Ireland's Music: Cara Dillon: A Thousand Hearts
Finding songs to record is, for Irish singer Cara Dillon, rather like a journey -- a journey through time and ideas, words and melody, through songs from the traditions of Ireland, contemporary song, and at times music she and her husband and musical partner Sam Lakeman write themselves. They have learned to take their time with things, with letting the music and the ideas take them on journeys, and find the best ways to put their own stamp on them as they share the music with their audiences.
As they were considering the songs that make up the collection they have gathered for A Thousand Hearts they were struck by by a thread of hearts and passion which run through the stories told. Not that the pieces are all romantic love songs -- there are those, but alongside them songs of longing, regret, choices, change, faith, mystery, love for land, emigration, and humor -- all things which encompass and are encompassed by love. So they came to the title A Thousand Hearts.
Dillon often crosses the borders of musical styles in her work, but it is to Irish tradition that she returns as the base for her understanding of and respect for music.
“I’m from a very small town in County Derry, in the northwest of Ireland,” Dillon says, “ and basically where I’m from music, traditional music, is a way of life. Everyone is encouraged from when they’re knee high to play an instrument and to sing. to learn the local songs of the town there, Dungiven, and the local history and the legends of the town.”
It was to memories of music she learned while growing up that Dillon and Lakeman returned for several pieces on the album. My Donald is one such: it is the story of a woman thinking of her man, who works on the sea following the whale. In Dillon’s introspective treatment, it seems as though the listener is hearing the woman’s tale directly -- set off by an instrumental bit at the end which both allows Dillon’s gifted backing musicians to show their chops and suggests thoughts of those stormy and distant seas the sailor might traversing.
The Shores of Lough Bran finds Dillon giving a thoughtful take on an emigration song, which in a way resonates with her choice of Shawn Colvin’s modern day song of another sort of leaving, a love affair which is, as you might gather from its title, going to end: Shotgun Down the Avalanche. Lough Bran is, in fact, a much more hopeful and upbeat song, which makes sense, but both speak of longing and change -- as does River Run, another contemporary piece written in memory of one who died at a young age. River Run, Dillon’s voice is backed by Lakeman alone on piano, offers a quiet meditation on grief and change done with just the right degree of understatement.
All of which may make the album sound a bit grim; it’s not, not at all. There are upbeat songs, for one thing: the cheery story and melody of Jacket So Blue, the wry humor of Eighteen Years Old are two.
Speaking of love, and hope, and hearts: two of the strongest songs on the album -- though all of them are keepers -- treat of these things in differing musical and lyrical ways, but yet the threads of love, hope, choice and change resonate through them as well. Bright Morning Star Arising, from Canadian musician Ruth Moody, suggests that idea of hope and change -- for the better, this time -- through both title and lyric, and Dillon has found that when she does it in concert, people in her audiences are singing along with the choruses. Taímse Im’ Choladh. which Dillon sings in Irish, is an aisling, a dream song, in which Ireland (or Scotland, the song is known there are well) appears in a dream in the person of a beautiful woman urging the dreamer to rise and help her.
Whatever the source of the song they are working on at the time, “we always try to keep the song at the forefront of what we do, myself and Sam,” Dillon says, “because we both have such a great respect for the tradition. The way we describe it to each other at times is like finding a really beautiful gemstone and trying to find the right setting for it, so that it’s the focus of everyone's attention. The setting is just as important for it to be seen. We work on the songs a lot, and sometimes people come up after the show and say, is that a traditional song, or a song that you’ve written? And to me, that’s quite a big compliment.”
Gorgeous voice, thoughtful phrasing, backing players who add their own gifts to the telling of the stories: with A Thousand Hearts Cara Dillon and Sam Lakeman have indeed met the challenges they set themselves. Take a listen; take more than one. Each song is a gem which reveals another facet as listenings unfold.
Photograph of Cara Dillon by Kerry Dexter, made at the Celtic Connections Festival with permission of the artist, the festival and the venue. Thank you for respecting copyright.
Note: When first written this album was available to order only from European sources, but it is now available trough Amazon in the US (Music Road is an Amazon affiliate -- this does not influence coverage) in both physical and digital formats. Most links in this story now take you to Amazon US; I've left one to Amazon UK in the next to last paragraph for the convenience of Europe based readers.