No one in the music community is untouched by Covid-19. Everyone is talking about what it means to them and their brothers and sisters, to touring, to recording, to performing.
Will they ever make it back on stage? Will they ever make a buck again? For some, however, the question during the early days of pandemic panic was more fundamental. For Irish folk singer Cara Dillon, it was whether she would even survive.
Diagnosed 15 years ago with Type 1 diabetes and at very high risk from the virus, she was advised to shelter, advice that couldn’t have come at a less opportune time career-wise. With her husband and long-time musical collaborator Sam Lakeman, Dillon had finally been making progress on her first new album since 2017’s Wanderer, and it was shaping up to possibly be her first of entirely original material.
From the fear of lockdown to making music again
“We’d demoed six new songs at Real World,” she says via FaceTime from her kitchen, “and were really excited. Then… bang. Lockdown.” Since then the pair have barely considered the tracks or wanted to write more. Along with locking down, they’ve locked them away, for now at least.
“It’s the stress because I kept thinking, ‘My life might actually be over soon’, so subconsciously I’ve maybe been throwing myself into my family. You know, something that is going to actually preserve me. Obviously I realise now that I'm fine, and if you're sensible we can all overcome this whole plague, but who knows?”
Slowly, the urge to create and perform has returned and Dillon and Lakeman ¬– very much a duo even though it’s her name on the album sleeves – have come out the other side with a concert film that will be streamed on YouTube from 13 August. Invited to use Cooper Hall, a beautifully woody building that’s half arts pavilion, half village hall near their home in Frome, Somerset, they thought it was time to move lockdown gigs out of musicians’ kitchens.
“Some of the performances we've seen people do from their homes have been very entertaining,” says Lakeman, “but unfortunately you can be left feeling like you've watched out of guilty family obligation. And if you click off they'll know that you’ve gone. It’s like sneaking out the back of an auditorium for a curry after three songs and being caught. Come on,” he laughs, “we’ve all been there…”
High production values: putting together the performance
To bypass any guilt the pair decided to make the performance free so there’s no viewer obligation – they’re happy if people watch one song or 20, whether they enjoy it or not. “It’s up to you,” Lakeman says.
Putting together the recording over two days in mid-July proved surprisingly easy during corona-difficult times. Two local cameramen all but bit their arms off to man the five cameras – “They were like, ‘Yes! Oh to work again!’,” Dillon recalls – and sound engineer Dom Monks, who was in between recording Laura Marling at London Union Chapel and Nick Cave’s equally solitary Idiot Prayer at Alexandra Palace, was likewise quickly on board. Cooper Hall’s in-house lighting director completed the crew.
For Dillon, even such a small team in the room changed the performance from a kitchen gig. Having done a short house show for Matthew Bannister’s Folk On Foot podcast, the duo missed the feedback of even a tiny audience. “We’d finish a song and wait for some feedback, and then be tapping the camera going, ‘Is this working’?” she laughs.
The impact of growing up immersed in music
Dillon has been getting almost entirely positive feedback for her singing since she was 10. Even for a traditional Irish singer, she couldn’t have had a more traditional Irish upbringing, surrounded by people who could all dance, play the fiddle or the tin whistle, or sing songs about local legends from the small County Londonderry town of Dungiven where she grew up.
She and her friends would sit in the back of pubs with lemonade and crisps listening in on little local fleadhs and the living wakes of departed relatives who had left home to make their way amongst the great Irish diaspora.
“We just absorbed this stuff,” she says. “About six years old I remember feeling the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as someone sang unaccompanied. I didn't know why I felt like that, but that was me hooked on this living, breathing tradition.”
Headlining her first festival
By 10 she was singing in competitions, at 14 she won the All Ireland Singing Trophy at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉirean, forming her first traditional band, Óige (‘Youth’ in Irish) with school friends a year later. Her musical path was encouraged by parents who had already raised five much older children – “I think I was a later-life surprise” – and just weeks after forming, Óige were on a ferry to Scotland to headline a festival in Pitlochry.
“My older brother-in-law was the guitarist, so we had a responsible adult of sorts with us, but we’d never been out of this one-horse town and at times I guess it was a little like Derry Girls on tour.”
Defining moment: how she came to recognise the emotional power of her voice
It was on tour in Israel with Óige when Dillion first realised there was something truly special about her voice. After the gig a man told her that he’d been unable to grieve for his recently lost partner but had suddenly, finally wept while Dillon was singing unaccompanied. She’s never taken her voice for granted again.
“I was 17, and if my voice can do that to someone then I’ve got to treat it with a bit of respect and not be thinking about what I'm going to eat for dinner while I'm singing the third verse.”
Moving to Devon and signing a major deal
Meanwhile, in Dartmoor, Devon, her future husband Sam Lakeman was growing up with his brothers Seth and Sean, who eventually released a folk album as a trio in 1994. Soon after the brothers formed folk ‘supergroup’ Equation with Barnsley, Yorkshire singers Kathryn Roberts and Kate Rusby, but when Rusby left they put in a call to Dillon. Until then, Dillon had considered music as “just something I did”, but on the cusp of going to university she made a major life swerve.
“I flew over to Devon, met them, and the following week we were in London signing a deal with Warners. That was when I finally thought, OK, so this is going to be my life for a while.”
A year later, differing ideas about musical direction meant Equation was done. Dillon and Sam, by now a couple, signed to Warners as a duo called Polar Star, but although a pet project of then-label boss Rob Dickins, recording sessions in San Francisco and London were shelved.
“I was used to playing festivals because I wanted to do it,” Dillon says, “but when you're in a band everyone’s asking you to deliver and it becomes stressful at times. Warners had signed Enya and The Corrs, and I guess Rob saw me in a similar vein. It was very, very exciting times, mainly exciting, but it definitely came with a pressure which led to us doing our own thing in the end.”
Back to basics with a DIY album
Leaving Warners and signing with Rough Trade, Lakeman and Dillon sat down with Geoff Travis to hash out how to market a traditional Irish folk duo.
“Sam doesn’t really like being at the front, so we just decided to put everything under my name,” Dillon says matter of factly. “And after all that trying to find our sound all over the world, we simply went off and recorded the first album in Sam’s parents’ house.”
Stripping everything back to its core – Dillon’s self-titled debut was all traditional Irish songs – was the making of a folk star. Her voice was front and centre, high and clear with the tiniest natural flicker and trill like a tin whistle, and it won her two BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards the following year.
“It was such a relief that people enjoyed it, because for a long time we lost our mojo,” she says about the false starts and record company prevarication. “We just wanted to play, it’s always been about the playing for me, yet we’d been kept under wraps by record companies for so long we kind of forgot that.”
Back to basics with a DIY album
Three children and six albums later – including her “proper grown up” 2016 Christmas album Upon A Winter’s Night – Dillon and Lakeman have forged a very independent career, releasing the last four on their own label, Charcoal Records.
“If someone came knocking on our door offering us a deal sure we’d open the door,” Dillon says, “but we’ve been doing this for so long ourselves they’d have to offer something completely new to us. The thing is, although Sam does all the hard work and I just sing, it’s not as difficult as people might think. Be true to what you want, and if it’s good enough everything else should fall in place.”
Giving something back: The Live At Cooper Hall performance
Falling in place is very evident on Dillon’s concert film. Accompanied only by her husband, Dillon’s ringing voice weaves spells they almost have no right to.
“We definitely had a soggy mask situation with one of the cameramen after we finished one particular song, so it wasn’t all as soulless as it might have been,” she says with some understatement.
Part of the reason for the performance’s emotional power may lie in the couple’s core motivation. Dillon believes that under current social conditions it’s easy to get caught in the fact that musicians have lost not just their livelihood but their reason for existing. However it’s also important, she says, to remember that the gig-going public have lost a major part of their lives, too.
“It's just nice to be able to give something back at a time like this. The stream is free so everybody can just enjoy it with a glass of wine as we hopefully remember that this is what we do: watch music be performed and, for those of us lucky enough, actually perform it again.”
Cara’s ‘Live At Cooper Hall’ performance will be streamed on Thursday 13 August at 8pm. You can watch this free event on Cara Dillon’s website.