An Interview with Enya, a Musician to Astral Project To
On Inspiration, Creating a New Language, and Living in a Castle Next to Bono
“I find it’s important to go to the studio to try and kind of
live with all my inspirations for a while.”
Enya’s preferred forms of entertainment:
Classic black-and-white movies
It’s hard not to picture Eithne Ní Bhraonáin entombed in velvet and surrounded by a coven of comforting witches who have trained butterflies to gently flutter their wings in rhythm with the sound of a babbling brook. Bhraonáin, who is better known by her far more easily pronounced stage name, Enya, makes music to astral-project to. In 1988, Enya had a massive, if somewhat inexplicable, hit with the song “Orinoco Flow.” At a time when Phil Collins’s “A Groovy Kind of Love” and George Michael’s “Faith” were topping the charts, “Orinoco Flow” was like a fat gust of fresh air tumbling over the Irish Sea. It blended Enya’s otherworldly voice with heavy production, world music, Celtic undertones, and a fluid rhythm quite unlike anything else out there. The song hit number one in the United Kingdom, a position it held for three weeks before ceding its title to its musical opposite—Robin Beck’s “First Time,” a hair-metal-inspired slow jam made famous in a Coca-Cola ad.
It was a turning point for the artist, who had started her career in a family band called Clannad. She had joined the group out of university at the suggestion of Nicky Ryan—Clannad’s manager, soundman, and producer. Two years and two albums later, Enya was born.
Enya is not just a person but is in fact “the triumvirate of Enya”: Enya herself composes the songs, Nicky Ryan acts as manager and arranges and produces the music, while his wife, Roma Ryan, handles lyrics. After their overwhelming success with “Orinoco Flow,” the triumvirate has gone on to record seven immensely successful studio albums. Their 1991 album, Shepherd Moons, spent 199 weeks on the US charts. The group has sold 75 million records, won four Grammy Awards and six World Music Awards, and earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for their work on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack (sung in Elvish, naturally).
While Enya has earned fervent fans across the globe, she prefers to live behind the music and rarely makes public appearances. She doesn’t perform live. In spite of this, she agreed to have a chat (never an “interview”) about her album, Dark Sky Island. Contrary to my hope, and perhaps your hope as well, Enya did not wear velvet or noticeable crystal adornments. Instead she was swathed in a chic white Dior sheath dress and sat primly on a settee. Her makeup was immaculate and her hair was expertly coiffed. She is very small, with moon-white skin that she credits to the Irish weather and her heritage.
THE BELIEVER: Are you and P. Diddy friends after you both appeared on Mario Winans’s song “I Don’t Wanna Know”?
ENYA: He phoned the studio a few times and sort of said, “We’ll meet up.” I haven’t actually met him, but he phoned quite a few times and just expressed that he was such a big fan. That was incredible to hear.
BLVR: Do you listen to his music?
ENYA: I would have known some of the songs, but we had the Fugees, we had P. Diddy, and then Nicki Minaj was the latest one who said that she was influenced by the music, so it is quite a crash.
BLVR: Hip-hop seems to like you. Do you like hip-hop?
ENYA: If it’s got a good melody, that’s what draws me in. I like every genre of music, if it’s a good melody.
BLVR: Do you have an iPod, or how do you listen to music?
ENYA: It would be the old-fashioned way: just a CD or a radio.
BLVR: So how do you get your CDs? Do people bring them to you or send them to you?
ENYA: I don’t have a big collection of CDs, as such, but so many times you’re drawn to a song and you go, “That is going to be such a big hit. Envy, envy, I wish I’d written it!”
BLVR: You don’t do many interviews. Is it hard being back on the press circuit?
ENYA: I’ve been in the studio now for three years, working on the album. Prior to that, I took a three-year break—something I’ve never done—but I needed it, and the music needed it.
BLVR: What were you doing?
ENYA: I traveled. I bought a place in the South of France, did massive renovations on it. I have family in Australia, so traveling and catching up, and basically the time just flew. But I felt that I was reenergizing my creative side, you know, for the inspirations, for the music. That’s what I felt: I needed to do that.
BLVR: And how do you reenergize your creative side?
ENYA: By just having time to yourself. Inspirations to me can be conversations with a person, about a person; a landscape; a moment, whether it’s a humorous moment, a sad moment—all of that, it’s a part of that. All those inspirations will come with me, but I’m not sure what will evolve in the studio. That’s the exciting element of it, because to me if I was standing looking at this beautiful view and I thought, I’ll write a song right away, I feel, No, no, no, if it’s strong enough it’s going to stay with you, it doesn’t matter. You know, when there’s a moment, it will stay with you. I didn’t want to impose inspirations on myself. I wanted to let it happen, a gradual sort of progression toward sort of writing new songs.
BLVR: When you are traveling, are you a typical tourist? Do you go to tourist destinations when you go to Australia?
ENYA: In Australia I’ve done the Bounty, a beautiful old ship, and you go out on the harbor with the engine, then they turn the engines off and you come sailing in and you go right under the Harbour Bridge. But I would do more cultural things. Going to the opera: I’ve been to quite a few operas—Madame Butterfly, my favorite; Carmen; La Traviata—then in January they have things like Shakespeare in the Park, because they have the weather. It’s Romeo and Juliet under the stars, and it’s just wonderful.
BLVR: So you don’t go on the koala-hugging tours?
ENYA: No, I love animals, but I would rather go to the Opera House. Mind you, during the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, the spotlight came on and a koala bear just came out.
BLVR: Have you ever been upstaged by an animal?
BLVR: What does your studio look like? Can you paint a visual portrait?
ENYA: Not too little, not too big. It kind of resembles a church. It’s a stone building with beautiful gates, ornate gates leading into the studio. Our names are actually on the gates as well.
BLVR: Do you spend hours there every day?
ENYA: I am a very slow composer. Instead of only going to the studio when I have a song—I feel that wouldn’t work for me—I find it’s important to go to the studio to try and kind of live with all my inspirations for a while.
Once I’ve written the song then I go into working with Nicky and Roma (who writes the lyrics), but the first part is myself. It’s very interesting, because once I walk in the door, the focus is on that song that I’m going to write, and you forget everything. But also, when I leave, I leave the song in the studio. It’s a lovely, slow pace. I’ll take breaks, go away for two weeks, and come back again and listen to my ideas.
BLVR: And that process works for you?
ENYA: It does, it does, because what I’m trying to capture—and what I hope I’ve captured—is that it is songs, strong melodies, emotional feelings that people can sense. When talking to fans, I ask, “Does it matter that I’m singing in Gaelic or Latin or the different languages?” And they say, “No, no, no”; they sense the emotional feeling within my performance, within the melody. They interpret their own emotions to the music, which is interesting to me. They actually adopt a song and it becomes their own.
BLVR: Does it feel like you’re giving a part of yourself away?
ENYA: In a sense, yes. For instance, Dark Sky Island—the inspiration came from Roma, because of her poetry writing. I was asking what she was working on and she told me about this island in the Channel Islands, Sark Island, where it’s the first designated “dark sky area.” There’s only six hundred people. They do not have any cars, to limit how much light there is on the island. The only way to get to the island is by boat. She was describing that the sky is quite unrecognizable to us, because we’re used to looking up and seeing landmarks. But this is where it is so vastly different because there are so many stars and planets to view. That was the first song I wrote on the album.
BLVR: Does it sound appealing to you, to move to somewhere like that?
ENYA: Not necessarily to move, but I’m fascinated. It’s so nice to hear of a place that’s a little bit of heaven. Just get on a boat, have a look at the stars. I feel that it’s important for people to make time for a moment like that. Do you look at the tree that you pass every day? We shouldn’t really lose sight of what’s there, because life is hard enough.
BLVR: Have you ever considered buying a ticket to space?
BLVR: How come? It sounds like you would like it, with the stars and getting a different view of the world.
ENYA: It’s a little bit too much of the unknown for me.
BLVR: You’d rather stay home and watch EastEnders or Eurovision?
ENYA: Not EastEnders, I don’t, no, no, no. [Laughs] I would watch classic movies—Rebecca, that’s my favorite—black-and-white movies. Now with the facility of being able to record programs that you would like to watch, it’s really nice, when you get a chance to watch TV, to watch something that you have recorded for yourself. There’s a lot of stuff on TV that I’m not really interested in, like soaps and stuff like that.
BLVR: So what shows do you like?
ENYA: Breaking Bad!
BLVR: Are you a big Breaking Bad fan?
ENYA: Huge fan. It’s wonderful. Myself, Nicky, and Roma are huge fans of Breaking Bad. We just didn’t miss an episode. I like Mad Men as well.
BLVR: When you talk about watching TV with Nicky and Roma, do you consider them friends or family?
ENYA: We’re very, very close, because I’m godmother to their daughter, who’s now a mother, who has a child.
BLVR: You’ve known each other for thirty years now.
ENYA: Yes. It’s a long time, but what drew us to each other was that we all had different ideas—musically, lyrically, poetry—we all brought something different to the studio, and we still do. When we were working on Amarantine, we had just previously worked on Lord of the Rings and I sung in Elvish—to add to the Gaelic and the Latin, it was Elvish—and there was a particular song, “The River Sings,” and we couldn’t find the right language to sing in. That’s where Roma said, “You know what?”—because she’d studied the Elvish language and she could follow how Tolkien had created the fictional language—and she said, you know, “I’m gonna have a go at doing a fictional language,” and we went, “Great.” In the studio, if anybody has an idea, it’s “Why not?” and “Great!” There’s never an “Are you sure?”
BLVR: Even when it extends to creating a completely new language, like Loxian, you’re like, “Great, go for it”?
ENYA: Exactly, so there’s that encouragement—three people, it’s just the right number for encouragement all the time in the studio. There’s not a lot of questions.
BLVR: To go back to Loxian for a minute, did you have to learn a whole language, or did you just learn the words for the song?
ENYA: Firstly, she did it song by song. What she did was, she gave it to me phonetically, but it sounds very like the sounds I was making and some of the Gaelic that I speak. Some of the sounds I could identify with, so they were very easy for me to sing, but then when she started to create the Loxian world and the Loxian people it was just so wonderful.
BLVR: Do you ever play the online game?
ENYA: I haven’t, but I could see it. It’s just fantastic.
BLVR: Is Loxian a regular feature of your music now?
ENYA: For the album And Winter Came, there was no Loxian, because there was no song that suited the language. For this album, there’s two songs in Loxian.
BLVR: Can you say something in Loxian?
ENYA: No, no, it would be what I would sing.
BLVR: So we couldn’t have conducted the interview in Loxian?
ENYA: No, no.
BLVR: How do you feel about the title “new age”?
ENYA: I felt that title was given to any musician whom critics didn’t know how to pigeonhole. Watermark was so different, and where do you put it in a record shop?
BLVR: I feel like the fact that your lyrics include things like angels and Celts flying through space kind of lends them a sense of new ageness. Do you feel like that’s a fair assessment?
ENYA: I wouldn’t say it was new age, because a lot of new age music is very instrumental. And they wouldn’t have such strong lyrics as Roma’s poetry. That is something that I feel would make the difference, you know?
BLVR: Do you believe in angels?
ENYA: Well, guardian angels.
BLVR: Did the success of “Orinoco Flow” let you buy your castle?
ENYA: Well, I suppose so. I wasn’t intending on buying the castle, but I was actually living in the same area, in an apartment, and I decided I wanted to invest in a bigger property. I could’ve walked to the castle, but it’s so hidden you don’t know that it exists. It’s a small little road, Victoria Road, and the castle used to be called Victoria Castle, and it was built in 1840, and it was this wealthy landowner, Lord Warren, who lived on a big estate beside it; he built it hoping that Queen Victoria would visit.
BLVR: Did she visit it?
ENYA: She didn’t. She did not.
BLVR: How rude!
ENYA: He built a castle for her! He got this fantastic architect, and it’s on a hill, and it’s overlooking Dalkey Island, looking out at the Irish Sea. The surround is all of trees and then to the right you’re looking at the Wicklow Mountains, and Wicklow is known as “the Garden of Ireland”: the view is spectacular.
BLVR: Isn’t Wicklow Gardens also supposed to have a lot of leprechauns or sprites?
ENYA: Well, there, and the biggest area I’ve heard of is Kerry. If they exist, I don’t know, but that’s where you should go if you are interested.
BLVR: Growing up in Ireland, did people expect sprites and fairies and leprechauns to be around, or were they just sort of folklore?
ENYA: It’s all folklore, but we absolutely adore our stories, you know. My grandfather was a great storyteller, and what he would do is he would begin a story and he wouldn’t finish it that evening. That’s what they did: great storytellers will capture you, and then say, “No, no, no, I’ll finish it tomorrow,” and you are so excited to hear. For a child, it’s a lovely experience.
BLVR: It’s the ultimate cliff-hanger.
ENYA: Yeah, it is!
BLVR: I hear your castle is next door to Bono’s castle?
ENYA: He lives nearby, yeah.
BLVR: Has Bono ever had parties and you’ve had to call the cops?
ENYA: I wouldn’t hear that far, but it is a small area and you do bump into each other in restaurants, and Dublin is quite small, so we would see each other.
BLVR: Do you get recognized when you go out?
ENYA: Yes and no. Sometimes you think you’re in an environment where nobody will know you—in Australia and walking into a shop with my sister—and the next thing, what I get—this is what I get: “You know who you look like?” and I stand there, and because I don’t say anything they go, “Is it you?” And then I feel it’s not fair to say no, so then I will—my smile kind of gives it away. But that’s something that I would get.
BLVR: And is that awkward for you or do you just sort of accept it at this point?
ENYA: No, no, no, my fans really understand me and give me space. They’ll ask for an autograph and they’ll just leave. They are very understanding to the way that I like to live, and to the fact that I’ve always pushed the music, rather than myself, forward. I always say that fame and success are two different things.
This interview originally appeared in The Believer Vol. 14 No. 1