Soft, sweet sounds get the hard sell
The Times (UK) 15 November 1991
Two years ago, an unknown singer from Co. Donegal named Enya was playing a vital role in the run-up to Christmas. Although she was not actually decked out in a Santa Claus outfit, her music drifted through every department store Christmas grotto in the land. The album from which this mysterious sound emanated was Watermark, one of the surprise hits of 1988 and 1989. "Orinoco Flow", drawn from Watermark, was a No 1 single at the end of 1988 and the album sales are now reaching five million.
Repeating such unexpected success can be notoriously difficult, but in its first week of release the new album, Shepherd Moons, has gone straight to No 1, rising above established heavyweights such as the Pet Shop boys, Queen, Simply Red and INXS. Clearly there is a mystery element in Enya's music which defies the smug certainties of the music industry.
The nature of this ingredient is elusive. As a schoolgirl, Enya studied classical music and sang traditional Irish ballads, but her introduction to professional music came with her enrolment in the family group. This was Clannad, familiar for its airbrushed Arcadianism. Enya added electronic keyboards to the sound her elder brothers and sisters were creating, pushing it a little further in the directions of Irish mood music. After two years she left to develop this new genre on her own.
With an ambiguous air of the monastery, seascapes and Irish legends, Enya's pure vocals and lush keyboards float dangerously close to the sleeping gas of New Age music. How, then, has she conquered the mainstream when New Age noodling remains a marginal cult?
Despite her emotional, unanalytical approach to her own recordings, Enya is intrigued by the question. "A lot of people say this music is different because it takes different feelings out of each person," she claims. "I do not know how that comes about. It becomes really personal to them. People listen to music and incorporate their own feelings into a piece of music that I've written."
The demands of her music are similar to certain styles of landscape painting. Lyrics, titles and structures found in pieces like "Orinoco Flow" or "Marble Halls" are specific enough to suggest images, perhaps of evocative scenes or emotional states, yet vague enough to allow listeners to invent the character of those images. The surface is simple, yet multiple layers of vocals and a soft carpet of electronic chords suggest depth. Presented with a picture that could be anything or nothing, the imagination can wander.
This theory is received with polite bemusement by Enya. Regardless of the airy qualities of the music she is a pragmatist. To make music which allows consumers to forget that they are consuming is a powerful asset. She has no objections to her songs being utilised by television advertisers and cinema directors, for example. Films such as Steve Martin's LA Story and Peter Weir's Green Card use sections from Watermark in their soundtracks, while Dulux and American Express are just two of the companies to spot the enhancement that an Enya track can lend to a sales pitch.
"Even from the first music I had written - six pieces of instrumental music - there was so much visual happening with those pieces," she says. "There's something inherent in the melodies that lends itself to visuals." Besides this, the symbiosis of music and advertising has become a significant tactical element of music marketing. "It's important to introduce as many people as possible to the music," she admits, "because business is business."
Considering the connotations of remote landscape, tranquillity, myths and dreams, it is odd to find that Enya confines most of her writing and playing to the recording studio that she and her collaborators, Nicky and Roma Ryan, have built in Dublin. Studios are customarily regarded as functional laboratories where music is finished off rather than conceived, and there is a typically modern contradiction in the idea of ruralism and retreat being fashioned from a sterile, technological environment.
This disciplined, formal approach is another key, perhaps, to the mystery ingredient. Out of isolation she has developed a style that sits apart from the distractions and clamour of other music. She relates the need to work in peace and quiet to her childhood in Gweedore. "Coming from a big family," she says, "the occasion to be on your own was rare." Living in the centre of a maelstrom of noise and crowds, Enya fans may be discovering a similar pleasure by listening to her quiet music.
Note:Transcribed by Tomás Román.
Photo caption: Enya: "It's important to introduce people to the music: business is business."