Haunting, ethereal, mystical, etc.
Q (UK) December 1991
IT'S A LITTLE-KNOWN rock'n'roll fact, but it can be revealed here. During the final stages of recording Watermark, her four-million-selling album of 1988, the Irish singer Enya, then aged 26, was ON DRUGS.
"Right after we arrived in London to do the mixing, I had slipped on a sort of dicey step and put two deep cuts in my knee. So there I was, taking these heavy pain-killers, sitting at the desk, in the studio with one foot propped up on cushions..."
Which might go some way towards explaining the somewhat abstract nature of the finished product. Watermark's choral shimmer had critics reaching for the lexicon of non-specific terms - atmospheric, haunting, ethereal, mystical... Except, as it happens, that it was this effect that Enya had in mind all along. Just to prove it, she managed to get together a similarly elusive follow-up, Shepherd Moons, and this without enduring any physical injury or any consequent medical relief. Critics will find themselves reaching for many of the same words - haunting, ethereal...
And Enya would probably talk about Shepherd Moons in these terms too - at least, if she could remember the thing. Because the fact is, a good couple of months after completion and marginally ahead of its release-date, Enya still hasn't been able to bring herself to listen to it.
THE HOTEL in which you are destined to meet Enya lies on the south side of Dublin, where the city falls away, leaving green and spacious suburbs. (Enya lives nearby, as does U2's Bono.) It's a country lodge-style affair, which means an unreasonably large percentage of the 45-minute taxi ride from the airport is spent negotiating its lengthy drive. White steps lead up to the lobby, but careful with that door, because here's Chris De Burgh coming out as you're going in. He heads for the car park and a large, scarlet vehicle of a sportiness not automatically associated with the singer of the gently croonsome 'Lady In Red'.
Inside, you are met by Nicky Ryan, who is waiting for Enya. It is Ryan who produces that category-unfriendly Enya sound. He is tall, with long greying hair and a moustache, and is apparently wearing, underneath his jeans, a pair of silver boots dating back to the time of... er... silver boots. "What is this music?" he mutters, clearly poorly disposed towards the Spanish-flavoured trumpeter currently serenading from the hotel's piped sound system.
Ryan's wife Roma is there, too, sporting a trim green suit and dealing with the hotel staff. Roma writes many of Enya's lyrics and shares the managerial responsibilities with her husband. They would probably not claim this themselves, but Enya will later describe the Ryans as two-thirds responsible for her career, and has at other times referred to all three of them as the "trinity". (It was the Ryans who oversaw Enya's departure from her brothers' and sister's group Clannad, the Ryans who put her up in their bungalow with studio attached, the Ryans who encouraged her to pursue a solo direction.) Enya will also refer, quite pointedly and on several occasions, to "Enya" - as if this character was something other than or beyond herself, which may well be the way she sees it.
Enya enters after a short delay, accompanied by a friend/driver/make-up artist. She is immaculate, conservatively dressed in black and her face has the even, white complexion familiar from record sleeve and video. "What is this music?" she says. Then everybody adjourns to her chosen location for photographs - the summit of a hill at the top of a road, where rocky crags arc down towards the sea and where a fairly stiff breeze buffets the black cloak she has donned for the occasion. (Apparently, and contrary to popular perception, Enya does not use the bracing Irish countryside exclusively as somewhere to stand and look moody in. When at home in Donegal, she walks disused railway lines for exercise.)
Back at the hotel - ensconced now in a suite to which the Spanish trumpeter has no access - Enya orders a salad sandwich and, while failing to eat it, discusses, quietly but firmly, what she remembers about Shepherd Moons.
"I've been forced to hear the tracks 'Caribbean Blue' and 'How Can I Keep From Singing?', through making the videos for them. But I've not actually sat down and listened to the album through, since the last night of mixing it. I will find any excuse not to. And honestly, I have never felt so miserable as finishing this album. It's fear - fear that all your feelings and all your emotions have gone into the thing, and when you hear it, it won't live up to your expectations for it."
If this sounds a mite precious, it's worth remembering the amount of time which has been lavished on these 12 tracks. (And there really were only 12. Most artists will record a batch of songs and perm the best album's worth, but Enya, for whom writing has "never been easy", hauls herself to the time limit and then simply stops.) After Watermark came out, Enya spent an entire year flying round the globe promoting it, thanks to a cruel release schedule which saw the album appear worldwide on a staggered rota. As Nicky Ryan pointed out, "It's just recently become popular in Korea."
On her return, even though a singer with a Number 1 hit behind her, it never really occurred to her to give it some showbiz in the clubs of Dublin. "Unfortunately, I don't really like noise. I mean, it fascinates me, but I don't enjoy it." So Enya went back to the piano in the former Scout Hut attached to the Ryans' place, and since then, for approximately 20 months, life has been long periods in the studio, interrupted by still more periods in the studio, with, just occasionally, the odd break for an argument.
"There's a lot of friction between myself and Nicky. Nicky is the kind of person who, after you've worked on something for two months, can say, 'Scrap it. You can do better', if that's what he really thinks.
"And I am a difficult person to work with - I know that much. There's a strictness in me which I can't shake off - just like I can't walk down the street eating because I was told by the nuns that it was wrong for a lady. To this day, I would not eat a bar of chocolate in the street."
THIS INTENSE arrangement has partly to do with the cussedness and reluctance of Enya's personal muse ("hours spent thinking the last thing you wrote was the last thing you'll write") and partly to do with Ryan's studio methods - an elaborate process of layering-up voices and sounds. The third element, though, is a determination to ensure that everyone's investment of time and effort brings a commercial yield. And it's at this point that Enya begins to refer to "Enya".
"Music has had to occupy my life entirely, because a few year ago, who was Enya? Nicky and Roma and myself had an idea and we wanted to give it a good shot and to do that took this long, working Enya up. And luckily a lot of people around me understood this. I just can't break off and socialise and come back and continue working on a melody, or whatever. We're only reaching the point now where it might be possible to take a break."
A break cushioned, perhaps, on the proceeds of recent exposure on movie scores - in Peter Weir's Green Card, and in Steve Martin's LA Story (It's a boost to your morale to know that Steve Martin is looking forward to your next album"). Cushioned too, by exposure in the adverts. It might be thought undignified to have your most famous piece thus far made the sound-track for the lolloping of a giant sheepdog (see the recent Dulux campaign). But look at it within the broader game-plan and it becomes immediately more bearable.
"That offer came at the right time, because nobody's heard from Enya for a while. If you're happy with the product and the commercial is visually pleasing, then it's an advert for yourself."
At the time of writing, Watermark has re-entered the album chart, suggesting that, if the public isn't yet ready for the new Enya album, it's only because they haven't finished buying the old one.
Note: Transcribed by Doug A. Chan, and posted to the Enya Mailing List on 2 May 1992.