“The Garbo of Pop”: Enya at 60

Jim Sullivan recalls his history in conversation with the Celtic Pop Queen

Twenty-five years ago: It’s a cold January afternoon, but I’m nice ‘n’ warm in a New York City hotel room speaking with an Irish singer the British press tagged with the sobriquet “the Garbo of pop.”

“I vant to be alone,” says Enya, with a laugh.

She gets it. She’s a public figure who’s a private person. She’s not the first to go down this road, nor the last. 

“I have a very private life,” Enya says. “It’s very important to the music, I think, that I’m able to have time away from the music and the lifestyle. 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.

“I don’t know, maybe some people enjoy being talked about or being in the papers. I find I love talking about the music – and then that’s it. I like that it’s not dependent on what I do or say to introduce or sell the music to people. The music does it by itself.”

Her primary influences, she says, are classical and traditional Irish music. Doesn’t this seem an unlikely mix for international success? Why has it worked?

“Let me just open this little book of answers,” Enya says, smiling and turning to thumb through an imaginary book.

Eight years prior, her second album, Watermark, buoyed by its mega-hit, “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” captured the world’s attention and imagination. Who was this mysterious one-named vocalist who soared above a bed of strings and beckoned us to “Sail away, sail away, sail away … Carry me on the waves to the lands I’ve never been.”

Who wouldn’t want to take that trip down this long South American river with this mezzo-soprano? 

 

VIDEO: Enya “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)”

Enya, who turns 60 on May 17, often sang in Gaelic, although sometimes in English, Latin or Spanish. Who was this pretty and petite woman who’d sold more than 28 million albums worldwide, nearly 10 million of them in the United States? (In 2020, The Guardian ranked “Orinoco Flow” as No. 77 in its list of greatest UK number one singles of all time.)  

Her then-current album, The Memory of Trees, was at No. 2 on Billboard’s “New Age” chart after four weeks, and at No. 29 on the Top 200. Her lush music had been heard in the films “L.A. Story,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Green Card” and “Far and Away.”

So, as she didn’t want to talk about herself, let’s talk about her favorite subject – music – and why hers became so popular. 

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.”

(An obvious, but should-be-said, modern-day note: The interview took place before the internet was so universal – about 50% of Americans had it – and social media was non-existent. How much more so do we now need that quiet space?)

Enya’s music, she suggests, may help people make constructive use of that time alone, provide an atmosphere in which thought flourishes. This, 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 happened 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.”

Was her music New Age? Maybe, or nominally so, but much New Age music could be dismissed as adult-oriented wallpaper stuff, elevator music that dare not speak its name, saccharine sentimentality in spades. 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 deeper nuances. Strings, synthesizers, spare piano lines and occasional percussion are intricately interwoven. The current single, “Anywhere Is,” had a crazy perkiness and bounce. 

 

VIDEO: Enya “Anywhere Is”

And then there’s that voice. Enya has a voice that, in its multi-tracked splendor, conjures up glorious, celestial images. She’s a spiritual, vaguely sensuous dream-weaver, an angel at the gates of heaven. (Even though I don’t believe there’s a heaven, though as Bryan Ferry once sang, “I’d like to think so.”) The implicit spirituality is no accident.

“It’s because I was brought up a Catholic,” Enya 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, you’re 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 New World 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. 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 of that Garbo mindset: She just hasn’t any use for pop-celebrity culture and has never gotten involved in heinous 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.

She admits, though, that the choice not to discuss her personal life will lead to suppositions. “Yeah, I know,” she says, not willing to change course here and now, given cagey journalist’s opening for her to let it loose. “I still think it was right, what I did, rather than worry about them, being concerned with being in the paper all the time.”

No nightclubbing? No hanging with other famous people?

“I was never drawn to that lifestyle,” she says. “I always liked to go with what I wanted to do. I’ve been able to retain that. I feel lucky that I can do that. The problem I had with the British tabloids to begin with was [them saying] `You weren’t so open with your private life. We don’t want to know about the music — what about you?’ If you be honest and say, `I need time to myself,’ they say, `She sits in silence; she’s weird.’ What’s weird about having time to yourself?”

Enya has been in New York nearly a week, talking to us media types. She is, she stresses, a social person, not a recluse. Yes, her studio routine is rather solitary, but she’s happy to mix and mingle. She’s been taking in the delights of a snow-covered city — no traffic, just a few skiers and pedestrians along Fifth Avenue. She says she does not get recognized by passersby at all and she likes it like that.

Her music might float in the clouds, but rest assured, Enya’s feet do touch the ground.

Born Eithne Ni Bhraonaim in County Donegal, Enya attended Catholic boarding school and studied classical piano. She also became immersed in Irish traditions and Druid mythology. Her career took shape without any grand design. She joined her sister, Maire, and two brothers in Clannad, bringing keyboards into the mix. “I was two years with them,” Enya says, of a period in the early 1980s. “I enjoyed the experience and the traveling, the touring, but musically, I knew 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 multi-vocals,” says Enya, “and I thought this was really fascinating. I’ve always loved harmony. Other than just studying it classically, I’d been singing harmony since I was a young child, very spontaneous sort of 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 multi-vocals, so she began at that stage to write lyrics,” he said. “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,” added 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.”

 

VIDEO: Enya “Caribbean Blue”

Watermark broke her music to the worldwide. Shepherd Moons, released in 1991, did even better, with more than 13 million copies sold worldwide. But then four years went by between that album and the new one — an eternity in the fickle pop world. Was Enya nervous about whether her audience was still there?

“I did wonder,” she says. “Because [when] I go into the studio I forget about the success and I forget about the audience and I just work. When I finished, it was like my first album. I was quite anxious: Is there anybody going to listen to this? . . . There is no big guarantee for anyone, I don’t care who they are. That’s something I feel strongly about. So, I feel it’s best to forget and just carry on and work on the music. At least, you’ll be happy with your work.”

“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 she reads and writes music, she considers herself an intuitive artist — “It’s so striking emotionally, that wonderful moment you’ve been looking for.”

Most everyone who hears Enya is seduced by her sound, though one critic thought her music a “cheesy Hollywood depiction of the afterlife, glowing with counterfeit wonder.” 

“Well, I’m afraid he’s wrong,” says Enya. “Some people think I work very technically in the studio, doing all these voices, but there’s no way you can be technical about it. The only thing that’s to my advantage is that I’m a perfectionist and when I sing multi-vocals I will sing exactly in time, but free time . . . because there are certain times in the melody where there is a pause and I just love that pause. Because of the perfectionist side of me I’m able to keep in time, but still be very spontaneous and enjoy it.”

Enya has licensed her music for more than a dozen films, as well as for the TV series “Northern Exposure.” “From the first melody I’d written, I thought it was very visual,” she says. “It’s something I enjoy and it’s really great to have a well-known director or producer write you a letter personally.”

She has also let her music be used in television commercials for Crystal Light, among other products. (So did Clannad, most famously when “Harry’s Game” was used by Volkswagen.) Does this have the effect of cheapening the music’s meaning? 

“You have to weigh it,” she says. “There is that risk factor, but if it doesn’t work, we won’t go with it. There’s a lot of cases of that, but when it does work, we do tend to go with it because if you don’t, they’ll end up doing a bad copy.”

 

VIDEO: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese commercial featuring “Only Time” by Enya 

Enya has hopes of taking this show on the road, though she’s aware of what a difficult production it could be to mount. She envisions a choir — a lot of Enya-bes — and a small orchestra in a formal concert setting.

“Hopefully,” she says, “it’s the next step we take. There are so many parts to each song. I think it’s possible to get the textures voice-wise, because the texture of my voice varies so much, it’s possible to get that combination. It’d be a lot of work, but the way myself and Nicky feel is if it’s not going to work, there’s no point in setting it up and saying, `This will do.’ It won’t do. If it’s not of a quality that we can be happy with, we won’t do it.”

And she never did. 

Her last album, Dark Sky Island, came out over five years ago. It sold about a million copies worldwide. 

 

 

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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