Song of the Isles: The Return of Mary Dillon


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Let me just put this out there: Mary Dillon is one of my very favorite singers. So when I learned last year she was performing live again and that her new CD North was on its way, I was ecstatic.

Mary is a two-time All Ireland singing champion and former member of one of the greatest Irish traditional groups of the '90s, Déanta.  For the past fifteen years, however, Mary has put her focus on her family life, appearing only occasionally as a background singer on a few recordings.

Mary was kind enough to give SOTI a few minutes of her time and to talk about the new CD, her new group, and singing in general.

What’s the first traditional song you remember learning?
Slieve Gallon Braes, taught to the class as a whole in primary 5 by Master Hasson. And then he taught us I Met Her In The Garden Where The Praties Grow, for a bit of craic.

Which song have you learned most recently?
North Amerikay, an emigration song from Ulster which I learned for the Imirce concert which was part of a series of concerts for the All Ireland Fleadh in Derry, July past. It's more upbeat than the other emigration songs I sing, which was why I learned it...and has a happy ending. Imagine that!

Where/how do you tend to pick up new songs?
I tend to go on the hunt, through books, or the Internet and have also learned songs from Niamh Parsons and Tíona McSherry who I sing with in Sí Van. Or sometimes it's the radio: I hear something really nice the , then go and find the words.

What’s your method for learning songs?
I'll listen to the song a couple of times, then put the recording away, then I write the words out and try to remember how they look on the page. Sometimes I'll draw wee symbols beside a verse that's about, for example a garden, or a river. I've a terrible memory in general though, and my biggest worry is forgetting the words.

I love the arrangements on North, particularly the songs which take a less “traditional” tact to them, like Neil Martin’s arrangement of Edward on Lough Erne Shore. You worked with Neil before through Déanta, but how involved are you in the arrangements you sing ,and what’s your process for deciding which arrangements to use?

The majority of the songs on North were arranged by myself. I knew how I wanted them to sound and what the links between verses should sound like. I like string sounds in that had a say in arrangements. As for Edward..., I just gave Neil Martin an unaccompanied recording of the vocals and he did the rest there. Just how it should sound.

What has surprised you most after returning to the public eye (ear?) with your latest recording North and your recent public performances?  

What has surprised me most is how enthusiastically people have responded to North. I am delighted that it has been received so well, and it's also very touching when I sing some of the older Déanta songs at gigs and people remember them and love them.

Sí Van

In one of your new projects, Sí Van, you’re performing alongside two very able and established singers, Niamh Parsons and Tíona McSherry. How did that partnership come about?
I've known the girls for years and years, since we were in our early twenties, even earlier in fact. We used to run into each other at festivals, concerts, etc. over the years. Then one day a couple of years ago, Tíona phoned up, out of the blue and asked me if I'd be interested in singing with Niamh and herself. And I thought it would be sing again...and with other singers as opposed to just we met , and liked what we did together. Hence Sí Van.

What do you enjoy most about performing with Niamh and Tíona?
The harmonies, and the company on stage. And we do have a good laugh too. And when we get hold of a new song and arrange it, and it turns out's magic.


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