Hall of Fame - Cara Dillon

The ups and downs of this Dungiven singer's career

Born and raised in Dungiven, Cara Dillon’s self-titled album - released in July 2001 on long-time champion Geoff Travis’ Rough Trade label and launching an immediately high-profile solo career - might have given some the impression that here was an overnight success. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth.

With partner and pianist/arranger Sam Lakeman, Cara had spent the previous five years ‘in development’ with major label Warners - involving numerous recording sessions with top level producers in both Britain and America, in search of a pop/trad crossover sound both label and artist were happy with.

Prior to that, she had been in folk ‘supergroup’ Equation who recorded an at-the-time unreleased album, Return To Me, at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios, before the group splintered against the background of a backlash against too much publicity too soon. And prior to that, regularly touring Europe during school holidays and term-time weekends, Cara had spent five years as vocalist and second fiddle in Dungiven traditional group Oige.

Cara recorded two albums with Oige: the first, Inspiration, was a cassette-only localised release while the other, Live In Glasgow, was nationally available through Scottish label KRL. (A third Oige album, Bang On, was recorded with Cara’s replacement Maranna McCloskey.)

Towards the end of Cara‘s tenure, in April 1995, a live performance was recorded at The Warehouse, Belfast, for a multi-artist showcase album Alive In Belfast. Covers of The Bothy Band’s haunting ‘Maids Of Mitchelstown’ and Owen Hand’s whaling lament ‘My Donal’, with an incredible vocal, were Oige’s contributions. Practically every other band involved where in awe of Cara’s voice - and they weren’t alone. She was, around that time, fielding overtures from people like Phil Coulter and Frankie Gavin but opted instead to relocate to Devon, accepting an offer to replace Kate Rusby in Equation - the group being already signed to Warners.

Still under contract to Warners after the shelved Equation album, Sam and Cara opted to follow their own path - a five year road of both frustration and character building: ‘In the end,’ says Cara, ‘Sam and myself just decided, “We’re never going to give Warners the album they want”. It was a hell of a lot of pressure – to go to a meeting and play a song and then to have someone say, “We love it, we love it… but come back in a couple of weeks with a more jazzed-up version”. In the end we asked ourselves, “What do we really want to do?” And we wanted to do an album with folk songs and maybe a couple of our own on it and we wanted to do it ourselves.’

That album, Cara Dillon, was rapturously received as was its follow-up, 2003’s Sweet Liberty, and Cara has been a regular TV and radio presence ever since. With Sam Lakeman not only a cool-headed fellow-survivor through the wilderness years but also a brilliant piano accompanist and arranger, Cara’s long-term future seems assured. 

Colin Harper