The rise and rise of Cara Dillon
An Irish singer leading the current English folk scene
The rise and rise of Cara Dillon has been well documented by now. A native of Dungiven, Co. Derry, Cara started singing at an early age, surrounded by songs passed down from her grandmother and learned around the sessions and workshops of Dungiven. She had an All Ireland Traditional Singing trophy under her belt by the age of 14 and at 15 had formed Oige, a trad group comprising friends and fellow musicians from Dungiven, who went on to develop a respectable following on the folk scene in Britain and Germany. A young but confident Cara can be heard on their 1994 album, Live. Then in 1995, Cara had the chance to join what was then being lauded as one of the freshest and most exciting new bands to hit the British folk trail in many years, Equation. Their singer, a certain young Kate Rusby, now, seven years later, the queen of that same scene, was leaving the band to go solo. Largely based around the Lakeman brothers, Sam, Seth and Sean, Equation also featured Kathryn Roberts, who herself recorded an album with Rusby in 1995. A tale of corporate shoulder rubbing with the Warner Empire ensued, as did an eventual parting of the ways after months of frustration, and without a single recording to show for it all. Sam and Cara found in one another kindred spirits and decided to go it alone, with the consent and support of the other band members. And it is just as well for us that they did. The rest is history.
"Cara Dillon", the album, was recorded on a shoestring budget in the studio in the Lakeman's Devon home, and Cara and Sam had absolute artistic control. Having been championed by Rough Trade's Geoff Travis from very early on, and with Travis having seen the duo's struggle for artistic freedom, Sam explains that they were told to "just record whatever you like. Geoff didn't hear a note until it was finished. The plan was to print a couple of thousand copies, just go do the folk clubs, get out there, start playing again and make some cash, having been cooped up on record company shelves for so long."
The album itself is difficult to pinpoint, particularly for an area of the music industry that is so preoccupied with labelling everything just right. Is it trad? Is it folk? "Craigie Hill", for example, a traditional Scottish song, is covered very simply, with the focus largely on vocals and piano giving the stunning melody the chance to stand out for itself. By the end of the track the fuller instrumentation is absolutely creaming the very best of what the song has to offer. "Lark in the Clear Air", an Irish song, also leans towards the minimal with an almost hymnal approach, but the resultant sound leaves the listener hanging on every single note. "Blue Mountain River", on the other hand, is a Dillon/Lakeman original, although it is impossible to tell this from just listening, so in tune with their genre are the writers. It is a beautifully written song, and there is a lot of vocal experimentation that weaves all kinds of magic, until, suddenly, the whole effect is dismantled with a drum kit towards the end. With regard to the unusual arrangements of songs such as "Black is the Colour", which, incidentally, I'm not convinced really works, Cara explains that "although we're both of trad backgrounds, we're the same as every other young person in that we listen to loads of other contemporary music. We've really drawn our influences from both that and the way we've been brought up. That's where the fresh new style comes from. It's not a conscious thing. That's why we were so pleased about the BBC Folk awards, and getting best track for "Black is the Colour", because it is one of those songs that's been done a lot - it's been done to death really. But its one of those beautiful melodies, and I didn't care, I just thought, well, if you sat down and thought I'm not going to do that song because such and such a person has done it so many times before, there'd be so many beautiful songs left aside".
The folk music scene in the UK has really opened up for Cara in recent months, and she has become the latest big folk phenomenon. There has been a cover feature in Folk Roots magazine, two BBC Folk Awards, and incessant sell-out gigging. This could be somewhat confusing - Cara sounds like a traditional Irish singer from the minute she opens her mouth, yet it is constantly claimed in various areas of the press that she is the newest addition to the Kate Rusby, Eliza Carthy, English sisterhood of three. What does she say to all of this? "I'm an Irish singer. It's the whole tradition that I'm coming from; you never get away from it really. Any time I'm at home and there's sessions going on, I'm constantly trying to think of Irish songs to put on the new album. But the difference is there's plenty of work in England. You can just gig forever." According to Sam, "over here in England, because Cara is Irish, everyone's tripping over themselves to have us play. There it's a living tradition, while over here it's like a historical society that's kept going. In Ireland you have to ring up venues knowing they've got other people playing who are just as brilliant, you know they've got Sharon Shannon this week and Dervish next week, and so why would they pick us? It's just easier to get the work over here."
There is another reason why the Irish haven't exactly claimed Cara as one of their own. Unfortunately, despite the massive success of the album in the UK, there have been virtually no sales in Ireland, not through lack of interest, but through a bad choice of distributors, who have simply failed to get the album in the shops. "Over in England everybody's into it, its all come together very well. In Ireland, we've had great press and TV coverage, but there's been a major problem with the distributors of the record. They haven't got their act together and put it in the shops, which is why a lot of people haven't got the album. Its not that people aren't interested, because we've sold more than the shops in Ireland just off the stage. But its kind of a lost cause now, and there's really no heart from the record company to try to find another distributor at this stage because the album has been out for nine months. It's so depressing, because I'm from Ireland." Despite the obvious devastation that accompanies a missed chance of this scale, I can't help feeling that it could be a great deal worse. "Cara Dillon" does not give a full account of what Cara can produce live, which is an experience not to be missed. After listening to the album I thought she had a sweet and distinctive voice, but one which lacked something in guts and substance. After the live show I found myself comparing her to Cathy Jordan, and, trust me, that is a comparison rarely ventured towards. I, for one, was immediately converted.
Album aside, there has been a couple of interesting projects in the past year. One was Cara's involvement with part-time band Ghostland, which has also included Sinead O'Connor. The brainchild of Justin Adams (world music guitarist and producer, think Lo'Jo and Tinariwen), John Reynolds (producer and drummer), and the cellist Caroline Dale (has appeared on records by everyone from The Stranglers to Bush to Wet Wet Wet), Ghostland is a real mixture of influences and sounds, ranging from pop to classical. O'Connor and Dillon became involved on a special guest basis, but Cara loves any chance to sing, and found the opportunities to experiment and to sing with the backing of a full orchestra absolutely exhilarating. Another surprising opportunity came with the recent Billy Connolly series, World Tour of England, Ireland and Wales. The Dillon/Lakeman magic came into evidence on the closing credits for one of the programmes, but most significantly with the inclusion of Cara's version of the Tommy Sands song about the repercussions of the situation in Northern Ireland on ordinary people, "There Were Roses". Placed over scenes of a tense, mural-covered Belfast, the song has had a huge impact, and has brought some very welcome exposure. With regard to the future, the rest of the year at least looks busy, with trips to Germany, Spain, Japan, and support for the Indigo Girls forthcoming tour interspersed with recording sessions for the new album.
While hype is not always merited, Cara Dillon is a worthy recipient - for her live performances at least. A colleague recently said to me that he feared she would always be that singer everyone thought of as a child prodigy. Maybe she was that once, but she is now a singer to respect for her interpretation and sensitivity.
Related Internet site: www.caradillon.co.uk
Photo Credit: Photos from www.caradillon.co.uk
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