Enya: Clannad's Little Sister Sails Away
Musician (USA) May 1989
Enya is sitting in Geffen Records' New York offices, looking a bit perplexed. "People in the British press were referring to me as... 'beat'. Something about Paul Simon's Graceland..." You mean world beat? "Right. I was thinking, 'What is world beat?' I had no idea what it was!"
Enya has no idea what world beat is because, she says, she doesn't listen to music. In an effort to keep their music as original as possible, she and producer Nicky Ryan have cut themselves off from all outside musical influences. "Also, I've been in the studio working on music nonstop, so when I have any free time, the last thing I want to do is listen to music. I've never bought an album in my life," she says.
The isolationist strategy may have backfired -- Enya's new album, Watermark, sounds a lot like a new age record, all reverberating spaces and soft timbres. Watermark echoes Gregorian chant, Satie, Eno's Music for Airports and more than a wee bit of Irish folk music. It would teeter over the brink and into an innocuous ambient wash if it were not for some frankly sweet melodies, evocative lyrics and an incredibly rich sound. The first single, the tuneful travelogue 'Orinoco Flow,' became bicontinental hit; not coincidentally, it's by far the hookiest thing on the album.
Enya, a petite, soft-spoken woman of 27, is quite pragmatic and quite reserved; she's far from ethereal. Ask her about her emotional stake in the music and she'll give you a blow-by-blow account of how it was made. She wears a ring depicting two hands clasping a crowned heart, an old Celtic symbol whose meaning depends on which way the heart points. She wears hers with the heart pointing down, meaning what? "Meaning that I just like the way it looks with the heart pointing down."
And how does she respond to the new age tag? In classic fashion: "People can't categorize it, so they say it's new age." Nevertheless, Watermark is burning up the new age chart (if indeed anything can "burn up" a new age chart). The record is shot through with a sort of spirituality manqué. 'Cursum Perficio,' a choral piece sung in Latin, might sound like a Catholic hymn, but the lyrics actually come from an inscription on the portico of Marilyn Monroe's last home. Enya says, "The reason people say it's religious-sounding is the amount of reverb we use. That's what they keep relating to the church. That aura is around it because of the long, long reverb." But the lyrics contain many references to water, a classic symbol of rebirth. It's not just the reverb people are talking about. "It is, though. It's the sound that gives the church feel."
Enya, born Eithne Ní Bhraonáin (pronounced Enya Nee BREE-nine), is influenced by the landscape -- all mountains and beaches -- of the northwest Irish coast where she grew up. The Irish influence extends to the three songs on Watermark which she sings in Gaelic (her first language). Enya's older brothers, sisters and uncles make up the Irish group Clannad (Gaelic for "family"). In 1980, Nicky Ryan, the band's longtime producer/sound and light man/manager, enlisted Enya to play synthesizer in the band. She was 18, at least nine years younger than anyone else in the group.
Enya and Ryan left Clannad together in 1982. Enya's explanation is that she was tired of being a second-class citizen in the band, and Ryan was frustrated by Clannad's reluctance to try new things, including featuring more of Enya. It's rumored that Clannad fired the two after learning they were romantically involved, but the band refuses comment. "It sounds bigger than it was," Enya says of leaving Clannad, "and it wasn't because they were my family. When we were actually working with each other, it was very different. They had a set way of working and were so used to being together. When I joined it was different, also there was a bit of an age gap. I had not seen them for long periods of time because I was at boarding school, and all of a sudden I was with them 24 hours a day. We had great likes and dislikes, and there was a big clash. I liked being more independent and found I was somebody in the background with them. I found I would never be a full member of the group."
The split with Clannad was traumatic for Ryan, who lived and worked with the band for eight years and is no longer on speaking terms with them. It was less so for Enya, who was only in the band for a couple of years and remains deeply loyal to her family. After the break, Enya moved into the Dublin home which she has shared with Ryan and his wife, Roma, for the past six years, and the three started a creative partnership. In effect, Enya moved from one family to another. She and the wizardly, mustachioed Ryan often finish each other's sentences.
The new team's first project was a soundtrack for the film The Frog Prince, for which Enya wrote the music. It got her name around, and soon film producer Tony McAuley commissioned a soundtrack for the BBC documentary series, The Celts, released as Enya on Atlantic's "New Age" imprint. The album cover featured a high-heeled Enya posing with a couple of stuffed wolves. Soon after, the three signed with WEA/England, insisting on artistic freedom. They also won control over how Enya was portrayed -- no more stuffed wolves -- and commenced work on Watermark.
As it turns out, the album owes its sound not just to Celtic scenery and Enya's pure, pretty alto; underneath it all, Watermark is a tour de force of patience and a determination to find ghosts in machines.
Watermark's vast vocal harmonies are stunning; the effect, which Ryan and Enya call "multi-vocals," requires superhuman discipline. The painstaking process involves recording as many as 140 separate, perfectly matched vocal tracks, creating a veritable Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Enyas. It sounds something like the Carpenters' massed harmonies, a comparison which Ryan politely disavows. Enya says she enjoys doing multi-vocals, although she often sings for so long that her knees give way before her throat does.
"With multi-vocals," she says, "you've got to do the 90 or 100 vocals -- you cannot do just five or six and know if it's going to be right. After we had sung a hundred or so vocals for 'Miss Clare Remembers,' we realized vocals didn't suit it, so we just wiped them right out." They erased weeks of work. It's a bit of an understatement when Enya explains, "I'm a perfectionist, and so is Nicky."
They're such perfectionists that they spent nine months recording Watermark in Ryan's Dublin studio before deciding to re-record the entire album digitally. Enya also sings and plays virtually all the instruments -- only the clarinet on 'On Your Shore,' the uilleann pipes on 'Na Laetha Geal M'Oige,' the low whistle on 'Exile' and the subtle percussion on 'River' and 'Storms in Africa' were by outside musicians, and even then, she dictated their parts.
For a more human feel, Enya played everything without a click track, and they turned the quirks in studio technology to their advantage. Ryan and Enya both dislike equipment that's "too perfect." When the notion of the happy accident was lofted, she replied brightly, "That's what we work with all the time!"
'Orinoco Flow' was born of their piecemeal method. One day Enya started playing a little tune and Ryan, a Phil Spector fan, had her play the chords in five different octaves. As Enya puts it, "this sound happened!" Then they went on to something else. While in a London studio re-recording Watermark, they needed one more track. They remembered that layered riff (the "sail away" section of 'Orinoco Flow') and built the rest of the song around it.
After they completed Watermark in April of 1988, Rob Dickins, managing director of WEA/England, pronounced that 'Orinoco Flow' would make a nice single (and not just because he's mentioned in the song). To heighten the mystery of the album, Dickins cannily decided against liner notes, even for the Gaelic songs. According to Enya, the ploy worked: "Everyone seems to conjure up their own images and emotions with the music. It's something very personal to them -- which is true, because they bought the album, it is theirs. It's a strange feeling to touch so many people, especially when you weren't doing it consciously." Then again, maybe it's just the reverb.
Enya's synthesizers include the Roland D-50 (she likes the "heavy feel," optimum for playing sampled tympani and strings), the Fairlight III, the Yamaha TX (the rack version of the DX), an older Oberheim rack version, and the Roland Juno 60 ("We wouldn't part with it for anything in the world"). "We also used this really old keyboard called the Wave, which has got wonderful sounds, like the little sound on the beginning of 'Evening Falls,' and the quiet 'turn it up' part of 'Orinoco Flow.'" Enya plays a piano of unknown provenance, given to Roma by her auntie. They'd like to use the new MIDI-able Yamaha acoustic piano. Enya and Ryan use the Akai S-900 for sampling.
For mastering they use a professional DAT machine -- the 2500. They used to master on the Sony F-1, and still use it for flying-in stuff. Two Mitsubishi 32-track machines were used for 'Orinoco Flow' and 'Storms in Africa.'
Microphones include a Sennheiser MD-421 and the Calrec Soundfield: "The interesting thing about it is you can telescope into the sound source, so you don't have to use a pop shield. It's an extremely transparent microphone -- there's absolutely no noise inherent in it all. The stereo is extremely panoramic -- it's a very magic microphone. It's also beautiful for monitor room work. We often record in the monitor room, and we pick up some of the sound from the monitors as well, so when you include that in the mix, it really widens out the sound."
Ryan likes the Alesis Midverb II. "They have a texture to them that the Lexicon doesn't have. There's compression built in. They really shouldn't have it there, but it is there, and it adds something. The reverb hasn't been built for us yet, neither in length nor the sound we want."
Note: Originally transcribed by Don Pon.