Digging Up the Irish Roots of Enya's Melodies : Music: The singer- songwriter's haunting, enigmatic tunes are striking a chord with American audiences.


The Mistress of Melody, the New Age Sinead O'Connor.

That's what some fans are calling singer-songwriter Enya, whose solemn, enigmatic songs have an unusual root: traditional Irish music.

Though the citizen of Ireland sings a few fairly standard ballads, most of her music sounds like nothing else on the pop charts. Her solo albums, 1988's "Watermark" and her current "Shepherd Moons," are New Age verging on classical and religious, with strains of old Irish folk woven in, along with hymn-like choral arrangements.

And those are the more conventional elements.

"Shepherd Moons" even features Gaelic lyrics. When Enya sings some of these solemn, ethereal songs, she does sound somewhat like a subdued Sinead.

To some extent, this music fits the New Age profile. What's surprising, though, is that she's struck a chord with so many pop fans.

Currently Warner Bros. Records' top-selling album, "Shepherd Moons" is in the Top 25 on the national album charts, nearing the 850,000 mark and has sold 3 million worldwide. Her last album, "Watermark," including the hit single "Orinoco Flow/Sail Away," has crossed the 4-million mark worldwide, while selling more than 1.25 million in this country--the last 250,000 since November.

Enya's appeal even extends beyond pop and New Age. "Caribbean Blue," a song from the new album, is getting extensive airplay on alternative-rock station KROQ--and was even its No. 1 requested tune last week.

How does she explain her large, loyal following?

"Maybe it's because the music fits a lot of moods," the 30-year-old artist said during a recent interview. "But it really fits melancholy moods. It evokes all of these sad feelings. Maybe this music works for people in those moods. It fits quiet, thoughtful moods, too. This is what people tell me anyway. I don't write it to fit anyone's moods."

According to Enya, whose last name is Ni Bhraonain, the dominant feature of her music is those lovely, haunting melodies, which she discussed in tones verging on ecstasy.

"To me there's nothing like a pretty melody," said Enya, who is gentle and tranquil--almost the personification of her music. "You get this soaring feeling when you hear one. It creeps into your heart and soul and taps all these emotions.

"My melodies have the feel of traditional Irish music. They're the real strength of my music--the real backbone. It almost doesn't matter what the lyrics sound like. Nothing happens until there's a melody."

The main cog in a small musical team, Enya writes the melodies, which are arranged with Nicky Ryan, who also produces the albums. His wife, lyricist Roma, writes the words in English, and Enya sometimes translates them into Gaelic, her first language.

A native of Ireland's Donegal County, where Gaelic is still spoken, she had to go to school to learn English. Enya is the literal English translation of her real first name, Eithne.

A classically trained artist, Enya, who plays nearly all the instruments on her albums, started out playing synthesizer in Clannad, an Irish group composed of her family members, in the early '80s. But the Ryans urged her to branch out into soundtracks. Two assignments, the 1985 feature "The Frog Prince" and the BBC TV series "The Celts," led to an Atlantic Records deal for her first pop-oriented album, "Enya."

"I was real leery of the record business," she recalled. "It's so fickle--so tough. Also, I didn't know if music like mine, which is very offbeat, would sell very much."

Her pop career did drag for a while but finally took off when she changed labels, recording "Watermark" in 1988 for Geffen, which found her a niche in the booming New Age market. Reprise released her current album.

Her record sales might be even better if she had a higher profile in this country--which would mean going on tour.

But she's wary of going on the road. "I'm not sure how much this music lends itself to a visual performance," she explained.

That, however, isn't the only reason she's not anxious to tour. "I prefer being private," she said. "Not too many people know what I look like. If I went on tour, that would change. I'm not so sure I'd like that."

L7 Accident: Singer-guitarist Suzi Gardner of the all-female L.A. rock quartet L7 was injured when part of a crane, used in a flying sequence, fell on her Wednesday night in a Culver City sound studio during the filming of a video. She was hospitalized with a concussion and a broken cheekbone.

Gardner is just out of the hospital, but the group has canceled tonight's show at Bogart's in Long Beach. At the moment, though, Thursday's show at the Whisky is still on, said Sharon Liveten, publicist for the group's label, Slash Records, assuming, of course, that Gardner is healthy by then.

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