Ja Rule, Enya, Bubba Sparxxx. It wasn’t a misty dream. The New Age serenity queen recently found her fifth album sitting snugly on the Billboard 200 albums chart between a pair of rappers whose flow has nothing to do with Orinoco … whatever that is.

There she was, though — the sales of her triple-platinum A Day Without Rain just the latest achievement by an artist who has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide while never touring and rarely making public appearances.

While hardly varying her formula of combining traditional Celtic music with modern sounds, Enya’s been one of the few New Age artists to find an audience beyond George Winston and Kitaro devotees. Still, a #2 album goes beyond even what she’s come to expect.

“It’s pretty incredible, isn’t it?” the 40-year-old Irish singer and composer said from her studio in Dublin, Ireland. “I don’t quite know what to make of it, myself.”

Though the album’s been out nearly a year, it practically qualifies as an overnight success for Enya. Her previous albums have sold solidly but slowly, achieving multiplatinum status over years, not months. Her prior chart best was #9 for 1995’s The Memory of Trees.

A Day Without Rain debuted in December at #23, then hovered in the chart’s 20s and 30s until the September 11 terrorist attacks, when the gentle “Only Time” became a soothing anthem for a distraught, confused nation.

The ballad — which features lush strings, a lilting melody and Enya breathily crooning reassuring lyrics like “Who can say where the road goes/ Where the day flows/ Only time” — had already begun to pick up steam at radio before September 11. After the attacks, however, several radio stations started playing remixes of the song, adding sound bites from news coverage of the tragedy. One of those stations, WPTE in Norfolk, Virginia, found itself overwhelmed by the response.

“I was looking for a song that would capture the feel of the moment, and when I heard that song, it just seemed to fit,” said WPTE program director Steve McKay. The station’s Web site received thousands of hits when it offered a mix of the song for download. “It’s somber but also inspirational and very peaceful. It kind of gave hope.”

While Enya (born Eithne Ni Bhraonain) had no comment on those remixes, she said that any way her music can provide comfort to people is fine with her.

“When people got in touch with me and told me about what had happened with that song, it was very strange at first,” she said. “But it’s really quite incredible. That’s the big bonus I get. People will tell me about a song and how it helped them with their own emotions and lives. It’s good to hear that my music is there to comfort in joyous moments or sad occasions.”

Enya’s music has always had that power, with its calming melodies, lush arrangements and lyrics that focus on matters of the heart. While she takes her music and its effect on listeners seriously, she’s not afraid to laugh at herself and the flood of recurring natural themes that she and lyricist Roma Ryan often use.

“Watermark, A Day Without Rain, The Memory of Trees? I mean come on,” she said, laughing. “But I can’t help it. There’s a very positive feeling about water that is very strong in all of my albums.”

“Positive feeling” just might be the perfect summation of Enya’s appeal. Since her first hit, 1988’s “Orinoco Flow,” Enya’s albums have been the musical equivalent of comfort food for listeners looking for escape, reassurance and release.

She started out performing with her siblings in the Celtic pop band Clannad but left in 1982 and went on to compose the soundtrack for a 1986 BBC television series called “The Celts.” That effort marked the beginning of a long artistic relationship with lyricist Roma Ryan and his wife, arranger Nicky Ryan, her collaborators to this day. She conceives and records her music in almost total isolation at her Dublin studio, performing nearly all the vocals and instruments herself and collaborating only with the Ryans.

“When I go into the studio, I have to leave anything that’s going to distract me at the door, whether that’s success or worrying how listeners will respond,” she said. She thinks listeners sense that isolation and use her music to create mellow time and space for themselves. It’s a laborious process that has yielded only four more albums since “The Celts” soundtrack.

“It has to be the right time for me to record,” she said, explaining that she takes the years between albums to perfectly realize the sounds in her head. “Sometimes you’re so close to the music you can’t tell anymore if it’s good or not. That’s why we take the time. We try everything in the studio, but we get no outside opinions. There’s nobody saying, ‘That’s not very commercial.’ ”

The irony, of course, is that Enya is by far the most commercial of any artist associated with the New Age tag. Like her New Age peers, she creates escapist and enchanting soundscapes, but she anchors them with memorable, poplike melodies.

“Even though she’s ethereal, she’s pretty mainstream,” said Mitch Rabin, president of New Age label New World Music. “She’s much more melodic than most New Age music, nowhere near as ethereal as most.”

Though it’s got pop appeal, Enya’s music still offers listeners something deeper, according to Peter Manzi, managing editor of the trade magazine New Age Voice. “Her music is based on traditional Celtic music that has been around, and has been popular, for centuries,” Manzi said.

Yet there’s something about Enya’s success that defies easy explanation. “There’s a surreal quality to it, and the feeling of inner peace and tranquility that people feel when listening to her music,” Manzi said.

Having that emotional impact is Enya’s primary goal. “Music has always been very important to people, if it’s the moment you need to let your hair down and have a great dance, or a joyous occasion or a sad time,” she said. “There’s a lot of interpretation to the music, and it’s up to individual listeners. That’s something I can’t make happen.”

Nor does she limit her compositional style to the soothing, quiet sounds most people associate her with. Though tracks such as “A Day Without Rain” and “Watermark” are relaxing from their opening notes, she’s just as likely to turn to more intense sounds. The title of A Day Without Rain’s “Tempus Vernum” is Latin for “springtime,” but rather than creating a tune that conveys a pastoral scene, she went for something heavier.

” ‘Tempus Vernum’ has to do with the seasons, not just spring,” she said of the song, which features a martial rhythm and an intensely chanted Latin vocal. “The seasons will happen with or without us, and so it needed very powerful music.”

Both Rabin and Manzi said Enya’s success is the most visible example of a newfound interest in New Age music. While overall record sales fell in 2000, New Age sales increased. It’s hard to gauge that success, however, since many New Age albums are sold not by traditional CD retailers, but by gift shops, spas and specialty stores.

“People don’t hear New Age music on the radio,” Rabin said. “But when they’re exposed to it in those other environments, they buy it.”

Enya’s appeal continues to transcend the New Age tag. “Only Time” appeared in the Nicolas Cage film “The Family Man,” and director Peter Jackson flew her to New Zealand to compose two songs for the upcoming “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

With those projects finished, Enya said she’ll take another break from recording and likely disappear again for a while. “Music takes me on a journey,” she said. “And I give myself time to follow it.”

MTV: 29 Oct, 2001