been such an unusual thing for the world to have gone through this.”
Fresh from Derry where she’s been visiting Murray to try out and record songs for potential inclusion in the set of Dreaming - there are hunners, she doesn’t do things by halves - she’s up early after a gig in Galway where she was joined by her nine-year-old daughter Lila and partner Aidan Gillen, the actor. She has a heart as big as Ireland, and I know this because this is the second time we’ve spoken in a couple of days, O’Sullivan generously repeating the interview after a clusterthingy of technological failings saw both my recording devices fail. And because O’Sullivan is a born storyteller, and talks twenty to the dozen the way all people from Cork do as she tells me, full of fantastic craic with anecdotes and observations, eccentricities and honesties, this is a huge loss. But the woman is a total trooper, it’s no problem, she’s delighted to do it all again. Not only that but she trumps my meltdown with a tale of her own, relating how on the bus from Derry to Galway she got off to buy a sandwich for Sligo and left her phone on a wall, with all of the new recordings of possible songs for Edinburgh, only for it to be returned by another passenger which resulted in the entire bus getting effusive hugs from O’Sullivan.
“I hugged nearly every person on that bloody bus. I didn’t care about Covid. I hugged the bus driver fella and he said’ it’s not me, it’s that young fella down the back’. There was me thinking those young boys were going to be annoying. I said ‘you’re great young boys, all good things are going to happen to you in your lives from now on, you’re going to grow into great, great men!’, and they’re looking at me, who is this crazy lunatic?” she laughs, something she does a lot.
O’Sullivan is full of glee at being out and about again, travelling and performing after the first lockdown saw her “roller skating, hula-hooping, blah blah and the second one, drinking.” She also took up sewing clothes for her daughter, bought a keyboard to learn to play classical music, caught up with friends and developed a daytime TV habit until Gillen pointed out that recording it and watching it at one in the morning was unusual. Not that she wasn’t enjoying all these activities but she admits: “I forgot I was a singer.” It was time to reconnect with Murray at a farmhouse in the countryside and they recorded over 200 new tracks, accompanied by a sheepdog barking in the background, some of which will be in the Edinburgh show and later released in an album.
So, about the show, why is it called Dreaming?
“I should have called it The Art of Falling Apart or The Wheels Are Coming Off, but Dreaming is probably more seductive in the sense that I think I’m a bit of a dreamer, and I think it encompasses everything I love about music and the fantasy of stuff and to become something else.”
“Dreaming is many kinds of things. It’s the right dream. And dreaming of what you want to be in your life. And this bad dream we’ve been in. The nightmare dreams. So I’m moved by that notion and have been since I was a child, and I think I’m holding on as long as I can to that. Because I’m quite a nervous person and I sometimes don’t push my dreams the way I’d like to, so if I put the gauntlet down and name something… So the show in a way has one thing for the audience and it has another for me because I’m dreaming this up and trying to make this thing happen, and at this stage in my life I’m trying to hold on to dreams. Because there were a few shaky years where you go ‘oh my god I’m just too old, I’m not going to be an astronaut any more’, not that I wanted to be, but you know. I got a shock, because for so long I’ve been quite child-like and I think a lot of performers are, they just keep that part of them alive. And I think Covid probably readjusted me.”
O’Sullivan had already ‘adjusted’ her life once before after a near fatal car crash in 1999 when the budding architect followed her dream to become a singer and perform, but this time round it was life off the road she re-discovered.
“I was very lucky when I had that accident and thought what would my dream be and it would be to sing. And when you sing for a few years, you get tired pony, so Covid stopped things and made me go ‘I like to go for walks and talk to my friends, clean my house. I want a cat, and I don’t want to wear make up, I want to let it all hang out and want it to be real’.
That’s what Covid’s taught me. I want to have a good time. That’s why I’m being bad on roller skates. I’m going to kill myself on those things that took two months to come and have great rainbows on them, and I’m going to look like an eejit trying to do it,” she laughs.
“And we’ve been given this chance, a tough, awful thing for many people and I have real empathy for that and I think everybody has wobbled their way through it and I just want to come out of it thinking I did take note of that. So I know people will probably think Dreaming sounds a very nice beautiful world Camille is bringing us into but no doubt there will probably be me having a good laugh and cry on stage and a bit of darkness too. So I suppose people think dreaming is not real, and I want to switch it round and go stop being a scaredy cat before it’s too late.”
“That’s why the show is going to be spiritual and intimate. I’m older as a woman so even if I hadn’t had Covid, I’m going through this, and I had some health issues that alerted me. Bam! What do you want in your life? Who’s important in your life?
The Edinburgh set list will feature some of the songs she’s worked on with Murray, some “out of the hat” some favourites, some O’Sullivan monologues, and maybe some images of what she was doing during Covid. “Not that I’m going to roller skate or put a hula hoop on like Grace Jones, but I was like maybe I could have some of those images.
“Feargal and I have been listening to Eminem and Kanye West and Gilbert O’Sullivan and The Beatles and Rufus Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle. It’s nice when we introduce each other to songs. We play away until we find something that both of us are moved by.”
Lesser known Bowie, songs revisited “especially the German ones that hold up a mirror to society and take a risk and actually, more brave songs than people have ever written today, and classical influences will be included too, with Murray a trained classical musician who studied in Edinburgh and O’Sullivan keen to have the pieces she loves in the mix.
“Like I said to Feargal, I love Death in Venice, the Mahler piece - I’ve always loved taking classical music and I said is there a way we can link it? He comes from a classical way and says you come with a big axe and say what are we going to do with this song and chop it this way and he’s horrified, but he says it makes sense in the end. I did piano but I’m not trained in how to say chords, I’m more about describing atmospheres and feelings. I feel safe in his hands after all these years which is lovely. It’s a kind of a conversation - and we didn’t kill each other too much.”
“Of course I’ll speak and be real with the audience but there are moments in which I like to distance myself so I can own a song. It’s like a date; there are times when you’ve got to hold back a little bit so they’re not like ‘Jesus, stop it!’ You know, have something for yourself and allow yourself to go to those places. And what is hard too, is I’m really attached to all the songs I have loved over the years that are like your little cuddly toys but you want to bring in new songs too. We have a thing of ‘does it sound like a wedding band? Does it sound real?’ Everything that interests me in music is kind of emotion and spirit and also the madness.”
O’Sullivan is excited by the prospect of the Fringe run, but always nervous, not least because this is the smallest venue they’ve played in the city.
“I always love to get close to the audience but when you sing without instruments or when you’re close to them… it’s probably the most intimate space I have ever done in Edinburgh. It’s the most terrifying thing because that’s like where I started out and you can see the whites of their eyes and if they fall asleep or…”
That’s never going to happen.
She’s also in the middle of planning her outfit, and muses on the pressures to look a certain way, especially as a female performer and particularly after the relaxation afforded by lockdown.
“My partner said he had a dream last night ‘and you were fat and old and it wasn’t upsetting you and you WERE happy and it made me happy’. And I was like ‘Oh my God is that possible?’ Because like everybody else I can’t fit into anything after Covid. You know I’m older and it kind of drove me a little mad [thinking about it]. Aidan says, “if you just smile,” and I say “what if you have a missing tooth?” But I think it is true.
I’ve been wearing boiler suits (a very fetching pink) and thinking I might wear that. As a woman performer, people say ‘oh you’re not as sexy as you were’, and I didn’t even think I WAS then, but there are the photographs which I don’t look like any more.” She laughs. “As a woman you’re trying to own it, embracing the importance of growing old, embracing being dignified, embracing the madness and who cares. Let’s enjoy it. Life was so bloody hard. If the shows before were about creating a show this has to mean something else this time.”
So on stage as well as her familiar red dress and shoes, of which she has multiple variations, she’s also thinking of wearing her favourite dressing gown, to signal Covid times, and also because it’s a comfort.
“It’s unravelling. It must be from the 1950s, it’s beautiful or anything special but I love it. I’ve had it since I was 15 or 16, and it’s falling apart. I love old things, like I’ve got an old 1962 Volvo Amazon, and I wear the old plastic hat thing on my head in the wind and rain and Aidan laughs. I went swimming with him and I wear a pink bathing cap with flowers on it on my head [she shows me]. There she is in all her finery!” She laughs. “I might wear that at some stage too during the show. I think I am just a sentimental person. It’s kind of like clinging onto the things I love.”
There is the music, the costumes, the setting, but central to it all is the voice, various descriptions including one in this newspaper describing O’sullivan’s as a mix of PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, and Lisa Minelli.
“I would describe it as wretched at the moment!” she says. “I would say very vulnerable when it’s fragile. I like it to be kind of honest and it has a kind of enigmatic quality. That’s something in the last few years I have really embraced as a performer. And not to sing brilliantly. Just tell the story. And the other side is wild abandonment - I can’t believe I sang and danced and rolled around the stage at three in the morning in Edinburgh. Like a totally Irish embarrassment. I always try and be like the cool person on a chair who doesn’t do anything but then that other thing takes over. I don’t know who she is! So sort of raspy, my voice - I’m a little bit nervous about having not sung in two years - but that is like a joyous clarion call, like a tiger. I sometimes see the audience like a tiger. My voice is my response to them. And then the other thing, probably what I want to sing the most, the sad songs, that’s where my heart kind of lies, where it’s you’re like a child, a woman, a man, and you’re singing to yourself as you sing to them. It’s kind of in conversation. We’re trying to work with where we are.”
“Covid made me absolutely be real. You’ve got one life, you know, even if it’s going south. That thing of Brel where he says let’s laugh and dance and sing and drink until they put me in a hole in the ground. Aidan said: “We will be two skeletons in the ground and you’ll be going ‘does my arse look good in this?’ And I’ll be a skeleton going ‘not really’. He’s very truthful, which is grand, sometimes. And Feargal is like ‘Camille, we will be underground, what are you on about?’ We know how many people suffered loss, and what is the fallout of that?
“So authentic has always been important to me, but never more so after what we went through. I cannot go back up on stage after that and just go hey, this is a show. I always tried to hide, always thought that if the audience sensed you were nervous you were screwed. But recently I said to them look, I’m a bit nervous, I’m a bit like holy jesus what’s going on? I think it’s really more important than ever that for myself I’m real.”
Bound & Gagged Comedy in association with Tim Whitehead Presents: Camille O’Sullivan: Dreaming, Underbelly – The Cowbarn: 3-28 August, 7.20pm, https://underbellyedinburgh.co.uk/event/camille-osullivan