Album release: North by Mary Dillon
Release date: 4 February 2013
Label: Black Lane Records
Listen: on official website

Mary Dillon’s debut solo album, North, is one of the most eagerly anticipated folk albums of the year. A former member of Irish band Déanta in the 1990s, the Derry singer has been absent from the music scene for over a decade, but returns in 2013 with a renewed energy to showcase a diverse collection of folk songs from the Ulster singing tradition.

Having spent the past fifteen years raising a family, occasionally stepping into the studio to lend guest vocals to some of her friends’ projects, Mary is ready to rejoin her internationally-acclaimed sister Cara as one of the torch bearers of Irish traditional singing. 

Twice winner of the All-Ireland Singing Trophy by her mid-teens, Mary came from a background immersed in Irish traditional music. ‘Both of my grandmothers were traditional singers - something I wasn’t aware of until I started singing with Déanta years ago. One day I came home with a song we were recording and my mother stopped still in the kitchen and told me that her own mother used to sing that very song.’

The passion for collecting traditional songs is something that has clearly been passed down through generations in the Dillon family: ‘Cara and myself always have a good chin wag about which ones are the nicest and why. We were also taught traditional songs as part of our primary school education. Music was everywhere.’ 

The songs on the album encompass a wide range of themes and settings, with the central focus being on characters and a good story. ‘Many traditional songs take the form of a conversation between a woman and a man,’ says Mary, ‘so by imagining the scenes playing out in my head I find it’s easy to get the right feel when recording vocals.’

The Month Of January will be a familiar title to listeners of Irish traditional song, but on the album Mary gives the song a different edge to the sombre, mournful lament it usually elicits. ‘I tried to reflect the cruelty of the tale, and tried to channel the anger and despair of the young woman in the song.’ The resultant performance is fiery and passionate, demonstrating one of the many strands of her vocal capability. 

Light and shade is created throughout her delivery of the album’s ten songs, with When A Man’s In Love and The Banks Of Claudy tinged with irony and sharp wit, alongside emotional and poignant performances on the love songs and Irish lament, ‘Ard Tí Chuain’.

Fans of Mary’s previous work will be familiar with the song John Condon, a harrowing account of a fourteen-year-old boy’s role in WW1. Having sung the original demo recording of this song in 2003, which subsequently became something of a modern folk classic, she has re-recorded it with a stunning new vocal on North

As well as ancient traditional songs, the album includes recent compositions, including her own song, The Boatman. ‘Like many other songwriters I like to write about what really matters to me: life experiences, people, places. Some emotions are best expressed through song, and so it can be a cathartic process.’

‘All of the songs on the album are linked to the North of Ireland, some of which I have carried with me since childhood,’ says Mary, ‘so it felt right that the album title should give a nod to the rich singing heritage we have.’

Indeed, the album has musical contributions from a host of northern musicians, including Belfast composer Neil Martin, who wrote a string arrangement for one of the album’s standout moments - the devastatingly poignant Edward On Lough Erne Shore.

‘Neil is such an empathetic musician. He’ll listen to a song and know exactly what it needs. Having worked with him before with Déanta, I knew I could trust him to add something special to the song, which it deserved.’

Mary admits that new technology and the internet have played an important part in making the album. ‘I discovered a couple of songs online, including an inspiring version of Ballyronan Maid by fellow northern traditional singer Cathal O’Neill that was uploaded to YouTube from someone’s iPhone.’

‘I produced the record with my nephew Odhrán Mullan, who is a recording engineer, and we fully exploited all of the possibilities that ProTools and home recording offers.’ 

The recording setup lent itself perfectly to the stripped-back, acoustic production on the record. ‘We could bring everyone to our own project studio in Dungiven and got some great spontaneous and energetic performances from musicians and friends. I found the entire process an enjoyable and invigorating experience.’ 

Having been off the circuit for so long, Mary looks forward to performing her new material at a selection of gigs in the next few months, starting with Celtic Connections on 19th January. She will also be touring as part a new singing trio, Sí Van, with fellow Irish folk singers Niamh Parsons and Tíona McSherry, making 2013 a very busy year.

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