Getting to know Enya As She Really Is
Sunday Times Magazine (Australia) 17 December 2000
Photo Caption: Her own muse: Enya's Celtic
sound soothes the stressed soul. The quiet achiever. Enya is one of the decade's highest-selling female
She is one of the biggest recording artist of the decade yet Eithne Ni Bhraonain never tours and doesn't play live. She has one of the most recognisable faces and sounds on popular music but regularly walks the streets of Sydney unrecognised by passers-by, KATHERINE TULICH went hasing the enigma but found the woman.
It is a crystal clear, chilly London night. The entrance to the 18th-century Somerset House is festooned with soft lights, exquisite fountains burble in the forecourt and a banner above the portal reads, fittingly, "A Day Without Rain". Inside, everyone sips expensive French champagne until shuffled towards the terrace for a fireworks has been cancelled for the occasion. In these days of dwindling CD sales such decadent launches are rare. But Enya is different. She is Warner UK's highest-selling act and this is her first album release in five years.
Enya slips discreetly, almost unnoticed, into the crowd. She chats quietly to a select few and manages a soft-pedal exit before anybody realises she is gone. Her music continues to be piped into the room, but all that remains of the woman is her enigma. She might not grab spectacular headlines with the regularity of a Madonna or Withney Houston, but Enya, the quiet achiever, certainly matches them in record sales. Since her debut release Watermark in 1988, Enya has sold a phenomenal 44 million albums, making her one of the decade's highest-selling female acts. She is among Ireland's wealthiest women (having amassed some $95 million) and easily outsells its other musical progeny - U2 included.
Enya's critics label her albums "New Age elevator", an easily digestible brand of "Mysticism Lite". But there is no denying her hauntingly beautiful and ethereal Celtic sound has soothed a market jangled with grunge, pop, dance and rock into peaceful acquiescence. Her soundtrack music, including the hypnotic "Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)" became every film director's dream in the early '90s: Peter Weir's Green Card, Steve Martin's LA Story, Martin Scorsese's Age of Innocence and the Cruise/Kidman Irish weepie, Far and Away. ("Only Time", a track from A Day Without Rain, features in the upcoming Keanu Reaves/Charlize Theron film, Sweet November.)
But the petite musician, known for the long Arthurian robes she favours for album covers, has a reputation for aloofness and solitude. She has never toured, does not play live and her media interviews - when they occur - result in profiles of a Rapunzel-like figure cloistered in self-imposed exile, unwilling to engage in conversation and overly wary of probing about her personal life.
So it comes as a surprise to find Enya, in the flesh, upbeat, chatty and warm - the antithesis of her manufactured, standoffish siren person. She admits that, maybe, it could be her fault.
"I think it was self-protection," she says in a lilting Irish accent. "When I started on Watermark so many people were telling me it would never sell, so I locked myself away in the studio to work. I didn't want to hear any negative opinions. Celebrity status was not something I was ever seeking. All I was concerned about was the music, and hoped someone would want to listen to it."
Deliberate or not, that wariness has helped protect Enya's anonymity. How many other international superstars can wander the streets of Sydney, as she regularly does, unnoticed?
Talk of Sydney has her beaming. Hardly a hermit, Eithne Ni Bhraonain, the correct Gaelic spelling of her name (Enya is the phonetic pronunciation) is part of a bustling, lively, close-knit family. She is fifth of nine children, four brothers and five sisters born to Maire and Leo Brennan who raised their Gaelic-speaking children in the small rural town of Gweedore, County Donegal.
Catching up with family members fills Enya's spare time and is the reason behind all those visits to Sydney, two trips a year on average. So well does she know the coffee houses and bookshops of our Harbour City, Enya has her favorite pitstops on walkabouts. Her younger sister, Olive, an uncle and a host of cousins live here and this Christmas her first cousin, who operates Cafe Bojos in Eastwood, is getting married. "I travel about twice a year to Sydney," says Enya. "It's a home from home and I feel I know it really well. It's such a great city. I love walking around the Opera House and Botanical Gardens."
Olive likes to take her big sister in hand and explore new parts of Sydney on each visit. "She is very different to what people imagine," says Olive. "People think she is this dark brooding figure, but she is nothing like that."
Olive has lived with her Australian husband Andrew, a property developer, in Sydney for five years. She finds Enya's regular visits a soothing balm for her homesickness. It is all part of what Enya calls the "Australian invasion" of her family. One of her elder brothers married an Australian, although they remained in Ireland. Her uncle (mother's brother) was the first to migrate and it was his children who contributed to the second wave invasion. Two strapping Aussie boys, friends of Enya's Sydney-born cousins, were heading off for the obligatory European sojourn. They were farewelled with contact numbers for the Irish rallies and it was love at first sight when they met Enya's sisters, Olive and the youngest of the family, Bridin. "I think they were entranced by us and Ireland," recalls Olive. "It was the whole Ballykissangel thing. You could say it was love at first sight."
While Bridin remains in London (she has just signed a recording deal), Olive made the tough decision to leave the family fold and live in Australia. "I really miss the get-togethers and especially the sing-alongs," says Olive (who has recorded with her elder sister Maire). Singing is second nature to the Brennan clan. Their mother was a music teacher and their father a band musician who traveled around Ireland performing at weddings and dances. As children, human "radio" was the nightly entertainment in the girls' room. The idea was to not to stop and never to run out of songs. "Performing and singing is in our blood," says Olive, "even my grandfather died onstage." Their father purchased a rundown pub in 1968. Transformed into Leo's Tavern, it soon became the musical nucleus for the family. At 75 years of age, Leo is still performing for the clientele and the tavern is fast becoming a tourist hub, a shrine to the Brennan musical heritage. And there will be a miniature Brennan musical reunion in Sydney this Christmas when Enya and Olive sing at their cousin's wedding.
It is typical of Enya that she should choose an anonymous family gathering over and international promotional tour to flog A Day Without Rain, her first release since 1995's The Memory of Trees. She agreed to do the publicist' bidding for one week only, in London. Renowned for her punctuality, Enya arrives at London's Dochester Hotel on time to nanosecond. Exquisitely beautiful in person, her porcelain skin a striking contrast to her midnight eyes and sable hair, she is dressed in a flowing black skirt and eserald green top. Not a hair nor a thread disobeys her bidding. She is immaculate. But the stiffness soon dissolves into spontaneous chat.
"Coming from a small rural area really keeps you grounded. They are proud of what you do, but they just treat me like I never left. When I go home to Donegal my parents expect the same old Enya to walk through the door." It was at Leo's Tavern in 1970 that Enya siblings - two older brothers and her older sister Maire - formed Clannad, one of the first Irish bands to take Celtic music into the pop charts. Enya joined briefly at the suggestion of Clannad's then manager, Nicky Ryan, but it was an unhappy union.
"I came from boarding school where I had been studying classical music and all of a sudden I was on stage singing all over Europe. I suddenly thought - what am I doing?" she says. In her just published autobiography, The Older Side of the Rainbow, Maire Brennan talks of Enya's short tenure with Clannad: "I suppose it had always been difficult for Enya. We loved what she brought to the band but it was hard for her to infiltrate our years as a tightly knit nucleus. As sisters we had always been close and talked about everything together, so I was sorry when band business caused a strain between us."
Ryan later quit management of Clannad to became Enya's collaborator and manager. Ensconced in Ryan's small home studio, Enya then spent years developing her unique sound.
Her recording process is painstaking, undertaken with monastic endurance. She sits alone at a piano to compose. She then takes her work to Ryan who works on the arrangements while his wife, Roma Ryan, writes the lyrics. In the studio Enya is the sole performer, no session players or computerized equipment here. Each track is meticulously laid one over another. She has been known to record 500 vocal tracks for one song.
Her first break came in 1985 when the Ryans sent a tape to producer, David Puttnam. He commissioned Enya to write music for the movie The Frog Prince, which led to the BBC series The Celts and consequently a record deal.
With three albums, 1988's Watermark, 1991's Shepherd Moons, The Memory of Trees and a greatest hits collection, Paint the Sky With Stars, her newest offering varies little from the formula. More of the same wallpaper music for some, but for others it's a deeply shared personal experience, a perfect panacea for the stressed-out souls.
Enya thinks her music is best heard in moments of alone contemplation. "I get mail," she says, "from people so busy with their lives and so used to noise every day that they don't take time for themselves. You know, when you go for a quiet walk to ponder and be alone with your thoughts, it's a calming. I think when people listen to me, they experience a little bit of this.
"A man once wrote that I saved his marriage with my music. He and his wife has stopped talking to each other, they'd lost control of their world, they'd forgotten to live a little. He bought Watermark and they started to listen to the music. And then they started to talk. Through that conversation, they started to rediscover each other and their relationship."
But this time round it was her own soul that needed soothing. A Day Without Rain expresses Enya's feelings "about life and love, mourning past relationships and searching for true love". With most of her siblings now married with children of their own, Enya admits that facing 40 next year is no easy task and she is undergoing many of the pressures women feel at that age.
"A lot of women freak about turning this age, especially when you are still not married or have children," she says. " In the past three or four years I was topsy-turvy putting pressure on myself because I kept thinking work was taking up too much of my time, but then lately I've come to the realization that I love what I do and wouldn't change a thing."
"I've been though that panic but now I'm beginning to feel content. I love my work and if family happens that is wonderful, and if it doesn't that's okay too.
"I have a great need to be independent because I come from such a large family," she continues. "I never had much of a voice in the family because I'm the fourth youngest. When I was asked a question it was usually answered for me. So it was a revelation when I went to boarding school and suddenly I was on my own and being asked to answer questions myself. So for me, maintaining a relationship is difficult; they want attention and I can't give it to them. The idea of coming home after hours in the studio and having to talk to someone when I'm exhausted, I can't imagine being able to do that. They would need to be very understanding.
For me it's more important to find the person who understands what I'm about. I'm not going to change for the sake of a relationship. But I'd like to believe you can have both."
Decidedly single, Enya's current passion is a recently purchased grand Victorian Castle (which cost $6.4 million) overlooking Dublin Bay. With the meticulous attention to detail she gives to her recordings, restoring the castle has taken three years. When she finally moves in next year she will be able to borrow cups of sugar from her neighbors, Bono and The Edge, who have homes nearby.
"I've lived near the castle for the last 10 years and often walked past it. From the outside it very much looks like a castle but inside is has a very cosy environment," she says.
"It was built in 1840 but a fire gutted in 1925. I've been working closely with the architects to restore it. It has been like a hobby, something I've really enjoyed." But Enya quickly dismisses the idea that she will be walking its grand corridors and numerous bedrooms all alone: "It will be my home and when I have a family it will be ready for them."
Note: Originally transcribed by Edelmiro García.