Get Your Enyas Out
American Way (USA) 1 March 1996
As champagne flows among the international media summoned to The Queen's House in Greenwich, England, Enya advances from person to person, introducing herself, posing for photos, subtly, but steadfastly, pressing the flesh.
Dark, demure, dressed in a long black-velvet dress and emerald, ruby, and diamond necklace, the diminutive musician moves amid paintings of fiery sea battles and passing platters of salmon appetizers with the grace of an opera singer or a classical performer.
But such a lavish gala, which climaxed in fireworks synchronized to music from Enya's most recent compact disc, The Memory of Trees, is reserved mostly for major pop stars. And Enya - a thirty-four-year-old Irish singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist with an ethereal, multicultural, and contemplative sound - is a pop star, with twenty-two million albums sold worldwide.
Mingling traditional Celtic melodies and legend, classical music overtones, celestial New Age mood, and sophisticated pop production, Enya has attracted followings throughout Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Europe, and the United States. She is a special favorite among the well-educated and well-heeled, from college students to baby boomers well into their forties.
Enya, who never tours and lives reclusively in Ireland and London, still reacts with amazement that her music reaches so far into the hearts and imaginations of the world. A part of her is still Eithne Ní Bhraonáin born on May 17, 1961, in Gweedore, County Donegal, the fifth of nine children in a musical family. Enya began her career in 1979 in Clannad, the internationally renowned traditional Irish folk group, which included three siblings and two uncles. In 1982, Enya left the ensemble and joined with Clannad's then-manager Nicky Ryan and his wife, Roma, to forge the singular musical approach that would shape Enya's solo career.
She sings, plays all the instruments, and writes the melodies. Roma, an expert in Irish folklore, crafts the lyrics. Nicky produces it all into an airy, mysterious, but accessible flow of sound. The resulting compact discs - especially 1988's Watermark, with the hit single, 'Orinoco Flow'; 1991's Shepherd Moons; and seven soundtracks, including Green Card and The Age of Innocence - resonate beyond language and cultural barriers, and stoke the current worldwide surge of Irish popular and traditional culture.
Sitting serenely in a Dorchester Hotel suite in London the day after her party, Enya speaks with a soft Gaelic inflection about her music, family and how she feels about the Irish cultural explosion that she and acts like U2, Sinéad O'Connor, and The Cranberries helped create.
American Way: What psychological process did you go through in recording The Memory of Trees?
Enya: I had been travelling in the early Nineties, meeting people and promoting my album. When I returned to private life, I became very introspective. So going into the studio this time, I was in a deep frame of mind and we went with that. The serious songs came about first. With time, the songs grew lighter and more up-tempo.
American Way: To what does the title, The Memory of Trees, refer?
Enya: It refers to the druids, who came to Ireland from Spain and took the place of gods. They paid homage to nature and placed great importance on trees and their spiritual potency.
American Way: Were you always interested in Celtic myth? >
Enya: Yes, my grandfather told me the legends. He was a schoolteacher and a great storyteller, and he would tell one story over a series of days. But I didn't realize the prevalence of Celtic tradition until I began to travel. Celtic culture isn't just in Ireland. It exists throughout all of Europe.
American Way: Why have Irish Celtic traditions grown in prominence on a mass level?
Enya: I don't think people really understand Celtic mythology. I think they enjoy the stories and they take elements of Celtic traditions and apply them to their own ideas of spirituality. But ultimately, I think people are really relating to the emotion and passion. People say that about my music, even when it's sung in Gaelic. They respond to the emotion and the melancholy.
American Way: Did growing up Catholic in Donegal, situated so close to the strife in Northern Ireland, influence your music?
Enya: No. The political and religious problems in Northern Ireland didn't really filter into my life. The press tended to exaggerate what was going on.
American Way: What from your upbringing influences your music?
Enya: The country-side. Most of Ireland is quite green. But Donegal rests right on the Atlantic coast. It is mountainous, with heather and moss. It is very wild and wonderful. It has a different feel from other parts of the island.
American Way: What about your family? Did you have the middle-child syndrome, not getting enough attention from your parents?
Enya: I felt very protected by my large family. It wasn't until I left for boarding school at age eleven that I felt like just one person. As for my parents, you have to remember my family was very different. My father was in a show band. So none of the children saw a lot of him while we were growing up. In the sixties, he opened a pub and played out of there. That's where Clannad started.
American Way: Was it a strain on family relations when you left Clannad?
Enya: I was only with them for two years. I enjoyed being on stage. But I was studying classical music. What Clannad was doing was different for me. But I thought, well, I'll try it out. That's how I felt. Then, I started talking with Nicky and Roma and thought their ideas were fascinating. Nicky's influences are the Beach Boys and Phil Spector. And with my background in classical music, I thought it would be exciting to see how they would blend together.
American Way: What is your process in the studio?
Enya: It's very spontaneous and emotional. I don't really know what it is going to sound like until it is done. We begin with a soundtrack. I sing a melody and Nicky records it twenty times over. Then I let that melody take me in whatever direction it leads me. I improvise a harmony line, which Nicky then records twenty times. Then I do another harmony line, and another, until we have a seven-part harmony, with each one recorded twenty times. The improvisational process keeps things fresh for me. If I was just repeating, I'd hang it up.
American Way: Is there a connection between spirituality and creativity for you?
Enya: For me, the connection is in the melody. Finding a melody is like taking a journey. I look for a melody that's different, strong, but simple. I start with the fragment, then I let it take me where it wants to go. After I've finished writing the melody, I know it has come from a spiritual place. It's very gratifying and fulfilling.
American Way: What is life like when you are not in the studio or involved in your career?
Enya: Mostly, I try to meet up with friends and family again - and companions, if I have any. I go into the studio for two years and in the final year, I cannot have any distractions. It is hard on my friends and family. So when I have free time, I try to make up for it. I take walks in the morning with someone. I go to restaurants, not to clubs. Mostly I just love the conversation.
American Way: Do you feel a kinship with other Irish performers and artists with global acclaim these days?
Enya: I've met U2. But, no, not really. We purposely stayed away from other musicians in the beginning. We didn't like recording in London because we didn't want other musicians expressing their opinion of what we were doing. Even if they don't say their opinion, you can still sense it, an we didn't want that. You have to remember that what we were doing was very different. I wondered if anyone would listen to it. There was nothing like it on the radio. Even now, when the recording process is over, I wonder, how will people relate to this?
American Way: Why has Irish culture become an international phenomenon?
Enya: Well, you have to remember that Ireland is a very "in" place right now. Many, many movie stars are buying property there. I don't know how long that is going to last. But, if you go back in history, when Ireland came under British rule the British tried to eradicate Irish culture, language, and music. They took away the instruments. But people got together anyway in houses and did lilting, singing "La, la, la, la, la," so people could dance. The music would not die. The culture would not die. The literature would not die. It's too strong. It's too passionate. That's always been there. It's only being recognized now.
American Way: Will all the attention change Ireland?
Enya: Ireland is an island and very, very slow to change. You would never know there's a worldwide Irish cultural explosion going on if you visited Ireland.
Note: Transcribed by Sharon Fendrich. American Way was the American Airlines magazine