The Invisible Star
The London Times (UK) 10 December 2005
We had hoped to meet Enya at her castle, but a fortnight earlier a stalker had broken in and subjected her to a shattering ordeal, tying up a maid while the reclusive singer hid in a locked room. She hit the panic button installed for just such moments and waited two terrifying hours for the police to arrive while her assailant prowled the corridors of her home. In the same week, a second stalker was arrested in the grounds, so the castle, in the exclusive south Dublin enclave of Killiney, where her neighbours include members of U2, is off-limits while a security review is conducted.
So what to do? Obvious, really. You borrow someone else’s castle for the day. And so we meet at the nearby Killruddery House, a 17th-century pile built by the Meath family, replete with family portraits, vaulted ceilings, Italian statuary, an orangery and formal gardens in the French style, famed as the finest in Ireland.
Enya has a thing about castles; while writing this piece, we arranged a second meeting. This time she nominated the even grander surroundings of Château de Vaux le Vicomte, a monument to the opulence of Louis XIV’s court located an hour’s drive south of Paris and a perfect fairytale setting for the launch party for her new album, Amarantine. You have to sell a lot of records to afford that kind of castle-hopping, and Enya has sold an awful lot of records. Some 65 million to be exact, 13 million of them for her last album A Day Without Rain, released in 2000. And she wasn’t going to allow a stalker to delay her new album from adding further to that impressive sales tally, for when I offer my sympathies, she shrugs and says she was back at work in the studio the next day. “You deal with it and you move on,” she says with a disconcerting matter-of-factness. “Those things happen and for that moment it’s not nice. But you have to put it behind you.”
Tiny and fragile-looking she may be, but there’s hidden steel in Eithne Ní Bhraonáin (to use Enya’s Irish name), for many stars would have cancelled all engagements, booked themselves in for post-traumatic therapy and gone into hiding – particularly when the intruder is still out there somewhere. This is not the first time, either, such rude intrusions have happened in Enya’s world. She was once stalked for a year by an Italian fan who walked around Dublin with a framed picture of her hanging from his neck, sent her love letters and eventually stabbed himself after being thrown out of her parents’ pub in Donegal.
Quite why she should attract such obsessive attention is something of a mystery. Enya has to be the world’s most invisible star. Shy to the point of secretiveness, you never read about her in the gossip columns. She has never played a live concert and she seldom even seems to go out. When she made a rare excursion into the spotlight at the Oscars three years ago, she was delighted to meet Sir Paul McCartney – but it was the former Beatle who approached her. “Enya would never have dreamt of going up to him,” says Nicky Ryan, who co-manages her with his wife, Roma. “She doesn’t bother with any of that celebrity stuff and avoids it like the plague. She’s very low-profile.”
Enya lives alone in her castle, and although it is said there have been occasional boyfriends, she has never been seen with them in public and names have not been divulged. In 1998 she was believed to be stepping out with an anonymous Spanish beau but Irish tabloids soon reported they had split up. When asked if there is a current man in her life, she feigns surprise that anybody should be interested. For the record, it appears that there is not. She says her “best friends” are her managers, Nicky and Roma Ryan, a generation older and with whom she lived for several years when she was struggling to get established. It caused a rift when she left the family group – the folk band, Clannad – to embark on a solo career under their guidance. But that has long been healed, and she spends Christmases and other holidays with them in Donegal. She also regularly visits a sister in Australia. Ask her how she relaxes and she will tell you that she enjoys watching black-and-white films and walking (preferably alone), but doesn’t take holidays.
Her born-to-be-mild private persona is reflected in her soothing, quasi-classical melodies and ethereal vocals. On the surface, it’s hardly the stuff to stir deep, uncontrollable passions, and if you wanted to be unkind you might even call her music anodyne. Yet it clearly fulfils a deep need among her fans as an oasis of calm and comfort in a world of clamour, chaos and confusion. It was no coincidence that in the wake of 9/11, Only Time, a piece of music from her last album, became the balm that soothed America’s wounds, adopted one by one by the major US networks as a soundtrack of healing whenever those horrific pictures of Ground Zero were shown.
Perching demurely on the edge of an over-stuffed sofa in the Neo-Classical drawing room of Killruddery House and dressed in a bright-red jacket and sensible skirt, Enya looks more like a modern-day headmistress than a pop star. If you didn’t know she was 43 years old, you’d be hard pressed to guess her age at all. Everything about her seems to be carefully calculated not to offend, and rock critics, who appear to loathe her music with a rare passion, would probably say the same about her music. Hence her record company has not even bothered sending the album out for review. Her fans are so loyal to the brand, they reason, all they need to do is advertise the record to let them know that it’s out. That she has enjoyed such success without critical support, without touring and without playing the celebrity game makes her a musical phenomenon.
“I could have been more famous if I did all the glitzy things, but celebrity always seemed so unnecessary,” she says. “Fame and success are very different things, anyway. The music sold itself before anybody knew who I was, so I felt I had a choice. I told the record company I didn’t feel the need to be out there at red-carpet events. I wanted a career. But I wanted to keep myself intact as a person.”
Born into a famous Irish folk family in Gweedore, County Donegal, Enya was the youngest of nine children, and in 1980 followed several of her brothers and sisters into Clannad. She stayed for two years, but always felt that she was being treated as the kid sister. “It was fun but I had no musical input,” she recalls. “My brothers were doing the writing and arranging, so it felt temporary.”
At the time Clannad were managed by Ryan, a veteran of the Irish music scene, and when the band dispensed with his services in 1982, he suggested to Enya that she might try her luck as a solo artist. She left the family behind amid considerable acrimony and went to live with him, Roma and their two young daughters in Dublin. “It was obvious she had real talent as a composer and she also had a beautiful voice, but she wasn’t getting any space within the group,” Ryan says today. “It was a leap of faith and trust on her part to come with us.”
Pooling their resources, they built their own recording studio in a shed in the Ryans’ back garden. The bank wouldn’t give them a loan, so Enya sold her saxophone and Nicky and Roma cashed in their life savings. Once they had the studio up and running, it was let out to other artists to cover the running costs, with Enya recording in whatever down time was left. The first hint that their mutual leap of faith might pay off came when she was invited to compose music for the soundtrack to the 1984 movie The Frog Prince. It was followed by a commission to provide the music for the 1986 TV documentary The Celts, the soundtrack for which became her first solo album, 1987’s self-titled Enya.
Yet although it was her name and face on the cover, the music was the creation of three people. “I started writing instrumentals but Roma pointed out they were very visual, so she started writing lyrics,” Enya explains. “And Nicky had this idea of creating a wall of sound and started multi-tracking my voice.”
Her first release attracted little attention, but one of the few who did take notice was Rob Dickens, then chairman of Warner Music, who signed her to the label, despite little obvious sales potential. “I do remember people saying to me, ‘Your music’s not very commercial. How are you going to sell that?’” Enya admits today. Dickens was equally unsure if he could sell her and famously observed at the time: “Sometimes the company is there to make money, and sometimes it’s there to make music. Enya’s the latter.”
Confounding all predictions, Watermark, her 1988 debut for Warner’s, sold nine million copies to make her Ireland’s best-selling solo artist, and spawned the chart-topping single Orinoco Flow. “I didn’t expect such a huge reaction, but I knew I was doing something different to everything else that was happening at the time,” she recalls. “People feel a very personal connection with the music.”
Her music was swiftly dubbed New Age, but she dismisses the label as “a marketing term”. She’s happier that her music has spawned an adjective of its own – “Enya-esque”. “That’s a huge compliment because it means you’ve something in which you were the first.”
Her fans have remained devoted to her work ever since her initial success, and subsequent albums such as Shepherd Moons, The Memory of Trees and A Day Without Rain have all done similar or better business. Then in 2001, two of her songs were used in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, resulting in an Oscar nomination.
Her new album, Amarantine, was finished the night before we meet, and she confesses the reason it has taken so long is because she’s utterly obsessive once she gets in the studio. “There might be one little thing that makes all the difference, one note or one word. The fine-tuning is all important, and you’ve got to stay there until you get it right,” she insists. “That’s why it can take years.”
Her workaholic existence finds her writing at the piano from ten till six, and holidays are not on the agenda. “We’re not people who know how to take holidays,” she observes. “We literally wouldn’t know how to go about booking one.” She does, however, take care to separate work and home. Her castle, which she insists is a “small” one, has a music room, but it’s purely for “social use”.
Enya fell in love with Manderley Castle, built in the 1840s, the minute she saw it and bought it nine years ago for £2.5 million. “It was in terrible condition, but I’ve made it very homely,” she says.
When it comes to children, she notes that she has plenty of nieces and nephews, and she’s also a surrogate aunt to the Ryans’ two daughters, Ebony and Persia, now grown up. The couple are a decade and more older than Enya, and over the years have been variously accused of manipulating her and keeping her from the real world. It’s clear that she relies on them heavily, but having seen her steely resolve over her stalkers, it’s hard to imagine her being anyone’s puppet. “It’s a huge thing to have someone like that who believes in you from day one,” is all she will say on the relationship, and when they come up in our conversation she refers to them not as her management team but as “my friends”.
In the past, Enya has sung in Gaelic and Latin as well as English, and on the new album, she sings three songs in an entirely invented language called Loxian. The idea came to Enya and her lyricist after she had sung in Elvish for The Lord of the Rings. “We’ve always concentrated on the sound of the words so that they enhance the melody. Sometimes a song just doesn’t sound right in a particular language,” she explains. Yet Loxian is not just an imaginary language, for Roma has constructed an elaborate Tolkienesque history of its people to accompany the songs. The sound of the Loxians, she writes in the album sleeve, “awakens in the hearts of all the Valley-dwellers a longing that brings them to the edge of tears, because it is the song of both the beginning and the end”.
Out with the leprechauns? Perhaps. Except that while indulging such flights of fantasy, the Ryans are also very sharp business operators who have guided Enya’s career with enviable skill, and built her into an internationally recognisable brand. The Irish papers recently estimated the singer’s wealth at £100 million when reporting the break-in to her castle, and the deal her team have negotiated with Warners gives the three of them unprecedented control over every aspect of the making and selling of her music.
When we meet again at Château Vaux Le Vicomte a couple of weeks later, Warner executives are swarming everywhere and are clearly eager to please their star turn. Just before she arrives, a record company employee ushers everyone into the entrance hall to form a greeting party. When she makes her entrance, she’s wearing a dramatic backless red gown, and she works the room expertly.
Before we sit down to a banquet there’s a spectacular firework display that ends with Enya’s name picked out in flames. She smiles politely and poses for pictures, but you can’t help thinking that she looks like the only person in such spectacular surroundings who wishes she were somewhere else. At the end of the evening, she’s the first to leave. Then again, most of us don’t have a castle to go home to.
Note: Transcribed by Book of Days.
There's very little 'interview' in this story, but the comments on Enya's 'steely' resolve in the wake of the Mandeley break-ins are interesting.