I think it’s safe to say that the Paradiso in Amsterdam is one of the world’s greatest venues, if not for the endless list of talent that has passed through its doors but for the simple fact that the main hall is one of the most beautiful rooms in all of Christendom. Especially when it’s a full house. However, I’d like to take a moment to give some props to the Paradiso’s Kleine Zaal, the small room hidden at the top of the stairs. It’s not big but it is another exceptional room, especially now they’ve moved the bar out from where it used to be along the side. It’s a quality room in its own right and one of my favourite places to see a band perform now. The main hall may still be the crown jewel, but the Kleine Zaal has its own special atmosphere. The main hall may still be the traditional temple of rock and roll in Amsterdam, but when Cara Dillon came to town it was the Kleine Zaal that seemed to bring back the history of this well known venue.
For starters, this felt more like walking into a church than ever before, or at least a small chapel, as instead of just seeing an empty floor, rows of seats had been laid out, with an aisle running down the centre. I was looking around for a bowl of holy water and somewhere to light a candle and was so unsure as to whether or not I should genuflect when taking a pew, that I chickened out altogether and stood at the back, feeling very guilty for holding a pint of lager. After I’d said a couple of Hail Mary’s and a few Glory Be’s to myself, Cara and her husband Sam Lakeman wandered onto the stage and proceeded to perform one of the most enchanting and encapsulating shows I’ve ever seen in this wonderful little room.
Although the first thing you realize when they appear on stage is that neither of them hit any single branch of the ugly tree when they fell out, it’s only when Cara starts to sing that you get the impression that you really are in the presence of something incredibly beautiful. She illuminated the room and not just because there was a bright spotlight pointed directly at her head. To say Cara Dillon can sing is to do her a disservice, honestly, because her vocal talents are truly enchanting. After spending some time with her recorded work I wondered if the clarity and sweetness would seem a little too slight for a live show but I was a fool for thinking that. Her voice seems so gentle and quiet and yet in close proximity it envelops you with a strength and resonance that you certainly wouldn’t expect. She never shouts or forces anything but she has a skill and a beauty in her voice that simply commands your attention. True, there may only have been a few dozen of us in the crowd here, but I swear she had every single one of us tight lipped and hanging on her every word.
Cara received simple but effective accompaniment from Sam on guitar or piano and treated us to a handful of traditional Irish songs, including a heartbreaking rendition of There Were Roses, and a number of their own composition. I won’t go into much further detail about the show for two reasons, 1) I’ll just start throwing superlatives at you and you’ve already got the gist of it so far and 2) this article’s supposed to be an interview and I’ve got to get on with it, but suffice to say I felt incredibly privileged to have been there and as the show ended to the most rapturous applause that a few dozen people can possibly make I shook my head in disbelief at the fact that the attendance was so low. Don’t people realize how good this young woman is? Still, now you know for next time.
Backstage I found Sam and Cara to be in fine fettle, relaxing with a bottle of water and a look of contentment to them. I was then lucky enough to spend ten minutes or so chatting to Cara directly and, well, you can read the transcript of that here…
Incendiary: So, did you enjoy the show tonight?
Cara Dillon: Yeah I thought it was very nice, a lovely audience.
IN: Yeah, it’s a nice little room to play.
CD: It is aye. Very nice. And nice that it was kind of…church like, because that made it kind of good for what we were doing.
IN: Well how did tonight’s show compare to what you’ve been doing elsewhere on your tour?
CD: Well it’s different for us playing without the band, especially because we’ve been on the road now for almost two months. You know, with drums and bass and Illian pipes and guitars. Electric and acoustic guitars. It’s quite a big set up we’ve got, it’s quite a big sound and there’s quite a lot of spaces that are filled but it’s quite refreshing to do it with just the two of us because then you start to remember what the songs are all about. When you strip them back down to the basics like that, especially the traditional ones, you realize how important the songs are. The melodies have to be really, really strong and the words have to be really poignant and all that for people to connect. It’s really refreshing to get to do that again.
IN: Do you think it gives you a better chance to get the meaning, or the message of the songs over a lot clearer playing like that as opposed to playing with the band?
CD: Well I think it’s just very, very different because if you’ve seen us with the whole band, then you’d see that the arrangements are very sensitive in the way they’ve been worked out. Because we always try to treat the song like…or to put the song on a pedestal, and then we treat the song with a lot of respect so the instruments that we use come in and out with great respect to the song. But tonight, like, and especially what I was saying about the room and all, because I think the songs that Sam and I do on our own, they do tend to be the quieter ones which lend themselves to quite a lot of atmosphere and that’s why we brought on some candles to kind of get the vibe going.
IN: How important are the songs to you? Because I noticed that, especially with a lot of the traditional ones, they’re very story based, they all have a sense of narrative through them. So do you feel yourself as being in that kind of bard tradition of handing those songs on to a new generation of listeners or is it just a case of what interests you?
CD: A bit of both. I mean it’s what I grew up with. The traditional songs tend to have a very important story to them because it’s the oral tradition of songs being passed down from generation to generation so the songs are really, really important. So I grew up with those songs and I’ve got great respect for them. I love the melodies and I love what they say and I think that, you know, we should all be really proud of them. As opposed to, like, lots of young people now seem to think about folk music as being uncool. But what’s great is that we’re finding now that, the way we’ve been working our songs with the band and the arrangements that we’ve given them, there’s actually loads of young people coming to our concerts and they’re saying, “Is that one of your songs or is it a folk song?” and for us that’s the greatest compliment that could be. Because all of a sudden they’re starting to get back into their roots and realizing just how important the songs are and I think that what I’m doing is a kind of continuation of that. Hopefully in years to come there’ll be many more people all over the world who’ll be aware of these songs and of me passing them along. Hopefully that will bring other people to picking them up and trying them a different way, which will keep that tradition alive.
IN: Well I have to say I’m just amazed at how clear and precise everything came across tonight. I see a lot of singers and a lot of bands, but I got the distinct impression that, although you’re very chatty in between songs and made it a very cosy and intimate atmosphere in there, when you start to sing it just seemed that the audience suddenly seemed to disappear for you and the song became all important. You don’t get to see that a lot with most singers, they don’t seem to live each song like you seem to.
CD: Yeah I do tend to get lost in the song. I think that there are a lot people out there who are doing songs and lots of bands and the lyrics are kind of meaningless. You know, I mean God I love all types of different music and we’ve got friends in some very cool bands. I mean, we’re on Rough Trade. There’s loads of bands on there which I think are fantastic but there’s a lot of bands that, you know, it’s all about a vibe and it’s about getting a crowd going. For me, it’s all about making that connection with the audience but you have to get inside the songs, the type of songs I’m singing because if you don’t then somebody like yourself would realize very quickly that you a bit of a fake because it’s all about the passion that’s in the song.
I mean the songs I’m singing, there’s people that have emigrated hundreds of years ago. They left their homes and families and emigrated to America, never to return again. They led a terrible life when they were out there and sent letters home and that’s the reason why we’re singing these songs. To remember them. And I don’t think you can take that lightly when you’re standing on stage singing. I think you have to have respect for the people who have gone before. I think as well, with being a singer, even with the songs that we’ve covered, the song Garden Valley it’s a Dougie MacLane song, I think a singer is a good singer if they can get across the message of the song regardless of whether it’s something you’ve written yourself or if it’s by another great songwriter or whatever. It’s really important to try and do your best for the song. Music is such a wonderful thing.
IN: What’s important to you? Is it that you realize that you’ve got a talent and you just want to get out there and sing for people. I’m wondering what it is that drives you? What keeps you doing all of this? Because if I look back at your biography so to speak, you’ve made a lot of changes to how you present yourself over the years, from Oige and De Dannan to singing with the folk supergroup, for want of a better word, Equation and then on to working with just the two of you for a number of years and even that project split up, even if you two didn’t. So it seems like, almost reading through the lines somewhat, as if you are rather sure as to where you want to be and where you want to go with your career, so I was wondering what it is that drives you, what pushes you on?
CD: I think that anybody who’s in arts at all or in music somehow, everybody has this deep rooted feeling that, everybody would want to be successful in life. But I think the thing for me, the key for me is to try and be successful without compromising my roots or where I’ve come from. Everyday I wake up I feel very grateful and lucky to be able to do this for a living because that, in itself, I used to take for granted only a few years ago. I mean, I’m thirty now and as I’ve reached this age I’ve begun to realize that I’m so lucky to have been able to do this for ten years. There’s lots of my friends who have gone to university and still are unemployed, haven’t managed to get a job that they’re satisfied with.
But for me it’s passion and it’s my first love. I can’t imagine being anything else. Regardless of the fact that I’ve been very lucky and myself and Sam, we’ve won quite a lot of awards along the way. I mean, we’ve picked up the Irish Media Award for Best Irish FemaleVocalist and that was in a category along with Sinead O’Connor and Moira Brennan, so that was phenomenal. And things like that there happen and they’re really exciting but those are not the things that really determine whether or not I’m going to keep on singing or not. I think regardless of whether or not I was coming here I think I’d still be kind of singing in the local folk club on a Friday night because it’s one of those things that, you know touch wood, I’ll be able to do for ever, because I don’t think I know anything else.
IN: Well it’s been an absolute pleasure to have been able to sit down and have a quick chat with you but we also sent out a quick bulletin to the readers of Incendiary, asking them to send in some questions for you and we did receive some. But to be honest, almost every reply we got was from a male reader and some of them, particularly since your husband is sitting in the corner of the room right now I don’t think they’ll be very appropriate for me to say.
CD: Oh go on.
IN: Well let’s just say that most of them involved questions along the lines of, ‘Cara you’re beautiful and when are you going to leave your husband for me?”
Sam Lakeman: Well if we get the right offer something could be arranged.
CD: Yeah, I’m sure we could sort something out. This is showbiz after all.
So there you go. The frustrated male readers of Incendiary can live in hope a while longer. I hope you all enjoyed that as much as I enjoyed being able to sit down and chat with Cara and Sam and I do sincerely hope that you’ll take the chance to catch one of their shows when they’re next in your neighbourhood. To find out where Cara will be playing next, pop your browser over to http://www.caradillon.com/ or drop in and give her a comment over at www.myspace.com/caradillon
Interview: Damian Leslie