An Interview with Cara Dillon

In common with her English contemporary Kate Rusby, Northern Irish singer Cara Dillon has been performing her own unique style of traditional music for a number of years now, but has only come to international prominence in relatively recent times. She has spent a fair amount of her career in bands such as Oige, and indeed took Kate Rusby’s place in the “folk supergroup” Equation.

Dillon has a unique and melodic voice that is heard to great effect on her self-titled debut solo album, which was released on Rough Trade Records in 2001. It didn’t take long for the album to garner a number of nominations at that year’s BBC Radio 4 Folk Awards, including wins for Best Newcomer and Best Traditional Track, ‘Black Is The Colour’. Scottish comedian Billy Connolly also used a couple of her songs in his “World Tour of Ireland” TV special, including the moving ‘There Were Roses’. She now travels extensively, and visited Australia in early 2003 for a number of performances including WOMADelaide to perform the music she describes as “intimate and intense.”

Cara Dillon - Cambridge Folk Festival 50th Anniversary (1)

Michael Hunter (MH): You’re here for WOMAD – I was wondering if this was your first one, because it’s quite an impressive gig to get?

Cara Dillon (CD): “Actually, we’ve been very, very lucky. Last year, we did the WOMAD in Sicily and the one down in Cornwall, the Eden Project and also the Reading one in London, so we’ve been very lucky. They are absolutely fantastic festivals. You meet so many brilliant musicians. Coming from Northern Ireland, I grew up in a very traditional folk background so if you come to a World Music festival, you end up seeing instruments you never knew existed. It’s just fantastic.”

MH: Mentioning the traditional background, do you come from a musical family?

CD: “Well, sort of. I got into music in a lot of different ways. First of all there’s my family background. My sister, who’s ten years older than me, was a fantastic traditional singer – still is, she’d kill me if she heard me saying that! Also then, my grandmother was a traditional singer and I’ve got some uncles and great uncles that are singers but I suppose it was a mixture of what’s in your genes plus the way I’ve been brought up. In the town, there was loads of music and songs and dance, and every summer loads of fleadhs, which are festivals, were held in the town I grew up in. So there was all of that music and musicians from all over Ireland would gather there and there’d be street sessions and loads of singers would gather to have singing sessions.

“I sort of grew up sitting in the back room of pubs listening to music all over the summer and learning songs, even at an age when I didn’t even actually know what the words of the songs, the content meant. It was just a fantastic way to be brought up. It’s kind of a way of life, music. The actual school that I went to were very encouraging and they sort of hand you a tin whistle or a bodhran or a fiddle in your first year at school and you’re encouraged to play it and you’re taught local songs from the town. It was just a brilliant way to be introduced to music.”

MH: Steeped in the tradition from an early age! I guess that’s why the main focus on the album is the traditional songs – but there are originals there too which is interesting because they sound traditional in their own way as well.

CD: “I suppose because I’ve been brought up in this very traditional background, everything that I write automatically kind of has this same feel and sound to it. It’s just a style, I’ve never been trained or anything, I’ve just sort of picked it up as I went along. That’s what we both sound like, Sam Lakeman the keyboard player, we write the songs together and he comes from a very folk background. He’s from Devon in England and his mother and father used to be in a folk band, so everything he puts out has got that same sort of sound and feel as well. There’s always going to be that undercurrent, that theme running through the music.”

MH: Since the debut album has been out for over a year now, would it be reasonable to assume there might be another one close to completion?

CD: “Well actually, we arrived here yesterday but up until we left to get on the aeroplane, we were working on the second album. Sam’s actually brought a lot of the work with him here, to keep at it. We’re very excited about it. We’ve got all our songs chosen and it’s going to be a mixture of half traditional songs and half our original material. We’re just laying down a few bits and bobs now. It probably won’t be out until September or something.”

MH: Similar feel to the first CD?

CD: “I suppose. We’re doing it in exactly the same way as we recorded the first one. We’re making it at home and we’re using a lot of our friends to play on it. But I have to say there’s a different feel to it; there’s a couple of our own songs which have been around for a while – I don’t know if this is right to say but they’ve got a bit of a commercial feel to them as well, with the rootsy feel also. It would be quite good for radio and things like that. Definitely the formula was the same, a lot of the songs I’ve known since I was very young and it’s been my goal to stick them on an album.”

MH: Might the album include ‘There Were Roses’, which is on the Web site?

CD: “We’re not sure about that one yet because of course it is available on the Web site but there is talk of us sticking it down as a B-side of a single or something like that.”

MH: It’s such a wonderful song.

CD: “Oh it’s just a beautiful, beautiful song. We’ve had such a great response from that song, especially from Australia actually. On the Web site there’s been lots of e-mails and messages about it because Billy Connolly’s quite big over here. It was written by a man called Tommy Sands from County Down and the actual song is just so sad and so powerful and I think it’s really important that songs like that aren’t forgotten about. It was written in the 70s at the time when the troubles in Northern Ireland were at their height but I think it’s one of those songs that lasts forever, you know, the content of it’s timeless. It’s all about people getting together to try and encourage peace, which is also quite good considering the crisis at the moment.”

MH: Could you see it as encouraging that a song like that, or even just good traditional songs done in a contemporary way still have an appeal in an age of manufactured pop and the like?

CD: “Well, there’s one thing about folk music, traditional Irish songs or any traditional songs, is they’ve been around for hundreds and hundreds of years and that’s really the reason why they’ve survived. It’s because the actual melodies are very powerful and the content of the songs, it applies to every age. A lot of songs I sing are about people emigrating or leaving home or lost love and that can be applied today. Unlike popular music, these songs have got staying power. That’s why they’ve survived the test of time, and I think it’s our job to keep them alive, you know. Especially like with one of my favourite ones on the album, “Black Is The Colour”. That song has been around the block hundreds of times but it really doesn’t put me off doing it because the melody is so powerful and in a way, it’s bringing a lot of our own age group back into folk music. They’re sort of saying ‘Well I didn’t really like folk music any more and then I heard that song and it doesn’t even sound like a folk song’ and it’s really important that we keep that alive.”

MH: It doesn’t sound like a folk song, but it is!

CD: “It is, that’s right. You just have to keep reinventing them, you know? Sometimes some songs can get stuck in a rut and it’s good to give them a bit of life again.”

MH: Another song on the album I really like is “She’s Like The Swallow”. Where did you get that one from?

CD: “It’s one of those songs again that I couldn’t say where – I’ve heard it at sessions, I’ve heard it sung unaccompanied and I’ve also heard different people’s versions on albums. Fairport Convention for example have done a version of that. It’s one of those ones that have always been around. I love the actual content of that song, the man who’s telling the girl that actually, the world’s a very big place and you should never limit yourself just to one person, and the poor girl goes off to pick the flowers on the hill to console herself. It’s quite a funny song, you know, but it’s a beautiful melody again.”

MH: When you talk about keeping the traditional music of any culture alive and pertinent, you need younger people coming along to do it and adapt it – this is actually a very good time for that happening. There’s yourself, Kate Rusby, Eliza Carthy… it’s got to be encouraging, doesn’t it?

CD: “It’s absolutely brilliant. Folk music has definitely had a revival in the last few years. Say for example with this next album we’re recording, with all the publicity folk music is getting it means that we’re able to take a few more risks and go a wee bit further, push the boat out a bit further so we’ll be appealing to a lot of other younger people again. Even things like the Grammys – I know she’s not folk but it’s still along the same vein, Norah Jones won a Grammy. All these things are very important to young people who are doing that acoustic type music, giving us a platform, really.”

(Adelaide, Australia, March 6, 2003)

GMR’s review of Cara Dillon’s debut album is here, while her own Web site is over here. The interview was conducted for community radio station Three D Radio.