Cara Dillon Plays Homecoming Gig

With a new album to promote, the Dungiven songstress looks forward to the 'therapy' of live performance

Raised in Dungiven in a household where the strains of Irish traditional music were almost always in the air, Cara Dillon was destined to sing. Luckily her voice was pure and rousing enough to make the angels weep; lyrics and melodies came naturally.

Aged 14, Dillon won the All-Ireland Singing Trophy and her star seemed even more steadily on the ascent when she was recruited to join the folk group Equation alongside three brothers, Seth, Sam and Sean Lakeman.

Sadly, Equation didn’t last, but Dillon and Sam Lakeman formed a new outfit and during the past decade they have collaborated on folk-pop and more traditional material, revisiting Irish icons like Planxty and the Bothy Band to add a modern twist.

After some time away from the tour bus and the studio, last year Dillon and husband Sam returned with fourth album Hill of Thieves, a set of covers of traditional songs. It was voted album of the year at the BBC Folk Awards, and its real achievement is to render old, venerable airs contemporary and relevant with sparse, stripped-down arrangements.

Backed by Lakeman on guitar and piano - plus a tight circle of bodhran-players and flautists - Dillon always sings with intimacy and a liveliness recalling all the late-night sessions where she honed her craft. 

On 'Johnny, Lovely Johnny' (listen below) and 'Jimmy Mo Mhile Stor', she sensitively evokes the ache of lost love, while her reworking of the old standard 'P Is for Paddy' and the haunting a capella air 'Fil, Fil A Run O', are captivating.

'I grew up with these traditional songs,' says Dillon. 'They’re very close to my heart. But I equally enjoy performing the songs that Sam and I have written together. We’ll come up with a little tune or a few lines here and there and suddenly a song is born. And then, when we perform them on stage with the rest of the band, there’s a real buzz about the whole thing.'

Dillon’s voice is a thing of incredible beauty: haunting, pure, almost otherworldly, a precise instrument that manages to convey all the ancient passion and sadness - the timeless depths of feeling - in these old folk songs. But she can be buoyant too, singing with all the wild happiness of the ceilidh and sessions where fiddles play, Guinness flows and the rhythm of the bodhran is quick, then frantic.

Cara has been back on the road since March 2011 following the birth of her third child Elizabeth, and on May 7 she will play a homecoming concert at the Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre. 'When I step up on stage it feels like a kind of therapy - it’s relaxing and wonderful,' she beams. 'I’m so excited about performing at the Roe Valley, because it’s just down the street from where I grew up, but I also get so nervous performing in front of a home crowd.'

Dillon seems blithely, humbly unaware of the enormity of her talent and its mesmeric power. She natters away in her soft Derry-lilt, a proud mum first and foremost: 'My twin boys are four now and I’m sure they are tired listening to me singing around the house - I can’t stop!

'One of my sons asked me for a violin for Christmas and there isn’t one single day where he isn’t sitting there with this tiny, quarter-sized fiddle playing it. 'It’s a bit rusty, mammy, but it’ll get better,’ he says - it’s sweet.' Some families have music in the blood.

As for Dillon, the future is yet to be written. 'I need to start thinking about another album,' she laughs. 'Any ideas?' Whatever the lyric or the rhythm, Dillon’s remarkable voice is certain to make any new venture spellbinding.

Cara Dillon will perform the Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre on May 7 at 8pm as part of a tour. Check out our What's On listings for further information.