Cara Dillon (Biography courtesy of Artist’s site, 2005)
PLUS ARTICLE: Keeping the Tradition.
Cara Dillon seems to have seduced the entire nation in just a couple of short, breathtaking,eventful years. Make that several nations, for among the rare ingredients of herirresistibly natural personality and mesmerising ability to relate a great story in song, is an all-embracing quality that defies borders, cultures and even languages.
After twiddling their thumbs tied to a record company intent on turning them into pop stars for longer than they care to remember, Cara and her partner Sam Lakeman finally baled out to do their own thing. That thing, a beautiful, melancholy self-titled album of folk songs ('Cara Dillon' / Rough Trade Records), had gnarled old critics singing their praises and the avalanche of gigs that followed had audiences filling venues the length and breadth of Europe.
This, we soon learned, was the Cara Dillon effect and it transformed Cara and Sam from also-rans into one of the most sought-after acts in the land. A clutch of awards tumbled into their laps - BBC Folk Awards' best new act and track of the year for Black Is The Colour, Hotpress 'Best Trad Album', No 9 in the HMV Choice magazine critics poll of 2001 - and triumphant appearances at WOMAD festivals around the world proved their magic was all-consuming.
"Oh it's been absolutely incredible," says Cara in that winning wide-eyed way of hers. "We put out the album and didn't expect anything really, but the way it sold took us totally by surprise. We did over 200 gigs last year and played WOMAD in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore - I still haven't taken it all in."
Recorded at Cara and Sam's home in Somerset, their second album - 'Sweet Liberty' - is as intimate and beguiling as the first, enhanced by some significant additions. Produced by Sam, it takes its title from ' The Emigrant's Farewell ', the keynote final track that captures the essence of Cara's emotional interpretation of traditional songs. Yet there are five original Dillon-Lakeman songs here too, as well as Cara's already famous version of Tommy Sands' heartbreaking narrative about The Troubles in Northern Ireland,There Were Roses ( nominated for best song 2003 BBC Folk Awards ) She originally sang it at the behest of Billy Connolly on his TV show and the public reaction was instantaneous and overwhelming. "People may have been surprised because I've never done anything political before, but I feel so strongly about peace and agree with the essence of that song so much I felt confident about commiting to it".
Sam's production has evolved masterfully in step with Cara's added vocal maturity. There is a new depth to the arrangements and songwriting. Yet, despite the added confidence flowing throughout, 'Sweet Liberty' takes Cara closer than ever back to her roots with the inclusion of the songs ‘The Gem Of The Roe’ and ‘The Winding River Roe’, deeply entrenched in her childhood in the town of Dungiven, Co.Derry. Every child there grows up with the legend of Finvola, princess of the O'Cahan clan; and knows The Gem Of The Roe, the song that tells her story.
She lives in England now, but remains close to Dungiven and the grounded upbringing it gave her. She has vivid memories of her mother taking her and her sister to fleadhs around Ireland and listening transfixed to the dramatic ballads sung by old men in the back room of pubs. Her sister Mary, herself a superb singer who guests on Sweet Liberty, found a "treasure chest" of old tape recordings she had made of some of these old guys in pubs, passed them on to Cara, and she's recorded a couple of them on the album. They are dear to her heart for dark pub rooms at fleadhs were essentially Cara's training ground. She remembers listening to great traditional singers like Paddy Tunney and Rosin White, both regular visitors to Dungiven, and in no time had a repertoire of her own to sing at the fleadhs. At 14 she won the All Ireland Traditional Singing trophy and a year later she was in her first band, Oige. They were pretty successful too, but Cara was all set for university when she got a call out of the blue in 1995 inviting her to come to England to replace Kate Rusby in the band Equation.
It was the offer she couldn't refuse. Equation, ( signed to Warners), seemed to be heading for the top, but the album they recorded 'Return To Me' didn't get a release. However, Cara had found her soulmate Sam Lakeman in the band and the pair decided to try their luck as a duo. There followed a long frustrating period as they experimented with writing and recording songs with a succession of top producers and songwriters. However, none of the projects and collaborations seemed to fulfill the inner visions that Cara and Sam had developed, so they decided to abandon ship and do their own thing.
There have been other adventures down the line. A voice like that will always be in big demand. Cara sang 'Man In The Rain' on Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells 3, appeared live and on record with Ghostland and on the famous Woman's Heart tour with Dolores Keane, Mary Black, Eleanor McEvoy and Maura O'Connell. And now she has her own band to tour with. "I am very lucky. I am able to play the type of music I love with great musicians and we're having a lot of fun - you can't ask much more than that."
KEEPING THE TRADITION
Back in the mid 1990s Cara Dillon and her group, Oige, all school friends
from Dungiven in County Derry, were tipped for great things - Cara, with her
pure, light and soulful voice especially.
It seemed only a matter of time before someone - and De Dannan's Frankie
Gavin, whose ear for a singer has ushered in a whole procession of singing
talent including Mary Black, Dolores Keane and Maura O'Connell, was the
odds-on favourite - pushed her to the forefront of a major traditional music
Cara did indeed sing, briefly, with De Dannan. Then word came that she had
replaced Kate Rusby in folk music's youthful next big thing, The Equation,
after which she disappeared completely off the radar.
The twelve months that she served with The Equation and the subsequent five
years that she and fellow Equation escapee, Sam Lakeman, now her musical and
life partner, spent trying to please the Artists & Repertoire department at
Warner Bros. Records offer a classic example of what Joni Mitchell memorably
disdained as the star making machinery behind the popular song.
Take someone with a natural talent beyond price and, er, try to make them
into someone else. Give them big budget video shoots, expensive wardrobes,
exotic recording locations, full orchestras and the pop industry's front rank
record producers and songwriters, and what have you got? In Cara's case, a
singer with her feet firmly in the Irish singing tradition who wants to do
things her way.
"It was a fantastic experience," she says of her years of being pampered and
preened for pop stardom. "Sam and I learned so much and it's made me who I am
today. But it was a struggle because the main problem was, they're trying to
make money and compete with the other major record companies. So they groom
singers for the pop charts, whereas Sam and I, coming from the folk
tradition, were trying to keep a grasp of our roots.
"We were introduced to fantastic songwriters and producers. In fact, as a
result of spending so much time in studios, Sam can now engineer and produce
albums. And we've had a chance to see so many different ways of writing songs
because there's so many styles and so many approaches to it... But I'm really
relieved that we're now doing what we want to do."
The irony that the detour through the pop industry has landed her where she
wanted to be in the first place isn't lost on her. Because, despite Warners'
best efforts to persuade her otherwise, what Cara wants to do - sing the
traditional songs she grew up with, hasn't changed since she was twelve and
found herself in a pub session in Limerick, surrounded by great traditional
singers such as Paddy Tunney.
Her sister Mary, who later sang with the group Deanta, had begun teaching her
songs and harmonies almost as soon as Cara could talk and much to the
bafflement of their parents, who had been completely bypassed by their
families' musical genes, they became fascinated with the traditional songs
that their late grandmother had sung.
Throughout her teens Cara sang at fleadhs all over Ireland, actually winning
the All-Ireland Traditional Singing Trophy at the age of fourteen, and in
Oige she would dream of becoming a full-time singer when she left school,
although she kept this to herself.
"Where I come from, you just don't go off and become a singer," she says. "If
you told people that's what you wanted to do, they'd say, Who do think you
are? Also, I didn't really know how to go about it, to be honest."
So she decided to become a speech therapist instead and was just about to go
to Belfast University when the call came from The Equation. Here, she and Sam
Lakeman, one of three brothers in the band, bonded and while the suits at
Warners plotted their future, they worked on traditional songs and began
writing songs of their own. Tiring of the group's slow progress, they jumped
ship, thinking that, still being signed to a major label, they could play the
music they wanted. How wrong they were and how long they paid for this
Eventually, realising that the pair were never going to repay their
investment with pop hits, Warners let them go. Their manager, Geoff Travis,
also manager of Pulp and founder of Rough Trade Records, gave them carte
blanche to make the album they really wanted to make.
The result, Cara Dillon, a collection of traditional songs given apposite
contemporary treatment alongside two of their own songs, earned deserved
praise from heavyweight music mags including Mojo. Pleasing stuff. But on
tour to promote the album in Ireland, supporting fellow Celtic Connections
guest Brian Kennedy, Cara and Sam were even more chuffed to find people
coming up to them, saying, We don't like folk music but we like what you do.
"That's the ultimate praise for us, I think," says Cara. "We may do more of
our own songs on future records, but we'll never let go of the tradition.
There are so many great songs in there. I love the melodies particularly,
that's the bit that appeals to me first. But when you study the words and
realise that the events in these songs actually happened to people in your
own family - not just people way back but your uncles and aunts, they really
touch you. It's the Irish version of the blues, I suppose."
c. Rob Adams, January 2002
You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.
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