This is my love song to my home town
Cara Dillon credits the music she grew up around with helping her through the premature birth of her twins - now, she’s releasing that same music as a homage. She tells Audrey Watson about her new-found appreciation of her childhood in Dungiven - and her delight at the X-Factor success of her family’s neighbour, Eoghan Quigg
When musician Cara Dillon returned to the recording studio for the first time since the traumatic birth of her twin sons, it was the songs of her hometown Dungiven that filled her with inspiration... and got her newborn babies off to sleep.
The arrival of Noah and Colm three months early in November 2006 was a terrifying time for Cara and her husband, musical collaborator and producer Sam Lakeman.
The couple had planned an extended maternity break to prepare for the new arrivals, but things went very wrong when Cara went into premature labour during a concert.
“Our whole world was knocked sideways and seemed to stop,” recalls the Somerset-based singer.
“It was an extremely difficult time for all of us, even after we were allowed to bring the twins home a few months later. But thankfully they’ve grown into really healthy, happy little boys.”
During this worrying time, Cara began to revisit the songs and the artists she had loved as a child, and found that the familiar sounds provided just the comfort music she needed.
“After the trauma of the twins’ birth, I was zoning out and trying to surround myself with a cocoon of music that would make me feel safe,” explains the 33-year-old.
“I was playing lots of stuff that I had listened to back home in Dungiven — like Planxty, the Bothy Band and Dolores Keane
“This sparked off memories of other songs that I used to sing at fleadhs when I was young and Sam said, ‘Why don’t we record these songs and record them right now while they are fresh in your mind?’.
“So we did, and that’s how work started on Hill Of Thieves.
“Because we have a studio in the house, we were able to put down the vocals while I popped up and down, looking after the babies — they used to go over to sleep while I was singing.”
Cara’s beautiful voice and their father’s musical arrangements also played a big part in the boys’ survival.
“I had been on tour throughout my pregnancy so the consultant told me to play my records to them through the incubators because they needed to create an atmosphere as familiar and as much like my womb as possible,” says Cara.
“And it really did help. Their little heartbeats would stabilise and their breathing would improve and become calm.”
Hill Of Thieves is the couple’s first album on Charcoal Records, the label they set up themselves after many years with Rough Trade.
“The decision to go it alone had a lot to do with the birth of the boys and the problems we had when they were born,” explains Cara. “An experience like that changes your whole outlook.
“After spending a few months at home with Noah and Colm and realising what was important in life, we decided that if we were going to make a new album, rather than go through all the nonsense of having to get other people’s approval and letting them have control, we would just do it ourselves.
“Making an album and putting it out there is straightforward enough. We’ve found in the past that other people have tended to make it more complicated for us than it actually is.”
Hill Of Thieves has been described as Dillon’s best work yet. All but one of the songs is an interpretation of a traditional classic and the February issue of Q Magazine has included the title track (the new single) in its Essential Downloads chart.
It’s the only original composition on the album and is simply a love song from Cara to her hometown.
“It’s the first time I’ve written about Dungiven,” she reveals.
“When you have a child — or in my case two — it’s such a big turning point in your life that you start appreciating everything more — your home, your mother — so writing the song came very, very easily.”
“It’s all the things I love the most about the place and it’s a wee delve into my history.”
The little town has more than made its mark on the Irish musical map in the past few months. It recently played host to a media frenzy as young Eoghan Quigg competed in the X-Factor.
“Wasn’t he fantastic?” beams Cara.
“I watched and voted for him every week. I was so excited about it and we were all so proud of him for getting so far. I know his family — they live just across the road from where I was born and bred.”
Listening to Cara talk so affectionately about her home and hearing her describe her schooldays, it’s not surprising that such a tiny town is producing musical stars.
“Music was and still is a massive part of life in Dungiven,” she says.
“When I was at primary school, we were taught local history and about local musicians and these musicians would actually come into our classes and teach us all the old songs and how to play instruments like the fiddle and whistle.
“Then of course there were the fleadhs in the town. Music was always bubbling away in the background.”
Part of a musical family and the youngest of six girls (her eldest sister Mary was a member of Deanta), Cara’s vocal talent was obvious from a very early age and 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 group member and her 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.
Cara works very much in partnership with her husband in creating her distinctive sound — he composes the music and produces, and she writes the lyrics and sings.
Working so closely together and also being husband and wife, do they ever disagree?
“The things we disagree on are never about music. We’ll maybe fight over whose turn it is to cook, but we’re very much on the same path when it comes to music,” she laughs.
“It’s a fantastic situation when we go on tour. We get to travel the world together and have great experiences.
“Some of our band members have to leave loved ones behind to go on tour for a few weeks and it’s hard for them.
“We don’t have to do that, and now with the children, it’s even better.
“We know we’re very, very lucky.”
Cara Dillon plays St Mary’s Centre, Cushendall tonight and St Terese’s Chapel, Banbridge tomorrow night before appearing at the Black Box, Belfast, on Sunday night. The Belfast show is sold out. Contact other venues for tickets. Cara and Sam will also be in HMV, Donegall Arcade, Belfast, on Monday, January 26, at 5.30pm to officially release their new album and perform some tracks from it.