If you don’t know the voice of Cara Dillon, you’re in for a treat. If you are already amongst her legions of admirers around the world, you know you have something special in store.
The extraordinary Irish singer makes music that transcends genres and crosses barriers. She has won every folk award going, but confesses to being no purist, making music that reaches beyond the constraints and limitations of tradition.
“To me, you can go anywhere with every song. The melody and message is at the forefront of everything I do. I don’t really care where the song came from, how old it is, and who did it first. It’s whether it strikes a note in my heart, does it haunt me, do I need to sing it?”
Raised in the small village of Dungiven, Northern Ireland, Cara has been singing all her life. “I do believe I am part of a continuing story, a story that’s still unfolding, that reaches back through songs I’ve grown up with, and uncles that emigrated to America, and stuff that happened in my own family, and reaches forward to stuff that’s still happening now.”
At the end of the 1990s, Cara and Sam left folk supergroup Equation and major label Warner Brothers to sign to Rough Trade and home record her 2001 debut, Cara Dillon. It went on to be the break out folk success of the year. In 2007, after two more outstanding albums, they left Rough Trade to form their own Charcoal Records. Cara was pregnant with twins (Noah and Colm, now 9) and the couple wanted more control over their musical lives. The resulting 2009 album, Hill of Thieves, proved her most successful yet, top ten in the UK indie charts and number one on iTunes Folk and Amazon World & Folk charts. “It seems that if we please ourselves, we please other people too,” says Sam.
When she sings, Cara’s voice embraces the divine. In person, she can be blunt and ebullient, with a vigorous and enchanting character. “I am so precious and passionate about our albums, but I am so happy aside from that to dabble and be open and try other things. If you’re just a closed book, you don’t really learn.” Cara’s Black Is The Colour was an Ibiza club sensation in a techno remix by 2Devine, she appeared on 2009 Children In Need single All You Need Is Love alongside Peter
Gabriel and Terry Wogan, and sang and narrated on the Disney soundtrack for Tinker Bell And The Great Fairy Rescue. “They adjusted my accent occasionally. They were like, ‘Yeah, Cara, we love that, but what is nigh?’” she laughs in her thick Northern Irish lilt. “So I had to do lots of carefully enunciated ‘now’s.” In January 2012, she recorded Come Dream A Dream as the climax for Disneyland Paris’s night- time spectacular. “It is the most Disney song you can ever imagine,” says Sam. “It goes out to 15,000 people a night. About eight million people have seen it so far. It’s bonkers.”
Here’s something not many people know about Cara Dillon because she didn’t even know herself until a few years ago. She is big in China. “There was an agent desperate to have us over. We headed out, no idea what to expect,“ recalls Cara. “Turned out, we were playing National Concert Halls, 2000 seaters, sold out. They were all standing with iPads filming the gig, singing along in my accent, that’s the thing that really freaked me out. After the concerts, there was Security, I was signing stuff for hours, not being able to go to the loo without a hoodie over my head. It was like a parallel universe. We found out later that our first two albums were used as part of the curriculum for teaching the English language in China. So everybody at the concert had degrees in English, and they were all fuelled up on our music.”
The biggest challenge of recent years has been Cara’s diagnosis with type 1 Diabetes at the end of 2007. “It was a huge shock,” she admits. “I thought my life’s over, I’ll never do another gig, this is impossible. I would be lying if I didn’t say that every day is a challenge. But it’s true what everybody says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I honest to God wouldn’t change it for the world. Isn’t that really weird? I feel lucky that I’m able to experience it ‘cause it made me appreciate everything in life a lot more.”
When Cara fell pregnant again, with a daughter Elizabeth born in 2010, the couple were forced to take time off. “Being pregnant and diabetic is very dangerous, so we dropped virtually everything,” says Sam. The rather strange upside is that, in her husband’s opinion, it has changed Cara’s voice for the better. “She has come down a semitone, so her voice has an even smoother quality. She’s got such an intense soprano, now it can be more open in the lower range, it gives a bit more light and shade. It’s really apparent on this record.”
“Music is for everyone,” says Sam, summing up the couples attitude to the synthesis of styles and influences that make up their distinctive sound. “It’s a common language. I’ve got no time for the folk police. As artists, of course we have an appreciation of the depths of music and how highbrow it can get. We are not shallow. We put every piece of blood sweat and tears into the music we make, that’s what matters to us.”
“Some folk musicians want to know every detail about a song, and I really empathise with that,” adds Cara. “But it’s not what’s important to me. I just identify with a song, I’m looking for something that touches me deeply, and I feel like I’m the vessel for letting it live on.”