Enya's Quiet Space
Jim Sullivan, Boston Globe
Minneapolis Star Tribune (USA) Early 1996
NEW YORK - She has sold more than 28 million albums worldwide, nearly 10 million of them in the United States. Her current album is No.2 on Billboard's "new age" chart. Her lush soprano has been heard in the films L.A. Story, The Age of Innocence, Green Card, and Far And Away.
She sings in Gaelic, mostly - sometimes in English, occasionally in Latin or Spanish. She has never toured as a solo artist. Her primary influences, she says, are classical and traditional Irish music.
Doesn't that seem an unlikely mix for international success? Why has it worked?
"Let me just open this little book of answers," Enya says in her New York hotel suite, smiling and turning to thumb through an imaginary book.
No, the 34-year-old pianist-songwriter doesn't know, either, but she's got a theory about why she's popular enough to have sold more records than Eric Clapton over a three-album stretch.
It has to do with quiet space, the need people have for introspection and contemplation. "I've been thinking about it," Enya says, "and in today's society, a lot of people don't take a lot of time to themselves. They're actually afraid to. They're used to noise, TV, radio, traffic, the office. And a lot of people are so focused on problems all the time: 'What do I have to do next?' Problems, problems, problems, thinking ahead all the time."
Her music, she suggests, helps people make constructive use of that time alone, in an atmosphere in which thought flourishes.
That, at least, is what fans tell her when they write. The music, she says, "is making them actually sit down and think about themselves. 'Am I happy?' 'What's happening in my life?' They interpret their own emotions to the music. It's personal to them. I remember one gentleman saying he felt anybody else in the room was like an intrusion on his privacy. It was so personal to him."
Much New Age music can be dismissed as gooey twaddle, adult-oriented wallpaper stuff, elevator music that dare not speak its name. Say hello to John Tesh and Yanni, whose use of major chords and saccharine sentimentality attempts to jerk the heartstrings. Enya's music does not come across that way.
There's subtlety, quirkiness, a sense of adventure that's both stately and frisky. Repeated listenings reveal nuances. Strings, synthesizers, spare piano lines and occasional percussion are intricately interwoven. The current single, 'Anywhere Is', has a crazy perkiness and bounce.
Some Serious Pipes
And then there's that voice. Enya has a voice that, in its multitracked splendor, conjures up glorious, celestial images. She's a spiritual, vaguely sensuous dream-weaver, an angel at the gates of heaven. The implicit spirituality is no accident.
"It's because I was brought up a Catholic," she says. "What I've done is I've kind of derived from religion what I'm comfortable with... I love going to church on my own, the peace and quiet, I enjoy that, and I think that crosses over into the music. And I've always loved church music, the hymns. Sometimes it's such a simple but beautiful melody, and I just love that when you know what the next note is, what you want it to be, your aching for it to be that note - and it is that note! Thank You!
Ethereal: 1. of or like the ether, or upper regions of space 2. very light; airy;delicate 3. not earthly;heavenly; celestial. - Webster's Dictionary
Question posed to Enya: Has there ever been a story or review written about her that has not contained the word "ethereal"?
"That I couldn't answer," she demurs, with a slight laugh. (Reasonable guess: No.) "But the British tabloids can be quite mean to me."
Mean to Enya? It's hard to imagine. She is pretty, polite, poised. Punks like her. Classical music fans like her. Her music knows no cultural boundaries. And everyone uses the E-word: Enya and ethereal were made for each other.
So why the meanness in the United Kingdom?
It likely came about, Enya suggests, because she hasn't any use for pop-celebrity culture and has never gotten involved in personal scandal. Also, she's well known for working in an insular fashion: She sequesters herself in the studio and works diligently, without input except from collaborators Nicky and Roma Ryan.
For The Memory of Trees - the title, suggested by Roma, has to do with the Druid belief about what trees remember of our lives as we pass by - she toiled for up to 10 hours a day, for two years, writing and recording the songs. The duties of Team Enya break down this way: The artist writes the melodies and sings; Nicky produces; Roma, his wife, writes the lyrics. It's a tight, guarded circle - one that has stayed unbroken for 14 years.
Of course, sometimes people want to know more about Enya. "I have a very private life," she says. "It's very important to the music, I think, that I'm able to have time away from the music and the life style. The reason I'm able to have a private life is because the music is actually bigger than I am. For some artists, they're actually bigger than the music."
Her music might float in the clouds, but rest assured, Enya's feet do touch the ground.
Born Eithne Ní Bhraonáin in County Donegal, Enya attended Catholic boarding school and studied classical piano. She also became immersed in Irish traditions and Druid mythology. She joined her sister Máire, and two brothers in Clannad, bringing keyboards into the mix. "I was two years with them," Enya says. "I enjoyed the experience and the travelling, the touring, but musically, I know I was going to move on to something else."
What that was, she didn't know. Clannad producer, Nicky Ryan, however, had a suggestion. "He discussed with me his ideas about the multivocals," says Enya, "and I thought this was really fascinating. I've always loved harmony... He didn't know what he was looking for and I didn't know. We said: 'Let's try this.'"
The two first worked on a soundtrack to the BBC-TV series The Celts in 1985. She had no interest in lyrics - "I thought I was giving all I had emotionally and performance-wise to the music."
But Roma Ryan was there during the recording process and had been writing poetry. "It was obvious that she was listening to the development of the music and the experimenting with the multivocals, so she began at that stage to write lyrics. It's always been what I would like to sing about. It's not like she has to do that consciously, either. What she derives from the melody is what I would like to sing. She gets that emotion within the melody."
"Some people are musically dependent on each other," says Enya, "but because we all bring something different, it's three individual people who are quite independent and strong about what we do. It begins with me."
In 1988, Enya released Watermark, which broke her music worldwide. Shepherd Moons, in 1991, did even better. But then four years went by between that album and the new one - an eternity in the fickle pop world.
"I start with the melodies," Enya says of the meticulous process. "It takes me a long time to find that melody, and so I could spend time in the studio, working daily and still feel, even though I've got nothing to show for it, at the end of the day or week, I know I'm moving toward the next melody. Each day is bringing me closer. It's really nice once you have a melody to see what's going to happen with it; it's just the bones of the song."
Indeed, Enya's sound - as co-shaped by Nicky Ryan, a Phil Spector/Beach Boys fan - is lush and layered. Enya plays all the instruments; she says she has sung up to 500 separate vocal parts on a song. She describes the compositional process as a journey.
Though Enya reads and writes music, she considers herself an intuitive artist - "It's so striking emotionally, that wonderful moment you've been looking for."
Note: Transcribed by Amy O'Malley. Sullivan's article was syndicated to several U.S. newspapers, and some versions have been edited for space considerations. The Minneapolis Star version seems to be the full and complete article.