Electronic Telegraph (UK) 6 December 1997
No sex scandals, no outrageous behaviour, no hype - Enya's music breaks all the rules of pop stardom, yet her records sell in their millions.
IT'S one thing to sell an astonishing 33 million albums in the past 10 years, as the Irish singer Enya has done. It's quite another to achieve this level of world-wide popularity while maintaining a profile low enough to move freely in public, unharassed and largely unrecognised. But Enya didn't get where she is today by obeying music industry imperatives about fame, success and the selling of CDs by the truckload.
Consider: she develops a unique musical style, mystical, breathy, mellifluent, drawing on hymns and traditional Celtic tunes. She sings in a pure, ecclesiastical voice, sometimes in Gaelic, Latin or Spanish. Between albums she spends long periods - two to four years - cloistered in a remote Dublin recording studio, obsessively adding dozens of overdubs to her songs, thus painstakingly creating an ethereal wall of sound.
When her albums are finally released, does she go out on tour to promote them? She does not. Nor does she hang out with other musicians. And media interviews are strictly rationed.
These are career strategies that constitute a recipe for musical oblivion. Despite this, or maybe because of it, Enya is a phenomenon. Her albums Watermark (1988), Shepherd Moons (1991) and The Memory of Trees (1995) each sold more than eight million. And this least commercially minded of artists often sneaks an insistently catchy hit (Orinoco Flow, Caribbean Blue, Anywhere Is) into the singles charts.
Her appeal, though, goes beyond mere sales. With godlessness on the upswing, and modern life ever harsher, louder and more frenetic, she hawks undemanding spirituality to the suburbs; her music offers shards of meaning to stressed-out souls, balm for frayed nerves. It would sound perfect inside a sensory deprivation tank.
Enya thinks her music functions best in snatched moments of lone contemplation. Who buys it? Anyone, potentially. Her fans do not seem confined to one age, gender or social class.
'I get mail,' she says, 'from people so busy with their lives and so used to noise every day that they don't take time for themselves. You know when you go for a quiet walk, to ponder and be alone with your thoughts? It's calming. I think when people listen to me, they experience a little bit of this.'
It's as plausible a reason for her success as any. It certainly isn't her wayward, newsworthy personality; she has achieved eminence without a single outrageous act or remark to her name. Beside the fiery Sinead O'Connor, for example, Enya is a model of probity and tact. Nor have music critics helped; most have dismissed her work as pretty tinkling, or superior elevator music.
And her monastic working methods fuel a perception of Enya as a recluse whose devotional ties to her music make her oblivious to worldly concerns: at 36 she is single, childless, untarnished by sexual or even romantic gossip. But when I encounter her in Dublin she pooh-poohs such talk. 'I'm not reclusive,' she insists. 'I just have a private life.'
I have met Enya twice before, and each time she seems more confident and assertive. Five or six years ago her eyes were perpetually downcast, she spoke in a timid whisper and deferred to her manager, Nicky Ryan, producer of her albums.
But now she greets me with a sparkle in the eye, a peck on the cheek and a gaze that meets my own. She looks understatedly elegant in black leggings and a black polo-neck sweater with a crucifix - set off by a dazzling maroon Georgina von Etzdorf jacket in crushed velvet. She walks, head aloft, with a purposeful stride. 'I've started to feel,' she muses, 'that I need to take more time for myself.'
lt sounds logical; many critics have insisted that Enya should get out more - out of the studio, that is. She's taken the hint. In the past two years she has recorded just two new tracks, for a greatest hits CD: Paint the Sky with Stars, a solemn, prayerful song that sounds as if it were recorded in a cathedral, and Only if, a jaunty, infectious anthem, backed by a crashing, Phil Spector-style wall of sound, with Enya sounding like a Ronette who got religion.
Recently she has also travelled widely - and this summer splashed out some £2.5 million of her vast wealth on Ayesha Castle, a six-bedroom Victorian pile at Killiney, on the coast south of Dublin. Several luminaries live nearby: Bono and the Edge from U2, Lisa Stansfield and Chris de Burgh, as well as racing driver Damon Hill.
'I had a flat nearby, I take long walks in the mornings, and I passed the castle several times,' she says. 'I always thought it was beautiful. In May I saw it was up for sale, walked in the door - and I just knew. It's very homely, this castle. It doesn't have huge ballrooms. I didn't want a cold, cavernous place.' Now she has ordered restoration work and will fill it with 19th-century paintings and antiques.
Built in the 1840s, it was originally named Victoria Castle. After fire damage in 1924, it was renovated and renamed Ayesha by its owner after the goddess in H. Rider Haggard's adventure yarn, She. 'Ayesha had the eternal flame and was forever youthful,' says Enya whimsically. 'In the same way, the castle grew from the flames and remained beautiful.'
This is a very Enya-like thing to say, evoking images of her holed up in her magic castle, wafting about Rapunzel-like in velvet robes. But tempting though it is to mark her down as a melancholic figure, successful and wealthy enough to buy anything except love, it's a notion she discourages. 'I'll move in after Christmas,' she says matter-of-factly, 'and I'll be living there alone - for the moment.' But not for ever? 'Well, that's one of the reasons it's important to take time for myself. I'm not in a relationship at the moment, and I've got to think about me.'
This distances her from women in traditional Irish Catholic families who are expected to marry young and have several children. But, as she points out, 'My family were quite different.' Music reigned. Her father led a dance band and was constantly touring; her mother was a music teacher; and three older siblings, with two uncles, formed the popular Irish folk group Clannad.
Born Eithne ní Bhraonáin (pronounced Enya Brennan), she grew up the fifth of nine Gaelic-speaking children in County Donegal. 'I felt very protected and loved in the family, and depended on other people to make decisions for me,' she recalls. 'But I went to boarding school at 12, and from that point became very independent.'
This was soon apparent. After studying classical piano for six years, she joined Clannad in 1980. They were then managed by Ryan, who was also producing rock artists such as Gary Moore. But Enya soon became marginalised in Clannad, felt she was treated like the kid sister, and abruptly quit after two years. Ryan, who can be prickly and outspoken, left with her. 'I just got sick of rock'n'roll,' he says now. 'I was looking for music that was different and had some depth.'
The rift caused headlines; Clannad are among Ireland's biggest groups. Yet an absence of musical rivalry helped the family reconcile. For one thing Enya's tastes were broader than folk, and she and Ryan were headed not for immediate fame but the obscurity of a recording studio.
Over the next few years they evolved a new composing method. Enya wrote a melody, Ryan's wife, Roma, added a lyric to match its mood, and Ryan enhanced the result with multi-layered keyboards and vocals. They still work this way.
Intriguingly, Enya swapped one family for another, moving in with Nicky and Roma (a decade her senior) and their two teenage daughters; they worked together in a recording studio on the grounds of their house. It was an odd arrangement and a claustrophobic one; in the three years before her first album, the trio were often at each other's throats.
'All the emphasis was on work and there was no separation from it in our lives,' Roma recalls. 'Weekends didn't exist. We all just worked through them.' Enya agrees, 'We had quite fierce fights in the early days. Then at some stage we decided to stop arguing, simply record every single idea we had, listen to them all, then decide.' It's a long-winded way to make music, but the issue of prohibitively expensive studio time never arose; Ryan owned the studio. This above all allowed them to call their own shots.
Their first break came in 1985 when Roma sent some instrumental pieces to film producer David Puttnam, who asked Enya to write the score for The Frog Prince. Then she composed the music for the BBC TV series The Celts; Rob Dickins, chairman of Warner Music UK, heard the soundtrack album and promptly signed her. Not all his colleagues shared Dickins's enthusiasm. 'Other companies were signing up bands in the style of U2 and here we were signing this ethereal Irish singer,' he says. 'But I was the boss, so I got my way.'
His gamble paid off spectacularly, and Enya now makes huge profits for Warner. But Ryan demanded and received guarantees of unparalleled artistic freedom; Enya and the Ryans make music without a scintilla of commercial interference, and let Warner start the marketing process only when the work is complete. 'We take as long as we need,' Enya says. 'No one will give you the time - you have to take it.'
The four years between Watermark and Shepherd Moons might not have been clever careerwise - but that wasn't the priority. I find it necessary to write a song, leave it for a while and come back to it fresh. So only when we're at a stage when we can think about a release date do we invite Rob over to hear it. He's the only one allowed to come and listen.'
There are drawbacks to the method, to be sure; Dickins talks of the trinity's 'creative isolation'. And this way of recording has unhappy antecedents: Nicky Ryan's heroes, Spector and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, are no strangers to mental instability in their quest for perfection. The Enya team's saving grace is that at least there are three of them, not just one brooding obsessive. 'Emotions in the studio don't run so high these days,' says Roma Ryan. Yet if Enya has lightened up a little, she still comes across as terribly serious-minded. And her personal life remains private; she has had boyfriends, but their identity is a secret. Her idea of a good night, she says, is staying in with friends, sipping red wine before a roaring fire.
Now she spends less time in the studio, she tends to gravitate towards her family, many of whom still live in Donegal. Two siblings and an uncle have now moved to Australia, so she spends long periods in Sydney. 'She's happier in herself these days,' says Roma. 'She's more relaxed about music and where she is in her life.'
She is also not above self-indulgence. A woman visits her for a routine of tai chi and relaxation exercises. And she likes clothes; velvet looms large in her wardrobe. Her royal blue velvet robes with matching skullcap on the cover of The Memory of Trees make her look like an Arthurian princess. 'I dress for myself, not because of what's in,' Enya says. 'I don't like the pressure of what's happening in fashion.'
This single-mindedness, even stubbornness, is central to her appeal. Nothing about her or her music suggests a record company's cynical marketing ploy. This much is clear in what fans say about her. Look up Enya's web sites on the Internet and you will read poems, confessionals and unashamed, heartfelt gushing, in tones of respect quite different from the average pop star's fan mail. Critics may charge that she peddles a brand of Mysticism Lite, but many fans genuinely attribute healing qualities to her music. Few musical artists command such depth of feeling. 'I share very personal memories with listeners, and they sense this,' Enya says. 'When I meet people, they're friendly, and very open about things.'
Often she corresponds with fans. She recalls a letter from a woman whose daughter had died; the girl had loved Enya's song On Your Shore, which was playing when the woman entered a record shop. Hearing it, she had a comforting feeling of her daughter's presence. Then there was Larissa, a young fan who died in the TWA plane crash in New York. So strongly did she feel about Enya that the lyric to one of her songs, Evacuee, was inscribed on her gravestone. Enya says she was invited to Larissa's memorial service, but could not go because of head injuries she sustained in a car crash in July.
What happened after this accident? 'Oh, I took time out. It stops you completely in your tracks. But I recovered. And then I did the best thing possible.' Which was? 'I just got into the studio and went back to work.' Very Enya, that.
Note: Transcribed by Peter Pehrson.