Interview with Nicky Ryan
New Hi-Fi Sound - Mid-Late 1990
TWO YEARS TEACHING AT A SCHOOL FOR THE DEAF AND EXPERIENCE MIKING CONCERTS FOR PLANXTY AND CLANNAD MADE RYAN THE IDEAL PRODUCER FOR THE RECLUSIVE ENYA
As befits dream-like music, where a sigh or a moan or the merest movement of air between the speakers can be a significant part of the composition, the story of Enya’s Watermark album begins and ends with silence.
The artist herself, 27 year old Eithne Ni Bhraonain from Gweedore, County Donegal, does not listen to anyone else’s music, or possess the means to do so. And for two years she could barely be persuaded to play or sing her own.
Her producer Nicky Ryan talks about the textures of sound before he discusses any specific musical influences, and cites a three-year period trying to bring the concept of sound to a school for the deaf as one of the most important periods of his musical development.
The album which resulted from the extraordinary partnership of Enya – and Ryan’s wife, Roma, a lyric-writer – could easily have drifted into commercial oblivion, destined to be bought by a few New Age trainspotters. But Watermark displayed far too much precision and discipline, both in arrangement and melody, to end up in that airy-fairy musical ghetto.
Led by a single, (Orinoco Flow) that practically defined the musical cliché ‘a breathe of fresh air’, Watermark has sold a staggering 600,000 copies in the UK at time of writing, and spent almost a year close to the top of the LP charts.
The effect of this success and new-found recognition on the fragile Enya was predictable. She complained that cars had started driving past the Ryans’ home studio in Dublin, that the phone never stopped ringing, that she felt ‘hemmed in’. She has taken nothing from the crass, brash world of the music business – and wanted nothing back.
‘There were no influences from the immediate vicinity – nothing from Top Of The Pops or whatever,’ said Nick Ryan. ‘If you go back a little, there were a few things that influenced me, but nothing whatsoever for Enya.’
‘The sound and the ideas were things that were building up inside me over the years. As I was listening to past groups that I’d worked with – I’d think, "Oh, if only they’d do that. It would be so much better". But they weren’t open-minded enough to do it, so I just decided to keep it to myself. Just swallow hard and keep it for another day. Enya was the other day.’
Enya’s history is hazy – either for the purpose of maintaining her enigmatism, or simply because she’s a very private soul – and it’s likely to stay that way. The fifth of nine children, she was educated at a national convent school where she excelled at music, latin and art, and nurtured dreams of becoming a music teacher ‘or at least studying the subject further’.
One of her older brothers and her sister, Maire, were members of Clannad, but Enya never believed she’d join them because they were much older than she. Then she came into contact with Nicky Ryan – something of an enigma himself, it seems.
Ryan left school with – like millions of others – no clear idea about what he wanted to do. But he was a self-confessed ‘recording buff, taping any and every sound’, and when he landed a teaching job at St Mary’s School For Deaf Girls, just outside Dublin, he became obsessed with transmitting the joys of music to the children.
‘I designed a speaker while I was there, to try and introduce as much bass as I could into the sprung floor of the girls’ dancing room,’ Ryan explained.
‘In order to dance, the children needed to feel as much bass in the floor and in their chests as possible – particularly in their chests because as soon as they can feel that, they know what the rhythm is doing.
‘What I came up with was a speaker design based on the lower end of a pipe organ. It was an upright speaker consisting of a 14in square box, about six feet tall, and about six inches from the floor – with a 12in speaker facing upwards, and a three inch port below that.
‘And it worked very well,’ he said. ‘The floor shook – and the kids danced away, as they were entitled to.’ Ryan left the deaf school after three years. ‘I’d seen a whole generation through,’ he said. ‘It felt like time to move on.’
Recognising Nicky Ryan’s interest in sound, local musician Philip Donnolly asked him to run the sound desk for his band, Portrait. And as Ryan’s reputation spread among the close-knit musical community of Dublin, he was also offered a job on tour with guitarist Gary Moore.
‘It was a time when Gary was staying in Belsize Park in London, banging away on this guitar that Peter Green from Fleetwood Mac had given him,’ said Ryan. ‘It was a Les Paul cut-away with one pick-up on it, a beautiful guitar. Gary would have the amp lying beside his bed – switched on 24 hours a day – and he’d get straight out of bed in the morning, pick up his guitar and play. No drinking, no drugs, nothing.’
Ryan is amused by the memory, but the job didn’t work out. Gary Moore played too loud and Nicky quite simply feared for his own hearing. ‘Just listening to the guy rehearse was enough!’ he laughed. ‘He used these old acoustic amps which were very powerful and very ear-splitting.’
Ryan then turned to mixing the live sound for acoustic groups – first Planxty, featuring the brilliant Irish protest singer/guitarist Christy Moore – and then Clannad, whom he guided and managed until 1982, and through whom his relationship with Enya developed.
These groups left Ryan with a knowledge of recording unusual acoustic sounds which he would later put to good use in recording the Uileann pipes, whistles and African hand drums on Watermark. ‘With Planxty,’ he said, ‘it was quite a challenge to try and amplify the acoustic instruments and make them sound good – and that became my forte.
‘I had to deal with instruments like the Greek Bouzouki, and the Uileann Pipes, and one of the band members (Andy Irvine) would introduce things that were even more exotic – like the French hurdy-gurdy – usually without telling anyone. He’d just arrive onstage with the thing and blow everyone’s ears off.
‘I was limited in the tools I had to reproduce these sounds but I made the best of them. I used an Aller Stand-Coil Mixer, which I found to be basic but true, and initially whatever mikes I could get my hands on. Then I gradually fine-tuned into the instruments.
‘On the pipes, for instance, I used an AKG D12, with an AKG 224E on the chanter – which is the part of the pipes that play the melody – and an AKG 220, a black mike with a top shaped like an upturned bucket, on the regulators, which are the part of the instrument where you play the harmony chords with your wrists.
‘On the guitars I used a Sony ECM30 but I didn’t put it inside the guitar – I tied it on the outside, onto the scratch plate, and taped it on with a bit of sponge underneath.’
Ryan soon came to the conclusion that it was better to capture the sound actually being played by a musician, rather than contrive to improve it.
‘Christy Moore’s guitar was a Gibson with strings like rope – and he played with his thumb, which had no nails to speak of, mainly at the bass end,’ said Ryan. ‘So rather than try to get a clear crystal-sounding guitar – which would have been impossible, anyway, with this heavy-bodied, dull-sounding Gibson – I thought, "Right, I’ll use him as a bass guitar, then at least he’ll get an airing."
‘If there was a very fast-moving piece he would come into his own as a great rhythm guitarist – and that was where I could bring him out – but with the slow pieces it was best to leave his guitar humming along underneath.’
With Clannad, Ryan was faced with the most difficult acoustic instrument of all to reproduce on stage – the harp.
‘That’s a horrendous thing to amplify,’ he said. ‘But I did it from the inside and again I used two Sony ECM30 microphones, and literally screwed them to the spine of the harp. Then I used a guitar pick-up right in the middle of it. Again it was on the spine, but outside, and screwed tight in.
‘I used the two microphones to get air into the sound, which is very important in a harp. Whenever it needed to sparkle and be brought out in the mix I avoided the microphones, which would have inevitably produced some feedback, and switched to the guitar pick-up.’
During his period with Clannad – when he was treated and paid as an extra member of the group rather than as a manager – Ryan decided to bring Enya into the ranks.
‘There was one stage in Clannad’s career where they got pretty stale and boring,’ he said. ‘Enya was still going to college at that time, but I knew of her interest in keyboards, and I knew she was good. I also knew she had an excellent voice, with an impressive range. I thought by introducing Enya into Clannad that we’d add not only a new vocal texture, but also make the group more interesting and more interested in what they were doing. Also, since she was a member of the family, I didn’t think there’d be any personality hassles.’
The combination was not a great success. ‘It worked for a while,’ Ryan explained, ‘and then it all crept back into the doldrums again. I think that was due to unwillingness on the part of the group to experiment – and I was getting tired of them doing the same old things.
‘I’d always had it in my head to get into vocals, multi-tracked vocals, and stuff like that, but I don’t think they had the patience for it and I don’t think they could appreciate its value.’
Enya, however, did have the patience to experiment – and even on tour, she and Ryan were increasingly pooling ideas. ‘I used to show Enya what we wanted in terms of background stuff for Clannad; what I wanted her to play; how the strings should feel at a certain point and so on – and we found ourselves working together during the spare time we had on tour. I began to notice that she had an awful lot to offer in her own right, and it wasn’t getting an airing in the group.’
Ultimately the pair of them split from Clannad, and Enya moved into Nicky and Roma Ryan’s home in the suburbs of Dublin, to begin preparation for a solo career – a process which proved simply tortuous.
‘Enya didn’t believe in herself enough to sing as a solo artist. And initially she wouldn’t even play in front of anybody, either,’ Ryan remembers. ‘So we had to go through all the agony together of me saying, "Just play whatever you’ve dreamed up, just play it to me, no-one else will hear it", and of course she wouldn’t. She’d been okay within the confines of Clannad, where the responsibility was spread among the band, but outside I suppose she was just plain shy.’
It took two years for Enya to pluck up enough courage and confidence to sing in front of Ryan – which makes Lord Lucan a more likely contender to do a world tour – at which point the pair of them embarked on three years’ worth of experimental work in Ryan’s home studio.
‘The experimentation started mostly with vocals – and with vocal sounds. And when I say multi-vocals I don’t just mean "aahs" and "oohs", I’m talking about singing any sound at all that came into my head or her head.’
These bizarre, multi-tracked vocal sounds surface time and again on Watermark – and will be taken even further on the next Enya LP. ‘There was one piece we did which we may put on the next album, which was an orchestral arrangement for voices,’ Ryan continues. ‘In other words, if you had pizzicato strings, for example, Enya would sing the pizzicato. And if there were cellos, she’d sing them. It was an attempt to emulate the orchestra with the voice.
‘A lot of these ideas were introduced into The Celts,’ said Ryan, referring to the BBC documentary score the pair of them produced. ‘But they were never really put together in one area until Watermark, and even then, there were many other ideas we didn’t use. We never put all our eggs in one basket, because that’s a bad idea when you’re experimenting. It means you lose a certain amount of control and discipline about what you’re doing.’
Before producing The Celts and eventually Watermark, Ryan and Enya wrote and recorded a score for an animated film by David Puttnam – The Frog Prince. By this time, Ryan had acquired a new mixing desk, built to his own design by a BBC electronics engineer called Sean Meehan, which he still uses to this day. But for Ryan and Enya, no amount of sophisticated equipment could speed up the long and painstaking method of recording. In the end they were forced to submit The Frog Prince in far from polished form – and Puttnam had it re-orchestrated.
‘We gave David the basic melodies, and he loved them, but we didn’t get enough time to put it together the way we wanted. So David got this guy to arrange the music and I must admit we hated every note of it. There was nothing of Enya on it – she didn’t even play any of the melodies.’
Despite their problems, both The Frog Prince and The Celts are masterly works, a two-part blue-print for the lush vocal harmonies and shifting keyboard textures of Watermark.
Versatility was vital during the creation of the Watermark album. Enya has said that Ryan often asks her to sing a section ’60 or a hundred times’, and Ryan himself admits that he’s surprised at the range of strange noises Enya is prepared to try. ‘She is so open to ideas,’ he said. ‘She’ll sing anything I ask her to sing as far as musical sound is concerned – she’ll experiment endlessly. If I ask her to go … (he blows a raspberry) into the mike, she’ll go right ahead and do it.
Vocal harmonies are at the centre of what we do, absolutely – and I use a phenomenal amount of reverb on the sound. In fact, I still don’t think there’s enough. A company called Lexicon have finally come up with a reverb I might use from now on, the 4ADL, and both the Alesis Company and Roland have developed some amazing equipment. In fact I might use a combination of all three of those for the next LP. I guess we’ll all have to wait and see what happens.’
Note: Transcribed by Ed Barkham.