album reviews and artist reflections
reviews and interview © Russell W Elliot 2004
images © Rough Trade Records 2001-2004
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Last updated: 06 September 2004
image © Rough Trade Records 2004
We were first introduced to the music of Cara Dillon through the recommendation of a British colleague we met at Harvard Business School this summer. He had been listening faithfully to Cara's latest release Sweet Liberty and raved about both her voice and music. Rough Trade Records responded favorably to our inquiry and provided Cara's two solo albums and Equation's Return To Me album for our review. They also arranged the interview with Cara Dillon presented below. Our review of the three albums in this article should draw attention from our visitors.
Cara Dillon, known for her angelic vocal work, was chosen to join the British folk/rock band Equation in 1995 when singer Kate Rusby left to begin what has become a very successful solo career. At the time, Cara was singing with a young band called Oige but had also played with the legendary Irish traditional group De Dannan (whose previous singers included Mary Black and Delores Keane). Cara had also won the all-Ireland singing championship and areed to join Equation once she had fulfilled her own commitments with Oige.
Cara's work with Equation resulted in the album Return To Me recorded in 1995 but not released until 2003. More on the story can be found at Equation's website. Cara left Equation and began a solo career working with (now husband) Sam Lakeman, one of the three founding brothers of the band. Her debut self-titled album is comprised primarily of tradtional folk numbers, some with robust new arrangements. Sweet Liberty, the follow-up, is comprised more of a blend between traditioal and her own work with Sam.
Cara Dillon lives in England now, but remains close to Dungiven and the grounded upbringing it gave her. She has vivid memories of her mother taking her and her sister to fleadhs around Ireland and listening transfixed to the dramatic ballads sung by old men in the back room of pubs. Her sister Mary, herself a superb singer who guests on her latest album, found a "treasure chest" of old tape recordings she had made of some of these old guys in pubs, passed them on to Cara, and she's recorded a couple of them on the new album. They are dear to her heart for dark pub rooms at fleadhs were essentially Cara's training ground.
Cara remembers listening to great traditional singers like Paddy Tunney and Rosin White, both regular visitors to Dungiven, and in no time had a repertoire of her own to sing at the fleadhs. At 14 she won the All Ireland Traditional Singing trophy and a year later she was in her first band, Oige. They were pretty successful too, but Cara was all set for university when she got a call out of the blue in 1995 inviting her to come to England to replace Kate Rusby in the band Equation.
It was the offer she couldn't refuse. Equation, seemed to be heading for the top, but the album they recorded Return To Me didn't get a release. However, Cara had found her soulmate Sam Lakeman in the band and the pair decided to try their luck as a duo. There followed a long frustrating period as they experimented with writing and recording songs with a succession of top producers and songwriters. However, none of the projects and collaborations seemed to fulfill the inner visions that Cara and Sam had developed, so they decided to abandon ship and do their own thing.
There have been other adventures down the line. Cara sang "Man In The Rain" on Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells 3, appeared live and on record with Ghostland and on the famous Woman's Heart tour with Dolores Keane, Mary Black, Eleanor McEvoy and Maura O'Connell. And now she has her own band to tour with. She adds, "I am very lucky. I am able to play the type of music I love with great musicians and we're having a lot of fun - you can't ask much more than that."
Musical Discoveries: Who have been some of your musical influences?
Cara Dillon: When I was growing up I was influenced by traditional singers from Northern Ireland such as Paddy Tunney and Roisin White as well as Dolores Keane and Mary Black. In my teens I began to listen to Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac and I am huge Kate Bush fan.
And who do you find yourself listening to all the time?
I listen to Kate Bush Hounds of Love at least once a week and in between I love listening to loads of different types of music.
Please tell us about your musical training and education.
I learned to play the fiddle and whistle at school however my singing came from listening to lots of traditional singers in the town where I am from and as a result developing my own style. I never took singing lessons, I suppose it was passed down.
Where do you draw inspiration for your own songs and lyrics?
I find reading lots of random poetry is very inspiring and helps to put me in a good place for writing my own lyrics. My husband Sam is a wonderful musician and I am inspired by the music he creates. I feel that the music we create is a contemporary type of folk. I stay true to my roots but the songs are treated in a way that allows them to sit comfortably alongside contemporary music.
What can you say about the differences between your debut and the latest solo album?
The first album had more traditional songs than the second. I have a wealth of traditional material to draw from and it was exciting to record a lot of my favourites on the first record. We were blown away by the response we got from our own songs and as a result we gained the confidence to put a few more on our second album.
However we generally just decide if it sounds good to our ears it will go on the record. There are no rules! Sam and I work well together, he writes beautiful music which in turn inspires me to write the lyrics. When working on trad material we always make sure the song is able to breathe, we treat them with great respect.
Are you currently singing with any other artists?
At the moment we are working on our third album.
What is is like performing in front of a live audience for you?
I love performing, it can be magical. I am always amazed that people come out and pay money to hear me sing so I always try to give my best. Music is the most rewarding job in the world, I feel so lucky to be able to connect with people in a special way.
What has been your biggest challenge in a musical career so far?
Performing with the Ulster Orchestra in the Ulster Hall live on TV and in front of a huge audience in to launch the Belfast festival last year. It was the most nerve shattering and fantastic experince. It opened up a whole new world of music to me.
And what would you say has been your biggest achievement?
I have been so lucky in winning a good few awards, the one I am most proud of is 'Best Irish Female Singer' at this year's Irish Meteor Awards.
What are your hopes, dreams and fantasies for 2004--in life and of course in music?
I am more than happy to be able to continue making music and performing alongside the wonderful musicians in my band. I would love everyone to enjoy my next album, imagine if (in my dreams) it became a number one selling record! I would love to keep touring the world over!
Return To Me. It's been hailed as one of the great lost albums of folk rock, but Equation's Return To Me (CD083, 2003) sounds in parts more like a lost Corrs album. Equation were originally a five-piece consisting of Sean, Seth and Sam Lakeman from Devon, with Yorkshire singers Kathryn Roberts and Kate Rusby. Their debut EP in early 1995 generated so much hype that they soon found themselves signed to Warner Brothers and being touted as a folk supergroup. Regvrettably this first album was not released until much later.
Rusby left to begin an impressive independent solo career and Cara Dillon was drafted in to replace her. Over the winter of 1995/6, the band recorded their debut album, the title track and centerpiece being a tender cover of October Project's "Return To Me" sung as a duet between the two female vocalist. The more sparsely arranged numbers like "Let Him Cry" and "Wake Up", which Cara Dillon co-wrote with Sean and Sam, seem to hint at her future direction, although traditional material initially brought her mass acclaim.
Cara Dillon's and Kathryn Roberts' voices combine and contrast on Return To Me blending folk with light rock. The album provides great insight into Cara Dillon's early days and highlights her crystalline voice. While some would complain the album's tracks lack coherence with upbeat catchy tunes playing opposite brooding traditionally-oriented folk numbers, the music is produced superbly and shines a bright light on the vocalists' emerging talents. The Lakeman brothers' arrangements work well both both vocalists on the album giving ample space for both to demonstrate their skills in lead and harmony vocal parts, although Dillon's work dominates the sound. Interested visitors should expore further selections from Equation's repertoire as well as Cara Dillon's solo material. Rough Trade Records released this album in 2003.
Cara Dillon. With her self-titled debut album (CD019, 2002), Cara Dillon joins the ever-growing list of young female singers producing traditional albums that sit equally well with a more mainstream audience. After leaving Equation Dillon struck out with musical partner Sam Lakeman (and this is essentially a duo album in all but name) to stunning effect. The material featured is all traditional in source and performed to a largely acoustic backing, plus Lakeman's rolling piano and inspired moments of electricity.
Dillon has a voice that sets her apart from the more traditional singers, at times sounding as if she should be fronting a dreamy guitar band rather than a folk group. Indeed some will be reminded of Cara's voice by the emerging singer / songwriter Jessi Hamilton (review). She handles the songs expertly, combining originality and understanding to perfection. And while to group her with Kate Rusby (another Equation alumni) and Bill Jones may appear an obvious thing to do, it is these three young women who are producing the sort of folk music that will keep the fire burning long into the 21st century.
Much anticipation surrounded Dillon through her growing reputation with the band Oige, even before she left to join Equation. She and Sam Lakeman subsequently teamed up and have reverted to an almost exclusive repertoire of traditional songs to launch what seems certain to be a highly successful solo/duo career. She certainly has a beautiful voice, fragile enough to wring maximum sentiment out of "Lark In The Clear Air" and "Black Is The Colour" and she delivers the melancholia of "The Maid Of Culmore" and "Green Grows The Laurel" with understated heartbreak. If she sounds too pure and immaculate to carry off the worldliness of "I Am A Youth That's Inclined To Ramble" and "Craigie Hall" there's still an undefinable charisma about her which, aided and abetted by subtle arrangements and tasteful back-up, provides total gratification.
Sweet Liberty. Cara Dillon's second solo album (CD123, 2003) came with a lot of expectation. It's no great surprise then that Cara Dillon and partner/producer Sam Lakeman haven't strayed far from the formula that made Dillon such a success. Although there's substantially less reliance on traditional songs, the album uses many of the same musicians and sticks to similarly sparse crystalline arrangements that periodically build into crescendos, but neatly avoid bombast by subsiding gracefully just when they should.
A big part of Dillon's appeal lies in her girlish voice (similar to Kate Bush but with a Derry brogue) and the fact that she often chooses material that has strong connections with her roots--"The Gem of the Roe" and "The Winding River Roe" being two fine examples. Such songs have usually stood the test of time as a result of distinctive melodies and it takes courage to juxtapose them with original material, as Sweet Liberty does with a fair degree of success. Several of the arrangements are certain to attract Clannad and Iona fans.
The duo's autobiographically-oriented ballad "Falling Like A Star" could easily be interpreted as a comment on early days in the failed folk supergroup Equation. Cara's voice searches through the story atop gentle piano backing. And several of their own pieces--"High Tide," "Where Are You" and "Broken Bridges"--are album standouts that attest to outstanding song writing, Cara's vocal dexterity and feature superb arrangements.
The band's lush instrumental and Cara's soaring vocals provide a great interpretation of Johnny Moynihan and Terry Woods' "Standing On The Shore." The mix of five original compositions (up from only two on Cara Dillon), five arrangements of traditional songs and two covers seems judicious, especially given the fine reading of Tommy Sands' "There Were Roses." Sweet Liberty is an excellent follow-up and we will anxiously await Cara's next album.
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