Enya breaks her silence on fame, privacy and music
It’s seven years since Enya has given an Irish interview. After 80 million album sales, she tells Lauren Murphy why it has never been about hiding away, but rather safeguarding her privacy
Enya. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
The less you tell people, the more they want to know. That maxim has never been more true than in the case of Enya, who – if you were to believe half of what you hear – only ventures outside of her Killiney castle once every seven years to bestow an album upon her adoring public, before disappearing back into the mist to the sound of crying angels.
So when you’re half-expecting a diva with an intense stare, flowing sleeves and an entourage of assistants throwing rose petals at her feet to waltz boldly into the plush suite of a Dublin 4 hotel, you’re rather taken aback by the petite, soft-spoken and smiling middle-aged woman who greets you with a warm handshake instead.
The truth is, Enya is kind of . . . well . . . normal. Or at least as normal as you might expect Ireland’s biggest-selling solo artist of all time to be. She doesn’t look like she’s aged in the past 20 years, the same pale skin and dark eyes steadily holding your gaze as she pulls up a pew on the sofa, only the barest trace of her Donegal accent still audible in her voice.
She is here to talk about her forthcoming eighth album Dark Sky Island, and today she has been conducting her first Irish interviews in seven years. Not to be blunt about it, but why has she decided to talk to the press this time around?
“I’ve done interviews for all the albums,” she protests, “but I suppose it depends on where I am [in the world]. I’ve already been to New York, America, Germany, London . . . so sometimes it’s only maybe been two interviews, and it could be to London and [dependent on] the availability to get journalists to go there. So it’s actually a chance to do more Irish press for the first time. It wasn’t a case of I had to or I hadn’t; it was just a case of right place, right time.”
She may be dispelling the “enigma” myth with every passing sentence, but when you don’t make a habit of turning up on red carpets, at swanky nightclubs or in the front row of fashion shows, people will inevitably imagine you as some sort of recluse. It has never been about hiding away, but rather safeguarding her privacy. She is right to be cautious about her private space, having had issues with stalkers in the past – most prominently in 2005 when a man broke into her home and tied up one of her staff before Gardaí arrived.
Her personal life, in fact, has never been delved into in detail. Even though she wears rings on her wedding finger, her replies to questions on her relationship status in past interviews have cast doubt upon the compatibility of her lifestyle with a relationship, going as far as to say, “Falling madly in love and getting married would be the most horrific thing that could happen”.
On the topic of children, she told the Telegraph in 2008: “People would say to me, ‘Do you want to settle down and have a family?’ and I would say, ‘If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen’. I didn’t think, ‘Oh My God! I’d better settle down and have a family’. Why should anyone make me feel this is what I should do? Why? Whatever path you go down, you should feel comfortable with it.’”
In any case, she has been canny enough to have managed her public persona from the very early days.
“From the beginning, with [breakthrough album] Watermark, the success came with the music,” she explains of her public perception. “People loved enjoying listening to Orinoco Flow and then the album – but they didn’t know if [Enya] was a band; they didn’t know anything . . . Because the focus was on the music, firstly, I didn’t know that I had to become famous to sell it. There’s no rulebook, so I felt like if I was younger, maybe I would have done things differently. But I was 27, I was really excited about the music – and therefore, I asked questions about the interviews and the promotion that I was doing. I’d say, ‘What does this entail? Does it focus on the music? Or is it going to make me more famous?’. And sometimes, when it was more focused on me, I actually would refuse, because I didn’t feel the necessity. I wasn’t looking for the fame; it was more the success that I enjoyed.
“I’d do the promotion and I’d enjoy talking about the music – but then it was back to work on another album. And it was important to me to retain privacy, because I was kind of worried that fame might interfere with my writing, with my music; that it might have changed what I was working on. I was guarding everything really carefully and closely.”
Now 54, Enya has officially spent over half of her life as a solo artist; since the release of Watermark in 1988 she has achieved success on a global scale, selling a reported 80 million albums worldwide. What is even more remarkable about that figure is that she has not had to tour her albums – an odd quirk that some waggish journo once coined as “Enyanomics”’ As much as possible, the monumental facts and figures and glowing sense of achievement are left at the door when she enters the studio.
“As soon as I walk into the studio, the last piece I was working on is all I think about, therefore you don’t bring all that with you,” she says, shaking her head. “I felt it was wrong to think, ‘Oh my God, Watermark was so successful; I need to do another Watermark.’ I thought that it was best to leave the expectations and all of that outside the door. When I’m told figures and things like that, and the longevity of the career, it’s only moments that I think of it. But I’m certainly amazed that I’m here so many years later – especially with the seven-year gap. The patience of the fans is tremendous.”
It was never the intention to have such a long gap between albums, but life gets in the way, even when you’re Enya. She took three years off before commencing work on Dark Sky Island in 2012, buying a house in the south of France – she splits her time between there and Dublin – and doing a bit of travelling.
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“I just did things that I wanted to do,” she says, shrugging. “All of these inspirations you get from a landscape somewhere else, a story you were told by a person, anything at all. I still felt, ‘I’ll go back to the music when it’s time’. Then it was 2012, March, April; that was it. I thought, ‘Oh. I have to be somewhere else’. I wanted to be back recording music, performing music.”
She raises an eyebrow at the thoughts of beginning her career in 2015, citing the first deal that she signed in the late 1980s as proof of how much the industry has changed. “1988 was a very different time,” she says, nodding. “Even signing a record contract, for me – an unknown artist signing with Warner Music UK – I said that I needed three years between each album. You wouldn’t get that kind of contract today. I was very excited about being signed for a solo album, but I still also thought, ‘I can’t do an album a year, if that’s what they expect’. I was always thinking about the music.”
She does keep up with contemporary artists, in case you’re wondering. “Sam Smith, Adele; wonderful singers, great writers,” she enthuses, beaming. “Her album is stunning. She’s had a few years of a break, but she’s all about the music as well. All of her training, school, college of music and everything – and a fantastic singer.”
Back in 1988 – or even when her last album was released in 2008 – streaming services such as Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music were not in existence. How does she feel about the constantly shifting sands when it comes to plying her wares?
“The last few years have been really awful – but to me, they’re finding their way back again,” she says of the record companies. “I feel that things will settle down. When the Kindle came out, everybody rushed . . . but now, the sales of books are still good. I think it’ll never go back to what it was, but I think it will settle down from this intense rush of everybody having to have everything immediately. I think it can’t keep up at this pace.”
For an artist whose music is sewn into the fabric of so many cultures and genres – her music has been sampled by everyone from The Fugees to Rihanna and has been parodied in South Park – you may assume that cultural identity and feeling part of a “scene” becomes less significant when you have fame on such a massive scale. Not so, she says.
“I would meet up with other [Irish] musicians more on a private basis – but the musical influence of being Irish is always going to be there,” she says, shaking her head. “Being brought up in the northwest of Ireland in a Gaeltacht area with Gaelic my first language; I know I’ve studied classical music, but the roots of traditional music will always be there, because there’s this sense of melancholy that’s within the music. I always think that Irish music is very passionate, it’s been passed on to generations and has a great history – so I feel that is always going to be with me.”
She makes it back to Gweedore regularly, although her days of singing in the local choir on Christmas Eve have passed.
“I used to, but my mum’s retired,” she smiles. “She used to be the organist there, and my dad was an organist in another church – but that hasn’t happened for quite a few years. But I would go home any time there’s a few days.”
In fact, there is a loose, yet important connection to Gweedore with this new album, Dark Sky Island – the title track of which is named for Sark, the smallest and least-known of the Channel Islands. Working with her long-time lyricist Roma Ryan and her producer Nicky Ryan – the man she credits with helping to fine-tune her trademark “layered vocal” sound in the 1980s – she draws parallels between the night sky of her remote home village, and that of Sark.
“During the break, [Roma] continued writing poetry and she was writing a series of poems on islands, one of them being Sark island. They were the first island to be designated a ‘dark sky area’ – so much so that they banned all cars on the island and the only means to get there is by boat. It was a great inspiration, and the first song that I wrote for the album.”
The Ryans, who are in the suite next door, have been instrumental in Enya’s success over the past three decades – so much so that she has never worked with an outside creative team. Yet she has never had a desire to work with other lyricists or producers: if it ain’t broke, as the saying goes, don’t fix it.
“I get to work with people who have always encouraged me,” she says, shrugging. “They have brought it to where it is; they have believed in me, and as a singer and a musician, you really do need people around you that believe in you from day one, instead of going, ‘Now you wrote that – can you write something like this?’. They just kept saying ‘Go for it!’ . . .
“Any album you’ve done, it’s not that you’re trying to recreate what you’ve already done. For some people, they say, ‘Oh, but it sounds similar’ – but that’s because it’s my voice. I feel that every time I go to the studio, I have this great sense of freedom. I can go in there and write whatever I want – so in that regard, I’m really happy with the situation how it is.”
There have been several surprises throughout Enya’s career – she talks about the unexpected success of her song Only Time in the wake of 9/11, the proceeds of which she donated to the families of fire fighters affected by the tragedy – but it sounds like there are more surprises yet to come.
She has performed live intermittently over the years, but never toured. The compromise that she is considering is a ‘Let the mountain come to Mohammed’ scenario, bringing audiences to a residency-style set up similar to the ones undertaken by Kate Bush and Prince in London in recent years.
“Instead of just going on tour – because it’s 27 years of music that has not been on stage – Nicky had the idea of going into a fantastic studio like Abbey Road with a choir and an orchestra and me, and we would record a live performance of all of the songs,” she says. “So then we could hear the rendering and what it requires for stage. Somebody said to me, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice for you, the piano and singing?’ and I thought ‘Yeah!’. Some of the songs could be myself, [some could be with a] big choir. It is something that we are talking about at the moment. We’ll try it, and then take it from there.”
She would like to do another song for a film soundtrack at some point, citing her Oscars performance in 2002 with May It Be from the The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring as a career highlight. There are still ambitions and challenges to be ticked off, but at the end of the day it all comes down to the simplest of truths.
“Longevity is all any artist dreams of,” she says with a smile, weary after a long afternoon of divulging her innermost thoughts. “It is something you really feel good about, when your albums are still listened to.” All 80 million of them.
Dark Sky Island is released next Friday, November 20th Essential Enya Orinoco Flow, from Watermark (1988) Only a stone-hearted gargoyle could fail to feel anything as the chorus of this song rushes in like a waterfall and bubbles gleefully over into euphoria. Make up your own words, if you must.
Orinoco Flow, from Watermark (1988)
Only a stone-hearted gargoyle could fail to feel anything as the chorus of this song rushes in like a waterfall and bubbles gleefully over into euphoria. Make up your own words, if you must.
Caribbean Blue, from Shepherd Moons (1991)
Lyrics that reference Greek gods, an earworm of a melody and a style that takes in everything from classical to folk, pop and new-age music – what’s not to like? (Random fact: a young Martine McCutcheon features in the video for this song.)
Boadicea, from The Celts (1992)
This is the hip hop star’s choice of Enya song; everyone from The Fugees (who narrowly escaped a lawsuit after failing to seek permission) to Mario Winans to Meek Mill have sampled the eerie track.
Only Time, from A Day Without Rain (2000)
A song that was used prominently in the US media for its 9/11 coverage, its uplifting lyrics and soothing melody became an anthem for renewed hope in the country – and elsewhere, too. The album eventually became Enya’s biggest hit worldwide.
Sancta Maria, from Dark Sky Island (2015)
“As a classically trained pianist, I thought I’d love to do something with the idea of Ave Maria,” she explains. “I thought it’d be slow and melancholy, as a lot of my melodies are – but the next thing, there’s this big celebration.”