Having already achieved a degree of acclaim with her soundtracks for The Frog Prince and The Celts — with the release of her first fully-fledged solo album, Watermark, Enya seems set for the type of accolades reserved for major-league artists. Niall Stokes unveils the creative trinity behind the finished meisterwerk, talks to Enya and her collaborators Roma and Nicky Ryan, and ponders the question: what will commerce do to this thing of beauty?
It’s night-time and the streets of Dublin don’t look quite the same. Light sparkle against an ominous sky. Figures emerge from the battered urban landscape, picked out as if by a movie camera, their presence suddenly dignified with a significance that normally escapes us.
This comes as a revelation, this feeling of connectedness, flowing from the music on the stereo. A delicate keyboard sounds, a bank of voices reverbed up to 20, a haunting melody asserts itself and percussion crashes — and all the minor dramas suddenly come into focus. Behind the wheel of one car a love story is beginning . . . at the exit from a bar another is about to end. And all around, hearts beat, hearts beat . . .
Later there is just the windswept streets, the odd broken reveller staggering home, and a sad piano refrain playing on the spirit. Tonight you will go to bed and dream of ebb and flow; sea waves dancing against imaginary rocks, hear water hiss and sigh on anonymous beaches and feel again the power of the deep and its magnetic appeal. And you will know that journeys must always end and that there will be a here where they do and a when — and that someone else in the future will try to unlock the doors of their own past and say Speak Memory. And that if they’re lucky the chords will reverberate and the waves will rise up and they too will feel part of the whole, reaching backwards and forwards across generations, beyond the past and into the future.
And you will wake up knowing that something special is happening here, and no mistake. Trying to define just what its is, is a little more elusive, Mr. Jones . . .
Out in the undistinguished suburb of Artane, you knock on a door like ten thousand other doors stretching back towards Fairview or onwards to Raheny. You’re led in through an ordinary three up two down hall, into a simple suburban kitchen. But things begin to get somewhat strange when you realise that the building doesn’t end here.
To the left you enter a passageway and walk undercover — down the garden — towards a small door. Open this and you’re inside a perfectly self-contained and attractively isolated recording studio. You could live here for months on end, burrowing away at songwriting and recording, and no one would know.
Tonight, however, is listen-back time and an opportunity to hear Watermark, the new album by Enya, in optimum circumstances. Nicky Ryan is at the controls, talking ten to the dozen as he cues up tracks, as if a dam has broken, and the flood of words he’s been holding back for the best part of two years can finally flow free.
It’s heading on for midnight already and suffused almost in darkness — a sense which is enhanced by the mercurial flickering of console lights — and enveloped in a pervasive surrounding quiet, the music takes on a profundity I hadn’t anticipated. From ‘Watermark’ through ‘Cursum Perficio’ (My Journey Ends Here) to ‘On Your Shore’ spirits are evoked which I hadn’t been in touch with for some time, and not in this way for longer.
There is nothing here about the trivial concerns of conventional pop: no boy meets girl, no flimsy professions of undying love, no waking up the morning after and realising that it wasn’t all just a bad dream. This music aspires towards a deeper impact, exploring moods, textures and memories in a way that draws in the subconscious and invites us to paint our own pictures.
It is music which encompasses the Holy trinity of creative endeavour: intellect, emotion and imagination. It’s light on that other vital element, celebration, but no matter. What it offers is enough to be getting on with, the product of a labour of love involving another kind of trinity — a collaborative one, between Enya, Nicky and their other partner-in-crime, Roma Ryan.
It is the extraordinary, fortuitous nature of this harmony of seeming opposites which gives what’s happening in this Artane studio tonight its special strength. Enya writes the melodies, the bare bones on which the others’ creative contributions hang. Nicky, a sound engineer of twenty years standing, and a producer with an ear for the big statement, fills in the sonic context, layering keyboard on top of keyboard, and vocal track on top of vocal track on top of vocal track — a painstaking crafting of sound waves that can run to 80 overdubs. Along the way, a title is established and Roma goes to work sketching in allusive, evocative lyrics that direct the music further into the mystic.
As the night draws on we talk about forgotten places, altered states, other worlds. About self-induced deafness, hypnotism, healing, and re-living traumatic experiences. About Belfast, visitations, the Church of Psychic Science and mediums. About re-incarnation, and children and death and spirits watching over us. About dreams, and the past and dreams and the future — and just plain dreams.
It’s the kind of terrain into which Watermark draws you, the pull of which only the most stubborn materialist could resist. But going home I’m thinking not so much of the power of dreams as of the question of packaging and selling them. And wondering not only if the marketplace can take the weight of this particular dream-sequence but also what the beast of commerce might do with the dreams it’s entrusted with.
Best to sleep on it.
Fate and circumstance. Enya had written the music for the IRMA awards show a couple of years ago. When she, Roma and Nicky went to the dinner afterwards, someone had forgotten to reserve a place for them. They were invited to join the WEA contingent, which included UK managing director Rob Dickins.
“As a Clannad fan of the old school, I’d heard about the Celts album which Enya had done,” Dickins recalled. “I’d loved it so much that I played it every night before I went to bed. So when Enya joined us, I just said ‘I’ve fallen asleep to your music every night for the past three weeks.’ I also explained that it was something coming out of Ireland that I’d be so much more interested in than the kind of thing we’d had before. As it turned out, Enya was free to negotiate a deal and so we jumped on it.”
In the event, Dickins became personally involved in nurturing Enya’s music to an extent that’s unusual for an MD. “It’s not that it’s a one-man crusade,” he stresses, “everyone else in the company who listened to the Celts album thought it was beautiful and that we should go with the project. But I began to hear more and more material as the album progressed and when you get close to people in that way, you tend to want to oversee the whole project — to ensure that we wouldn’t stray from the original vision.”
Nicky Ryan describes Dickins’ input in the most complimentary terms. “He’s shown an extraordinary commitment. Everything we’ve asked for along the way we’ve got — although there was never any sense of being pushed for product. In fact when we did finally ring and say ‘OK, we’ve got something for you to hear’, he said, ‘Actually I was just about to ring you.’ (laughs).”
Dickins’ estimation of the Trinity’s modus operandi is just as positive. “There’s a dedication there to music, which is above and beyond the call of duty. Their life is music. They’re also very unified in their approach. They may argue among themselves, I don’t know, but they’re always of one mind when they present something to us. Enya is happy to be produced by Nicky, who’s happy that Roma write the lyrics. The three of them are happy to be creatively involved together. At the same time, they’ve allowed us to have a real say. It’s been a shared road in every way, with respect being given from both sides and received.”
Rob Dickins is proud of the end result and the positive response that Watermark has generated to date with unlikely accolades coming from Dave Price and Dave Lee Travis of Radio 1. “It’s early days yet and the real test is whether or not people are willing to pay money across the counter for it,” Dickins reflects, “but it’s wonderful to see other people in the company and critics and radio people really like it. We really believed that we were doing something special but it’s very reassuring to achieve acceptance on that kind of level — you know that it isn’t just a personal quest for a musical Holy Grail, that you’re in tune with other people.”
The radio support Dickins regards as a real bonus. He has seen press, television and in-store promotion as central planks in the marketing campaign. “Our thinking was that it’s not the kind of music that slots easily into Radio 1 and that there must be other ways of promoting it. That’s why I feel that the sleeve was so important. It had to be the kind of sleeve you’d fall in love with, because that’s what happens when you hear the music. And I think it works that way — the effect in window displays is stunning.”
The cover — a treated colour slide which achieves the powerful luxuriant impact of a 19th Century oil painting — was also designed to suggest the timelessness of the music.
“It’s very classic,” Enya reflects. “It’s not trying to portray me as the latest girl on the scene — there are a lot of them at the moment and I feel very sorry for them, looking at all the awful things they have to do in terns of their image. Whereas I think the way it’s developing with me is good — it’s in taste with the music. There will be a part of you which will always be exposed and you just have to accept that — but it’s very much me. What I’m wearing, how I look, even down to the accessories — it’s all me. There’s nothing false about it.”
Rob Dickins volunteers that, in another incarnation, he was involved with Vangelis and encountered a similar set of challenges. “Having experienced the difficulties and successes of being involved there, I had an idea of how to approach the task of selling an artist who wasn’t conceived of as a chart act. Enya has in common with Vangelis that she writes great melodies — which she also happens to sing beautifully. But as with Chariots of Fire, we wanted to produce something that would be timeless. The upside, if you can successfully project that kind of music, is huge: Chariots of Fire just keeps on selling. With Enya, we never expected any singles — although it became a kind of a standing joke between us. Every time I’d heard something new I’d say ‘Yeah, that’s wonderful — but where are the singles?’ As it happens I think the joke may have inspired them because I think we do have a potential hit in ‘Orinoco Flow’. But in Enya’s case, that’s a bonus.”
On the Irish front, WEA have been highly encouraged by the reaction so far. “We always assumed that it would be a long hard road, given the fact that we’re not talking about a chart-oriented type of act,” WEA Ireland MD Phil Murphy explains. “Enya is a serious album artist, rather than one you’d take a Kylie Minogue-style approach with, looking for a fast return from hit singles. As it turns out the response from radio and the shops suggests that it may just happen more quickly.”
As far as Murphy is concerned. there are no models on which to base the Enya game plan. “She’s unique,” he says, deflecting possible comparisons with Kate Bush. “Enya might find access to the pop and rock end of the market more difficult than Kate Bush — but ultimately I think Enya’s potential might be even wider than her’s. Enya’s music can attract sales from people interested in classical and traditional music also.”
They have in common, however, the looks of which sex symbols can be made. The thought seems to amuse Enya. What’s her response to seeing her picture on the front cover of magazines, to the experience of having her face projected through every available mass medium in the country?
“I just think we’re getting there,” she says, “to our goal. That it’s really happening for us at the end of it all — and that’s a beautiful feeling. We’ve all wanted to achieve something between us and that involves me being in the limelight — but to be seen as an established composer would be much nicer than being seen as a sex symbol.” Andy Warhol might not agree — but she’s right.
As for being an established songwriter, the thought wouldn’t have even crossed Roma Ryan’s mind ten years ago. Her background was in art and she only became entangled in the music business via Nicky Ryan’s managerial involvement with Clannad. Even five years ago, she wouldn’t have conceived of herself as a lyricist. So how did that particular transformation come about?
“It was when Enya was working on the music for The Frog Prince, there were two songs to write and Nicky asked me to have a go,” Roma explains, “and I wrote one of them. It’s not something that I planned to do at all. It’s just the way we live, and the fact that the unit is so close — it’s developed naturally from that.”
It’s the kind of statement that Enya and Nicky Ryan keep coming bask to: it just happened. Nicky however, attempts to give a more acute insight into their creative methodology. “The piece ‘River’ — when I heard that I just thought, let’s call this River because that’s what it conjured for me. Now if Enya was thinking something else, she’s got priority but she liked the idea, so it became ‘River’. It’s whatever vibe the music gives you. In the same way, when we heard the ghost story — about a woman who keeps dreaming about a house, and when she comes upon it by accident, discovers that she’s been haunting it — I thought the piece of music that Enya had written, became ‘Evening Falls’, was really appropriate to that. It was at that stage that Roma write the lyrics.”
In fact it was Rob Dickins who argued that the music that would become ‘Exile’ should have lyrics rather than the mouth music which Enya began with. “He said, ‘You know Wilfred Owens poetry, that would be very suitable for that piece of music’,” Roma explains, “The air is melancholy and it reminded me of an exile but I knew some of Wilfred Owens work, and I trued to write the piece in that kind of style. I think my approach to lyric writing is ‘poetic’ in its feel anyway.” (The statement is made with the kind of self-deprecating humour which surfaces throughout the conversation).
The essentially collaborative nature of the enterprise runs counter to the Svengali allegation that’s already been levelled at Nicky Ryan in print. It’s a suggestion that he’s capable of laughing at, though he clearly resents it. “I was devastated by the split with Clannad,” he reflects, “and we were embittered for a long time. We found it very hard to get over the whole thing — so that when we actually finally got something going together, and in such a nice way, free from all the usual hype, and pressure, it was such a bonus to come out the other end like that. I do hate it when I pick up interviews and I see Nicky said this, and Nicky said that — but it’s because I’m excited about the whole thing. It’s because I love what we’ve done together and I love references to what we do together . . .”
The next step for Enya, almost inevitably, is into the live arena. “I think it’d be great if they could take the album out on the road,” Phil Murphy says. “There’s nothing like touring to get attention and to stimulate interest in an artist. At the launch of the album you’ll get exposure but it’s very easy for that to fade.” But is there a possibility that going on the road might irreparably damage the quietude and isolation that seems so important to the creative process for Enya?
“I just see everything as another step up,” she says simply. “Anything that happens just happens. That’s how I see it. We don’t sit around and discuss in detail how it might change our lives — we just do it. But I don’t see it changing anything. If a musician works particularly well live, we might use him or her in the future, but it’ll still basically be the three of us working on the next album. It’s a partnership.
“But I am hungry to go on stage. Having experienced it with Clannad, it’s very magical when it’s right. I wasn’t aware how strong the longing for the stage was when we were doing soundtracks but since we started the solo career, it’s very strong. Any time we talk about it I keep seeing it: I’m very excited about the kind of immediate contact it gives you with people.”
Nicky Ryan is apprehensive about the problems involved in translating the lush soundscapes of the recorded work into the live arena — but like Rob Dickins, he believes it can be done. “Once you get a sound together, you have it,” he reflects. It’ll present technical problems which will be Nicky’s to solve as a sound engineer. “It’s a challenge,” says Dickins, “but not an impossibility.”
They talk it through, the trinity, and you get the feeling that they’ll work it out OK. They’ve found and maintained an extraordinary balance so far, that’s effectively brought the best in each of them, individually. “When you think about it we’re from three corners of the world, in a way,” Nicky says. “You couldn’t fond three more different places than Donegal where Enya’s from, Belfast where Roma’s from, and Dublin. Put ’em all together and the different influences we take with us, and maybe it adds up to something special.”
Intellect, emotion and imagination. Enough to be going on with, and then some.
Hot Press: 22 Sep 1988