As much a storyteller as a singer, Camille O’Sullivan has one those raw, heartrending voices that seems to tear the very fabric of the air, before reaching through and punching you right in the heart. When I lived in Edinburgh, I made a point of seeing her at least once a year when she rocked the Fringe festival, so last year, finding myself stuck in London throughout August, I was pretty gutted. It didn’t even occur to me to check whether she was playing in London and that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should always date someone smarter than you. My lovely boy bought me tickets to see her for my Christmas.
From a tiny Edinburgh festival venue to London’s beautiful Roundhouse, Camille’s set remains familiar. It’s like wandering into the mind of a fairytale character; dresses hang in the air, filled with fairy lights, a rabbit lamp sits on top of a battered leather suitcase, an assortment of hats lies to the side of the stage, a microphone stand drips with chimes, a pair of ruby slippers glitter conspicuously in the dim light. Camille herself is equally surreal. She enters in a sparkling black cape, wrapped in yet more fairy lights, painted red lips the only colour among orchid-pale skin and dark, shining hair. I always have a certain amount of love and respect for beautiful women who could choose to be hot and choose to be weird instead (see also: Kate Bush). Camille lurches and sashays and bunny hops wildly around the stage, miaowing, swearing, drinking wine, before assuming whatever character she’ll be occupying for the duration of the next song. All of which isn’t to suggest that she isn’t sexy as hell. She’s basically the love of my life. She shifts between spurned lovers, spurning lovers, heartbroken daughters, deranged freak-show nightmares, salacious temptresses, often huge caricatures with enough truth in them that every one feels familiar. Changing characters are accompanied by changing costumes, a glittering array of shoes and dresses and hats and face paints and lipsticks. Different voices, different faces, different walks. Her singing veers between soft, whispering crooning, scratching rock and roll belting, rich, deep instrumentals. She has a voice that feels as though it is physically surrounding you, filling you up. I cry three times: once at the lovesick beauty of Declan O’Rourke’s Galileo, once at the raw, scraping power of Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam, once at the ironic, understated loneliness of Fascinating Aida’s Look Mummy, No Hands.
Having seen her at least ten times before, I’ve got a list of firm favourites, songs that give me goosebumps or make my heart start thumping after just a few notes. I couldn’t have written a better set list for this show. Niall laughs at me as I bounce and squeal and grab his hand every time I recognise a new song. The show opens with Gillian Welch and closes with Nick Cave, stopping off at Bob Dylan, Kirsty MacColl, Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel and a rollicking tribute to the Starman himself, Mr David Bowie. Camille covers songs that I would ordinarily forbid people to cover and she makes them better. She makes them more beautiful. She makes me understand them in a new way.
Between songs, she chats affectionately to the audience, trips over microphone wires, talks lovingly about the artists she is covering, marvels at how much easier it was to salsa Kirsty MacColl’s In These Shoes when she started ten years ago. Despite all of the glamour, all the theatrical glory of the performance, between songs, you’re made to feel as though you’ve just bumped into her in the pub. She exudes warmth and fondness for her audience, and performs with the air of someone who still, after all this time, feels so privileged to be sharing her favourite music with them.
She’s back in London on the 29th of April. Go see her. Miaow.