Michael McDonagh spoke to Cara Dillon who is on tour and has just released a Christmas album
The intimate Union Chapel in Islington with those high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows was just the perfect setting to see a special Christmas concert by National Treasure Cara Dillon.
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Almost the entire evening was devoted to an immaculate performance of the timeless songs from the album as well as their new songs and some covers. Her band (John, Niall, Luke and Sam) worked well to make the blend of her songs, her pure voice and the music, a delightful evening to remember. Their performance of Upon A Winter’s Night should, by rights, become an annual not-to-be-missed event held somewhere like the Royal Albert Hall.
I spoke to Cara short while before that performance about how the whole Christmas concert and album came to be Cara, who was born in 1975 in Dungiven in County Derry, won an All Ireland singing competition when she was 14, then signed her first record contract with Warner Brothers when she was just 19. They had asked her to join the band Equation, which involved a move to England, where she met her husband Sam Lakeman, who was also in the band.
Back to basics
After a year they both left to forge their own careers and find their own unique style. They had the experience of being signed to a big record label that didn’t want to listen to their ideas so they bought themselves out and went back to basics, producing an uncomplicated pure folk album based on Cara’s deep Irish roots.
It was recorded on a low budget at Sam’s family farmhouse and it worked because her first eponymous album became one of the biggest folk albums of the decade.
The BBC nominated it as Folk Album Of The Year followed by numerous prestigious Awards for her singing… and then her career took off. Performing both the traditional songs she had learned as a child in Ireland and also more contemporary material she has toured the world and has recently returned from concerts in China and also from Disneyland Paris, where her song Come Dream A Dream is played at the close of the spectacular Disney show.
Why did she record Upon A Winter’s Night?
“Well it is something I have always wanted to do but it always comes at Christmas Eve when you are sitting at home with your family with a glass of wine and you think ‘God I should make a Christmas album’. Then Christmas is over then and we are off on tour again but last Christmas we were at home with our children and we started writing some of the songs that are on this album. The children started joining in and it was lovely so I said right we have to make this album for Christmas next year so we recorded it in May and June in a heat wave.”
“Some of the songs I had from growing up and some were from here and then songs like Rug Muire Mac Do Dhia I had heard in America on some old dodgy recording on a harp but it always stuck in my mind then I always wanted to do some of the more classic Christmas songs like O Come O Come Emmanuel.”
“I just feel now that I have got children and there is so much nonsense in the run up to Christmas and it makes me sad it is all not real so I wanted to make this album going back to the traditional family values of Christmas and we are really proud of it and as Sam is such a perfectionist he honed it carefully to make it perfect.”
The album ends with a beautiful new song Mother Mary that I asked her about.
“I just remember feeling quite emotional when I wrote the lyrics of that song as I remember imagining how it must feel to be the mother of somebody so amazing. Every mother thinks her child is amazing but to think hers, this poor child will bear the weight of the world. It is unbearable and heart-breaking so we wanted to keep it really simple and lullaby-like Then we thought lets get the children involved but did not want to make it cheesy but when Mike Drake mixed it then it all worked really well.”
Family is particularly precious to Cara and Sam. When she was pregnant, with two shows to go before taking time off, Cara collapsed on stage and was rushed to hospital where her twin boys were born prematurely at 26 weeks. Then Cara was surprised to be diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which had a huge impact on their lives presenting difficult challenges for them which they duly overcame. What’s more they now have a lovely baby girl to add to their close-knit family.
Cara tours extensively all over the world but success in China has been a big surprise to her: “The biggest revelation of the last two years has been China. Out of the blue we were invited to go out to do a small tour and we thought we could treat it as a holiday play some gigs and see the great wall and see what it is like but nothing could have prepared us for what happened when we got to the first gig.
“It was a 2,000-seater concert hall and in the dressing room we wondered how many would turn up but then we were told it had been sold out for weeks. What? How? Is this possible?
“The second gig was sold out and we did six in all and it was like a parallel universe, like being a rock star. We also found out our first two albums are used in the curriculum for all their universities for teaching English, they are really clever people and they get poetry and their favourite song is Craigie Hill and they sing along and know all the words.
“It is crazy, an amazing experience and even on the underground metro they play the albums on rotation so we will keep going back.”
We’ve got two copies of Cara Dillon’s fabulous new Christmas album to give away to two lucky Irish World readers.
To be entered into the draw, just tell us: Where in Ireland is Cara Dillon from?
Send your answer to the Irish World, 934 North Circular Road, London NW2 7JR by noon 9 December.
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