Singing helps me heal after loss of loved ones

Ahead of her new musical show, Colette Sheridan talks to West Cork based singer Camilla Griehsel about a traumatic few years
Singing helps me heal after loss of loved ones
Camilla Griehsel.

FOR singer, Camilla Griehsel, music’s healing power is helping her deal with the loss of her musician husband, Colin Vearncombe, in a car accident in 2016, closely followed by colleague and friend, musician Fergus O’Farrell, of the band Interference, who succumbed to muscular dystrophy at the age of 48.

Soon after that, Camilla’s mother passed away. West Cork-based Camilla, originally from Sweden, says the birth of her first grandchild, now aged two, has brought joy to her life, despite the bereavements.

“It has been a fairly traumatic time for us down here,” says Camilla, from her home in Schull. “But I’ve been alright because I’m surrounded by people. We have been held by our community and I’m lucky to have a great family in Sweden.

“I’ve been doing singing projects and I’ve done some fund-raising for Brú Columbanus (the residence near Cork University Hospital for families of patients at the hospital who travel from afar to visit their loved ones.)”

Camilla, who has performed everything from pop music to opera, will be previewing her new musical show, Mamasongue: Songs In The Mother Tongue at Skibbereen Town Hall on April 27, followed by a performance at the Everyman on September 15, with more dates to be announced. It’s a celebration of songs from distant lands that transcend the constraints of culture, time and place, to show that, through performance, a song’s true meaning can be deeply felt, regardless of its language.

On stage, Camilla will be joined by pianist and West Cork-based Maurice Seezer, Congolese guitarist, Niwel Tsumbu, Donegal percussionist, Eamonn Cagney and South Africa-based Concord Nkabinde.

Camilla lived in London for 15 years with her English husband, who performed as the artist, Black. He had a big hit with Wonderful Life in the 1980s.

“We met in London. We were both signed to the same record company. I said to Colin that if we ever had children, I really didn’t want to bring them up in London. Three children later, we were still living there.

“When our eldest had finished primary school, we decided to move to Ireland. I had been there only once. Colin wanted to live in a place where English was spoken. We were advised to look at West Cork. We found Schull.”

Camilla and Colin’s children are now aged 26, 19 and 15.

West Cork, says Camilla, is a good environment for people working in the arts.

“There are a lot of artists, musicians and writers here. We collaborated with people straight away. With Fergus O’Farrell and Maurice Seezer, we formed a band, Dog Tail Soup.”

From an early age, Camilla’s singing voice was noticed. At ten years of age, she attended a music school in Stockholm.

“I wasn’t really trained to sing there but we had to do an entrance exam to get in and we sang in choirs. Our musicality was developed there. I was there until I was 16. Then I went to America for a year. I had a scholarship to a High School in Virginia. I went there to learn English and attend school and I started singing in a Baptist choir. I’m not religious but it was an amazing time for me. Myself and three girls formed a barber shop quartet.”

Camilla Griehsel.
Camilla Griehsel.

When Camilla returned to Stockholm, she began to sign in jazz clubs there.

“Then I went travelling with my singing. I sang during the day in a hotel in Gran Canaria. Then I got a job in Switzerland singing in a piano bar. It was wonderful. I remember thinking afterwards that I could have settled for that kind of life. But you’re more ambitious when you’re younger.”

While in Switzerland, Camilla had a fortuitous meeting with a Norwegian man who heard her sing and said he would contact her.

“Two months later, when I was back in Sweden, this guy rang me and asked me to come to Oslo the next day to audition. So I did and I got signed to A & M Records in London.

“After a couple of months, I was in London recording an album with a Norwegian band called One2Many. I was the lead singer. All of a sudden, I found myself in a studio next to the Bee Gees. It was a crazy time and an amazing time. I ended up working with Michael Jackson’s backing vocalists, one of whom was Sheryl Crow. We did really well. We were number one in Norway for several weeks. It did well in America and I was on television shows there. In the end, I had to step away from it. I wasn’t ready for all that.”

Camilla went on to study opera.

“I did the world premiere of a Yiddish opera on Tel Aviv. I did a bit of opera in London but it was a harsh business there and, with children, it was very difficult. My commitment has always been to the family.”

In between her opera experience in London and her subsequent starring role in an opera at the Cork Opera House, Camilla performed with Interference, supporting Glen Hansard and Marketa at Radio City Music Hall in the US.

“In 2013, I decided I would audition for opera in Cork at the Cork Opera House under the wonderful management of Mary Hickson. I got the main part in Maria de Buenos Aires. It was a great boost for me. It was wonderful to get back into that world. After that, I started a Master’s degree at CIT Cork School of Music. Out of that sprung Mother And Sun.”

It’s a large-scale piece encompassing music and songs from around the world “as interpreted through a mother’s heart, partly because I have been a mother for half my life, and have recently become a grandmother.”

It’s also a link to Camilla’s mother.

“These connections make me feel as if I am part of a continuum of life, a line of loving nurture passed from womb to womb. I have been aware of these connections and the powerful role music has to play in our lives since I was a young girl. I remember, when I was five years old, standing alone and singing at my mother’s best friend’s birthday party. The room was crowded but everyone stopped talking and listened. Grown men had tears in their eyes. Music touches the deepest parts of our beings. It moves us to be present to our feelings and when this happens in a shared environment, like an audience, it connects people in a powerful and undeniable way.

“Music can unite us beyond the barriers of language or culture. It reaches out and touches our souls. The sun reaches out to touch us too. It warms us and feeds us and is the source of all life.”

Camilla says singing is “the main thing I need to do when I’m in pain emotionally. I sang at the funerals of both Colin and my mother. It helped me get through.”

Camilla explains that Mother And Sun developed into ‘mamasongue’ which are songs in the mother tongue.

“It is the name I’ve given to the language that goes beyond words. It’s the language we’re all born with and that everyone understands.”

€18 tickets are available from Coughlans in Douglas Street, Thornhills in Skibbereen and the Schull tourist office. www.coughlans.ie.

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