Cara Dillon: Before a concert, I'm rushing around to get everything ready for the childminder
Dungiven-born folk singer-songwriter Cara Dillon has enjoyed worldwide success and is now back home for two concerts tonight and tomorrow. She tells Lorraine Wylie about family life in Somerset with husband Sam Lakeman and their three young children, and why her introduction to motherhood was so dramatic
From the age of 14 when she won the All Ireland Singing Trophy, Cara Dillon was destined to succeed. Now, almost three decades later, the Northern Ireland woman is one of the most celebrated singers on the Irish folk scene. But, for Cara, music is more than entertainment. Taking time out from her hectic schedule, she told me about the healing power of her craft, its influence on her family and why she feels blessed by her gift.
But first, she deserves congratulations for her latest album Wanderer. Described as her most stripped back and satisfying to date, there's a sense of separation and yearning running through the collection of 10 songs.
One track, The Leaving Song, is influenced by her mother's stories of her great uncle's emigration to America and I wondered whether Cara, now residing in Somerset, harbours a secret desire to return to Ireland.
"You know I like to think that I will," she says, her Londonderry accent mild but instantly recognisable.
"At the minute we're committed to being here, what with the children in school and the concerts and everything. But, you know, I have this dream, that in years to come, maybe I'll get that wee cottage by the sea. Who knows, perhaps in Donegal or somewhere beautiful like that."
Maybe fate will grant her wish. After all, her teenage dream of becoming a star came true. To be fair, success didn't just land in her lap. The Dungiven girl spent years honing her skill, first with her band Oige (Irish for Youth), and later with the folk group Equation, before finding success in 2001 with her solo album, Cara Dillon. By then she'd already split with the band and teamed up with Sam Lakeman, whom she married in December 2002.
The next year, newlywed happiness shifted up a gear when her second album, Sweet Liberty, earned her one of the biggest awards in Ireland - The Meteor Music Award for Best Irish Female.
Now on her seventh album, what is the secret of her success?
"I don't know really," Cara says. "It's probably a combination of things. You know, music can touch people. I can't believe it when someone comes up to me after a concert and tells me how my music has helped them. They say they feel so much better, happier, after hearing it. I don't see my work as a job, I just feel blessed to be able to help. I've a very strong faith and what I do musically is an extension of it so it comes from the soul. I get so much peace from standing there singing. It's incredible but there really is a healing quality to music."
Cara has witnessed this phenomenon in her own life.
"My introduction to motherhood was pretty dramatic to say the least," she recalls. "I was actually on stage when I went into labour but didn't really know what was happening. It was supposed to be my last concert and I was looking forward to putting my feet up for a bit before the babies arrived.
"But they'd a different plan! Doctors at Bath hospital tried to stop the labour but our twin boys got their way and were born at just 26 weeks. As any parent who's had a baby early will tell you, it's a rollercoaster of emotion. The situation changes from day to day, it's very, very scary."
As her tiny babies fought for life, doctors came up with an unusual prescription.
"The consultant knew I was a singer and suggested we play my music through their incubators. He explained that the babies would be familiar with the sound and it could be comforting for them.
"So every night they covered the incubators with a little blanket to make it dark. Then they played my music, you could hear it all over the ward. A nurse was there taking notes, recording any effects. It really was incredible to see how their little heart rates came down, their breathing regulated and they became very calm. Three months later they were well enough to come home and today they're running around, a couple of healthy, happy 11-year-olds. I don't know what they're eating but they're as tall as me now. We're so blessed to have them."
Becoming a mother, especially for the first time, is deeply emotional. Little wonder that Cara should express her feelings through her art.
"I was exhausted!" she remembers. "Caring for two tiny newborns left me drained so we decided to record Hill of Thieves at our studio at home. All the musicians came to us and, every night over a period of two or three months, when I got the babies to sleep, I'd record the vocals. During the day, I'd tend to the boys and then, at night, I'd sing. Looking back, it was so exciting making it and a bit stressful as well. You know, I really think that album was the making of me as an artist.
"Before the twins, I'd stress out, go through everything with a fine tooth comb and take ages to record a vocal. But with little babies to care for, you realise what's really important. Music isn't meant to be stressful, its healing and therapeutic and to be enjoyed. So I stopped obsessing and just did my best. I got my priorities right. You know, that album turned out to be incredibly important for us."
Just doing her best turned out to be more than good enough. The title track to Hill of Thieves was voted by BBC listeners as one of the top 10 original songs to come out of Northern Ireland.
Cara's traumatic introduction to motherhood didn't stop her giving Noah and Colm a little sister. Now aged eight, Elizabeth arrived without her brothers' dramatic fanfare.
"I couldn't believe my luck when I got a girl!" Cara laughs, obviously delighted. "Coming from a family where there's five of us girls, I know how precious a mother/daughter relationship really is. Bring on the shopping trips."
Three children and a diary full of concerts doesn't leave a lot of scope for relaxation but Cara appreciates her down time.
"Before a concert, I'm rushing around getting everything ready for the childminder. Then when it's all over, there's nothing I love more than just faffing around at home. It's beautiful here in Somerset so we like to walk a lot or just wander round the antique shops in town."
Apart from family, Cara admits to missing Northern Ireland's soda farls.
"I love coming back to Ireland, especially for the soda bread! You can't get it here so I've learned to make my own. I really enjoy baking bread, there's something about working with dough that's very satisfying. The whole process can't be rushed, you need a lot of patience, it's very therapeutic - a bit like making music."
It's impossible to talk about food without mentioning diabetes. Ever since her diagnosis of type one diabetes in 2007, all Cara's meals now come with some unwelcome ingredients - insulin and needles. "I can't say it's a doddle," she laughs. "I mean, at the time I was diagnosed, the twins were just one and I was terrified of having a hypo or going into a coma or something. So I went a bit over the top trying to keep control of it. I've had to change my whole life and inject insulin more or less every time I eat.
"I find it tricky a lot of the time but you have to keep it in perspective. It isn't going away but I can and do live a happy, healthy life. It's probably had a positive effect on the children in that it promotes a healthier lifestyle. I mean, they've seen what sugar does to me so, while they do enjoy their sweeties now and then, they also know when enough is definitely enough."
One of the most surprising and unexpected events in the singer's career has been her success in China. In fact, her first album is used in the English language curriculum in schools.
"It's incredible, it's like being a complete superstar when we arrive there," she says, as though she still can't believe it herself. "They come to the airport and bring all these wee gifts. Our concerts are always packed out and they sing along to the music.
"I mean, they love songs like Craigie Hill and as soon as Sam plays the opening bars, they go crazy, it's like an anthem or something. They tend to prefer traditional Chinese music to pop so I think the young people find a similarity between some Irish traditional melodies and their own tunes. I'm always amazed when, after a concert, they'll come up to me for a chat. Of course they've been taught English by listening to my songs and its very weird to hear them talk with this little Northern Ireland twang!"
Does she speak Chinese?
"Every time I go I learn a few phrases like 'how are you?' or 'lovely to be here'. But when I leave I forget them all. What can I say, I'm a disgrace, I really should knuckle down!"
How does she feel about her achievements? "I'm 43 now and as you get older you tend to look back at the different phases in your life and it all starts to make sense. I'm very blessed and I believe I am exactly where I'm meant to be."
As part of her Trio - Wanderer Tour, Cara Dillon plays at Down Cathedral, Downpatrick, tonight, and at The Glassworks, Londonderry, tomorrow at 7.30pm. For tickets visit www.eventbrite.co.uk