Female-led new commissions are at the heart of this year’s Festival of Voice programme. Created by Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff’s biennial international arts festival is back for its second edition, igniting the city with powerful voices from 7 – 17 June. In this series, we meet the voices behind this year’s new creations. Here Wales Arts Review speaks to Camille O’Sullivan, who premieres Cave – a theatrical exploration of the songs of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, produced by Wales Millennium Centre…
Tell us about your new show, Cave
Camille O’Sullivan: I’ve loved singing Nick Cave’s songs in my own shows for many years, but never done a whole show dedicated to him. Graeme Farrow approached me a while back (Artistic & Creative Director of Festival of Voice and Wales Millennium Centre) and we started discussing doing a whole show of exploring all the different aspects of Nick Cave’s music.
From a punkish Birthday Party to the present music and my favourite album The Boatman’s Call, he is a great narrative writer with different strange left-of-centre characters, and like Leonard Cohen in his ability to write poetry in song. This show is like a little love letter to him in a way – why I love his music, and him as a musician and a performer, and really exploring his talents of storytelling and creating characters.
Alongside Brel, they are my two favourite artists to sing and feel you can really inhabit the songs. And most importantly to me – out of respect to his writing – try make them your own. I find it especially interesting being a woman performing his songs. Drawing out certain lyrics, themes or characters that resonate with me, you can bring a certain vulnerability to a male song, or sing with abandoned anger in say, “The Mercy Seat”, it allows you to take on the male aspect of yourself. What I love in other female performers like PJ Harvey and Patti Smith, they show hymnal fragility but full on fierce power and at times anger too, all the different emotions. I suppose my most favourite songs to sing are his spiritual love songs like “Into My Arms”and “Brompton Oratory”but then fire lets rip with the preacher-like, satanic “Stagger Lee”.
With my shows, there’s always a theatrical element – for me as an artist, it’s about telling stories, inhabiting the song and I’m quite emotional so usually drawn to love songs, spiritual aspects but then I like to be uninhibited in wild music too. So, you show all aspects of yourself – soft, loving, angry, fragile, wild, still, silent etc. I like to bring people into another world – with songs like “God is in the House”, the lyrics are so powerful, and you just need to be still and clear.
To me lyric is king with Cave and that’s where the power lies; that intertwined with his beautiful haunting melodies. And I love the lyric ‘Nothing is for free’ in Skeleton Tree and exploring that. I want to use parts of his songs and words and make them into a fantasy/theatrical event.
And there are kind of two schools to Nick Cave’s music – the Old Testament and the New Testament. It’s very interesting how you can bring people gently into that world of the more delicate songs – and then really go for it and rock out! So, you can expect both with Cave.
Tell us what inspired you to make this new work
CO: Well I was first introduced to Nick Cave while I was at University College Dublin, studying architecture in my previous life. I was doing a theatre show in the drama society and this beautiful enigmatic Australian girl named Justine Mitchell gave me a cassette. She said, “you must listen to this man’s music – he will blow your mind and he wears the most beautiful suits!”
Since then I’ve performed many of his songs over the years, and possibly feel his music feels the most natural to sing – I had sung Kurt Weill and Brel for a few years and realised he was the modern version of what they were doing. We have sung “God is in the House” on Jools Holland and “The Ship Song” has always been the most requested I sing in my set. I’d always been too nervous to do a whole show of his music – perhaps because I love so much of his work and don’t want to do it injustice! But here I am, doing it now. I’ve gone in with great love and great respect and tried to respect every facet of his work which to me is kaleidoscopic work and also has almost multiple personalities!
His lyrics are so powerful, I’d happily just say his words out like a poem, and spend time trying to make sure that the story and words lure you in and that the lyric is king, so it’s nice when you’ve done a gig and people come up after and say ‘I’ve never heard his lyrics that way before, or heard the story so clearly, it was just a song we loved.’ It’s usually about putting the tempo at the start or stopping the music from being too busy (at least in the quiet love songs) then you reintroduce rhythm and make it more musical, almost like singing an actors monologue – where does the arc happen in his song, what are you saying, not just what are you singing?!
We did a play for the RSC where we wrote the music to a lesser-known poem “The Rape of Lucerne” and we realized with Shakespeare’s work that we approached it how we approached Cave, there is a hymnal story to tell or one full of wild emotion, so you don’t overdo the lyric you follow how the words are with their natural rhythm…hard to explain here I’d have to sing it for you!
Feargal and I spend a lot of time working out how to make each song my own. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying or singing it to yourself quietly whilst walking around town, telling yourself the story (not trying to sing it well, just the reason behind the song) ‘til you feel it sounds natural and most importantly truthful, then you take it to the band to work it out…
Among Bowie, he’s one of my favourite artists. I also love artists that sing in their own voice which can be marmite for some! Cave, Cohen, Waits, Bowie, Smith… It feels very conversational and real, not sung in a generic way.
I recently performed on the same evening as Nick Cave at Shane McGowan’s 60th birthday gig in Dublin – it was just magical to see them both performing together. I’ve met him over the years but am always too shy to speak properly and this time I was too embarrassed to say – hey, I’m doing a whole show about you – I think it’s best to keep those worlds separate also in case he wouldn’t like it!
Tell us about your team.
CO: Feargal Murray– Lovely Feargal, he’s my co-Musical Director, Orchestrator and Arranger. I’ve worked with him for over 20 years now – he’s my left arm and I’m his right. With regards to Cave, we have become used to how we try to make those songs our own and not just a copy or tribute and both of us are quite spiritual which binds us well on stage. He knows exactly when I’m going to stop, or breathe – it’s a really special, trusting relationship that we have on stage.
Then we have Steve Fraser on electric guitar and Paul Byrne on drums and dear Charlotte Glasson on musical saw, saxophone, violin. Charlotte has worked with Cave herself a good few times and on his most recent album.
The brilliant Annie Ryan of Dublin-based Corn Exchange is co directing with myself. I usually direct by myself, so it’s been wonderful working together with Annie. I hope she’ll paint a world more beautiful that I can imagine.
Joe Fletcher is the Lighting Designer – I saw his work for National Dance Company Wales in Cardiff recently, for their Terra Firma tour. And I was like “I. LOVE. HIS. WORK. I want to work with him!”
Then we have our stage manager, Daniel– and of course Graeme Farrow has been the eye overlooking it all – I’ve worked with him for many years at many different festivals – so it’s great to be working on this together. And the wonderful Sarah Leigh who is producing the show.
The stage design team is me, Annie & Joe, which has been really interesting. We want to create a more theatrical world for people, than just a standard gig set up with the classic drums centre back, guitar side of stage etc…
Tell us about yourself.
CO: Well I was a painter first and then an architect – but I left that all behind – literally, to join the circus! I toured with the Spiegel Tent, all over the world. I was doing my own shows and was one of the original cast members of LaClique/La Soiree. I was performing old style at the start – Hollaender, Brel, and Kurt Weill – and then my mother pointed out my own record collection of more modern songs by Bowie, Cave, Cohen, Dylan, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, all the modern-day storytellers and she said, “why don’t you do this, you love to rock out?!”
I’m a lover of telling stories, truth, whether dark or light, life in all its madness. My favourite line from Cohen describes my intent in a way “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I like creating fantasies and tableaus – people quite often refer to me as being a chameleon on stage and never really knowing which one I am up there, but really the songs allow you to be all the different aspects of yourself. I loved when I heard Bowie describing that we are all different characters, but some are too shy to show that side. So songs allow you to become all these different characters. What fascinates me is emotion and songs – and theatre that makes you think/provokes you and sometimes has a darker edge, but that can be quite cathartic when the love song is unrequited. I’ve found the more sad breakups I had, the better a singer I was of Cave’s work!
We’ve recently performed at lovely venues like Royal Festival Hall, The Roundhouse, Wiltons Music Hall, Sydney Opera House, a tiny church in Dingle and the Barbican, Australia and UK tours of Changeling, Brel, The Carny Dream andWhere Are We Now? and we’ve been at the Edinburgh Fringe for 13 or 14 years. Somehow this mad obsession with other people’s music I love has allowed us to lead this gypsy life and are delighted to explore their music. I suppose there is snobbery that people say, ‘why don’t you write your own?’ Plenty of singers from Ella, Sinatra, Springfield to Elvis sung covers but it’s how you do it and I like to look at it like an actor would. Many people have acted the role of lady Macbeth or Hamlet exploring how to bring that great story alive and that’s just how I see these wonderful writers’ works. Trying to bring them to life in a different way that hopefully is truthful.
What does Festival of Voice mean to you?
CO: This is the first time that I’ve been involved, but what’s lovely is there’s such a diversity in the line-up, and it’s wonderful to be a part of that. When Graeme and Sarah are programming people like Patti Smith, Laura Marling – who I’m such a fan of – I was delighted to be part of something you know is going to be a special festival. There’s really something there for everyone. In this day and age people live so much in a world of X Factor – but Festival of Voice shows a much more creative side to people and artists. It shows people who perhaps live a quieter life, who we don’t see so much of in the public eye, but who have this wonderful talent.
What are you looking forward to from the rest of the Festival of Voice programme?
CO: Well unfortunately I won’t be able to see her, but I’d love to seePatti Smithagain. I’ve seen her previously in Dublin– she was magnificent on stage – at times you don’t know if you’re watching a man or a woman – she was just this incredibly powerful and commanding being. I was absolutely blown away by her.
I also love Elvis Costello. And I loved hearing The Gentle Good perform at the Festival of Voice launch at Wales Millennium Centre back in March. I just thought his voice was beautiful and captivating. Of course, there’s also Laura Marling… Carys Eleri’s Lovecraft – the one not about the sex shop in Cardiff! Sounds great fun, we love her cheeky poster. Susanne Sundfør… Gruff Rhys… just loads! Really sounds exciting!
Tuesday 12 & Wednesday 13 June, 9pm
Wales Millennium Centre (Weston Studio)
029 2063 6464