It’s no great shock that Ireland’s biggest musical export is stadium rock band U2. What’s surprising is that the second largest seller from the land of shamrocks and leprechauns is Enya, a celestial Rumpelstiltskin who spins New Age, pop, and classical music into platinum-selling albums.
Enya’s last two records, Watermark (1988) and Shepherd Moons (1991), sold more than 17 million copies worldwide, with Shepherd Moons selling 3.3 million in America alone. But don’t expect the 34-year-old singer to have a bubble-gum trading card anytime soon. ”There’s no Enyamania,” she says, then laughs softly. ”Many people who buy my records don’t really even know what I look like.”
Perhaps not, but Enya’s sweeping vocals and delicate arrangements are instantly recognizable, providing a soothing soundtrack for an overstressed society. Her first new record in over four years, The Memory of Trees weaves layers of vocals and keyboards into a daydreamy tapestry. Unlike many of her contemporaries, whose songs are little more than sonic bubble baths, Enya infuses her music with flowing emotion.
”A lot of it sounds melancholy, but that’s a reflection of the passion of Irish culture,” she explains. ”It’s not a reflection of me.”
Sweet and shy in conversation, Enya is reluctant to divulge aspects of her personal life. She says she doesn’t have time for hobbies and enjoys being alone. ”I do have relationships, but it’s very important to have time to myself, and when you’re with someone, they often find that very strange.”
Enya was born in Donegal, Ireland, the daughter of a bandleader and a music teacher. After graduating from convent school, she joined two of her brothers and a sister — she has seven siblings in all — in the family group Clannad, performing with them for two years and then going solo in 1982. ”Musically, they were doing traditional Irish music,” she says. ”And there was something else I wanted to veer into.”
Also departing the Clannad clan that same year were the group’s manager, Nicky Ryan, and his poet wife, Roma, who became Enya’s producer and lyricist, respectively. Aside from the Ryans, Enya is alone in her musical world. She plays all the instruments on her records and overdubs as many as 140 vocal tracks for a single song. This explains why The Memory of Trees took two full years to complete. It may also explain why Enya’s songs leave such a deep impression.
”I got a letter from a woman who knew she was going to die,” remembers Enya. ”She said she loved playing Watermark and had it in her will that each night at a certain time, one of my melodies would be played on her piano. I found that very moving.”
Even so, Enya says she experiences her most gratifying moments in the studio. ”When I’ve finished something and I sit back and listen to it and it becomes a complete song, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”