There are certain career strategies that, you’d think, would doom any musical artist to a lifetime of obscurity.
First, you could develop a distinctive genre of music quite unlike anything that’s been heard before, owing much to hymns and traditional Celtic tunes, with a dash of new age thrown in. You could sing some of it in Gaelic or Latin in a pure, ecclesiastical voice.
Then you could spend two or three years shut away in a remote recording studio, painstakingly, obsessively adding dozens of overdubs to your original tracks and gradually creating an ethereal wall of sound.
When at last your albums are released, you could refuse to go on tour to perform them live, stay well away from music biz parties and keep personal appearances and media interviews to a bare minimum.
Sounds like a recipe for not selling records, right?
Irish singer Enya has pursued just this policy--and it has made her one of the planet’s top-selling artists. Her 1988 album, “Watermark,” has sold 8 million copies worldwide; its successor, 1991’s “Shepherd Moons,” did even better, selling almost 9 million and spending an astonishing 199 weeks on the U.S. Top 200 chart.
Sales for her new album, “The Memory of Trees,” are equally healthy--six weeks after its release it is already at the 3 million mark, with nearly 400,000 in the United States and the rest mainly in the 14 countries where her other albums went platinum. That makes some 20 million records sold in seven years.
These are the sort of statistics that spell “phenomenon” loud and clear. Indeed, the only Irish act to have sold more records than Enya is U2--and that Dublin group has been around more than twice as long. Van Morrison may have been the Irish artist chosen to serenade President Clinton on his recent trip to Ireland, but the venerable Morrison does not sell records like Enya.
Clearly something remarkable is happening--and largely it is happening in this southern suburb of Dublin, an affluent coastal resort that is also home to Irish rock aristocrats such as U2’s Bono. Here, on a large spread behind security gates, is the home of Enya’s producer, engineer and co-arranger Nicky Ryan, his wife, Roma (who is Enya’s lyricist), and their two daughters.
A separate building on the estate houses the Aigle recording studio (the word is French for “eagle”) where Enya and the Ryans hole up for years on end to create their aural extravagances.
In an upstairs listening lounge, Enya stands before a window looking on the verdant Wicklow Mountains. She is 34, a dark, slim, strikingly attractive woman with a demure manner and mournful eyes, dressed rather formally, in a deep-blue velvet jacket and black velvet pants.
When “Shepherd Moons” was released four years ago, there had been a suspicion that “Watermark” was a one-off fluke, and at the time Enya seemed less assertive and confident; Nicky Ryan sat in on her interviews, and she frequently deferred to him.
Even now Enya has her critics, who call her work soporific, pretty, tinkling, essentially little more than a superior form of elevator music; they assume her fans draw easy solace from its vaguely spiritual feel. Even neutral observers find it remarkable that her music has achieved so much success. These days, though, Enya bristles with confidence as she launches into a spirited defense of her work.
“I have a lot of opinions about [my success] now,” she says. “I read a lot of the mail I get, and it’s from people of all different ages, which is strange--young children, teenagers, married couples, older people. And in a lot of cases, it’s people who are so busy with their lifestyle. I know from just being around some of my family how people are used to noise every day--on the radio and TV, traffic, at their workplaces there’s all that noise going about.
“So they don’t actually take any time for themselves. You know when you go for a walk and it’s really quiet? To ponder and be alone with your thought? It’s calming. I think when people listen to the album, they experience a little bit of this. They sit down and they’re more peaceful than they’re used to, and they think about themselves and interpret their own emotions and feelings to the music.”
She stops short of theorizing that her music offers spiritual comfort, or even specific meaning to listeners: “I think there’s a sense of spirituality there. But a lot of people will never know what the lyric’s about if I’m singing in Gaelic or Latin or Spanish. Yet people can still sense the emotion in a performance. They don’t care what the words are about--they just want to experience the whole song.”
She says her melodies have specific references for her, as do Roma Ryan’s lyrics: “Why they become personal to people, I don’t know, because they seem so personal to me.”
For instance, the instrumental title track of “The Memory of Trees” came about after Roma Ryan had read about Druids and Irish mythology. Roma wrote the lyric for “Hope Has a Place” after she visited the tranquil Silent Valley in Ireland’s picturesque Mourne Mountains and returned to Dublin enthusing about it. (Later, Nicky Ryan took Enya to Silent Valley and recorded her voice outdoors.)
But, Enya says, she and her lyricist are happy if listeners come up with their own interpretations of songs: “When you finish an album, all you can do is hand it over and it’s up to individuals to derive what they want from it. The fact they’re listening is my main concern. To Roma, I know with that title she loves that you have the choice to know specifically about Irish myths or whatever you want.”
Of course, this oblique approach to composing only adds to the mystique surrounding Enya. In Britain and Ireland she has been widely regarded as a virtual recluse, and she admits her low profile has been a calculated tactic.
“People called me reclusive because I’ve been able to retain a private life,” she says. “But to a certain extent, I think, that’s been important to the music. Some artists are bigger than their music. But with me, the music’s bigger than I am. A lot of people know my music but don’t even know what I look like.
“Going back to ‘Watermark,’ I think we cut ourselves off from the music scene because we felt it would be a negative influence. Our music was very different, and we’d had no success at that stage, so we deliberately didn’t seek or want anyone else’s opinion. Even now I think if I got caught up in a glitzy entertainment world, my music would suffer. I just feel that I have more to say with my music than by going on a series of talk shows.”
As it is, she can travel easily almost anywhere in the world without being harassed. “I have remarkable freedom for an artist who sells as much as I do. In Ireland I’m recognized, but usually people just walk up to me and say they like a particular song.” She smiles wryly. “There’s no Enya-mania, or anything like that.”
This much is known about her: She was born Eithne Ni Bhraonain (pronounced Enya Brennan) in County Donegal, in the Gaeltacht (Gaelic-speaking) region of Ireland. She was the fifth of nine children; her father led a dance band, her mother taught music and Enya studied classical piano for six years.
Three of her older siblings and two of her uncles formed the Irish folk group Clannad in 1970. Their fame grew gradually, and on leaving boarding school in 1980 Enya toured with them for two years. Her time with Clannad coincided with their decision to incorporate keyboards into their traditional material.
Nicky Ryan was managing Clannad, and producing such artists as rock guitarist Gary Moore. When Enya grew tired of feeling marginalized within Clannad and being treated as the kid sister, she left--and Ryan left with her.
For the next six years Enya lived with the Ryans in Dublin, where she practiced classical piano, then started composing herself. Roma Ryan sent some of her pieces to film producer David Puttnam, who commissioned Enya to write the score for his 1985 film “The Frog Prince.” Then she started composing for the BBC television series “The Celts.” At this point, most of her work was still instrumental, but she and Nicky Ryan were starting to evolve their compositional method, involving multilayered keyboards and vocals.
“I remember I just got sick of rock ‘n’ roll,” recalls Nicky Ryan during an interview later in the day. “I was looking for music that was different and had some depth.”
Enya points out that she and Ryan had very different influences: “With me it was Irish traditional music, because I was brought up speaking Gaelic. With him it was the Beach Boys and Phil Spector. And I can hear that combination of all those influences in the music.”
In 1986 Rob Dickins, chairman of Warner Music UK, heard “The Celts,” an album of Enya’s music from the BBC series, and played it at home ceaselessly. He met her by chance at an Irish awards ceremony outside Dublin, declared his admiration--and promptly signed her.
“When I first heard her, I fell for her totally,” Dickins remembers. “But I signed her as an artist without any commercial potential at all. When I heard ‘The Celts,’ I couldn’t understand why she sang so little. I thought she had such a beautiful voice. It’s rare to find music that actually moves you as it moved me.”
Not everyone at Warner UK shared Dickins’ enthusiasm: “Other companies were signing up bands in the style of U2 and here we were, signing this ethereal Irish singer,” he says. “But I was the boss, so I got my way.”
The haunting melodies and angelic multitracked singing on “Watermark” made it a hit--though its success was triggered by the surprising popularity of the infectious track “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” which reached No. 1 on the British and Irish singles charts and No. 24 in the United States.
It now seems Enya and the Ryans showed tremendous self-assurance in spending two years on an album with no obvious commercial appeal. “I suppose so,” Enya says, “but we had our own studio, and therefore unlimited studio time. Without the studio, it would have been different, because studio time is so expensive.”
Certainly this working method has paid off, even though Nicky Ryan and Enya admit to fierce arguments. They’re an interesting contrast in personal styles--she serene and charming, he often prickly and impatient. Still, “Enya” is not merely one individual--in musical terms, it’s a trinity that includes the Ryans.
“There’s three of us working together,” Enya admits. “I’m the main performer and I write the melodies and play all the instruments, so I feel it’s very much me. But the melody only starts the ball rolling--the lyrics happen, then the arrangement. I always say ‘we’ because it’s a unique setup, and it’s only when I start talking about it that I realize how unique it is.”
When the Ryans moved to a larger home in Dalkey, and built Aigle studio on its grounds, Enya took a new house in nearby Killiney, a 20-minutes’ walk away.
What sets her apart from others is the time invested in each album. “That’s necessary, especially at the beginning, when you’ve written the melodies and you want to make sure it’s being arranged how you want,” Enya says. “You can leave a melody for two or three months, listen to it again and judge better.”
This perfectionist approach has its drawbacks.
“We’re happy to have this album behind us because it took us so long,” Nicky Ryan says. “We’re our own worst enemies in deciding when a piece is finished. I think listener fatigue sets in and we’re unable to judge whether the work’s ready.”
Dickins was asked to visit Ireland and listen to “The Memory of Trees” last year, at a point when Enya and the Ryans felt it still needed far more work. “I listened and I couldn’t understand what they meant,” he says. “Most tracks sounded absolutely superb. They were ready.”
An exception was “Anywhere Is,” which truly was incomplete, and which Enya was on the verge of rejecting from the album. “I told them to work on it because it had the makings of an obvious single,” Dickins recalls.
“In this way, I feel I’m like their bridge to the real world. I deal in commerce. I’m out there in the world, I have an idea of how people will respond to the music. Whereas they’re very isolated creatively.”
His role is acknowledged on Enya’s albums, which credit him as executive producer; his name cropped up in the lyrics of “Orinoco Flow” and a Gaelic dedication to him on “The Memory of Trees” states the album would not have been possible without him.
However odd these relationships may appear, they unquestionably fuel highly evocative music. Enya is in demand to score or supply songs for films; her work can be heard on “L.A. Story,” “Green Card,” “Far and Away” and Martin Scorsese’s “Age of Innocence,” among others.
And her work elicits deeper responses from her fans than most artists can boast. Scan through the unofficial Enya Web sites on the Internet and you come across some extraordinary contributions. One fan speculates that Enya has pagan beliefs; another, from New Zealand, responds sternly that she is a non-practicing Catholic. There is an adoring poem called “Ode to Enya” and a heartfelt appreciation of “China Roses,” a track from the new album: “Damn near cried in the music store where they were playing it,” a fan writes.
“Actually, I’m more spiritual than religious,” Enya says. “I was raised Catholic, but at this stage I derive from religion what I enjoy. I’ll pray--but I mostly enjoy going into churches when they’re empty. It’s calming just to sit there. Again, it’s like going for a walk. You just seem able to sort your priorities out.”
Still, hymns were a huge influence on her music: “The hymns I sang in church are some of the most beautiful melodies I’ve come across. Very simple, but beautiful. Sometimes in a melody when you know the note you want to sing, it makes you feel peaceful and calm. Hymns have that quality.”
This helps undercut the arguments of those who would file Enya under new age.
“I think we’ve shaken that off,” Nicky Ryan says. “Initially it was fine, but it’s really not new age. Enya plays a whole lot of instruments, not just keyboards. Her melodies are strong and she sings a lot. So I can’t see a comparison.”
Then what should we call her music? “She likes Enyaesque,” Ryan says with a smile. “And I think that’s what I’d call it too.”