Layer Upon Layer of Fans
Ottawa Citizen (Canada) 26 December 1995
The lush, heavily produced music of Enya
Paintings of fiery sea battles adorn the walls and ceiling. Eight-foot-high flower arrangements anchor the room. Outside the windows, fireworks flash across the night sky of Greenwich, England.
As the champagne flows among the international media, a dark, demure 30-something woman advances from person to person, introducing herself, posing for photos, subtly but steadfastly pressing the flesh.
Dressed in a long, black-velvet dress and an emerald-ruby-and-diamond necklace, the diminutive young woman displays the quiet grace and dignity of a classical performer, though this gala includes festivities usually reserved for major pop stars.
Actually, Enya, a 34-year-old Irish singer, songwriter and instrumentalist, is just that - an international pop star, with more than 20 million albums sold worldwide. Mingling traditional Celtic melodies and legends with classical-music overtones, a celestial New Age mood and sophisticated pop production values, Enya has attracted fans from around the world, who have waited nearly four years for The Memory of Trees, her just-released album.
Her recordings have gone platinum in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canada and the United States, where she is a special favorite among women, from college age to baby boomers.
The day after the party, relaxing in a suite at London's Dorchester Hotel, Enya still seems a bit amazed. She doesn't get out much unless an album is due for release. Normally, she splits her time between Ireland and London and never tours - because the heavily produced sound of her music virtually prohibits live performance.
"I really love meeting people, travelling about to promote the album," Enya says, "but it is really unusual for me. I'm a very private person. And when we work on an album, we are locked in a studio for a long time.
"The Memory of Trees took two years to record. I don't even think about an audience until after the recording is over and the CD is about to come out. Then I wonder, how will people react?"
That question was a key one when Enya broke away from Clannad, the internationally renowned traditional-Irish folk group started by her family, and began her solo career in 1986.
Born Eithne Ní Bhraonáin in 1961 as the fifth of nine children, Enya was raised in Gweedore, County Donegal, where Gaelic was the native language.
Music was the formative force in her life. Her grandfather and grandmother travelled the country as musicians and her father and mother, musician/band leader Leo Brennan and music teacher Máire Duggan, toured during the early years of their marriage.
"As children, we didn't see much of my father," Enya says in her soft voice. "My father made his living touring dance halls. Later, he started a pub, Leo's Tavern, where he performed. And Clannad grew out of that."
Enya was studying classical music in 1979 when Nicky Ryan, then manager of Clannad, asked her to join the group, which included her sister, two of her brothers and two uncles. She performed uncredited on Clannad's album Crann Ull (1980) and as a full member of the group on Fuaim (1982).
"Clannad was a departure for me because of my classical background. I wasn't accustomed to performing on stage. I figured I would try it out for a while."
After two years, she grew fascinated with Ryan's progressive production ideas and with his wife Roma's knowledge of ancient Irish legend.
"Nicky's influences were the Beach Boys and Phil Spector," she says. "He had all these wonderful ideas about layering the vocals. With Roma's understanding of Irish myth and my background in classical music, the possibility of melding all these influences was very exciting to me."
Thus, Enya left Clannad and a recording triumvirate came into existence. Enya would sing, play the instruments and write the melodies. Roma Ryan would craft the lyrics, and Nicky Ryan would produce it all into a 1990s version of a "wall of sound", more like layered bands of air in which Enya's high, refined, often forlorn voice could float. The musical effect resembles a melody carried a long distance by the wind.
The trio's work habits have remained much the same. Enya composes and sings the melody and Ryan records it 20 times.
"Then I let that melody take me in whatever direction it leads me," Enya says. "I improvise a harmony line, which Nicky then records another 20 times. Then I do another harmony line, and another, until we have often a seven-part harmony, with each one recorded 20 times."
The collaboration began with the theme music for David Puttnam's The Frog Prince, followed by the soundtrack for the BBC's six-part television show The Celts. That album was released as Enya's self-titled solo album in 1986.
But it was 1988's Watermark that turned the quiet Irish-Catholic woman into a global commodity. The single, 'Orinoco Flow', with its fluent, fetching melody and airy atmosphere, created the aural equivalent of a watercolor painting that needed no language translation.
"I think what people respond to in my music is the passion," she says. "Even when I sing in Gaelic, they pick up on the emotion and the melancholy in my music."
That passion and melancholia result, in part, from her Irish heritage.
"The Irish have always had a great passion in their music and literature," Enya says. "The British tried to eradicate the music and the culture. But when they took away the Irish instruments, people would get together in a house and do lilting, singing `la, la, la, la, la' so people could dance.
The music would not die. The culture would not die. There's too much passion in it. That's always been there. It's only being recognized now."
The other distinctive element of her music is its spirituality, which has caused her to be tagged a New Age performer.
"It's so normal to be Catholic in Ireland,'' she says with a sigh. "When you grow up, you say a prayer. It's automatic. It's something ingrained in you.
"I'm no longer a Catholic, but I still say a prayer. But now it's not a habit, it's a choice. I have my quiet time. I must have that time. It's my form of prayer."
Enya also draws from Celtic legends of the ancient Druids. The title of the new album, The Memory of Trees, refers in part to the importance the Druids placed on trees and their spiritual potency.
"My grandfather, who was a school teacher and a great storyteller, introduced me to Celtic legends," she says. "But when I started travelling around Europe to promote the albums, I found out that Celtic legends exist throughout Europe."
Even now, she says, when she enters the studio, she comes "from a very deep place within myself. As the recording continues, the songs tend to get lighter and happier. And by the time the album is about to come out, I look forward to travelling to promote it.
"But when it's over I retreat back into my life, back into myself."
Note: Transcribed by Tom McClintock.