Queen's Hall, Edinburgh October 16, 2015 programme note
Mid Atholl Hall in Ballinluig is an unassuming venue. Typical of village halls across the Highlands, it serves the local community in a beautiful spot in Perthshire, near Pitlochry, and has hosted a succession of music events down the years. One of these, in August 1993, is preserved on a CD that you’ll now find on eBay. It was the first recording, taken from the mixing desk, of a young band from Northern Ireland.
Those who know the Irish language would have known they were a young band from their name, Oige. It means youth and in those days in the mid-1990s they had more than youth on their side. Their singer, by common consent, was bound for bigger things than village hall concerts.
Twenty years on Cara Dillon has indeed made her mark, although she’s not the sort of artist who would distance herself from the venues where her career took its early steps. The term grounded could have been coined for this woman who grew up in County Londonderry, listening to stories about the great ceilis they had in the family farmhouse where sparks would fly from the stone floor when the fiddle came down from its peg on the wall and her grandmother would sing fit to break hearts.
Cara’s own singing was doing something similar from an early age. Her grandmother’s talent had been passed down through the family – sister Mary was making a similar impression with the group Déanta around the same time as Oige were turning heads with their talent – and Cara became All-Ireland singing trophy winner at the age of fourteen.
One of the things that made Cara such a hit in Ballinluig and not too long afterwards at the instantly successful Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, whose first instalment came a few months after the “Ballinluig Tapes” were recorded and where Oige played to full houses in its early years, was her obvious connection with the songs she sang in a voice that was honest and sweetly beguiling.
When lyrics told of people going off from Ireland to America to start new lives, emigration being a constant topic in Irish traditional music, she was able to relate to them because members of her own family had gone off from Dungiven, Cara’s home town, down to the port of Derry, where they’d sailed up Lough Foyle past Malin Head and off across the Atlantic, never to return.
In singing these songs, she’s felt as if her forebears’ spirits are living in her and that she’s finishing their stories for them – and that’s the feeling she’s transmitted to her audience.
The great discoverer of singing talent, Frankie Gavin, recognised Cara’s qualities and invited her to follow his band, De Dannan’s roll call of outstanding singers, which has included Mary Black, Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell, and Eleanor Shanley.
Then came a near-brush with stardom as Cara replaced English singer Kate Rusby in the band Equation, a brief and unhappy interlude artistically but one during which Cara met her husband and musical partner, Sam Lakeman. Coincidentally, tonight’s guests, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, Sam’s brother, also met in Equation and went on to find their own direction which has resulted in “best duo” award wins and Kathryn being chosen, along with Sally Barker, to take the place of Sandy Denny in the reformed Fotheringay.
In Sam, Cara found a sympathetic talent who could give the traditional songs she sang fresh, imaginative, even catchy arrangements without compromising the natural storytelling aspect of the lyrics. Indeed, if anything, as Cara’s eponymously titled first album bears out, the arrangements enhanced these narratives. The couple also formed a songwriting partnership that blossomed spectacularly on Cara’s Sweet Liberty album in 2003 and although the majority of songs they’ve recorded since then have been traditional, their knack for sensitive renewal in many ways draws on the same well of creativity.
Along the way Cara and Sam have worked together on projects and recordings that might not have seemed very likely back in Oige’s day and that run the gamut from dance floor hits to orchestral concerts to Disney films to Shakespeare. Kevin Shields, of My Bloody Valentine, Sinéad O'Connor, Richard Hawley, Robin Millar and DJ Judge Jules are among the couple’s collaborations and in 1998 Cara recorded the lead single, Man in the Rain, on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells lll.
Other high profile appearances include guesting on the title song of the hit film Keeping Mum, which starred Rowan Atkinson, Maggie Smith and Patrick Swayze, and singing to an audience in the hundreds of millions at the Ryder Cup opening ceremony in 2006. That same year, a remix of Cara’s version of the traditional song Black is the Colour made the dance music charts and was voted the Number One Trance Track in Mixmag.
Performing live with orchestras, including The Ulster Orchestra, The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, The BBC Concert Orchestra and The Orchestra of Ireland, has allowed Cara and Sam to introduce new flavours and new audiences to their music. As their appearance at Celtic Connections with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 2013 confirmed, this format, which can fraught with danger, has proved another successful step in a career where nothing is rushed and every move is considered.
Songs and arrangements are carefully nurtured and albums only released when Cara and Sam feel they have something that’s complete and of value. Having a base in Devon, far from distancing Cara from the music and environment where she grew up (she gets back to Dungiven regularly anyway), has given her a perspective that she might not have had if she had stayed in County Londonderry.
In interviews she has remarked that she had to leave home to appreciate what she grew up with and realise that the music and songs that were in her family had been more than entertainment in the pre-television, pre-radio era - they were a way of life. With her instantly recognisable voice and the entirely empathetic way that she and Sam interpret the old songs and present the new ones, she is a true ambassador for the tradition.