My heart soared when Eagles star agreed to sing with me
As her fifth album is released next week, Cara Dillon talks to Audrey Watson about working with Timothy B Schmit, her health battles and being mobbed in China.
"I was home for a visit and had to catch an early-morning flight back to England the next day, so I was in my pajamas having a cup of tea before going to bed," recalls Cara (38).
"The phone rang and it was a man I knew from Dungiven who said, 'Cara, Timothy's in town and he wants to know if you would meet him for a drink.
"I said, 'Who's Timothy?' And he said, 'You know ... Timothy B Schmit from the Eagles'.
"I was going to put him off, but my husband Sam persuaded me, so I got dressed and we met him in a pub called McReynolds – we were the only ones there," she laughs.
"We had a great chat and it turns out that he is married to a woman whose mother is from Dungiven and he comes here all the time on holiday.
"He was the nicest man and so unassuming and down-to-earth. He told me he was a big fan and would love to sing with me sometime, but I didn't think anything of it.
"When it came to recording A Thousand Hearts, I wanted to get some distinctive male vocals on the track Bright Morning Star, and sent Timothy an email, not really thinking anything would come of it, but he replied immediately and agreed to do it.
"We sent him over the song and he recorded the vocals in his studio in Los Angeles, and we are going to meet up with him again when the Eagles play London in June."
Released on Monday, A Thousand Hearts is Cara's fifth album and her first in five years.
Produced and arranged as always by her husband Sam Lakeman, it contains a mix of traditional and contemporary songs, all loosely based around the theme of love.
An unusual inclusion is a cover of River Run, a song about the late actor River Phoenix, by little-known American indie pop act, Suddenly Tammy!
"Sam and I discovered them when we were 19 and with Warner Music," explains Cara.
"They handed us a pile of CDs the day we signed our contract and Suddenly Tammy! really stood out.
"We loved them and we loved this song – I've been singing it for years at soundchecks – so decided it was time to put it on an album."
She may not have released anything in the last five years, but it has still been an incredibly busy time for Cara, personally and professionally.
Her last album, Hill of Thieves, in 2009, was inspired by the three months premature birth of twin sons Noah and Colm in November 2006, and featured songs that served as lullabies to her babies as they struggled to survive, as well as being comfort music and a reminder of home for Cara.
Just over a year later, she became very ill herself; her weight plummeted to six stone and she was so exhausted and weak, she was unable to lift her own children. After an urgent referral by her GP, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a disease she struggled to come to terms with at first.
"I won't lie. It was really traumatic for me," admits Cara. "With everything the boys went through, it was such an achievement to get them to a year old and signed off from hospital. And then just a few months later, I'm told I'm a Type 1 diabetic.
"I didn't know anything about the disease and like with a lot of illnesses, if you type it into your computer, what comes up is terrifying.
"I freaked out. I thought my life was over. And I was horrified at the thought of injecting myself.
"I was really, really low for a few days, but then my baby boys put it all in perspective. They had been through so much and had fought really hard for their lives. I decided that I wasn't going to let them down.
"It was very hard at the start, but I came to terms with things and learnt how to adjust my lifestyle. I have to inject myself every time I eat and that was difficult to accept at the start. But it's been six years since my diagnosis and now I can't imagine not doing it."
At the beginning of 2010, she became pregnant with her third child and not surprisingly, considering her own health and what the twins had come through, it was a worrying time.
"I was never going to have your average textbook pregnancy, was I?" she laughs. "And when you are diabetic, it becomes even more worrying. Every pregnant woman worries about their baby, but when you've got something wrong with you, you're always asking yourself, 'Am I doing everything exactly right? Should I really be doing this, or doing that? If anything goes wrong, it will be my fault for having diabetes.'
"With the boys, things were kind of taken out of my hands but this time, I felt that the outcome was all down to me Thankfully, Elizabeth arrived just a few weeks early and everything went smoothly. My daughter being born healthy was the biggest achievement of my life.
"Noah and Colm are now strapping seven-year-olds and Elizabeth is three."
During her pregnancy, Cara had recorded the opening song, Summer's Just Begun for Disney movie Tinker Bell and The Great Fairy Rescue, as well as narrating the opening sequence of the film.
She also sang a lullaby called Come Flying With Me, featured during the credits for the movie.
"I literally got an email from Disney saying that they had heard my voice and would I be interested," she recalls.
"Of course, I jumped at the chance.
"They sent me the songs and I recorded them at the famous Abbey Road Studios, in London."
In January 2012 she also recorded the vocals on the song Come Dream a Dream, which forms the closing sequence of the Disney Dreams show, created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Disneyland Paris.
Having previously been signed to Warner and then Rough Trade, Cara and Sam now release all their music on their own Charcoal Records label, which they set up in 2009, and run from their home and studio in Somerset.
"Going out on our own has been the best thing we ever did," she says.
"When we released Hill of Thieves on our own label, it was the most successful album we had ever recorded.
"And we've been very blessed with A Thousand Hearts because when we were halfway through recording, Sony approached us and asked if they could licence the album – which means that it would still be released on Charcoal Records, but Sony will distribute it all over the world."
To promote A Thousand Hearts, Cara is embarking on a tour of Northern Ireland and will travel to China later this year, where she is something of a superstar.
"We had been there 10 years ago with Mary Black and Donal Lunny and only 100 people turned up to hear us, so when we were invited to come out and do four concerts last December, I wasn't keen.
"But Sam suggested we treat it as a short holiday and pack in a bit of sightseeing as well, so I thought 'Ok'.
"When we arrived, we were driven to a huge 2,500-seater concert hall. I was very worried and asked our translator what ticket sales were like and she told me that it had been sold out for months – the same with the other three shows.
"It turns out – and we didn't know this – that our last two albums have been used in universities to help students learn English.
"There had to be crowd control guys during the concerts and one night I had to run to the toilet with a hoodie over my head, so I wouldn't be mobbed. It was like a parallel universe and we had to pinch ourselves to make sure it was actually happening.
"We are really, really looking forward to going there again in October," she laughs.
And a few notes on how her career took off ...
Part of a musical family and the youngest of six girls (her eldest sister Mary was a member of Deanta), Cara Dillon's vocal talent was obvious from a very early age
- At 14, she won the All-Ireland Singing Trophy and went on to perform with bands Oige and De Dannan before replacing Kate Rusby in folk supergroup Equation in 1995
- She spent a year working with Equation and formed a strong musical alliance with fellow member and future husband Sam Lakeman
- In 1996, they left Equation and signed a record deal with WEA and, although Cara sang Man In The Rain on Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells III album, things didn't work out and Cara and Sam switched to Rough Trade in 2000
- Over the next six years, they released three hugely successful albums and scooped numerous awards, including an Irish Meteor for Best Female Singer (beating Sinead O'Connor) in 2004 and a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award
- In 2009, they released Hill of Thieves, their fourth album together and their first on their own Charcoal Records label. www.charcoalrecords.co.uk