Siobhan Dillon is an astonishing vocal talent. She was “discovered” when she participated in the British Televised Talent Show, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? Though she finished third, she had made her mark, attracting the attention of Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the judges of the show and one of the most prolific composers of modern musical theater. She made her West End debut in 2007 playing Patty Simcox in Grease and has gone on to star as Molly in Ghost, Ellen in Miss Saigon, Sandy in Grease, Vivienne Kensington in Legally Blonde and Betty in Sunset Boulevard. When the British production of that show moved to Broadway in 2017, Ms. Dillon made her Broadway debut. A move to Los Angeles followed to explore television, film, and to fulfill her dream of living in sunny California. In addition to performing, she has gradually expanded the scope of her voice, both literally and figuratively, to help others through meditation, sound baths and yoga nidra (yoga sleep),which she teaches with her husband Adam Korson.
Luckily for those of us who were not able to catch her on the West End or Broadway, Ms. Dillon just released her first pop album, a stunning collection of covers entitled One Voice. This is not an album review, though I highly encourage you to check it out. It is gorgeous. What is extraordinary about the album, aside from the glorious vocals, is the journey that led to it. While taking British musical theatre by storm, Ms. Dillon fought cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30 in 2015, while performing Ellen in Miss Saigon. While healing, she worked with Breast Cancer Haven, an amazing organization in the UK that supports those fighting the disease. All proceeds from the album benefit the organization. According to Ms. Dillon, “what makes Haven so wonderful is that they are equipped with health care professionals in so many different areas of expertise that they can provide comfort and support for anyone going through the breast cancer struggle. I just felt so strongly about them and the comfort that their charity had brought me that I wanted to say thank you. I didn’t give them a penny during that time, and I think in moments of need, the charities that offer everything for free are the ones who should be celebrated. The tricky thing at this moment is that they can’t continue with their fundraising events as the world is going through this pandemic. I was originally going to continue to support the charity by encouraging people to visit their site and hopefully encourage donations but with everything going on it just felt like the right thing to do to donate all monies to them.”
I asked Ms. Dillon to share her journey, her experience in creating the album and her focus moving forward with life in Los Angeles.
In 2015, Ms. Dillon was just about to open in the West End production of Miss Saigon as Ellen, a role she had long coveted. Just before opening, she discovered a lump during a self examination and her life turned upside down. The lump was malignant. After a few performances, she left the show for treatment. She endured a brutal regime which included surgery, radiation and hormone therapy. During the time between surgery and radiation, she visited California, staying with a friend in Malibu and setting the stage for her future. She did return to the show, but as a changed person. “I had started hormone treatment which effectively switched off my ovaries because the type of cancer I had was all due to hormones - specifically estrogen. So, the doc wanted me to stop producing it which would effectively leave the cancer cells without anything to ‘feed’ on. For anyone who has been through the menopause, you will know all about this. The side effects of reducing that hormone are quite brutal. Panic attacks, depression, hair loss, weight gain, hot sweats... to name a few. It was a challenging time, but while I was sitting on that beautiful California beach, I made a decision that I wanted to push hard to spend time in the US.” She started the process to obtain a green card to work in the US before she returned to London to continue treatment. She found that when she returned to the show, she struggled. “I returned to Miss Saigon to perform and was struggling with being back on stage. I’m not sure what it was exactly but I didn’t have as much fight in me so the nerves returned and it left me wondering if performing on stage was the right thing for me to be doing moving forward….I had always joked as I lifted my eyes to the sky that when the universe took me to perform on Broadway - at that point that I would have just left musical theatre! (It really was as simple as that!) Within weeks I auditioned for Sunset Boulevard and was cast as Betty in the UK production and yep!... we then transferred to New York. I made it to Broadway!” After the show closed that June, she traveled for a few months then made the move to Los Angeles.
Ms. Dillon recorded the first single, She Used to Be Mine, shortly after her recovery process. It seemed to stand in for her entire journey. “I was kind of done with the treatment but was still feeling the waves of what had happened a year earlier. I was petrified that the experience had changed me in a negative way. I was scared of losing something. My fearlessness? Maybe. My naiveté? Probably. I was so scared that people saw me differently. I was scared that my energy had changed, and my light had dimmed.” The song has even more resonance with the current world situation. “This idea of “life slips in through a back door” just really takes the wind out of me every time I hear or sing it, as we get on with living our lives, day to day and suddenly there we are. We find ourselves in places we would never have imagined without noticing it happening.”
One Voice is curated with and produced by Steve Anderson, who has produced the work of more recognizable names that you can count, including 20 years as producer for Kylie Minogue. The entire album took four years to record. Ms. Dillon says, “both myself and Steve really took our time with this album. We had no idea what it would be or when it would all be complete, but we started anyway. What a wonderfully rare position to be in. It started with Steve asking me to send him a list of ‘Desert Island’ songs, which progressed into ‘the songs that I had always wanted to sing’ which very quickly progressed into ‘the stories that my heart wanted to tell through song.”
Although all of the tracks are gorgeous, Everyone’s Waiting is a standout, both vocally and in what it meant to Dillon to record. “I’d been performing on London stages for almost a decade when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was a few weeks into my contract at The Prince of Wales in Miss Saigon, playing Ellen. I decided to get through my treatment as quickly as possible to get back to the stage and play this iconic role. But when I got back there, I froze. Everything felt different.” She continues, “I remember stepping onto that stage and it feeling completely different to any other time I had stood on stage before. I was fragile. More sensitive. Things felt different, but I couldn’t work out exactly how. It felt empty and pointless. Nothing about being on the stage excited me. In fact, I just felt uncomfortable.”
This onstage experience led Ms. Dillon to rethink her entire approach to her art and life. “When I stepped back on stage after the treatment, I was quite shocked at how fragile I felt. I took it for granted that I would just walk out there and be focused and hard as nails again. But my hard exterior had really been chipped away and that only really hit me in that moment. My nerves in auditions were through the roof- more so than normal... I think I just wanted to relax! I didn’t like the adrenaline anymore. I think the main reason for this was numerous conversations with my doctor about limiting stressors in my life. He once asked me if I had a stressful life. I said “No! I perform on stage for a living! It’s fun!” He asked me if I ever got butterflies or moments of adrenaline surges... I thought about it for a while and as we talked, I realized that I was constantly feeling these things.”
“The way I live my life has definitely changed. I removed things that were causing me stress. I don’t do things that cause me stress and most importantly I take relaxation incredibly seriously because if the body can't rest, it’s struggling to heal and if the body can’t heal, disease will have a much easier time thriving. So my work in theatre hasn’t stopped- far from it. But my work in meditation and crafting healing sound baths for others has increased. Whenever I can help someone relax to enable them to reach the parasympathetic state, allowing their body to begin to restore and heal itself - I am a happy woman!”
I wanted to take us back to the album for just a moment. The tone of the album is very specific, and though not all of the music is calming or meditative, there is a balance to it that when listened to straight through is very soothing and restorative. Was the idea of sonic healing a part of the process? Was this life path already in motion as she recorded this album? My impression is that it was there, but maybe not intentional. I asked Ms. Dillon directly. “I think probably you just hit the nail on the head. I think it was subconscious. Steve (Anderson, the producer) is so open himself to artists just going with their flow and he is really a phenomenal support that what actually happened when we started working together that he let me just relax….I heard somewhere a rider who was just told to relax into the saddle like butter…..I love that…... It is kind of like how this process happened. It was kind of a seamless and pain free experience for me, which I can’t say about previous recordings. With Steve, he just allowed me all of the space and time and energy to do what I felt was right and I was able to tap into a part of me that I didn’t even know I had.”
So life in Los Angeles is different, but not entirely divorced from performing. There is a continuity in music, sharing and song. Ms. Dillon was on the Amazon hit show Frankie and Grace this past season. She is absolutely open to the right theatre project or role sweeping her into its fold, but is currently focused on a life of healing, meditation and love. She is deep in study and with her partner Adam, she runs Salus, “a sanctuary space dedicated to creating peace, tranquility and healing.” They are building a new space, using this time to embrace the unknown. She integrates her healing work with her performance and art and is focused on the spiritual rather than commercial side of sound, embodying a Southern California lifestyle. “I am working on meditation music as well as guided meditations specifically designed for self-healing. This, over acting and singing, I have to admit is the thing - at this moment in time - that is getting me out of bed in the morning! That, and the California sunshine of course!!!!!”
Featured photo credit: Adam Korson