Folk superstar Cara Dillon on the rising popularity of trad and folk
Traditional and folk music in this country are going through a renaissance similar to that enjoyed by C&W in recent years, according to one of Ireland’s finest musical exports, Cara Dillon.
The Derry folk singer, these days based in Devon with her husband, twin sons, and daughter, has an appeal that goes way beyond the traditional boundaries.
She has collaborated with some of the biggest names in rock and pop, including Peter Gabriel, and seen her songs covered by the likes of Ed Sheeran (The Parting Glass).
Cara, 41, originally from Dungiven in Derry, joined popular UK folk group Equation in 1995 and signed a record deal with Warners Music Group for which she collaborated with Sam Lakeman (now her husband and partner) as a duo/band called Polar Star.
In 2001, she released her first, eponymous, solo album which contained traditional songs and original Dillon/Lakeman songs. Her second album in 2003 was Sweet Liberty, for her third album in 2006 she enlisted the help of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on a couple of tracks.
But it was not until her fourth album, Hill of Thieves, released on her own label, Charcoal Records in 2009, that she really felt in control of her career and her music. In 2010 she narrated and recorded songs for Disney’s Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue.
In 2014 she released her fifth album, A Thousand Hearts, on Charcoal/Sony to great critical and commercial acclaim.
“In the last year or two we’ve found a very happy work/life balance with our three children (twin sons and a daughter with whom they live in Devon),” she told the Irish World last week in the midst of her current tour.
The tour varies from performing with a large band, to a duo, depending on the venue, the audience and the playlist. Whichever it is, she finds, it is clear that there is a healthy appetite for folk and trad music.
“A lot of the old boundaries, which were there when I first started are coming down and we are seeing people like Ed Sheeran – who is huge – performing our The Parting Glass, Mumford and Sons are very big, and people like Mark Radcliffe are doing really great things on BBC Radio 2 to bring the music to a much wider audience. There’s never been a better time to be in folk music.”
“Since I was 15 or 16 I’ve been doing festivals throughout the UK and I’ve seen such a major change, younger singers and musicians who are coming up are more free. When we were younger we used to get so concerned about what other people thought.
“My mother told me ‘it’s none of your business what other people think of you, just get on with it and do your best’.”
“It was very sound advice.”
“I am first and foremost a traditional folk singer but I have been able to play around with the boundaries but there was a time when it would have been frowned upon to play with all these different musicians but I had the opportunity to do it and to sing for Disney with an orchestra at Abbey Road,” says Cara. During the conversation we mention a famous quote by Duke Ellington –
“There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind … the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds. If it sounds good it’s successful; if it doesn’t it has failed.”
“That’s a very sensible thing to say, we get a lot of CDs sent to us and among some terrible, bad music there’s some very sound music in there.
“There’s some amazing music around but it relies on other people introducing it to us,” she replies. Whom would she suggest we should listen to?
“Well at last year’s Radio 2 Folk Music Awards there was Nancy Kerr, Rhiannon Giddens is fantastic, her songs are mind-blowing, Damien O’Kane has released a new album , there’s Seth Lakeman as well,” she replies.
“People also have Spotify and YouTube, although there’s a lot of terrible music on that it, and others like it, give really talented younger musicians a chance to break through that wasn’t there years ago. There’s a lot of background noise but the cream always rises to the top,” she says.
But, that free-range approach which lets trad and folk run with pop is something very recent in this country and the key to its widening popularity. In Ireland, the musical tradition is embedded everywhere already, she suggests.
“Ireland is such a great place for music because people are so much freer with music and performing. It’s great that we’re doing this interview and I’m not plugging an album, there’s just that love of music out there.”
One of the most influential people to recognise Cara’s was the late Sir Terry Wogan – who championed Eva Cassidy, Katie Melua, The Corrs, Michael Buble and others – when he played her on his show.
“Terry was just one of the legends, anybody who met him would not have a bad word to say about him, everything about him was true and down to earth and you always just wanted to do your best for him and to make him proud, because he was Irish and he was proud of me and what I achieved,” she says.
Between now and the next album and other songwriting projects she continues to play at different venues. At home, near Bath, various musicians come and play and stay the night, recreating the environment in which she grew up in Derry.
“Derry was a great place to grow up but it is so much easier to get to gigs from here rather than flying or taking the ferry and driving. We have started holding seisiuns and one of my children is learning the fiddle while the other wants to take up Irish dancing, so we bring it with us to where we live,” she says.
(See caradillon.co.uk for dates and venues)