The Baltimore Sun (USA) 26 December 1997
NEW YORK - Like many musicians, Enya loves being on the road. Traveling brings out the observer in her, allowing her to note differences between people and places, countries and cultures. It is, she says, endlessly fascinating. "I never seem to get tired of it. There's always something new."
But she doesn't quite see the world the way other musicians of her stature would. At 36, she is the second-biggest pop act in Ireland, having sold more than 25 million albums worldwide. Of Irish pop acts, only U2 tops her in sales and success.
But unlike U2, Enya has never toured. In fact, she was for a while the world's most anonymous superstar, a performer whose music - a one-of-a-kind sound drawing heavily on classical and Celtic traditions - was instantly recognisable to millions but whose face rang no bells.
That has changed a bit. As she promotes her fifth album, Paint the Sky with Stars: The Best of Enya, the singer and instrumentalist is slowly raising her media profile. While in New York, she did both "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and "The Late Show with David Letterman" and is now sitting in a hotel room high above Madison Avenue, doing one in a series of print interviews.
Before New York, she had been in Japan, doing a similar mix of interviews and TV appearances. "I love going to Japan,'' she says. "I cannot speak Japanese. But I love to just sit and listen. It's a beautiful language."
Unfortunately, they didn't speak it much to her, as the Japanese are not much given to small talk with foreigners. "So you start to think that they don't like you then, because they only kind of speak when they have something to say," she says.
"I understand it now," she adds. Although it was a bit disorienting at first, Enya says, "Now, I really enjoy it. Because after I left Japan, I went to Sydney [Australia], and, oh, my goodness me! It was like: 'My god! Will these people ever stop talking?'" She laughs. "They are very, very open. And very, very loud."
For some acts, the best-of album marks the end of the road. But for Enya, Paint the Sky with Stars was a different sort of journey. A decade had passed since the release of her first album, The Celts, and she was intrigued by the opportunity to look back at what she had done and "ponder the music," as she puts it.
"For me, it's very different to listen to the music," she says. "Because it's reliving each story. Each song. It comes to life again. I think again of writing the melody, and I'm back there. I just go right back to that day."
It isn't just an act of memory. Enya is a dedicated diarist and has been keeping a journal of her thoughts and actions since her career got under way. Moreover, she makes a habit of going back and reading what she has written. "I've been known just to sit down and pick a day," she says. "What was I doing this day in '87?"
"It's incredible, because you are back at that day. Something will trigger it off, and you're back there. And that's kind of the feeling I had with the [album]. It's like a musical diary."
Given the quiet, reflective nature of Enya's music, you might think her ponderings of the past would involve serious soul-searching. But she's so animated and involved as she describes the process - laughing, joking, fixing the listener with her bright, green eyes - that it's hard to imagine her ever becoming morbidly self-absorbed. She's in no danger of being another Sylvia Plath.
Instead, what her diaries mainly concern is her musical process - both the soul-searching that goes into understanding the emotions beneath the music and a document of how, exactly, she and producer Nicky Ryan tried to capture that sound on tape.
The first part isn't easy. "You really don't know what you're looking for," she says. "So there are all these questions. Why did I feel compelled to write this kind of a melody? What draws me to this?' And usually, I can find the answers. Eventually."
It helps that she has a reliable sounding board in Nicky and Roma Ryan. Any time Enya has a new song in the works, they're the first to hear it. "And I can see by their reaction that, yes, this is what I'm trying to say," she says. Roma is particularly valued, because she's the one who puts words - sometimes in English, sometimes in Gaelic, sometimes even in Latin - to Enya's melodies.
"It works so well,'' she says. "The lyrics Roma will write are just so true to the feeling of the melody as I was performing it to her."
Melody is central to her music. Although Enya's training, both as a pianist and a composer, was in classical music, her roots are in the Irish folk tradition. She comes by it naturally, as both her parents played professionally, while two uncles and several of her siblings formed the enormously popular Irish band Clannad.
In Irish folk music, the melody is everything. Even instrumental virtuosity is not as valued in traditional circles as a good tune. So it should come as no surprise that Enya, who is as fluent in Irish music as she is in Irish Gaelic, starts there. Sometimes the melody is something she'll play on the piano; more often, it will be entirely vocal. However it comes, though, the inspiration can be amazingly quick. "I just let it happen," she says. "I like to treat [songwriting] like it takes me on a journey."
But like any journey, turning a song into a recording takes many steps. So even though she considers writing the melody to be "the most exciting moment" of the process, she admits that her elation is quite short-lived. "It's great for maybe a day, and then, it's like: 'OK. What are we going to do with this melody?' "
That's where the real creative struggle begins. What makes Enya's albums so entrancing is their ability to articulate emotion, to take the listener deep within the heart of her melodies. For all their quiet, there's often tremendous depth to the songs, and whether it's the wistfulness that animates Shepherd Moons, the forgiveness within The Memory of Trees, or the longing for transcendence that drives "Orinoco Flow,'' the feelings that fuel these songs are articulated through the soundscapes Enya and her producer create.
Getting that right, though, takes tremendous effort. One of the reasons Enya's albums have such a distinctive feel is that she and Nicky Ryan do not take a normal approach to instrumental sound.
Instead of thinking in terms of standard instrumentation, they go after odd combinations in order to create something entirely new. For instance, what the listener hears as a single sound could be made up of overdubbed piano, synthesizer, harp and pizzicato violin. In a sense, it's like the way a landscape artist working in oils will create a visual effect by painting white over blue over green.
"Nicky loves to layer," says Enya. "It's like making up a new sound, one that is not really recognisable as anything in particular - just that it sounds good. He feels that, by layering, what could be a very dead, high-tech sound becomes more alive."
Part of what keeps that sound so lively is Ryan's keen understanding of overtones. Any note consists of a primary frequency, like the "A440" of a tuning fork, as well as many sympathetic, secondary frequencies, or overtones. Overtones are what give a sound its character, and there are many different ways to exploit them.
For instance, Ryan will suggest changing the pitch. "When he gets me to perform, [sometimes] he'll say, 'Play the other octave, then,' " says Enya. "So it's not necessarily even layering of different sounds; sometimes it's just various octaves."
Another of Ryan's favored devices is reverb. Thanks to digital technology, a sound can be processed to give it almost any sort of resonance imaginable, from a closet-to a cathedral-size echo. So when Ryan flashes out each overdubbed sound with its own bit of reverb, the character of the sound can take on an almost otherworldly quality.
It's not a fast process. Layering sounds like this can require Enya to play the same part dozens and dozens of times. And because neither she nor Ryan ever really know what the sound will be until they're finished, they will sometimes invest days in experiments that ultimately don't work.
All told, the process requires an unusual amount of creative confidence. After all, when you put several weeks of work into a single song, it's easy for doubt to creep in along the way. "It's best to leave the studio when you start to question too much at a particular stage," says Enya. Sometimes, she and Ryan will simply put a piece aside for a few weeks, then come back to it when their ears are fresh.
Ultimately, she says, it all comes down to focus. "I find that it's really important to forget of success, forget of albums, forget of listeners, fans - forget everything. Just go in and see, musically, what's going to happen."
"So the studio that we work in, which is just a little studio, has that wonderful sense of coming into this world of music. You really do not bring anything else past the doorstep with you. And it's great."
Note: Transcribed by Book of Days/TreeCat.