Over the course of three decades and with 80 million records sold, Enya has morphed into more than musician: She's her own adjective. What makes her music — and the mysterious woman behind it — appealing to so many? Anne Helen Petersen visits the reclusive singer in Ireland.
Everyone knows how to get to Enya’s castle. At least everyone in Killiney, the sloping oceanside village 45 minutes out of Dublin. Walk past a massive public park, where paths thread by a resting quarry and an obelisk, erected in 1740 to distract the Irish peasants from the hard year that had come before. From there, it’s a quick stroll down the road, past the groundskeeper’s cottage that’s now a coffee shop, and through a stone gate that narrows an already spindly road.
Here, you’ll pass clumps of walkers taking the air, most with golden retrievers, all with sturdy anoraks in sensible colors. Those walkers don’t pause when they pass the place in the 8-foot stone wall where a legit turret peeks over massive wooden gates — where, if you look closely, you can see the seam in the stone wall where Enya added four additional feet of height when she moved in back in the late ‘90s. Surveillance cameras eye and remind: Enya does not accept visitors unbidden.
The castle is small, as castles go: just six bedrooms. But when Enya moved in, she redid them all. And the bathrooms, which she’s filled with Lalique glass — a word she pronounces like it were a bonbon melting on her tongue. Her bedroom has no curtains, just shutters, and when she opens them each morning, the Irish sea sprawls out before her. There are the Wicklow Mountains in one direction, and there's Dalkey Island, where the mystical stones of the druids still mystify, in the other. “I open those shutters, and the sea, it’s different ev-er-y day,” she says. “It’s very inspiring to me. I just look at the view, and if it’s overcast and raining, no matter: I never tire of it.” Her bedroom, Enya tells me, is her favorite room.
Traditionally, castles were passed through family lines. Enya — whose wealth is estimated at $136 million, about double that of Chris Martin — bought her own. But unlike her neighbor Bono, whose income stems from massive world tours, Enya does not tour, and never has toured. She submits to minimal press. She takes up to seven years between albums. Yet she has sold a total of 80 million records, and is one of a dwindling group whose records people are willing to buy.
Her success so deeply contradicts accepted industry wisdom that it’s inspired a term — “Enya-nomics” — to describe it. Several years ago, she was invited to Harvard Business School to discuss the subject, but, like most invitations, Enya declined. Her underexposure, after all, is at the heart of both Enya-nomics and her appeal. Unlike other local celebrities — Bono, The Edge, Van Morrison, Pierce Brosnan, director Neil Jordan — who’ll make odd appearances at the local establishment, Enya is seldom seen outside the walls of her castle. One shopkeeper claims to have seen a woman matching her description in a tracksuit, but the idea of Enya in a tracksuit boggles the mind. No one knows much about her private life, save that she’s close to her family, hasn’t been married, and enjoys old Hollywood.
There are no photos of Enya in pants, or without the makeup that emphasizes her alabaster skin and dark, pooling eyes. Her look, like her sound, is markedly different from the norms of musical celebrity: her pitch black hair trimmed short, her clothes Arthurian. On her album covers, Enya’s always posed against a backdrop of nature or old regency; the cover of her 1988 breakthrough album Watermark renders her the subject of an impressionist painting.
Her look, like her sound, seems to exist outside of time. In her songs, there are no references to objects, technological or otherwise: just emotions, swells, landscapes, time. In her real life, she checks her email once every few weeks, and even then, very quickly. “It feels so cold,” she says, making a face like she’d bitten into a lemon. “The energy is no good. I’d rather go for a walk.”
It is as if a woman of the 18th century, renowned for her beauty and voice, was transplanted to the present, where she would sell as many albums as Beyoncé and baffle all industry experts. She transcends centuries, but she also exceeds hierarchies of cool. Her style has been derogatorily described as Muzak or New Age — the aural approximation of a warm bath — but might be more fairly described as ancient choral music on synth steroids.
Enya, for her part, describes her genre of music as “Enya.” It’s played at weddings. It’s in car commercials. It made the Fugees’ “Ready or Not” feel like an incantation. It’s perfect at Christmas. After 9/11, it was all over CNN. People probably don’t have much sex to Enya, but women have assuredly orgasmed to it. It’s at once stunningly flexible and spectacularly safe.
Enya is basic, which is to say, she’s elemental: sacred without religion. And as she prepares to release her eighth studio album — and first in seven years — the conversation isn’t about reinventing herself for the digital age, or “Enya’s Second Act.” Her career is like a continuously held note: a single tone, but a rich one, shielded, at least to this point, from the vagaries of the age and industry. Which isn’t to say it’s been easy. It’s taken years of work — of carefully cultivated mystery, of continuous self-effacement — for Enya to feel this inevitable and eternal. For her to become not just an artist, but an adjective.
That’s the feel of the listening party for the new album, Dark Sky Island, held on a blustery day in October: very Enya. Warner Bros. Records, her label since the days of “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” is throwing an event that makes you feel like CDs are selling for $17.99 apiece all over again. Even the invitation, which promises “canapés,” feels like a throwback. It’s at an Upper East Side marbled mansion, with a spiraling marble staircase that, as you ascend, reveals Enya’s name projected on the ceiling above. The crowd skews young and hip — a mix of music journalists and Warner employees flown in for the occasion. One, in his late thirties, tells me that seeing Enya has been his life’s dream: “I’ve seen Cher and Adam Lambert, so now I’ve seen them all.”
Clustered at small cocktail tables, everyone’s invited to turn off cell phones so as to “replicate the experience” of the locale invoked by the album — a real island, Sark, off the coast of France, where the 600 residents have committed to emitting no light pollution. People start closing their eyes, trancelike — even the journalists with the coolest hair — and get that softened look people get in their faces when watching a wedding, or a sunset. The "Enya" look.
When the intro to “Echoes in Rain” plays, the exec sitting in front of me goes nuts, in a subdued, candlelit way. “This is the shit!” he whisper-shouts. Then there’s a ballad, “So I Could Find My Way,” that a journalist will later tell Enya will be perfect for a breakup scene in a rom-com, and “Sancta Maria,” the sort of escalating march to which my brother and I would’ve made an intricately choreographed dance when we were 6 and 9.
An exec from Warner Music UK comes out and effuses about Enya and her 80 million records. When he mentions that Enya’s one of the only artists who’s been on their roster since the ‘80s, it’s with gratitude, tinged with just the slightest bit of desperation. And while her albums have performed well (A Day Without Rain sold 15 million and became the fifth-biggest international album of 2001; Amaratine, released in 2005, sold 6.5 million copies; her Christmas album, And Winter Came, sold 3 million in 2008), the numbers for Dark Sky Island won't be what they used to be, even for an artist whose core audience might still buy CDs. For the first time, Enya is talking publicly, and seriously, about the idea of a tour.
In the meantime, she's adapting to this new landscape. A 2013 Volvo ad with Jean-Claude Van Damme featuring her 2000 single "Only Time" has been viewed 81 million times on YouTube and launched the song back into Billboard's Hot 100 over a decade after its initial release. The song has 36 million streams on Spotify, where Enya's artist channel has 1.2 million monthly listeners; there's a reliable market for music that can meld so seamlessly into the background.
"In the next year you'll start to see all kinds of usages for the songs on Dark Sky Island," says Dion Singer, executive vice president of creative at Warner Bros. "It's all about finding ways of exposing her music while being absolutely aware that it needs to keep the elegance and respect of her compositions. We can also see how being in films and commercials kept her music so front-of-mind. It's exciting when you see how many people stream her entire catalog every week and the different kinds of playlists she ends up on."
Enya emerges from the shadows wearing a full-length black taffeta dress and a velvet shrug. She’s 54, but she has the skin of someone much younger — or someone who spends most of her time in an Irish castle. She looks like a mix of Deanna Troi and my mom, which is to say, she is the most beautiful woman in the world. She appears, nods as the room applauds her, and disappears without a word. “Now, for a light mingle,” the exec announces.
In the next room, Enya has a receiving line, like a bride in all black. Everyone has a story to tell her: Here is what you mean to me; here is where your music made room in my life. “Was that a harpsichord I heard on ‘Sancta Maria’?” someone asks. “Oh, we never reveal our secrets,” she says, with a half-smile.
She’s referring to the work of the so-called “triad” that make up Enya, the musical entity. Enya conjures the melodies; husband-and-wife team Nicky and Roma Ryan are responsible for the production (him) and lyrics (her). Nicky Ryan is a student of Phil Spector’s famed “wall of sound” school of production, and applies the same principle to each of Enya’s songs, layering her voice up to 500 times, then adding in a mix of instruments, some of which Enya plays and others he’s sampled. Nicky and Roma go everywhere that Enya goes, and they’re here at the listening party, holding court, flanking her during the dinner party and staying even after Enya glides away before the dessert course arrives.
I ask the twentysomething waiter if he’d ever heard of Enya. He pauses, looks over at a poster of her face on the wall, and says, “That’s her song in that car commercial with Van Damme, right?”
Enya, born Eithne Ni Bhraonáin, grew up in the Northwest corner of Ireland in a town called Gweedore, in County Donegal. “There’s the mountains, the bitter Atlantic, and that’s it,” Enya explains. Her father led a band before opening up the family pub; her mother was a piano teacher, but had little time to teach Enya, the sixth of nine children. She grew up speaking Gaelic and was regularly summoned — at family gatherings, at the pub, wherever — to sing in front of crowds. “At 3 years of age, I used to go to singing competitions,” she says. “And part of the competition would be for the whole family, and we’d have to sing harmonies after hearing a song once. I never found it strange.”
Enya was in the deep middle of the birth order. “Let’s say there’d be a question like ‘Will we go to the pictures today?’" Enya recalls. “What chance did I have to say yes or no?” At this, she laughs: It’s not a point of resentment. “By the time it came down to number five, — that’s me — it was just like, Here we go. It was difficult to be heard, but I was very comfortable with that because I was able to be myself, able to be let alone.” Enya taught herself to play the piano on her own, borrowing her mother’s instructional books, leading herself through the levels. “I got the duets, and I asked my sister to play a bit, and she’d refuse. I’d say, ‘I’ll give you my sweets for a week if you play it!’”
Growing up amid The Troubles, she learned to live with the quiet terrors of everyday life. The “six counties” occupied by Britain separated Enya’s hometown from Dublin, and her family was regularly pulled over and searched on the way and back. “You’d go into a shop in Derry and you’d be checked by people standing with guns,” Enya says. “And my family, we’d have to be careful speaking Gaelic: If you did, you were pinpointing where you came from, and it was too political at the time. Whereas for us, it was our first language, and we didn’t see anything wrong with it.”
As a child, Enya had resigned herself to attending the local school, which lacked a music program. A nearby boarding school did, but the family was already paying for private school for three of Enya’s siblings. “I thought, Oh well, it’s not possible to send us all. But I was very close to my granddad and grandma, and they took me there one day and showed me around, and asked if I’d like to go. There was choir, and there was music, and at the time I was reading Malory Towers and all the boarding school books, and I just thought it was going to be all midnight feasts — I was over the moon.”
At this, Enya gets the sort of look on her face that former campers do when describing their childhood summers. “Parents ask me, ‘I don’t know whether to send my kid to boarding school,’ and I say, 'It’s either for you or it’s not.' And it was definitely, definitely for me.”
Meanwhile, three of Enya’s siblings and twin uncles were in a band, Clannad, that was starting to receive notice in Ireland. Nicky was their manager, and listened closely when Enya’s sister, Maire, told him about Enya’s incredible vocal range. “I knew what she could be,” he says, admitting that Enya’s beauty was part of the equation. When Nicky clashed with others in the group over their drinking, Enya had a choice. “Stay with us or be famous or go with him and be nothing,” the ultimatum supposedly went. Enya went with Nicky — and watched as Clannad’s popularity exploded in 1982, when “Theme from Harry’s Game,” sung entirely in Gaelic, became an international hit.
If Enya regretted her decision, it doesn’t come out in the telling. “Those were some of the simplest and happiest times,” Roma says. They cobbled together a studio in the background, auguring the soundboard with a blowtorch, and Nicky, whose aptitude and reputation for mixing sound was becoming gradually known, made a living producing the albums of traditional Irish groups. Meanwhile, Enya composed, fiddled, and worked with Nicky to produce the distinct vocal layering and synth sampling that would become her trademark. That sound wouldn’t go public until 1986, when she was commissioned to compose the soundtrack to the BBC miniseries The Celts, and Enya, the monolithic entity, was born.
“That’s when I convinced her to change the spelling of her name to Enya,” Nicky says. “Before, it was spelled the way it’s spelled it Gaelic: Eithne. But I knew that anyone who’s not Irish would look at that and say ‘Eth-ney.' So I told her, ‘Why don’t we spell it phonetically?’” They also dropped her last name, a decision that no one will explain, but they do chuckle at the mention of all the great divas who’ve gone by one name: Madonna, Cher, Beyoncé, and Adele — an artist whose return after five years away and general reluctance, when it comes the public eye, mirrors Enya’s own.
“Adele put music first,” Enya says. “I know that. She took a big break!” At this, there’s delight in Enya’s voice, as if she and Adele are on the same mystically reticent team.
Reticence has been her posture from beginning, when, after the 1988 release of Watermark, people were showing up en masse to the record store demanding the “Sail Away” song — prompting the label to give the track, originally entitled “Orinoco Flow,” its parenthetical second half for the remaining 11 million sold. When Enya first sat for interviews, she was shy and receding, as amazed as everyone else that a sound like hers would find itself sandwiched between Bon Jovi and MC Hammer. In her first national American interview in 1989, she and Joan Lunden smiled warmly at each other with matching haircuts of different shades. Enya was even more soft-spoken than she is now — and clearly overwhelmed. “It was such a whirl,” Enya recalls of that time. “But from the beginning, I didn’t feel like a celebrity. When people heard 'Orinoco Flow,' they didn’t know if it was a band, if it was a man or a woman; they had no idea. So I had to be the spokesperson for the music.”
Shepherd Moons, her 1991 follow-up to Watermark, spent 238 weeks on the Billboard charts; Paint the Sky With Stars, her 1997 greatest hits compilation, hung out there for four years; in 2000, a radio-friendly remix of “Only Time,” the lead single from A Day Without Rain, hit No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary Chart. It appeared in commercials for everything from Friends to benefits for the survivors of 9/11, effectively sealing Enya’s role as life’s ambient soundtrack.
It also cemented the collective fortunes of Enya, Nicky, and Roma, which are unassumingly on display at the studio designed uniquely for their use, off the Ryans' gated home in Killiney. The road there used to be a quaint avenue, with trees on either side so high they’d touch in the middle. Now it’s more like a thoroughfare, and one of several things that, in Nicky’s words, “niggle” him, including the leashless dogs of Killiney Park, and every single song he’s ever produced. Like Enya, he’s a perfectionist, the drawbacks of which he discusses as we pull into the driveway, where an interior gate trimmed with golden stars and the names "NICKY," "ENYA," "ROMA" guard the entryway to the studio.
“It’s a bit much, but I don’t care what other people think,” Nicky says. “We got it when Paint the Sky With Stars hit four years on the American charts. ”
The entrance to the studio is lined with awards: four Grammys and dozens of others — from Japan, from Germany, from the Phoenix Film Critics Society. There’s a giant piece of glass etched with the cover of Shepherd Moons.
“Radio City Music Hall sent this to her in the hope she would do 15 concerts there,” Nicky narrates. “But, she didn’t.” From the control room, you can see into the recording space, where a Steinway piano, three antique mics, and a well-cushioned white leather easy chair form a loose triangle. There’s a particularly soothing incense-like smell — “that’s Enya’s doing” — and a wall-to-wall curtain, which, with one button, recedes to reveal a massive acreage, an entire avenue of trees.
It’s the first time back to the studio in months — enough time for the Steinway to go woefully out of tune. After the release of the Christmas-themed album And Winter Came in 2008, they took an indeterminate break. “I felt I didn’t know what to do,” Enya would later tell me. “I thought I needed a break, and the music needed a break.” That break ended up spanning three years. “I know it sounds like a long time,” she said, “but to me, it felt like six months.” Eventually, Roma shared some of poems she’d been writing — rotating around the loose concept of the “dark sky island” of Sark. Only then did she finally feel the urge to come back.
Nicky plays one of the bonus tracks from the album. “We always controlled the music,” he says. “From the beginning, we never allowed an A&R man here, or anyone who wanted to deviate or move the album in any direction.” Enya has never worked with anyone other than Nicky and Roma — and, since pairing with Enya, Nicky and Roma have never worked with anyone but her.
He starts to say more, but there’s a bustling sound at the door: “The girls are here!” Roma and Enya enter, a flurry of kisses and velvet overcoats.
“Welcome to our home!” Enya says. “Did you get a chance to see Dalkey? It’s a nice wee village. Did you do the trip to Bono’s house?”
“Neil Jordan lives out on the point,” Nicky adds. “You’ll see him walking about the park.”
It’s unclear whether it’s just happenstance that every major Irish celebrity lives within five miles of one another. “When I moved out here, I had no idea about who lived here,” Enya tells me.
“But it’s the Bel-Air of Dublin,” Nicky says.
“I had no idea!” Enya insists.
“Well, your house was the first one on the lane!”
Enya laughs, concedes. When she laughs, as when she speaks, it’s even-toned, like there’s an upper register of emotion to where she’ll allow herself. “It was, it was, back in Victorian times." Now she overlooks Bono’s house. “It’s really quite covered,” she says bashfully. “There’s a lot of trees. But you do see the top of his house.”
“We meet very often,” she admits. “Because of the areas we frequent to eat, I see a lot of him.”
Like at a small seafood place down near the shore, where the trio would break for lunch every day at 1:30 while recording. But it’s different here than in America — there are no paparazzi waiting to catch them. “You can get your privacy,” Nicky says. “Enya can go there undisturbed.”
“We go in for a little bit of conversation, a little banter with the staff about their weddings; it’s so tiny, noisy. Brilliant food and so fast,” Enya adds.
And then it’s back to the studio, where they usually work until 5 or 6, at which point Enya’s driver arrives to whisk her back the short miles to the castle.
Enya has what Americans would call resting bitchface, mixed with a general shyness, which has led many commentators to call her aloof or snobby. In person, it just feels like she’s operating on an entirely different wavelength — like everyone else is speaking in the crazy, sped-up sound of nightmares, and only Enya’s figured out the right pacing. She pauses, always, before answering; she rarely inserts herself into a conversation, and she feels no need to fill silences.
And yet, the oddest things — the economics of fast fashion, Alfred Hitchcock, Irish breakfast — can get her excited.
“You tried black pudding!” referring to the Irish “delicacy,” a sort of grainy blood sausage, she says. “You’re very brave,” proceeding to list all the parts of the animals, once the dietary provenance of the poor, that we treat as delicacies today. “Like pig trotters,” says Nicky, who grew up in the working-class end of Dublin. “Had them all growing up. When people are poor, people are poor: There’s no part of the animal that wasn’t used.”
“But how did you tackle them?” Enya asks.
“You just put your fork in the whole thing, no matter the fat and the hair,” he replies.
Enya and Roma both suck in a breath. “I cooked oxtail and tongue when I was at boarding school,” Enya says. “But I never ate it.” She pronounces “ate” like “ette.” “You think oxtail soup is very refined, and then you see the tail in front of you, and you think, That is a tail.”
For a late lunch, they’ve decided on the Powerscourt Estate — a 20-minute drive away, through winding, stone-enclosed roads with the sun peeking through. We drive in a Maybach — “There were only two in all of Ireland,” Nicky says. “But then the other one crashed, so it’s one of a kind” — with privacy curtains on the back window, and a massive faux-fur lining the backseats. She and Roma huddle close in the back like a pair of sisters, deep in discussion about the squirrels they’d spotted in the trees along the drive. When Nicky rounds a hairpin turn and a car nearly hits him, Enya lets out a small gasp.
As we crown the hill of the sprawling, 47-acre estate, the light is saturated with golden yellow from hundreds of beech trees at the height of the turn of fall. It’s raining light. And then there’s the hotel, with a chandelier the size of a Smart car in the shape of a birdcage, wall-to-ceiling windows that look out on the grounds where guests spot deer and foxes, scampering abound in the way of an Irish storybook.
Walking the length of the entryway, Enya nods once, twice, at various men heading the service: This is Enya’s territory. “There’s a delightful little pub downstairs,” she explains as we sit down. “So wee, just a few spots, but you can get a proper pint.” (When confronted with the rumor that, back in 1988, she could “drink anyone under the table” while in Dublin recording “Orinoco Flow,” Enya’s response felt like that of a different celebrity: “That is totally untrue,” she told The Telegraph. “I can party, but I certainly do not party when I’m working.”) She orders fish and chips, hold the breading, and when it arrives, she picks daintily at her bright green mushy peas. Through it all, her posture remains immaculate. I can’t keep my elbows off the table, but Enya’s resting position, always, is with her hands folded neatly in her lap.
Enya’s memory — for her childhood, for her work — is pointed, uncluttered. “Anytime I hear a song, it’s the whole story of the song,” she says. “You actually go into the moment, into that year. It’s like a diary: going back to that day, where you had written it, worked on it, the life of it, the day you finished it. What you ate that day, the earrings you wore. Every song — every song is a punch in the gut.”
When asked how she spoils herself, Enya replies, “Well I have a castle and I just bought a place in the south of France — is that spoiling myself enough?” Remodeling that property, just 20 minutes from Cannes, took up much of her time between albums. You get the sense that she does a lot of gauzily puttering around, or spending many hours contemplating potential slabs of granite, or just forgetting the passage of days. “Oh, is it Friday?” she’d quietly asked at Powerscourt. “Enya walks through the door,” Nicky told me, “and then I open it.”
When Enya talks about the castle — or the ceremony, held in her honor, in which a giant mass of Japanese children lit candles in a field — she gets a misty, faraway tone in her voice. Part of it is her accent: Enya speaks with the slightest intonation of Gaelic, and the careful, measured breathing of a lifelong singer. “The exterior of the castle was built in 1840, in honor of the young queen, and called Victoria Castle. It was placed on the hill, and he was hoping to entice Queen Victoria to come to visit. It was her second year on the throne.” She pauses, like a good storyteller. “But she never came.”
“There was a fire in the 1900s, and it sat for several years,” she continues. “Someone sent me an old clipping of it just sitting, with no roof, just the walls, and it was so very sad. Then, it was bought, by a whiskey heir, and he called it Ayesha. But then it passed through some hands, and when I bought it, it didn’t know what it was. Victorian, but also trying to be a tourist castle?”
She pauses, grabs my hand. “Oh, do you mind me talking like this?”
“The inside was all dark, gloomy,” she continues. “But I wanted to make it very much a home. I brought in pretty chandeliers, redid everything. I made it very romantic again. And because of doing all that, I thought, I should change the name.”
“This is all very Manderley,” I say, referring to Rebecca, the best-selling Daphne du Maurier book turned Hitchcock film that heavily features a fire, a sodden castle, and affections greatly misunderstood, and which Enya chose for the castle’s new name.
“It is! Last night, I dreamed, of Manderley...” she says, liltingly, quoting the opening line from the movie.
“I used to say fame and success are two different things,” Enya says, choosing her words carefully. “I realized, there’s no rulebook that says, ‘Your music is successful; you must now become famous.’ And so I questioned: Why must I do this? Is the focus more on me or the music? So I started to back away from things that were focusing solely on me.” Like any interview that focused on the men in her life or the once-strained relationship with her family.
“It does cause an intrigue,” she says. “Which was not my intention, either! But when you don’t do interviews or don’t answer certain questions, people write a fiction. I’ll always retain a bit of a mystery about me, because I like to. I never felt that if you’re an artist, you had to live in a particular way, even though if you’re creative, and mysterious, then people automatically say you’re eccentric.”
Or fixate, destructively, on you. Enya’s had several stalkers: One stabbed himself in the neck after being thrown out of her parents' pub in 1997; another gained access to her castle in 2005 and tied up a maid, forcing Enya to flee to a panic room. But Enya made a decision about how she would face them a long time ago. “In the beginning, it was strange, but after a while, I saw the other side: a person who cannot deal with certain parts of life. They’re in a very unhappy place. It’s not really their fault, especially if they associate something disturbing with a song. I had a choice to either deal with it and move on or experience all that negativity every time. So I moved on. It does not spook me. It’s not really about me — it’s just that I’m a fixation, and it could be anyone.”
That’s the problem, to some extent, when an artist sketches only the slightest outlines of her image: People will fill it in however they want. Take questions about Enya’s love life. She has never married, and doesn’t discuss specifics of past relationships. “At first, I thought, How dare they!” Enya says. “Why did they ask me that? What’s that got to do with music? But you do mellow, don’t you? [Those questions] are unimaginative, yet it’s what people want to read. Still, all this information, it’s too much. It will turn.”
It’s a sentiment that Enya would articulate several times, whether regarding illegal music downloads, the rise of Kindle, or, this time, the continued spread of celebrity culture: “It’’ll turn,” she said. “It’s turning.” It fits her anachronistic image perfectly, but it also underlines the greater thrust of her music and much of our conversation: a desire to ricochet back to a self-determinative, pre-digital simplicity, where nothing is too much, and everything is just enough.
When I was 6, I started piano lessons, practicing on a piano — its ivory half gone, its wood deeply scarred — with a deep, ancient sound. It was on that piano that I remember my mom, who had played since childhood, learning to play the first song off Watermark, the title track — a simple, haunting piano composition — by ear. She’d press play on our massive boombox, listen to a measure, then two, press pause, and reproduce the melody on our piano, penciling the notes in a blank composition book in front of her. In my memory, the afternoon light is fading, and I’m fighting the specific boredom of the mid–elementary school child. But that my mom could play Enya — was learning to play Enya, would soon play Enya — rendered her magnificent in my eyes.
As I tell Enya this story, she nods solemnly and says, as she must, that it's lovely. It was the latest chapter in an old tale she’s grown accustomed to hearing. “Some people say, 'I know what this song meant to you — but this is the story of what it meant to me.' And I’ve heard so many stories associated with so many songs, over the years, and I’m still so fascinated by them. There are thousands, thousands of stories for each song.”
“What I gather,” Enya continues, “is that there’s a basic emotional message within a song, even without any words, without any arrangement — it’s already there. Nicky and Roma and I, we just try to enhance that. That’s all we try to do.”
Maybe the appeal of Enya isn’t precisely anything to do with her, or Ireland, or her castle, although all of those things provide a fitting container. Rather, the appeal is something like nostalgia — for a moment in your own life, perhaps, but even more likely, for a time that you might not even have experienced, that maybe no one has. It’s a distant, romantic, fictive land.
It’s also by no means unique to our age, as it’s been conjured through the centuries, the heaven of the traditional hymn, the lost homeland of the ballad. Enya is simply the most contemporary in a long lineage of soaring harmonies that, in their ambiance, their utter flexibility to fill the contours of our psychological needs, have been called escapist, or pablum, or trite — but which can be molded to mean anything to everyone.