Catching Up With Cara

Since the release of 'A Thousand Hearts' in May, it's been all go for Cara Dillon and her band. Following her recent appearance at the 50th Cambridge Folk Festival, Bury based FATEA contributor Mike Ainscoe managed to have a chat with her to catch up on various things including her visit to his area for the 2014 Ramsbottom Festival (and the 2015 Big Whistle Festival at The Met in Bury).

"The Ramsbottom Festival is of course in September, but we've been having a really busy year so far. Obviously there's been the album and lots of dates - I've lost track. We're going to Germany in October and we have some really big exciting shows with Dan Tyminski so there's a lot to look at."

Having caught Cara and her band recently play at the 50th Cambridge Folk Festival, there have been a couple of changes in personnel since the start of the latest tour. As usual, husband Sam Lakeman was there along with face pulling guitarist Ed Boyd, who wouldn't be out of place in a rock band with some of the poses and faces he pulls.

"Yes, Ed was in there as usual. We had Niall Murphy on the fiddle who's an all Ireland champion fiddle player, he's amazing and Luke Daniels on the box and we had a fella' called Tad Sargent playing bodhran. There was also Barry Kerr who plays the pipes and whistles who's from Belfast so we have quite a big band. But Ed is a fantastic guitarist and done loads of our shows with us and he really goes for it." Missing from the Cambridge line up was James Fagan who had been part of the band earlier in the year when he'd been added to the band for the tour which took place around the release of the new album. "Yes, he comes and goes as well. We have a lovely group of musicians who we call on and use for bigger gigs and then we can reduce the band when we're doing smaller shows as well."

Now the latest album 'A Thousand Hearts' has had time to get out and be heard, she explained her thoughts on the reaction to the record: "I've been completely blown away - it came out in May and we've had great reviews and a couple of great surprises as well. We had Ed Sheeran tweeting about how he loved it and little things like that. There are things continually happening - it's kind of gathering momentum a little bit and it's nice when it's like a slow burner so things can spread out over a whole year so it's nice when it starts to gather a steady pace."

With the thread though the songs on the album being loosely based on affairs of the heart , we wondered if that was something deliberate or if the theme came about accidentally especially with Cara's philosophy of traditional songs "The songs tend to find me."

"We never go into recording an album with a plan; we have no preconceived ideas, and just see what happens naturally. I suppose it's part of my being to sing songs about unrequited love. With the area of Northern Ireland that I'm from, I've been listening to those for most of my life and I think they find me now and I feel like I'm just like a vessel for telling a story. When we sat down and we'd finished the songs, we had another half dozen left - they were incredible songs which we decided to put aside for another album later on. That was what happened and then we realised one night after a gig we had to find time to find a name for the album and 'A Thousand Hearts' just seemed to sum up the whole essence of the album"

Having seen Cara play in both a small theatre and then to a packed Stage 1 at Cambridge, it was interesting to compare the bigger gigs and festivals with the more intimate theatre shows - she talked about how the gig can change. "When we're doing something like Cambridge on the main stage, we kind of hone the set so that it's quite upbeat and lively in places so we look at the setlist and it's a very indulgent thing doing the setlist before we go on because of the ones that are slower numbers - we've got five albums worth of material that we can choose from - so it's one of those things where I get to choose what I really love singing. A big gig like that is a lot of pressure so you have to be really comfortable and confident with what you're singing and the songs that you know and have a real feeling about. It's wonderful experience because we get to do a lot of the upbeat ones and I get to throw in a couple of my favourites so it's a nice experience to be able to do that."

"It was an amazing atmosphere at Cambridge. We'd been there all day and you get to know what the crowd are like and what they might tend to like at that time of the evening and of course Richard Thompson was coming on after us so we thought it would be nice to give quite a few songs which were a bit livelier. Richard Thompson is absolutely incredible and you always really listen to the words of the songs and there's an intensity about his gigs so we were able to balance it out and put in a few livelier numbers."

Cara and the band are due another trip out to China - a place where she has superstar status for a strange reason. "We had an amazing time over there in the December past. We had an incredible reception - it was just four gigs but they were in very big concert halls and they were all sold out. The first two albums had been released as part of the curriculum for teaching English so it's been an amazing experience to be known on the other side of the world and to see the reaction in sold out concert halls. There were about two and a half thousand people came out to see us every night and they were all singing along with the songs. So we decided it would be a good idea to go back there and we're going back I think at the end of October to do a six concert tour this time. It would be a shame not to when there's such a demand for the music out there. It's incredible to go to somewhere with such a different culture and to see the reaction to the music. It's really heartwarming and makes you realise you're doing the right thing. I feel blessed to be able to sing and to bring music to the other side of the world as well."

Talking about Cara and Sam's Charcoal record label, their patronage of Joe Francis and Marty Smith who make up the duo Winter Mountain has been a major help in getting them a wider audience. If you haven't caught them doing a support or headline slot, they are well worth a look. Their debut album was released on Charcoal last year. "They are absolutely fantastic and prolific songwriters and they've got so many songs ready to go for their next album. It's funny because we got them an agent because they were just coming round with us and we were helping them out and so was Seth so we helped get them heard. Then we had an agent knocking on the door and they couldn't believe how many gigs they got - more than we ever got! It should be interesting to see their next album but Sam and I are 100% behind them and it's exciting because they also fuelled my passion for recording another album. They recorded in our home and studio and we got so involved that I realised it had been too long a break and I really needed to get back into it again and get involved in the recording process again and go back out on the road, so it's been a great experience having them about.

Asked if there was anyone else who was on their radar to work with in a similar way, Cara explained: "Not at the moment because we've been so busy with our own album and gigging and we've got the children as well. Sam is fantastic though; every evening he sits down and goes through lots of songs and albums that people have sent us and he's constantly searching. It's what keeps us going, hearing new stuff and ultimately being able to help because we've been at it for so long now, we started when we were really young and we want to try to make sure that some of the amazing talent doesn't get exploited. When things settle down a bit more for ourselves again the next step may be to help someone else along again. "

Talking about being in the business a long time since a young age, we enquired about those early days and whether Cara might ever possibly think about doing an updated version of Equation (which involved Sam, Sean and Seth Lakeman alongside herself and Kathryn Roberts and also Kate Rusby at one point). She laughed, "That's an interesting question. You know, to come to this point in our lives, we probably all realise we all do what we do better on our own. You know what I mean? We've all had better success and better times being successful in music. The whole family relationship is important and not always want be talking about music all the time - there's definitely times where we get together but I don't see that other idea happening! The Lakeman brothers are all quite, strong minded and with three of them together - I think they work better independently. I think the whole Equation thing was one of those amazing opportunities in my journey - meeting Sam - and carrying on the path I want to be on and has led me to where I am. All the people I've been talking to over the past few years now talk about the Equation thing but really it was just a tiny year in our lives. "

Talking about early days and musical experiences, she went on : "I was in a band called Oige when I was about 16 - at school I formed this band with some friends from school and we did lots of festivals and toured Germany during the summer holidays yo earn a bit of pocket money. We were playing music anyway at weekends when somebody asked us if we'd like to come to Scotland and play at a festival and be paid! We were like "really?!" - and that was the start of it all, and then we got other festival offers on the back of that one festival in Scotland, and that was when we got to hear about the Lakeman brothers and Eliza and Nancy and Kate Rusby was doing her thing at the time. A whole generation started to happen then and they were all going to be doing it professionally in years to come."

Cara Dillon has certainly come a long way since then - being headhunted by Disney for her songwriting and singing at the Ryder Cup being just a couple of the high profile roles with which she's been involved. Amongst all of them, what was her most memorable? "You know what - there have been so many. But thinking more recently, for our last album we had Timothy B Schmidt from The Eagles on the album so meeting him in my hometown in the pub and finding out he was a genuine fan - he was on holiday there and we met a couple of times since and as a result we went to see The Eagles in the O2 in London. It's an amazing journey that music takes you on and I just follow my heart and when you're true to yourself great things can happen. The exciting thing is what's round the corner and sometimes I have to pinch myself! I ring home and say to my mother "You'll never guess what's happened" and she says "I'll believe anything!" and I just seem to be very lucky and blessed."

It reminded me of the MOJO interview at the Cambridge Folk Festival when Martin Carthy happened to mention that after so long at doing what he's been doing and gaining such respect for his contribution to the folk genre, he still didn't really consider what he did as a career.

"The hardest part of the job is the travelling. The day we left Cambridge we went to Sidmouth Festival the morning after, which took seven and a half hours. We had to get there at a certain time for soundchecks, but that was the one day that as a band we were thinking what hard work it was. Someone said that when we got to Sidmouth the last thing we would want to do was a gig but it was the complete opposite. It was just the thing we all needed to do! You have to pinch yourself from time to time."

Mike Ainscoe

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