Homecoming queen Cara Dillon coming home to make debut at Stendhal Festival

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Perhaps the brightest musical light to ever emerge from the Roe Valley, Cara Dillon, is finally making her debut at Stendhal.

Described by Mojo as having ‘quite possibly the world's most beautiful female voice,’ Cara has seen major success in a career spanning nearly 30 years.

She has seven critically acclaimed solo albums to her name, a bountiful haul of awards, including BBC Folk Awards, Meteor Music Awards and Hot Press awards and this July, Cara will perform for the first time at Stendhal Festival.

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Cara’s formative years were spent in Dungiven, where music was a way of life and a means for people to deal with the ongoing Troubles.

Cara DillonCara Dillon
Cara Dillon

“Music was a big part of my life growing up in Dungiven and as a result all my friends played instruments or sang a wee bit," she said.

“We were all taught fiddle or whistle in school and I took Irish dancing lessons as well. I suppose the culture became a really important totem of identity during the troubles when so many civil rights were being eroded or ignored.

"In Dungiven I was swept up in the passion for the culture and I thank my lucky stars I was.”

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Her pathway to success began with her family, the youngest of six siblings, Cara says music was a staple of her household.

“We were playing the records of the 80s day and night in our house,” she recalled, “it was the days when we all watched Top of the Pops and one of my first records was the mini pops and Olivia Newton John.

"But at the same time my sister, Mary, was playing Paul Brady, Moving Hearts, Planxty and The Bothy Band amongst others, and we listened to Dolores Keane and Mary Black on the tape player on every holiday.

“From that initial love of music, and my sister teaching me a thing or two it was really the Fleadhs, the workshops and the competitions where I learned how to sing. I never had singing lessons but I was taught the songs I sang by the legendary Paddy Tunney amongst others.”

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Cara would go on to excel at performing and she won the All-Ireland singing trophy at the Fleadh at 14 years old. This opened a lot of musical doors for a young Cara, who would go on to join a teenage folk band called Óige.

It was during this time Cara realised music was a viable career choice.

“I realised after a tour in Germany with my teenage folk band Óige that one of the biggest parts of being a professional musician was definitely being able to thole the touring and I really enjoyed it and it got me thinking it would be a grand thing to do this for a living. I think I was about 16 or 17 years old,” she said.

From that epiphany Cara carved out a fast-rising career but it was her win at the Meteor Music Prize for Best Irish Female in 2003 that made her understand just how successful she had become.

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“Winning the Meteor Award for Best Irish Female in 2003 was so exciting and important for me at the time. I felt I had finally 'arrived' and that my hard work and all the sacrifices I made had been worth it as I had been given a stamp of approval in my own country and it meant the world to me.”

Now living in England, Cara says that she keeps close ties to home saying: “I'm never off the phone to my family no matter where I am and I try to get home as often as I can in between gigs and my busy family home life. Sure, what's it all about if you can't get home?”

The next time Cara comes home will be for her debut at Stendhal on Saturday, July 8, a gig she will be incredibly proud to play.

“I'm so proud there is a fantastic festival just down the road from my homeplace. In England there are so many festivals and I really notice when I'm back home the lack of festivals here in the North. I love hearing from friends and family who is playing each year and love that is has grown from strength to strength. I can’t wait to finally see it all for myself.”

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Despite this being her first Stendhal appearance Cara is no stranger to performing at festivals all over the world.

“I love performing at festivals. There's usually a party-like atmosphere. I particularly enjoy the fact that I can do one uninterrupted set and it's usually all my favourites, a bit of an indulgence.

“However, the downside to this is that it's over quickly and you are off the stage before you realise what just happened, as an artist this can be quite frustrating when you are just getting warmed up to it all. Also, you're rarely playing to your own crowd so there is always a desire to ‘win the crowd’ which helps everyone perform that little bit better.

“I have spent the last 25 years doing a wide variety of festivals in the UK and Europe and it never fails to amaze me how it's a great opportunity for people to come together and share not just a couple of nights of music but sometimes a whole week.

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“It's not just the music that is so great but the food, the crafts, the art and the way it brings people together in an almost tribal way. It's a fantastic way to escape the everyday - work, suits and ties, school, chores.”

Beyond Stendhal, Cara also has an exciting new project called ‘Coming Home’ in the works. It features spoken word and singing and features the most personal lyrics she says she has ever written. It will be showcased in the Grand Opera House in Belfast on October 18.

Cara performs at Stendhal on July 8.

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