Sunday, February 25, 2018

Ireland's Music: Cara Dillon: Wanderer

Cara Dillon comes from Dungiven, a small town in Country Derry in Northern Ireland. Growing up, there was music in her family, and in the town, That turned out to be Dillon’s calling. It has, over the years, taken her into a range of music experiences and also taken her across the world in the sharing of her music. It seems natural that her most recent album would be called Wanderer.

It is not the album Dillon and her musical partner and husband, Sam Lakeman, set out to make at this point in time. They were working on a different project, when, Dillon explains, songs from Derry, many she’s known since her early years, kept coming to her mind. She’d sing them while working about the house or preparing meals for the family at their home in the west country of England. “Sam would come through the door and say ‘What song is that? That’s a good song --let’s record it!’ ” Dillon says.

The couple decided to keep the production of the ten tracks stripped back and spare. There are a few guests -- Kris Drever, John Smith, Justin Adams, Niall Murphy, and Ben Nicholls-- tastefully deployed to enhance the feeling of space, landscape, and journey in the songs. Dillon sings with a storyteller’s grace; Lakeman’s piano and acoustic guitar work quietly to enhance the dialogue among melody, idea, and voice.

There are seven traditional songs, two Dillon/Lakeman originals, and a cover of Shaun Davey’s Dubdhara. In sharing the songs, Dillon and Lakeman create a fine balance between sadness in leaving and warmth of connection with well loved people and places. Derry, which is the big town for the region of Dillon’s homeplace, is very present both directly and indirectly in the songs.

“Derry has seen so much, it’s like the walls can speak,” Dillon says. “It’s one of those places that’s quite magical, when you start to read and hear about all that’s happened there, but the most wonderful thing is that people are so proud of their culture, because it’s been threatened for such a long time, so now there’s this lovely tradition where people have passed songs along with great passion.”

Some of those threats she alludes to were political; Derry is very near the border between the Republic of Ireland and the North, which long before official partition of the two countries was a flashpoint for strife. Derry was also a major emigration port for centuries. That’s not only in the distant past, either; Dillon’s mother told her a story from her own childhood about a relative who was emigrating and slipped quietly out the door unseen during his farewell party, and the sadness that came over the whole house when people understood that he had taken his leave. That story stayed with Dillon and is the basis for The Leaving Song.

The dew’s on the grass
We’ve finished the glass
The dawn’s on it’s way, now
But my son leaves today
God help me I pray
God help me i pray

Slip out the door, love
But don’t say goodbye
Just take one last look at this
Northwestern sky

“I’m a mother myself now,” Dillon says, “ and so I can imagine the pain they must have felt.”

That points to one of the gifts Dillon and Lakeman share through the songs on Wanderer, though: that sadness can be shared and hope can heal. You could hear The Tern and the Swallow as a lament, which in some ways it is. If you’re far from from your native land, especially if that land is Ireland, it may have you wanting to return right away. It is also, however, a song filled with acceptance and hope. So is the rather more upbeat song The Banks of the Foyle, which forsees a happy ending of a life in Derry for lovers separated for a time. Both Sides the Tweed is a classic song of wishing for freedom and reconciliation, which has often been recorded. Dillon and Lakeman put their own own stamp on it in the spare version they create, while remaining very true to the song.

“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 that it’s like finding a really beautiful gemstone and trying to find the right setting for it.”

They have done that for the songs that they have chosen for Wanderer. From the returning home of The Tern and the Swallow through to the setting out on a journey of Dubdhara, it is a journey well worth the taking with them. Explore The Wanderer more than once: each listen will reveal new facets of those gems and their settings.

Concert photographs made at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, with permission of the artists, the festival, and the venue.

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