Enya's own penchant for vocal harmonies can be traced back to her childhood in County Donegal, Ireland. "We always had an interest in harmony as far back as when we were growing up," she recalls. "My mother used to enter us in competitions... It's something we grew up with and we all had a great love for it, and we seemed to have brought it into our music as such. But even in Clannad the harmonies were different from the harmony I do now."
Interview: Jazziz Magazine
Jazziz (USA) February/March 1992
She takes three years between albums, reputedly records up to a hundred vocal tracks on a song, and uses every microchip of studio technology at her disposal, yet Enya's latest album, Shepherd Moons, sounds simple, almost stripped down. It's only one of the simpler paradoxes in the insular world of Enya.
Sitting in a posh suite of the Plaza Hotel at Central Park West in New York City, a fake fire glowing in the heavily ornamented fireplace, Enya has a delicate beauty with short cropped, dark brown hair framing her deep brown eyes. Unlike the turn of the century image she favors in photos and videos, the diminutive singer is dressed head-to-toe in a curve hugging black dress with black tights. A pair of silver, winged seahorse earrings are the only fanciful sign on her. It's a high style contrast to the nostalgic fantasy of her music.
With the sound of her voice, Enya conjures up a world of images. She sings songs in Gaelic and Latin that sound ancient and ethereal while remaining extremely contemporary. By painstakingly over-dubbing herself singing sweet, Celtic-inflected melodies, she creates a rich wave of vocal harmonies, turning herself into a choir of one on her albums Enya (Atlantic) (1), Watermark (Geffen), and her latest, Shepherd Moons (Reprise). It's not a concept she invented. Artists as diverse as the pop jazz group Singers Unlimited, avant-garde composer Joan la Barbara, and Kate Bush have been doing it for years. In fact, it's the way The Carpenters built up the rich vocal layers of their pop sound in the l960's and '70s.
Enya, whose name is a phonetic spelling and shortening of her full Irish name, Eithne Ní Bhraonáin, comes from a far different tradition. She was a member of Clannad, the Irish folk-rock group that's comprised of her brothers, uncles, and her sister, Maire, who has equally seductive vocal gifts. Enya's own penchant for vocal harmonies can be traced back to her childhood in County Donegal, Ireland. "We always had an interest in harmony as far back as when we were growing up," she recalls. "My mother used to enter us in competitions... It's something we grew up with and we all had a great love for it, and we seemed to have brought it into our music as such. But even in Clannad the harmonies were different from the harmony I do now."
Enya can be heard with Clannad on the album Fuaim (Tara). The major difference between these two settings is that Enya's current harmonies are a product of studio technology. She layers up to 100 vocal tracks resulting in a sound that's as mesmerizing to perform as it is to hear. "When I'm doing multi-vocal it's different to doing a lead vocal, because its very hypnotic - singing the same part over and over makes you really get involved with it."
Those choral songs are in evidence on Shepherd Moons, including the sweeping title track, the tribal stomp of Ebudæ, and the Gaelic swirl of Book of Days. But Enya herself seems emotionally removed from the exotic, romantic sound she created on her hit album Watermark and its single Orinoco Flow. Interviewing her in San Francisco in 1989, I'd ask about a song, and she'd recite minor details of technique as if she were giving directions to the corner market. She appeared unconscious of inner drives or even the nature of her appeal. The Celtic melodies and Irish lilt are among the main allures of her music, but she claims she was oblivious of it until travelling the world following the success of Watermark. "When I was asked about my Irish influence, I wasn't so aware of this beforehand," she claims. "But after travelling and coming back to Ireland, I could then see the Irishness that was inherent in the music."
This is another striking paradox of Enya's world. Like the mysterious powers of the idiot savant, her seeming ignorance of her own Irish inflections and the Celtic themes of her music is equally strange. Her inability to express her own intimate thoughts might provide some explanation.
"That might be because I'm a quite shy and private person," she reflects three years later. "I feel I've mellowed a little over the few years and I can talk more about personal things, like the themes and what I'm singing about or what it meant to me. I would have felt the same with Watermark, but to talk about it would have been a little bit more difficult for me at that time."
Perhaps Enya's distance is a function of being only one third of the puzzle. The other two thirds are her producer Nicky Ryan and his wife, lyricist Roma Ryan. The crusty, Svengali-like Nicky Ryan usually accompanies Enya on interviews, but Roma Ryan remains at their home in Ireland. That leaves her husband and Enya as the mouthpieces for her lyrics. "'Enya' is the three of us together," asserts the singer, "and if you take out one of us, 'Enya' wouldn't exist anymore. If you take away Roma, Nicky, or me, it would collapse, so it's very much a three-way partnership."
Shepherd Moons doesn't move far from the formula the trio created on her 1986 self-titled debut on Atlantic Records and refined on Watermark, but there's also a greater attention to lyric songs. Two of the works are even drawn directly from tradition. The Marble Halls (2) is from an 1843 Irish opera called The Bohemian Girl by Michael William Balfe. But even more startling, especially in the midst of the reverberant, luxuriant spaces of Shepherd Moons, is to hear Enya emerge with a plaintive Shaker hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing?
"It was suggested firstly by Roma and then Nicky," recalls Enya. "They got me a copy of it and I listened to it and was drawn to the melody immediately because I have a great love for a strong melody, and this is a strong melody. Even though it's 250 years old, and it was written in the Americas by the Shaker sect, the lyrics could have been written today because it talks about problems in the world - trouble, the strife, the tyrants. And then at the end of each verse, it simply says, how can I keep from singing."
While Enya's vocal performance is enough to make anyone see heaven, her own interpretation seems to be one of escape and isolation rather than the solace in a higher truth that the Shakers espoused. "I believe, especially with this type of music, that it's nice that people can try and forget at some stage about the problems that are happening in the world and listen to this music and sometimes just think about their thoughts, rather than concerning themselves continually with problems."
The Shakers, a celibate sect who got their name from the ecstatic dancing they performed, seem a long way from Enya's world. "That's right," agrees Nicky Ryan, who cites the lyrics as an expression of liberation. "They didn't ignore other realities like 'When tyrants tremble in their fear and hear the death now (4) ringing'; is one of the lines. I mean, this is today. It's 250 years old, so as they say, nothing has changed. Hopefully it will, but it's a song of hope, nevertheless." Enya relies upon Roma Ryan to give words and meanings to her melodies, often interpreting Enya's own past, as in the case of 'Smaointe...' which is about Enya's feelings towards her late grandparents. Sometimes Roma is deciphering Enya's own internal life and experiences. 'Book of Days' is derived from Enya's personal diaries. "I've always had a diary, or another name for it is a 'Book of Days,'" says Enya. "Roma felt, 'what about 'Book of Days' because you believe so much in it, in having a Book of Days.' And the lyrics, in Gaelic, are talking about the excitement of entering into a book of days first thing in the morning. Because you don't really know what's going to happen. And then it's the expectation of that day really that she was talking about." It's Nicky Ryan who provides the cathedral-like atmospheres in which Enya's voice reverberates. "You can point the finger at me when it comes to reverb and stuff like that," he boastfully confesses. "I have a great love for atmosphere and I don't think twice about it. I don't think maybe we should do less of this, maybe we should do more. There's a song called Marble Halls for example, which in its very essence suggests reverb to me. Another example is 'How Can I Keep From Singing?' The fact that it's a hymn [combined with] Enya's love for the church - singing in church - also suggested reverb."
Several pieces on Shepherd Moons are striking in the lack of sound layers and ambience. "We have a lot more songs on this album where my voice is out front without a lot of multivocal," she says, "and it was because that's what suited the song best."
The songs are usually ones of melancholy and repose. But like 'Orinoco Flow' from Watermark, there is one upbeat song on Shepherd Moons. 'Caribbean Blue' is a waltz tune with a similar pizzicato synthesizer sound and lyrics that share the bouncy, almost nursery rhyme cadences of 'Orinoco Flow'. "Well, again, it was Roma who came up with the title to 'Caribbean Blue', says Enya. "We had arranged the melody and she was reminded of the Caribbean, but then she felt it's a trip of a difference. It's like 'Orinoco' where you are taken through a dreamlike fantasy trip. She felt the same way about the music, and, therefore, she based the lyrics on this trip through this beautiful fantasy world."
Lest you think that all of Enya's images are drawn from a mixture of fantasy, romantic history, and personal reverie, 'Evacuee' draws from a mix of darker images. "Well, this is based in London in the Blitz during the war," reveals Enya. She and Roma were moved by a documentary they saw about the bombing of London and a little girl recounting the story of her separation from and subsequent reunion with her parents. "While she was relating this story, she still felt this moment and started to cry, and myself and Roma felt very strongly about this. Therefore, when I played the melody to Roma, the melody then became 'Evacuee' and it's about this little girl at the train station saying goodbye and waiting until it's all over."
For the first two Enya recordings, the Ryans and Enya lived and worked together in the same home studio. Although the success of Watermark allowed them to get separate homes and a dedicated studio, Enya feels their methods of creativity are the same. "The atmosphere in the studio still retains the fact that it's the three of us, even though we are not living under the same roof anymore," she says. "It's strange because once you open that door, it's like when I went into work on Shepherd Moons, it felt like Watermark was a dream. It felt like it hadn't happened. And in a way it's nice because you can concentrate only on the music. You can forget about charts, how much you sold. You forget that."
Note:Transcribed by Peter Warburton.