The popular Irish singer met the pope last Christmas. She’s not exactly a traditional Catholic, but neither did she rip up any photographs.

“No, no, no,” says Enya, with a gentle laugh. Basically, she sang a song at a charity benefit at the Vatican and then met Pope John II.

As Enya’s multi-tracked music is often described in spiritual and celestial terms – the kind one would like to hear upon approaching the pearly gates – one wonders if there was any discussion of the hereafter.

“Basically, he thanked me for doing the concert,” Enya says from New York. “It’s just he’s so famous. It was a great honor to perform in the Vatican, to actually get behind the gates where the guards open the gates for you.”

Last year, she also played for the king of Sweden at his 50th birthday party. She was flown in, hidden away, his surprise guest. “He’s really quite a fan,” Enya says, of the king. “We just stood chatting for ages.”

Phantom existence

OK, so Enya – the Celtic new age goddess who came to fame with “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” in 1988 and has since gone on to sell more than 33 million albums worldwide – has played for royalty and papacy. But she’s never toured as a solo artist. (In the 1980s, she toured with Clannad, the folk-rock band that includes a fair amount of her family. Enya, born Eithne Ni Bhraonaim, played keyboards and sang, but in a backing role.)

“I do get a lot of requests from around the world about when we will be touring,” says Enya, who just released “Paint the Sky With Stars – The Best of Enya.”

“It would be wonderful to get to that stage,” she says. It’s something that I can see and possibly move in that direction … but when I finish albums I always run overtime. So, the time I have for various other things runs out.”

Which means, in spite of all her success, she’s never had the up-close-and-personal connection, the communion if you will, with her fans in a concert setting. This, however inadvertently, may contribute to her mystique. She’s not a night-clubber or trendsetter; you won’t spot her doing many photo-ops.

Enya suggests she simply is trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy in a world besotted with celebrity and gossip.

“I’m known more for my music than for who I am,” she says. “The mystery has revolved around the fact that I don’t tour and that I don’t do a lot of promotional work either. Other artists, they’ll do a lot more chat shows, more press.

“I don’t know – maybe some people enjoy being talked about or being in the papers. I find I love talking about the music – and then that’s it. I like that it’s not dependent on what I do or say to introduce or sell the music to people. The music does it by itself.”

Thus, we will simply report that the English press noted that she had a breakup with a “mysterious” Spanish suitor earlier this year and let it go at that. The only personal detail that Enya wants to embrace is talking about her purchase of a 19th-century castle, formerly called the Victoria, which burned in 1924 and was renamed Ayesha. (It means “eternal flame.”) It overlooks Killiney Bay in Dublin. She’ll be able to borrow cups of sugar from U2’s singer, Bono.

“I have been traveling quite a bit and was looking for a place that I could actually call a home,” Enya says. She’d walked past the castle for years, enchanted by its exterior. Upon learning it was for sale, she took a tour and fell in love. “Instantly,” she says. “It’s nothing intimidating; it’s not a big ballroomy castle. It’s a very homely castle.” It’s currently being renovated; she hopes to move in this spring.

Creative triumvirate

It is Enya’s name and pretty face that’s on the album covers, but the music created by Enya is really made by Team Enya: Enya and the husband-and-wife duo of Nicky and Roma Ryan.

It was Nicky Ryan who fell in love with Enya’s gorgeous soprano 15 years ago and persuaded her to leave the comfort of Clannad and go solo. It was Roma Ryan who was able to put into the words – in English, Gaelic and French – the emotions Enya’s melodies and harmonies were conjuring up. Enya, 36, and the Ryans have been solid partners since.

The word that best describes Enya: perfectionist. Admittedly obsessed by her work, Enya has recorded 500 separate vocal tracks for one song. Left to her own devices, Enya says, she’ll never accept any take of a song as being right. That’s where manager-arranger-producer Nicky Ryan steps in. “That’s why he’s the producer,” she says. “He’s the one who says: `You cannot go on anymore because you’ve got it.’ I would want to go again. But he feels when the take is right and says you can’t capture that moment again. It’s really great to work with Nicky and Roma because of their encouragement of my work. I sit in the studio, I write a melody, and then it’s so wonderful that they can sense exactly what I sense within the melody, the same sort of emotional feelings so that they can transfer that into what they do best – Nicky through producing and arranging, Roma in the lyrics.”

For “Paint the Sky With Stars,” Team Enya wrote two new songs, the current single, “Only If,” and the title track. The primary task that faced them was choosing the songs from Enya’s four albums. The time seemed right – a best-of album was in her contract, and she figured it made sense to cull from 10 years of work.

“I thought it would be fun to do that,” Enya says, “to kind of relive those moments of writing all those melodies. It was kind of like a musical diary and I really enjoyed it. I started in February, trying to select the obvious ones, the hits, and others. There was a lot of trial and error. It was a little bit difficult to pick selections that would cross over for everyone and to have some of my favorites on as well.”

Quiet influences

If Enya gets slammed by critics – and those vultures are always circling – it’s because they are hearing what they perceive as a Celtic new age/world music wash. They’re not unearthing the quiet, contemplative soulfulness, or tuning into the quirky, playful arrangements or getting transported by the pretty, massed vocal harmonies. They’re not hearing a subtle, unique stylistic fusion, a mix of electronic and organic sounds. They’re not enjoying the shelter-from-the-storm ambience, the graceful escape from harsh reality. They’re hearing treacle, a female Yanni. And they are hearing wrong.

Enya is not one to blast other new agers – she demurs they might come up with what they do because they don’t put in her hours, or, perhaps, don’t share her background. “My influences are with Irish music, church music and classical music,” she says. “When I was growing up, I was listening to quite a lot of diverse music, and I was lucky that it wasn’t just one particular type of music.”

She still finds inspiration in the church. “It’s difficult when you’ve been brought up Catholic,” Enya says, “to turn completely away from it. What I found in my 20s was I got more involved with the spiritual side of it. I’ve been known to go to church when there’s nobody else there. It’s very therapeutic when it’s quite empty. It’s so hard in a moment of despair not to say a prayer. Instead of abandoning (Catholicism), which is impossible to do, I kind of tried to turn it around and make it work for me. There is this calmness that is absolutely wonderful.”

Last Christmas, she sang for the pope. This Christmas Eve, she’ll perform live on a British television show and then fly to County Donegal in time to make midnight Mass with her family. She sings in her mother’s choir. She’s no star, there. She just sneaks in, takes her place, opens her mouth. “I just love being around them,” Enya says of hometown family and friends. “Catching up, you know.”

Daily News (Los Angeles, CA) | Dec 20, 1997