Tim Hughes finds Derry’s Cara Dillon is as refreshing as her soulful songs

Singing songs of heartbreak, hardship and separation you might expect Cara Dillon’s music to be gloomy listening. It’s not.

While the subject material, based on the common themes of Irish folk — lost love, emigration and homesickness — are hard- hitting, her voice is a thing of pure beauty, touching the soul with its sweetness and strength. It’s no surprise then that she has become one of Ireland’s biggest-selling stars, conquering hearts everywhere from her native Count Derry to the expat Irish and Northern Irish communities of the United States. But she is also rather popular in a place she never expected — China.

A recent tour of the People’s Republic saw her packing out venues in major cities, with the crowd not only loving her songs, but knowing all the words.

“I was blown away by the response,” she says. “I didn’t even want to go really. It was just before Christmas and I thought it was too far. But we went for the experience, to see some of the tourist sites and play a few concerts.

“We got an amazing reception, though. The shows all sold out and people were singing along.

“It turned out my first album was part of the curriculum for learning English. It blew me away: I had no idea. The album hadn’t even been released there.”

So was she treated like a star? “You think you can predict how things will turn out, but what happens sometimes is incredible.”

I caught up with Cara at home in Frome, Somerset, where she is preparing for a tour which begins tomorrow in Hampshire, and arrives at Didcot’s Cornerstone Arts Centre on Saturday.

“It’s a really nice venue,” she says of her only Oxfordshire date. “It’s nice to do intimate gigs in small venues like that. It’s a chance to breathe and make sure the songs stand up on their own. The small shows are more personal and you have to get it right.”

The dates will see the 38-year-old performing songs from her new album A Thousand Hearts, which is due for release in April. The album is her fifth solo long-player and follows 2009’s acclaimed Hill Of Thieves — which won the Album Of The Year category in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

Cara has always been immersed in music. Raised in a musical family in the small town of Dungiven (population about 3,000) she grew up immersed in the rich cultural life of County Derry. At the age of 14 she won the All Ireland Traditional Singing Trophy and formed her first band Oige (meaning ‘Youth’) with schoolfriends. Carried along by that stunning voice, she was eventually signed up by folk-rock supergroup Equation, alongside brothers Seth, Sam and Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts.

The union turned out to be more than just a meeting of musical minds; She and Sam married and have gone on to have three children together.

They remain a close musical unit with pianist Sam seldom leaving her side, touring with her and co-writing, producing and, since leaving the trendy Rough Trade label in 2008, recording her albums on their own Charcoal Records label.

“Sam and I do a lot together and are looking forward to touring,” she says. “It is a bit of a logistical nightmare, though, with childcare. We feel we are juggling all the time but we love playing live, and it’s not really a proper job or a real slog. We just go out and enjoy ourselves.

While performing predominantly traditional Irish music, the combination of her voice and Sam’s piano gives a fresh feel to some very old songs. These sit alongside their own compositions and arrangements.

“Irish music is all I know,” she says. “I couldn’t sing stuff I know nothing about. I’m a product of this stuff and was brought up in a strong tradition of music, singing and dancing. It’s engrained in my being. Even when I’m interpreting other people’s songs I can still hear their voices.”

She is also a product of a newly confident Northern Ireland. Her own Derry — officially known as Derry/Londonderry — was last year’s UK City of Culture, hosting the world’s biggest celebration of Irish culture, Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, and a year-long programme of concerts. It was no surprise to see Cara leading the celebrations with a headline show within the old city walls. Northern Ireland is proud of its daughter, her popularity crossing the religious and cultural divide. Her song The Hill of Thieves was voted among Northern Ireland’s all-time Top 10 original songs by listeners to BBC Radio Ulster.

“It’s a different place now entirely,” she says of her homeland. “It’s amazingly beautiful and things have moved on so much. “I had never seen anything like the crowds at the Fleadh. It was the first time it had ever come north of the border and the same was true of many people I was talking to. It was great to do a headline concert in the city too. It was such a privilege to sing in my home town and enjoy a moment of celebrity.”

Her sense of adventure saw her playing on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells III, peforming with an orchestra at Abbey Road, staring in the Disney animation Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue, singing at the opening of the 2006 Ryder Cup in Ireland, and backing a remix of her song Black Is The Colour by club DJ Judge Jules. The tune went on to be a huge floor-filler in Ibiza.

“You have to keep an open mind if you want to keep performing,” she says.

“I’m really proud of different episodes we’ve had and I’m so happy to have recorded this album and to be going out to play it live. I’m even hoping to go back to China to do a bit of a tour.

“It’s a very nice feeling to know your music is having an effect on the other side of the world. Regardless of language barriers they are moved by the songs and Irish melodies.

“And what happened there shows that you should throw yourself at every opportunity.”

Cara Dillon
Cornerstone, Didcot
Saturday, February 15
Tickets £17-£19.
01235 515144 or visit cornerstone-arts.org