Dana Masters

I wasn't looking for a home, but home found me,

The wide open arms of your hills pulled me in,

I fell for your charms and your wild northern winds.

Dana Masters (Call You Home)

Born and raised in an African American community in South Carolina, Dana Masters did not just find her home amongst the hills of County Down but found herself as a singer and songwriter too. Now making waves as a solo performer, the acclaimed vocalist is capable of moving fluently between jazz, blues, soul and gospel.

As well as her flourishing solo career, Dana has been Van Morrison's back-up singer for several years, plays regularly with local jazz great Linley Hamilton and has recorded her own songs with the Ulster Orchestra and RTÉ Concert Orchestra amongst others.

Strangely, it wasn't until she came to these shores that she thought seriously about a musical career, despite having graduated with honours in music at university in Minneapolis and sung with Kanye West. 

Music, however, had been a huge part of her childhood. "For me music was ever present, a necessary part of life to celebrate, to grieve, to process. I grew up on a diet of Motown, funk, soul, a little bit of gospel. Music was part of church, you quickly got used to performing in front of people, and it was part of the Civil Rights struggle too."

Although growing up in a middle-class suburb in South Carolina, she was never far from that struggle, in which her grandmother, social worker Johnnie Ruth Jenkins, had been a leader since the 1960s (she has had a highway named after her). Among her many achievements was to introduce a programme to ensure schoolchildren in the poor rural communities received free meals in summer.

"I spent my summers with my grandmother, so I got some of those meals," Dana says. "I think those kind of experiences have helped make me comfortable in my own skin, no matter who I am with."

She met her future husband Andrew Masters, who was studying a masters in entrepreneurial leadership at a church in Los Angeles, where she was currently living. Once they had begun dating, Dana knew her future lay in Northern Ireland.

"He never intended to stay, he is very passionate about this place and always knew he was coming home," Dana says. "And by that time I knew I would be going with him."

They arrived in Northern Ireland in 2008. Andrew eventually became pastor at Lagan Valley Vineyard Church, an evangelical church whose focus on social justice and community service made Dana feel at home. They now live in a quiet village in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains.

To earn a living in the early days, Dana began to give singing lessons and the word began to spread about her remarkable voice. 

But it was a chance meeting with Linley Hamilton at Bert's Jazz Bar at Belfast's Merchant Hotel, when the jazz musician and broadcaster asked her to sing with him, that really set her on her way. From that meeting came a regular jazz gig at Belfast's oldest pub, McHugh's, and a ‘soft' introduction to the world of jazz singing. 

One night when Dana was heavily pregnant with her twin boys, (her daughter was then one), Linley told her not to get nervous but Van Morrison would be in the audience. 

Van Morrison came to see them many times after that and, on New Year's Eve 2013, the band played a gig with him. The next year Dana sang backing vocals for him at his now famous Orangefield School gig. She has been his backing singer ever since.

"Working with Van makes you become a better version of yourself," she says. "He expects you to be intuitive, to sing as you feel." 

Alongside this work, Dana has become an acclaimed solo artist and songwriter, moving comfortably among the genres of jazz, soul, blues, funk and gospel. Among many recent highlights have been an appearance on the BBC Proms, singing for the Pope in Dublin's Croke Park and appearing with Linley Hamilton's band at the Derry Jazz and Blues Festival.

She has also worked with legendary musician and arranger Cian Boylan, singing her own songs with the Ulster Orchestra, at the Waterfront Hall, and with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

One of her most powerful songs is ‘Call You Home', inspired by the sense of acceptance and personal freedom she feels here.

"I felt I was writing a love song to my husband and the land he shared with me. It's a song that shows my appreciation for the space the Northern Irish people have given to me. This place has opened its arms to me, given me a home and allowed me to be myself. I wanted to honour that and draw attention to the gift of openness the people here have given me over the years."