The musician on braving breast cancer, learning from her body and the prescience of her new album
‘My mother used to regularly joke that she took the wrong child home from the hospital,” singer Cat Dowling says. Cat’s the second eldest of six – her big brother Padraic studied physics. Two other brothers, Donal and John, became engineers while another brother, Richard, studied accountancy before becoming a nurse. Her sister Annemarie was a primary teacher who went on to become a principal. “I was the one who took the road less travelled,” Cat says.
If you bought Cat Dowling’s new album Animals expecting a pleasant collection of comfortable and safe songs then you took the wrong album home.
This is a raw, unconventional record, as unsettling as it is emotive, from someone who sings like an ethereal-voiced Patti Smith and writes like Virginia Woolf educated by the nuns in south Kilkenny.
Cat sees the logic behind the title of the album as self-explanatory. “Humans, in spite of our huge brains, are still ultimately primal beings.”
She cites her father (one-time Fine Gael politician and senator Richard Dowling) for her love of books and her mother Mairin Dowd for her sense of independence. Her childhood was “a fairly conservative one with many rules. I wasn’t a fan of rules. We got up to loads of madness because back then kids had so much freedom. No one checked on us. We told our parents nothing. I loved that freedom.”
This is something of a theme on Animals. It appears on the title track and on songs like ‘Trouble’ and ‘Freedom’ (“I am a free spirit,” she says). In the video for the latter, her three children are seen running on the beach at Donabate and Dollymount Strand, both Dublin. Rachel was born in 2009; Odhran two years later; and Juliette in 2014.
In spring 2017, when Cat began to feel ill during a tour of the east coast of America, she put it down to be a busy mother. She had a cough for months, as well as prolonged spells of dizziness. “I used to stumble a bit and I had really bad insomnia.” She ignored the signs. In December of that year back in Ireland she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Cancer made me stop and listen to my body.”
As she was being tested, a nurse ran her figures along Cat’s hand. “I will never forget that moment of kindness,” she says. “I will be forever grateful for that one gesture. Nurses still have humanity.”
This, she felt, was in stark contrast to her experience with the male consultant. “He said that they had to wait for tests, but it was very, very serious. He started talking about Phil Collins straight after. I hated him for that.”
When she got home, it started to sink in. “I cried like a broken animal for two days. I remember hiding tears behind glasses the next day as I collected my eldest daughter from school,” she says, “Two days later I dried up my tears. I knew my body was sick, but my goal was to make it well.”
A week later she played a headline concert at The Workman’s Club, Dublin. “I sang my boots off to a crowded room. Performing is very cathartic. When I am singing, I forget everything and get lost somewhere very beautiful.”
But there was no escaping the reality when her cancer diagnosis was confirmed at the follow-up appointment days after the gig. “I asked the doctor why I got it. He said it was just bad luck. He started talking about statistics and numbers. I had already tuned out. This didn’t make sense. I wasn’t a number nor was I a statistic.”
She was determined to not have her life defined or, more importantly, taken from her by cancer. Alongside treatment, she embarked on a journey of learning, education and healing. She read every book on cancer she could find. Her reading material included Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No, Sophie Sabbage’s The Cancer Whisperer, Dr Christiane Northrup’s Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, and Miracles Do Happen by Briege McKenna. She also read publications from Harvard and Stanford universities on the subject. “I was constantly researching the latest results.”
She was lucky to have a friend who had come through serious illness. “She put me in the right direction. I was so overwhelmed with the love and kindness I received. I kept getting introduced to people who were so kind to share their story and their information with me. To these people I am indebted. I focused on what people did to get well”.
More than that, she says: “I opened the closet and faced demons. I stopped running from them and then they no longer had a hold on me. I realised that everything starts within. All healing, no matter what it is, must begin with ourselves. The irony is when you face your fears head on, they disappear. They are only delusional,” she says.
How does she – if possible – rationalise such a thing as cancer?
“People often talk of cancer as a battle. I never thought of it as a battle. I saw it as a chance to get myself well, in every way, not just physically. The body is the shadow of the mind. Our bodies are so powerful and are so determined to live. They will do anything to survive if we allow them. The human body is a magnificent invention, and it renews all its cells regularly. We are constantly regenerating ourselves.”
On November 19, 2018, she went into hospital for surgery. Around the same time, her long-term relationship with the father of her children ended. “Life is all about beginning and endings,” she says. “Endings are needed and are part of the circle. We did it well. We have three beautiful children, and we will always be family.”
Less than a month after her surgery, she was on stage again at The Workman’s Club. “It was a beautiful show. Music is in my veins and is part of me. It’s like a beast inside me and if it doesn’t get attention, it causes me problems. When I pay attention to it, it gives me life. “
As for the new album, she believes even though the songs on it were written before she was diagnosed with cancer, “all the songs seem very pertinent,” she says. “The songs came from a place that knew what was coming. Those songs came to me without my understanding of them.”
‘Bullets’, for instance, is a song in which the lyrics are concerned with mortality. “It’s about almost dying. Yet it’s a song of survival. I had no idea when I wrote it what it was about. It’s almost liked the song was trying to tell me something. Songs come from the unconscious.”
Music has been in her unconscious from an early age. Aged eight, she won a singing competition on a local radio station in Kilkenny. At nine, she was selected to sing the psalm at mass. “I would walk from the choir over to the pulpit and sing in front of a packed church.”
In 2001, she formed the band Babelfish with guitarist Gerry Horan, bass guitarist Stevie Kavanagh and drummer Graham Gilligan. Two years later Alphastates was formed, releasing the debut album Made from Sand in 2004; in 2009, they released their final album Human Nature. Four years later, Cat put out her debut solo album The Believer. In March 2014, in a little house in Wicklow, she started pre-production on an album that is only seeing the light of day now – because of motherhood, cancer and Covid.
And the future? “I started writing again with the ferocity of a lioness. I couldn’t stop. Some might say it’s a drug. For me it’s about doing what I need to do. During the pandemic I wrote so much material. I have another album or two in there.”
‘Animals’ by Cat Dowling is out now on FIFA Records. Cat plays the Workman’s Club on December 18