Belfast Telegraph

Made in China: Why Dungiven songstress Cara Dillon is a big hit in Asia

Dungiven songstress Cara a big hit in Asia after album used to teach English

Even though she's fresh from the mayhem that goes with a disco-themed birthday party full of seven-year-old girls, Cara Dillon exudes calm.

The Dungiven-born mum-of-three is used to a frantic pace of life - she is currently juggling a new album, an imminent tour and a couple of trips to China next year.

Her haunting vocals and musical partnership with husband Sam Lakeman have garnered her legions of fans, and nowhere more so than in China - something that mystified her until recently, when she made an astonishing discovery.

"We went out there about 15 years ago with the Irish Government, along with artists like Mary Black and Donal Lunny, and played a massive concert hall, but only about 20 people turned up," Cara said.

"I wasn't keen, but Sam said, 'Let's treat it as a holiday and see the Great Wall and explore a bit'.

"We went out with the band and turned up at our first gig venue - a 2,000-seater concert hall in Beijing.

"When we arrived I asked the translator who was looking after us if anyone was going to come.

"She told us every night on the tour had been sold out for weeks and I couldn't work out how it was possible - it was like a parallel universe.

"It turns out that someone who was at the gig all those years ago and who works in a university got hold of our CD and uses our music to teach English to his students.

"Everybody who comes to our concerts has just graduated, and they've told us it's now part of the curriculum in schools and universities.

Cara Dillon

"We've just come back from there and they're all screaming and queuing up afterwards so we can sign CDs for them for up to two hours.

"They're really proper fans. It's just folk music, but it gives you a glimpse of what it must be like to have the life of a rock band or popstar."

She may not top the mainstream charts, but Cara has been one of the most in-demand singers on the folk scene since she performed in her first band, Óige, when she was still a teenager.

Her seventh album, Wanderer, which was released last week, is the latest collaboration with long-time musical partner, producer and husband Sam.

The collection features intimate performances of the musician's most moving songs, but the album came about almost by accident.

"We weren't planning to release an album this year and were working on different material for another project," Cara said.

"I found myself humming songs when I was making bread one day and I ended up writing the Leaving Song.

"We recorded the songs and made a pledge to keep them really simple and not overdo them.

"We started it in the spring time and it took a month to record. We're delighted with it.

Cara with her husband in Shanghai

"It's very stripped back and simple and I think it sounds a bit more mature than everything else I've ever recorded - almost like we've grown up."

With three children to care for, two full-time careers and a house to tend do, Cara and her husband of 15 years have lots to keep them busy.

"Some people think it would do their head in, but I couldn't do it any other way," she explained.

"We're in it together and we've just come back from China and it was an amazing time, but it's all so enhanced because we're doing it together.

"We can share all the experiences, and at the end of the day we know and understand what the other has been doing

"We have these great memories that we can dig up every now and then. It works really well.

"Next year is pretty full-on. We're doing Celtic Connections in Glasgow then touring with the new album and going to China a couple of times."

Wanderer sees Cara delve deeper into the traditional, with the underlying theme being the movement of people, emigration and the pursuit of love.

One of the tracks, The Leaving Song, comes from stories told to a young Cara by her mother about living wakes - a farewell to family leaving for America.

Cara and her family

"My mum is 86 and she remembers as a child her great uncles leaving and how much craic it was until about four o'clock in the morning when a great sadness came over the house whenever they realised that the person who was emigrating had slipped out the door," she said.

"I wrote this song because I had the story going around in my head for years.

"It's about a mother trying to say goodbye to her son and knowing that it's the last time she's going to see him.

"It's a bit of a tear-jerker, but I'm really proud of it."

Cara is the only one of the six children raised in the family home in Dungiven to leave the country.

While she has not ruled out returning home, the musician is happily settled in picturesque Somerset with Sam and their three children, twins Noah and Colm (10) and seven-year-old Elizabeth.

"A few years ago, before the boys started school, I had this dream of moving to Donegal, settling there and being by the water," she said.

"Then of course the children started school and we have a whole routine here, so it makes sense to stay with the amount of work that we have."

Cara can't wait for the return of her Christmas shows this year.

Cara on stage

After a tour to promote her Christmas album last year, venues were quick to invite her and the band back again.

"Just for that one month leading up to Christmas ... it's so special," she said. "Just stepping out onto the stage with all those lovely hymns and carols is amazing, and we dress the stage with Christmas trees and candles. I can't wait for it now."

But with a busy year ahead, the festive season for Cara and her family will be low-key this year.

"Last year I had a lot of our family over and I was feeling mature trying to cope with cooking for everyone, but this year we're going to have a quiet family Christmas because we'll be touring right up to Christmas holidays," she said. "We'll chill out here and wait for Santa to come."

Cara plays the Marketplace Theatre in Armagh on December 14, Derry's Millennium Forum on December 16, and the Ulster Hall in Belfast on December 17.

Belfast Telegraph


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