Enya: The Latest Score
Hot Press (Ireland) Spring 1987
There is one area of research I am discreetly trying to avoid; one series of questions I am trying not to ask Enya: what are her relationships with her brothers and sister in Clannad? Those family ties must be an unfailing source of inquisition. Younger sister of Máire, Pól and Ciarán, she briefly joined the group on keyboards before taking her own solo flight, releasing a first soundtrack for the David Puttnam produced The Frog Prince. Now she has just done a similar job for the BBC series The Celts. Two albums into her career, I presume Enya prefers her independence is taken for granted.
BBC Records certainly do. They've taken the unprecedented step of releasing her Celts soundtrack months ahead of the start of the television series, even retitling it Enya with little obvious relationship to the programme. And one reason for this bold stroke may be their confidence in the LP's single 'I Want Tomorrow', a glimmeringly melodic ballad that could be one of those surprise singles that occasionally invade the British charts.
Hers has certainly been an unusual career path. She briefly studied classical music before joining Clannad. Then just before 'Harry's Game' when the group switched their management from Nicky Ryan to David Kavanagh, she alone sided with the combination of Ryan and his wife, Roma. And since Ryan was building his own 16-track home studio in Artane, he encouraged her own music which eventually resulted in David Puttnam's offer to write for The Frog Prince.
Thus, the normal career moves haven't applied. She hasn't made a reputation playing live. Neither has Enya been compelled to manipulate her way past the A&R doormen. Equally it's hard to assess the full extent of her talent. Soundtracks are constricting while - perhaps inevitably - her music shares common trademarks with Clannad in its moody melodic scope and ambitious use of texturing vocal overdubs, though her instrumental identity tends to be more basically founded on piano and keyboards. Ultimately though it's the serene elegance of the single 'I Want Tomorrow' that suggests a wider range of song-writing talent.
Everybody in the family kept saying to the rest of the family: "'well, when are you going to join Clannad?'" Enya laughs. "And without me saying 'yes', there I was in it. I knew I was going to be in music somehow because I was studying it but I thought I'd be an academic and go to college... I planned to teach music. I saw myself as the piano teacher sort of person. I never thought of myself composing or being on stage."
'A piano teacher sort of person' like her mother and elder sister Máire once was. 'A piano sort of person', she doesn't spectacularly stand out from the groups of secretaries and other women drinking in O'Neill's lounge, responding with a measured shyness with her moustachioed mentor, Nicky Ryan, beside her.
"It was Roma and Nicky's belief that there was music there," she says about the initiation of her own career. Nicky Ryan intervenes with the detail: "When the split happened with the band, there was no particular direction. What I said to Enya was that either you go back to Gweedore with no particular definite future or you live with us without any ties and see what happens, musically. All we had was a piano and Enya got down to it... and as time went by, the music started to come out."
It took all of two years. Then according to Nicky: "Roma suggested it was time to out the stuff on tape... and then she approached David Puttnam with a demo. He liked the stuff, replied graciously and said 'we're very interested in the stuff. I love the melodies.'" So even then, they had decided on soundtracks rather than taking the normal record company route? "The way Roma saw it, it was more suited to pictures," Enya answers. "It was all just piano instrumental stuff."
Thus, David Puttnam gambled on the unknown Enya for The Frog Prince and though the pair are coy about specific information, his recent elevation to head of Columbia Pictures in Hollywood seems likely to place further opportunities in her way. How did she find Puttnam as a personality?
"He's amazing. He can make you feel at ease and be your best friend at the same time. Every time, you meet him, it's a real genuine hello. And it was the first time but the way he said it was 'we'll teach you as you go along.'"
Scooped out of Gweedore, surely it must have been intimidating, meeting these moguls? "It was at first but it's getting much better now. But you were sort of wary of them at the first meeting."
Nicky Ryan also accepts the curiosity of their career path: "It's a strange thing that it's happened in reverse. Normally people like Mark Knopfler get their albums together and then they're asked to do films. We went in the back door but it's great for you with a name like Puttnam behind you, you really can't go wrong."
"That was the foot in the door, " says Nicky of The Frog Prince but Enya insists on the musical difference between it and the Enya album for The Celts: "In The Frog Prince it was all orchestrated from our melodies. It was really nice but we weren't part of it at the end. Whereas with The Celts, it was all us from the word go. I perform, write and arrange everything."
Alongside this new confidence is also a self-containment. Enya is insistent that she tries to banish all distracting influences from her music. This seclusion shows when I compare the album cover which has two dogs settled at her feet with Kate Bush's pose on Hounds of Love, a record I'd have thought, Enya would, at least have glanced at. Instead she denies all knowledge. Nicky explains their code: "When we're in the studio working on a bottom-line melody, swinging ideas between us, we never ask anyone's opinion. That's one of the rules. It's such a dangerous are to bring in a so-called expert."
Even though she studied classical music both for five years at school and for another year with a Donegal priest, Enya doesn't wish that to over-influence her. "I'm sort of glad," she says, "I didn't study more because of the restrictions you get. I would have been too aware of them." Enya has no desire to be numbered among Morrissey's musical shoplifters as she talks of her "fear of being influenced." Nicky summarises their attitudes: "We prefer to remain innocent and unaffected by the flavour of the month."
Essentially, Enya's music is home-made in Nicky Ryan's own Aigle 16-track studio in his Artane home. He explains that the studio was created because of The Frog Prince. "We looked into the possibility of doing demos in the regular studios but it worked out so expensive that it was cheaper to do it in our own studio so we literally built it. I already had a desk built for me with a view to bringing it on the road with Clannad whose sound had been getting very complex at the time.
"But then the split happened so I was left with the desk in the living-room on the floor. I didn't know what to do with it. I wasn't interested in bringing it on the road with any of the other bands I was working with. It was designed with recording in mind." As Nicky Ryan reminds me, "One of the tracks on the album, 'Aldebaran', was totally done in our studio, the reason being that it was totally impossible to complete the process in another studio."
Enya knows how arduous their methods can be: "There were some tracks where I had eighty vocal parts and in some I went well over the hundred easily, sometimes singing, sometimes just humming and making sounds." For Nicky, a devotee of Sixties West Coast harmony groups, this scrupulous attention to detail has earned for Enya and himself, one powerful fan, Bones Howe, former producer and engineer with the Mamas And Papas and now head of music at Columbia Pictures.
Their methods also confused British engineers with whom they worked. Ryan has a rather rascally tone to his voice as he remembers their dealings: "I had to literally educate the engineer, tell him to forget everything he'd learned and just bear with us for at least a week and he'd see what it meant. Instead of setting your reverb at 1½ seconds, take it up to 24 seconds, take it there and you'll know what we mean. The guy was totally freaked at the beginning but then he got into it."
Nicky accepts the twilight, melancholy nature of the music: "The producer of the series thought the Celts were on their way out. I don't know if the series projects that but there was a certain sadness in that idea. We didn't quite accept that. We felt 'hang on, maybe the Celts aren't on their way out' so there's a certain positive vibe in the music coupled with the feeling that it might happen. There are two colours in it." He adds that he thought "the sound should be ominous and dark but at the same time, I knew the melody would shine through and take the darkness away."
Both this album and the single may take Enya to a critical fork in her career. Soundtrack work seems guaranteed for the immediate future but might she get typecast as a purveyor of broodingly languid Celtic soundscapes and need to refine a more definite image? Unfortunately pop demands more (or less) than undulating melodies and 'Tomorrow' apart, Enya remains untested as a songwriter for that frame. And yet only a fool could under-rate her after her circuitous path to success. More tomorrows may yet belong to her.
Note: Transcribed by Dave Allum. The article preceded the May 1987 tv premier of The Celts documentary..