Entertainment

Co Derry's Cara Dillon on making Stendhal Festival debut and why there's still no place like home

Ahead of her debut appearance at the Stendhal Festival in Limavady this weekend, John Cartwright talks to acclaimed Co Derry singer-songwriter Cara Dillon about why she can't wait to perform at this homegrown event...

Cara Dillon plays the Stendhal Festival on Saturday night
Cara Dillon plays the Stendhal Festival on Saturday night Cara Dillon plays the Stendhal Festival on Saturday night
Cara Dillon is Stendhal-bound
Cara Dillon is Stendhal-bound Cara Dillon is Stendhal-bound

THIS weekend, Cara Dillon will make her debut at the Stendhal Festival in Limavady, but while it's the acclaimed singer-songwriter's first time performing at the annual music event, the Co Derry-born musician is no stranger to the local area.

Cara's formative years were spent in Dungiven, where she says music was a way of life and a means for people to deal with the Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s.

"Music was a big part of my life growing up in Dungiven and as a result all my friends played instruments or sang a wee bit," she explains.

"We were all taught fiddle or whistle in school and I took Irish dancing lessons as well. I suppose the culture became a really important totem of identity during the Troubles when so many civil rights were being eroded or ignored.

"In Dungiven, I was swept up in the passion for the culture – and I thank my lucky stars I was."

Cara Dillon plays the Stendhal Festival on Saturday night
Cara Dillon plays the Stendhal Festival on Saturday night Cara Dillon plays the Stendhal Festival on Saturday night

The youngest of six siblings, Cara says that music was a staple of her household.

"We were playing the records of the 80s day and night in our house," she recalls.

"It was the days when we all watched Top of The Pops and my first records were the Mini Pops and Olivia Newton John. But at the same time my sister, Mary, was playing Paul Brady, Moving Hearts, Planxty and The Bothy Band amongst others, and we listened to Dolores Keane and Mary Black on the tape player on every holiday.

Siblings Cara and Mary Dillon, from Dungiven, Co Derry
Siblings Cara and Mary Dillon, from Dungiven, Co Derry Siblings Cara and Mary Dillon, from Dungiven, Co Derry

"From that initial love of music, and my sister teaching me a thing or two, it was really the Fleadhs, the workshops and the competitions where I learned how to sing. I never had singing lessons but I was taught the songs I sang by the legendary Paddy Tunney amongst others."

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Cara Dillon performing live
Cara Dillon performing live Cara Dillon performing live

Cara would go on to excel at performing. She won the All-Ireland Singing Trophy at the Fleadh at 14-years old and went on to join folk band Óige. It was during this time that she first started to think that music was a viable career choice.

"I realised after a tour in Germany with my teenage folk band Óige that one of the biggest parts of being a professional musician was definitely being able to thole the touring, and I really enjoyed it," she recalls.

"That got me thinking it would be a grand thing to do this for a living. I think I was about 16 or 17 years old."

Cara Dillon
Cara Dillon Cara Dillon

From that epiphany at such a young age, Cara's talent and determination took over and she began carving out a career, She released her hit debut album Cara Dillon in 2001 on the Rough Trade label, followed by 2003's equally well received Sweet Liberty in 2003. A win at the Meteor Music Prize for Best Irish Female that year brought home just how successful she had become.

Cara's eponymous debut album was released in 2001
Cara's eponymous debut album was released in 2001 Cara's eponymous debut album was released in 2001

"Winning the Meteor was so exciting and important for me at the time," says Cara.

"I felt I had finally 'arrived' and that my hard work and all the sacrifices I made had been worth it, as I had been given a stamp of approval in my own country and it meant the world to me.

"There have been other awards that have had more of an impact on my career, but that's a different thing."

Now living England, Cara says that she keeps incredibly close ties to home, saying: "I'm never off the phone to my family no matter where I am, and I try to get home as often as I can in-between gigs and my busy family home life.

"Sure, what's it all about if you can't get home?"

Co Derry singer and musician Cara Dillon with her husband Sam Lakeman and their children Noah, Colm and Elizabeth
Co Derry singer and musician Cara Dillon with her husband Sam Lakeman and their children Noah, Colm and Elizabeth Co Derry singer and musician Cara Dillon with her husband Sam Lakeman and their children Noah, Colm and Elizabeth

Indeed, Cara currently has an ambitious new album called Coming Home in the works which has been partly inspired by her formative years in Co Derry: a collaboration with her husband and fellow musician Sam Lakeman, the album will be her first new material for almost six years, featuring spoken word and singing, with some of the most personal lyrics she has ever written.

Coming Home will be showcased on a UK tour this autumn, with a special concert at the Grand Opera House in Belfast on October 18 as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival.

However, before that, this weekend finds Cara coming home for her hotly anticipated debut at Stendhal on Saturday evening, a gig she says she will be incredibly proud to finally play.

Cara Dillon
Cara Dillon Cara Dillon

"I'm so proud there is a fantastic festival just down the road from my home place," the singer-songwriter enthuses.

"In England, there are so many festivals and I really notice when I'm back home the lack of festivals here in the north.

"I love hearing from friends and family about who is playing [Stendhal] each year and love that it has grown from strength to strength. I can't wait to finally see it all for myself."

Despite this being her first Stendhal appearance, Cara is no stranger to performing at festivals all over the world.

"I love preforming at festivals," she says.

"There's usually a party-like atmosphere. I particularly enjoy the fact that I can do one uninterrupted set and it's usually all my favourites, a bit of an indulgence.

"However, the downside to this is that it's over quickly and you are off the stage before you realise what just happened: as an artist, this can be quite frustrating when you are just getting warmed up to it all.

"Also, you're rarely playing to your own crowd so there's always a desire to 'win the crowd' which helps everyone perform that little bit better.

"I have spent the last 25 years doing a wide variety of festivals in the UK and Europe and it never fails to amaze me how it's a great opportunity for people to come together and share not just a couple of nights of music, but sometimes a whole week.

"It's not just the music that is so great but the food, the crafts, the art and the way it brings people together in an almost tribal way. It's a fantastic way to escape the everyday – work, suits and ties, school, chores.

"And more than anything, it's a great leveller – everyone can be free to be themselves under the sky or stars."

:: Cara Dillon performs at the Stendhal Festival on Saturday July 8. For tickets and full line-up information, visit stendhalfestival.com. Tickets for Coming Home are on sale now via goh.co.uk.