Cara Dillon: ‘Folk music in the past was a great platform for people to speak up about things’

Folk singer Cara Dillon is on an acoustic tour which stops off at Grassington Festival next week. Duncan Seaman reports.

Cara Dillon. Picture: Matt Austin

It’s with good reason that Cara Dillon calls her last album, Wanderer, a gift “that just keeps giving”. A year and a half since its release, she’s touring its songs the length and breadth of Britain.

Next week the Northern Irish folk singer will be performing with her husband Sam Lakeman at Grassington Festival.

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“We’ve discovered a nice new way of working as well,” she says. “The last album was very different to the others in that it was very stripped back. It meant that myself and Sam have been able to go out and do lots of gigs, just the two of us.

Cara Dillon. Picture: Matt Austin

“We’ve been mainly doing theatres which have grand pianos, which has been a real luxury, so just the two of us and a grand piano. It’s been like a breath of fresh air because when you’ve got a band a lot of silences are filled whereas here we find there’s a 
load of space. It’s been really refreshing.

“Subconsciously we probably had been thinking we could never do that, just the two of us, and suddenly we find that people are really loving the intimacy of the concerts now. It’s nice to be able to do that.”

The album’s theme of movement of people is one that’s both rooted in traditional Irish music but also says something about modern times, Dillon feels. “A couple of the songs I wrote and one, Lakeside Swans, in particular I wanted to capture the essence of what’s going on in our world. It’s all about the refugee crisis and maybe the way society is turning a blind eye to it sometimes.

“Folk music in the past was a great platform for people to speak up about things. I’ve never really felt the need to do that before now and suddenly I find myself writing the lyrics for that very easily. It’s nice when people come up after we do performances and everyone seemed very moved by that song in particular and it feels good to have been able to speak from my soul about that.”

Cara Dillon. Picture: Matt Austin

Over the last two and a half decades Dillon’s musical journey has led her down many avenues, from working with the likes of Mike Oldfield, Sinead O’Connor and Richard Hawley to singing Disney songs and working with orchestras. A remix of her song Black is the Colour was even a major hit with clubbers. At heart, the 43-year-old says: “I have a traditional Irish singing voice and it’s what I’m firmly rooted in. It’s what I’m steeped in, but I’ve absolutely loved experimenting and you have to do that, I think, if you want to take yourself seriously in music.

“You have to be open-minded and you have to have a go. When people are offering you an experience to sing with an orchestra in Abbey Road you can’t limit yourself by saying, ‘Oh no, I’m just a traditional Irish folk singer and I wouldn’t do that’. Or equally when somebody takes one of your songs and says, ‘Is it OK to remix it and play it in clubs?’ it’s like of course. It’s a privilege to be in positions like that where people want to work with you and take your music and do things with it because I think you learn, and you’re getting your music heard by so many other people.

“Lots of people come to our concerts now who have heard the remix of Black is the Colour and they’re now in their thirties and saying, ‘Folk music is so cool’. It’s nice to have the calming space of folk music, youngsters especially are exposed to so much dance music, it’s sometimes refreshing for them to come out and listen to just a piano or a guitar and a voice again.”

In August Dillon and Lakeman are going to be playing a handful of shows to mark the 10th anniversary of her album Hill of Thieves.

“I definitely feel I’ve got a real connection with that album,” she says. “Apart from winning a couple of awards, it was a turning point where it elevated us to keep going, to be able to keep pursuing our musical career. I’m very proud of that album and what it’s achieved. The song Hill of Thieves was something was something that was very personal to me and I felt like I was taking a risk even writing a song like that.”

In the run-up to making that album, Dillon had been diagnosed with type-I diabetes and given birth to twins. From a practical point of view, she says it changed the way she worked. “That whole album was made while the twins slept after being fed. We would have people come to our house and stay to do the recording, and it was the first time where I didn’t feel like music was the be-all and end-all of everything. I’d got my life and I’d got these little babies to look after, and it is music at the end of the day. Actually it did me the world of good.

“Up until that point I was very picky about everything I sang. I would analyse every line and how my voice sounded. It was the first time I thought, ‘You know what? It’s music and it’s to be enjoyed and I don’t have the luxury of sitting here and picking through everything’. I would sing a song then I would go in and look after them for a bit and then when they’d go to bed for the night I’d go and do vocals. They’re very fond of that album too, subliminally it seeped into their lives because they would be sleeping and waking and listening, and there were lots of musicians in the house playing the parts.

“Then of course being diagnosed type-I diabetic that was a very traumatic so the album is one of those markers of my life and I’m proud of it because it was a tough year and to come through the other side with a good pat on the back, really, I feel proud.”

For the third year in a row, Dillon and Lakeman have booked a string of Christmas shows based on the songs from her album Upon a Winter’s Night.

“It’s the one thing that we all look forward to doing now as a family as well because we’ve been allowed to take our children for last week of the Christmas tour the last two years,” she says. “Their headteachers have been very supportive. Even the other day one of our boys said, ‘I can’t wait for the Christmas concerts, I love it’. We’ve always loved Christmas anyway and it’s just lovely to be bringing a bit of magic and enjoying the magic too. It’s something that we look forward to doing and I know that people go away feeling in the Christmas spirit, and it’s become a time for family as well now, it’s become a bit of a tradition, so it’s good.”

Dillon has talked in the past of seeing music as an extension of her faith. Today, she says: “I feel very blessed every day to be able to stand on a stage and sing, especially I suppose after what I’ve come through, when you’re diagnosed with something that is a life-altering disease like that.

“You don’t take every single day for granted, you have to work at it a lot being a diabetic, and the highs and lows of it, and the one time that I feel really at ease and that I most enjoy what I’m doing is when I’m on stage. I just feel so lucky that I’m still able to do it and still able to travel all over the world, because there was a time when I thought that I’d have to give it all up, that diabetes would maybe win, and so it’s my time. Especially now, being a mother of three children, when Sam and I go away to do concerts it’s complete escapism, it’s like going into some kind of dreamland because it’s your own time.

“When you’re a busy mother, to be able to have your own space like that with something so precious and sacred as music it feeds your soul and I always hope that everybody who comes out to listen to our music has heard something different, something special, because that’s what it’s all about, really, at the end of the day, isn’t it? Music’s there to bring a bit more magic into our lives. Especially with what’s going on in the world, to be able to walk away from that and have a couple of hours of escapism is so important for your mind and soul.”

This year’s touring has given Dillon and Lakeman several ideas for their next record. “At the moment we are writing lots of stuff and the plan is that our next album will be something that we’ve written. When we record our albums we never sit down and say ‘We’re going to do one like this’, it just has to be what’s right, and because we’ve been using these beautiful grand pianos we’ve found ourselves sitting on a stage for most of the afternoon when we arrive at a venue and Sam’s been playing lots of pieces that he’s created and I find myself writing and singing melodies and lyrics over the top of it, so that’s been really interesting and I think that’s going to be the shape of things to come.”

Cara Dillon and Sam Lakeman play at Grassington Festival on June 25. www.grassington-festival.org.uk