Queen of the Castle
Guardian Unlimited (UK) 20 November 2000
Beneath the Wicklow Mountains, behind electric gates at the end of a mile-long driveway, lies Humewood Castle. Eithne Ni Bhraonain, better known as Enya, has come here to talk about A Day Without Rain, her first new album since 1995's The Memory of Trees. She lazes in front of a log fire, a velvet-clad, sparrow-like figure. She promptly ruins the effect by hacking a piece of well-worn chewing gum into a tissue. Enya, 39, is not one of life's natural gigglers, but she giggles anyway.
Castles are so Enya that she has purchased one herself, Ayesha Castle in Killiney, south Dublin. On one side she overlooks the Wicklow Mountains, on another, the Irish Sea. "It's very castle on the exterior," she says, "but it's very much a home inside. It's actually a very small castle and I fell in love with it."
Enya's fortress - still being renovated three years after she purchased it for £2.5m - towers over Bono's compound, in much the same way as her sales have towered over U2's since she sold the first of 44m non-soundtrack albums in 1988. "When I first walked in, someone said it overlooked Bono's," she smiles wryly, eyebrows slowly rising. "I thought, 'Hmm, so it does.' "
Enya's operation is tight-knit. Enya herself composes. Her manager Nicky Ryan arranges and produces. Ryan's poet wife Roma - who so closely resembles an older Enya that in some circles she is referred to as the "stunt double" - is responsible for the lyrics. Outsiders are unwelcome. "I don't like anybody else's opinion," she states firmly.
Enya is shy, but she is also not to be trifled with. Last month, in a move that harked back to more extravagant days, her record company stopped river traffic on the Thames to launch A Day Without Rain with a fireworks display. Enya was heard to remark how spectacular it all was, but that the money would have been better spent on point-of-sale displays in record shops.
From the very beginning, she has been an aloof, mysterious figure, untarnished by scandal. She is simply there: the blankest of canvases, rather quietly selling millions of albums (her publicity material claims that total sales of her recordings rival those of Cher, Tina Turner, Madonna and Whitney Houston). If the plan was to ensure that the artist's personality never obscured the artist's music, it has worked spectacularly well. "My private lifestyle bothers a lot of people," she sighs. "It's not a hanging offence not wanting to go to nightclubs. What happened to choice? My choice is that after a certain amount of promotion, I feel it gets very false and then I'm not interested. When the album has been out for, say, 10 months, people will start focusing on me and I really don't want that. I love the music to be known, but I'm not after fame for myself."
Enya's life was always musical. Her father, Lee O, was a Donegal showband leader, while her mother Marie was a music teacher. In 1970, two of her four older brothers, one of her four older sisters and two cousins formed Clannad, who enjoyed moderate success in Ireland and abroad. A decade later, Nicky Ryan, Clannad's manager, soundman and producer, invited Enya, now classically trained, to join Clannad. Two years, two albums and several tours later, Ryan quit Clannad with his protegee.
"He loved the way Clannad harmonised," recalls Enya, "but he had this idea about recording a voice and layering it. He suggested I harmonise with myself and build it up spontaneously." It sounded vague, but Enya intuitively understood what Ryan was searching for. Roma Ryan enticed David Puttnam to use Enya on his 1985 film The Frog Prince. The BBC commissioned her for an episode of The Celts in 1987. On hearing the results, they commissioned her for the remainder of the series. In October 1988, the first proper album, Watermark, was released and "Orinoco Flow" was a number one single.
The threesome lived and recorded at the Ryans' Dublin house. "I never thought it would be successful," says Enya. "Absolutely not. We were too involved with the music."
When the money poured in - 1991's Shepherd Moons spent 199 weeks on the American charts - they designed and built a new studio, but their working method has remained the same. Enya begins with a blank sheet of paper and no distractions. "The listeners, the fans and the success are outside that door. I'm not thinking about what people would like to hear; that's dangerous, it's cheating myself. If I did that, I'd have to call it a day. What does come with me is inspiration from people, memories, landscapes, people I love. I would never be able to work anywhere else, certainly never at home. It's a very, very, peaceful, calming place."
She sits at her desk or piano, gazing across the Wicklow Moun tains, "just fishing", waiting for a song's basic melody to bite. When it does, she extends it and presents her work to Ryan. He then begins to build. Without sampling and without losing sight of the central melody, Enya wails over herself and her myriad instruments as many times as Ryan sees fit. She is the perfectionist, searching for the perfect emotional timbre. He is the pragmatist who sees the big picture, the one who knows when to stop. Meanwhile, Roma Ryan has been following the track's evolution and provides the lyrics.
"Myself and Roma don't sit and discuss. It's more the doing than the discussing that's important. After working together for all these years, Roma can sense the emotional feeling. For example, when I read her lyrics to Fallen Embers, they were exactly how I felt when I wrote the melody. Perfect." The process is not a speedy one. "You have to believe in what you're doing," she explains, "but the only way to feel you're going in the right direction is time. That's why there aren't 10 Enya albums out there." In fact there are three, not including her "best of" collection.
"This album is positive because that's where I'm at in my life," she continues. "Three years ago, I was asking whether I should take time out to have a family. I was putting pressure on myself and it was a terrible thing to do. Then I decided I wasn't going to pressurise myself and I've gone the route I wanted to go.
'I wouldn't change anything I've done over the past few years. That I'm not married and don't have children has been my choice. I don't feel I've missed out in any way. At school other girls talked about getting married, but it was never on my list of things to do. I was looking at something else."
Then she stops herself. "Actually what I went through wasn't as traumatic as I'm making out. I didn't think that much about it. I had to stop putting the pressure on myself, because of relationships coming and going, but if relationships aren't working that means they're not right. That's what the single Only Time is about."
She is at a loss as to why she is so successful internationally (Watermark went platinum in 14 countries). "It's very difficult. The only connection I have with my audience is a signing session or through letters. What comes across to me is the fact that when I sing in Gaelic they can still sense the emotional feeling in my performance."
Criticism and negativity are there to be spurned. "Anything that's negative I'm good at turning around and making positive," she says, sternly. "In the early days, I would be hurt and would believe everything I read. Nowadays, I don't expect everybody to listen to the music. I'll read good or bad criticism and neither bothers me. Within ourselves - myself, Nicky and Roma - we are really happy."