Enya is a Genre Unto Herself
Microsoft's Music Central Connection, 15 February 1996
Ireland's ethereal New Age diva (born with the Gaelic name Eithe Ni Bhraonain) has sold nearly 20 million albums worldwide despite limited assistance from media and radio and a fuzzily defined turf that sprawls across New Age, world music, classical and pop.
Her current release, The Memory of Trees, has leapt into Billboard's Top 10 and most likely will enjoy the years-long chart reign achieved by 1988's Watermark (8 million copies sold worldwide) and 1991's Grammy-winning Shepherd Moons (9 million).
Enya's refusal to perform live hasn't hurt her commercial viability, but her reclusive lifestyle has made it difficult for fans to discern the personality behind her airy, mystical, Celtic-shaded songs. The media-shy singer/composer, 34, recently shared details about her creative routine.
Edna: People are intrigued by your hermitic work habits. What's it like being sequestered for years in the studio with only your producer/arranger, Nicky Ryan, and his wife, the lyricist Roma Ryan?
Enya: “The advantage is it's very intimate, very personal and very comfortable. The disadvantage is that it's difficult to judge the work objectively. If we're not sure about a song, we leave it for a few months and then come back when we can judge it better.”
Edna: Were you ever tempted to solicit other opinions?
Enya: No. In the beginning, it would have been dangerous to invite somebody else into the circle. The music wasn't obviously commercial, so I was afraid of getting a negative opinion. It was better for the three of us to stick together and believe in it.
Edna: Do dissimilar tastes lead to a lot of give-and-take between you and Nicky?
Enya: Yes. My musical influences are from Irish traditional music to classical and church music. His are the Beach Boys, Phil Spector and the Beatles. When I play him a melody, I know he hears quite a different arrangement from what I hear. The golden rule is that we experiment with all the ideas. The most important thing is enhancing the melody, because for me it takes me a long time to find the melody.
Edna: You're not a prolific composer?
Enya: In the two years I spent writing in the studio, I've only written what is on the album. I don't have 30 songs left over. When I play that first note, I know this is the melody I've been looking for, but I spend a lot of time in the studio getting to that stage. I have to discipline myself to go to the studio and play the piano and sing until I find a melody.
Edna: Are you content working at this pace?
Enya: I like the pace because my music is about quality. You can't have that if you don't have the time. So even though the record company would like an Enya record every year, that is not possible. The music would suffer and I couldn't bear that.
Edna: When you first find the melody, do you know what the finished song will sound like?
Enya: No, it takes time. I find it quite exciting. We work with the voice as an instrument. Each time I sing, it's different, so you don't know what the end result will be. Sometimes we layer 100 vocals on a track, listen to it, decide it doesn't suit the song and just erase it. You then have to backtrack to the melody and concentrate.
Edna: Your music is very personal, yet you neve write lyrics. How do you and Roma find the same emotional wavelength?
Enya: It goes back to ``The Celts,'' a BBC soundtrack I was working on. It was all instrumental but then they wanted a song with lyrics. I had no desire to do it. I was living with the Ryan family at the time, and Roma had been in the studio all along writing poetry. It was a natural fit. She heard the first melody I had ever written and she knew me personally as well. Roma can hear what I'm trying to say with a melody. I don't even have to suggest a title. She hears the lyrics that fit my emotions.
Edna: Because you play all the instruments and rely on multi-vocals, reproducing your sound live seems impossible. Is that why you don't tour?
Enya: There's such a wonderful live feeling within the music in the studio, but I don't know how to bring it to the stage. We're talking about trying a concert, a one-off, with an orchestra and a choir and some modern science. It's possible, but there's also the problem of finding the time to do it.
Edna: Does stage fright enter the equation?
Enya: No. I was on stage for two years of very intense touring in Europe (with family folk band Clannad) and I miss it. I enjoyed getting lost in the music and sharing that feeling with an audience and getting their immediate reaction. I'm very private in the studio, but once I've got the song, I want to share it.
Edna: Did your Catholic upbringing influence your music?
Enya: When you are raised as a Catholic, it is very difficult to forget it. I derived from our religion what I wanted to. I find the spiritual side very calming, and I have a great love for hymns.
Edna: And what elements of Irish culture inform your work?
Enya: I took from Irish traditional music this sense of melancholy. It's in all my melodies, even in uptempo melodies. It's just part of Irish culture, like our passion for literature and music. It's a sadness, but it's more canny than depressing.
Edna: What do you listen to when you're not working?
Enya: During the album, I was listening to Rachmaninoff. But when you work with music constantly, listening to it is the last thing you want to do. I would rather go for a walk and get away from music for a while. I don't have a huge CD collection. At one time, I didn't have any CDs, but bit by bit I'm taking time to find CDs, mostly classical.
Edna: Is it important that your music outlast you?
Enya: My favorite classical and Irish traditional music has lasted so many years beyond the composer so, yes, that would be wonderful.