Queen Of Sweet Melancholy
Melbourne Herald-Sun (Australia) March 1996
While the Celts drank green beer on St Patrick's Day, an ethereal Irish superstar wandered anonymously and contentedly through a Melbourne park. No one seemed to recognise hazel-eyed Enya Brennan, the woman whose albums of moody melodies and multi-layered harmonies win Grammy Awards and sell about nine million copies each year.
"Any artist who has sold as many albums as I have is usually surrounded by fans and photographers wherever they go," says the softly spoken woman named after a Celtic goddess. "I don't suffer from Enyamania for some reason. Perhaps it is because people took to the music first and didn't particularly care about who was behind it. I'm glad about that because I like to be a private person. When I want to be noticed I make the effort."
She is content with her success and lack of notoriety.
"Success has been easy for me to accept because it hasn't happened overnight in an explosion. The changes I've gone through would have happened anyway, I suppose, as I got older and matured."
Enya, 34, is in Australia to promote her latest opus, The Memory Of Trees. The album, in which she sings in English, Gaelic and Latin took two years to produce. It was an intense experience. On some tracks Enya layered take after take of vocals to achieve the dense hushed sound that characterises her work. There are rumours that one song was recorded using 500 Enya voices.
"Five hundred vocal tracks on one song? Yes, that's probably right, but that was done over a period of four or five days. But it's not like 'oh now I have to do vocal track 499', because everything is spontaneous. We were not trying to deliberately create the faithful old Enya sound or looking for a mystic formula. Sometimes we'd do 100 voices, then sit back and listen, and decide that it didn't work. So the whole thing would be scrapped and we'd start again."
At the start of the recording process, Enya and her collaborator, Nick Ryan, try to stick to a five day week.
"And, even at the end of the project when we are working seven days, we try not to work beyond midnight. It's hard work and you get emotionally drained after working on an album for two years. But I realize that I don't work like that all the time, so you manage to get by without going crazy."
Enya's way of doing things has long been out of the ordinary. She grew up in County Donegal, the sixth of nine Brennan children. Her father was leader of a showband that played Glenn Miller swing classics and Irish ballads.
"The area where I was bought up was a centre for Gaelic music. There were so many families where everyone could play an instrument or song, and ours was like that too. I had such a great love of music from an early age. My mother entered us in singing competitions. I know some children feel pressured by that sort of thing, but I loved it. So at five years of age, I was introduced to sing harmonies. Then I started teaching myself piano at home, and when I got to convent school for formal lessons I realised that I already knew a lot."
For two years Enya sang with acclaimed Irish group Clannad. She left because it presented her with few musical challenges.
"At that point I hadn't started writing music so there was little progression for me in the band."
After Clannad, she worked with Nick Ryan to develop a sound based on a single voice recorded many times.
"It took a fair while before anything good happened and then it sort of sprung out at us. I realized that, even though we were using a stack of highly technical machinery in the studio, we had the sounds as warm and as human as possible."
She always starts with a simple melody.
"No matter what sort of music I'm writing a strong melody is the important starting point," she says. "I sense that very strongly in the melodies I write, even when they are up-tempo. It's not melancholy in a sad sense. In fact, I find this quite stirring. The music has to have a live feel. It all starts with me simply playing the piano and singing the melodies. Then we layer harmonies and the rest until it sounds right. That's a slow process that takes weeks and weeks... sometimes years."
Enya, despite many offers around the world, has not yet performed her songs live.
"I think they would work well live, but obviously we have to work out how that would be done on stage. You couldn't recreate the studio sounds, but it would work with a choir an orchestra. I hope that will happen in the future, but I can't say when and I'm not pushing it."
Right now, Enya is enjoying herself travelling the world to promote The Memory Of Trees.
"I have to distance myself from the studio after a couple of years and travelling is one of my great delights in life. If I'm not travelling, I like to get up every now and then and go for a walk by myself to clear the head"
She does not listen to much pop music when she is working. Her CD collection is mostly classical and her favourite composer by far is Rachmaninoff.
"He had a bit of a tragic lifestyle," she says. "On one performance of his work, the orchestra conductor was drunk and Rachmaninoff was so devastated that he couldn't write a thing for two years. Then he came back and wrote his second piano concerto, one of that most beautiful pieces I've ever heard. I'm fascinated by stories like that. They show the artistic spirit cannot be destroyed."
Eventually, Enya hopes to concentrate on writing film scores. She does not always expect to be a performer.
"I'll always be writing music. That's in my blood. But it probably won't always be necessary for me to be fronting the show. The way I feel about it is that I have to go forward. Always"
Note: Notes or comments go here, if any.