From a darkened studio in Artane to the bright lights of Top Of The Pops and beyond that ‘Orinoco Flow’ has taken Enya and all who sail with her on an unprecedented voyage of discovery. Niall Stokes joins the key figures as the flow swells into a torrent of success and is pleased to report that nobody on board is in danger of losing their bearings.

SMAOITÍM… a frail and beautiful figure launching on a voyage of dreams under the curious eye of the television cameras. Who would have imagined that such a fairy tale was about to unfold, when Enya last appeared on The Late Late Show, just eight short weeks ago?

The album Watermark had been released earlier in the week and this was a key promotional appearance, one of the central showcase slots targeted by the WEA marketing team to gain immediate profile for an artist who wouldn’t be going on the road to ‘work’ the record. But with the single ‘Orinoco Flow’ two weeks shy of release, it was the stunning ‘Evening Falls’ that was unveiled before a fascinated million-or-so viewers, all over Ireland.

That business done, according to established Late Show practice, we couldn’t expect to see Enya line up alongside Gay Byrne again until the next album was being plugged – even if it took five years in the making. But subsequent events have rendered those kind of normal assumptions entirely redundant.

“When it went into the charts the first week, WEA rang us up and said ‘Congratulations, you’ve done so many thousand copies’,” Enya’s producer and collaborator Nicky Ryan told me, the week ‘Orinoco Flow’ reached No. 5 in the UK. “And we said yeah that sounds great – but what does it mean? We still don’t know!”

By now it means something like this. In Britain alone, ‘Orinoco Flow’ – having spent three weeks in the No. 1 spot – has gone silver, selling in excess of 300,000 copies, a staggering figure for a major-league debut at a time when singles sales in general have plummeted hugely. Impressively however, Watermark is only marginally behind volume-wise, having also topped the 300,000 mark, to earn the album platinum status in the UK. The single meanwhile has climbed to No. 6 in Holland, and is still rising. Germany and Norway are also conspicuously going with the flow and the general buzz is such that a Pan-European hit seems on, rather than merely in, the cards.

In the States, crucially, Geffen Records have taken the plunge enthusiastically, lining up ‘Orinoco Flow’ for an end-of-November rush-release. Watermark will follow in January, with the full weight of one of America’s most energetic and successful operations behind it. “The frontline promotions and radio people there are knocked out by it,” WEA’s Irish MD Phil Murphy reveals.

Back at home base, the figures may read less like telephone numbers but the implications are no less compelling. ‘Orinoco Flow’ has held steady at No. 1 in the singles charts for a solid four weeks. But it was the ascension of Watermark to platinum figures here, signalling sales in excess of 20,000, which was the immediate hook for Enya’s swift return to The Late Late Show. This time around, she could let the Orinoco Flow…

In fact the album has sold 25,000 copies and is steaming ahead, with the next landmark figure of 40,000 seeming well within its compass. “We just want to keep Enya’s profile up,” Murphy adds, “and it’ll sell right through to Christmas. I’ve told her that when it goes double-platinum, we’ll do the presentation in her father’s bar up in Gweedore.”

With one stipulation, I suggest: natives aside, everyone has to sail around the coast to Donegal to attend the celebrations. Get your oilskins ready. ” Sail away, sail away, sail away…”

Smaoitím… my first encounter with Watermark, in a darkened studio in Artane. The master hasn’t been sequenced and Nicky Ryan is screwing around with a digital thingamajig to get the tracks in order as he plays them, laughing and cursing to beat the band as technology lets him down, a human dimension that adds to rather than detracting from the cerebral experience.

We’re six tracks into a musical journey that seems to turn sombre, nocturnal and glacial before I hear the sweet plucking of strings and an acoustic piano welling underneath. The mood is dramatic, upbeat, pop: “Let me sail, Let me sail, Let the Orinoco flow,” a hundred voices seem to sing Roma Ryan’s prophetic words of optimism, “Let me reach, Let me beach, On the shores of Tripoli, Let me sail, Let me sail, Let me crash up on your shore, Let me reach, Let me beach, Far beyond the Yellow Sea.” It’s got to be the single. Nicky Ryan nods.

Later, on reflection, I’m not sure that I hear another one on Watermark which might just present problems if and when the question of following ‘Orinoco Flow’ arises. It’s an issue about which at this stage everyone in the Enya camp has reflected long and hard. Over at WEA too. In a sense the vaulting success of the first single has caught everyone off guard. The response, thankfully, is to hold firm and let things travel at their proper speed. When it’s taken six years to get this far, you don’t go blowing things on an impulse decision.

“The record sounded fabulous the first time,” Phil Murphy says, “And the more you heard it, the more in love with it you fall. Despite having that kind of belief, we were all very pleasantly surprised at the speed at which it took off. But we’re not going to rush into a follow-up just to try and exploit the immediate excitement.”

There was talk of a possible Christmas single, a new track which would provide a seasonal bonus for Enya’s recently-won legion of converts, but that tentative plan has been shelved; the pressure to come up with the real goods would be too intense in the context of the promotional whirlwind that’s still swirling around the diminutive composer, even as you read, and which will indeed take her “far beyond the Yellow Sea…”

“We’ve decided, whatever we do next let’s get it right,” Phil Murphy asserts, “Let’s get the single right, let’s get the video right. It’s not a Bimbo act – it’s a quality act so we’ll give it all the time and attention it needs and deserves.”

It’s reassuring to know that the record company are also aware that with Enya this question of pace is everything.

Smaoitím… flights of optimism and fancy sitting around a quiet suburban living room with Roma, Enya and Nicky. Before the album was released, before ‘Orinoco Flow’ became part of the river, the kind of ifs were in the air that you’re fearful of putting in print, and invoking the curse of Balor of the evil eye…

Enya collaborated with Sinéad O’Connor on ‘Never Grow Old’, the final track on The Lion And The Cobra. As the frontline representative of a new breed of Irish women performers who are at the core of the creative action, does Sinéad offer any touchstones for Enya? Rivetingly beautiful eyes aside, does she have anything in common with her collaborator?

“There’s nothing whatsoever in common,” Enya says, “except that I performed on her album with her – which we were very happy to do. But outside of that, there’s nothing. I’d spoken to her very briefly and she’d said what extract from the Bible she wanted read. It was very convenient just to record it in the studio here and to send it over, so it was only after her album was finished that we met Sinéad.”

In fact, in some ways, more of a contrast in styles would be hard to find. Where Sinéad is talkative, upfront and capable of launching into an ocean of expletives if the occasion arises, Enya is quiet, reserved and steers well clear of what she considers vulgar.

“Using words like that where they don’t need to be used I find I just can’t relate to,” she says simply.

My own instinct would generally be to compete with Shakespeare in my use and abuse of the vernacular. It’s got something to do with suggesting the full Rabelaisian dimensions of reality as I’ve known it. Enya demurs.

“If there’s no need to mention it, why use it, y’know? If it’s part of the conversation, fine.”

It’s an inclination she shares with Roma, who takes a humorous attitude to the discussion. “I’m slightly more reserved too, though I’m well used to hearing it,” she says looking at Nicky, a man capable of the most wonderfully colourful foul-mouthedness, and laughing. “It depends on who I’m with and what mood I’m in really. But it’s personal – for me it’s just the influence of my mother, I think. It’s not that we’re prudish or anything. I certainly don’t think of myself as a prude.”

The discussion is not merely semantic, however. Because it’s a distinction with important ramifications in terms of Enya’s approach to her career. Sinéad’s too, Nicky argues.

“Because she’s so upfront as a performer and as a very aggressive woman,” he reflects, “and doesn’t make any bones about wanting to be seen that way, the pressure on her to produce a hit would seem to be much more intense. Sinéad has had a hit, and I hope not but I fear that that might be the level she’ll be judged on, as an artist, for the rest of her career.

“Because that’s the way it can work. We’ve had a hit, now we have to have another one or we’re fucked, so get out there and do it. So no matter what, even if Enya had a hit from this album, I would not allow anyone to say we have got to follow it up immediately. My answer would be like this: OK, we had a hit, that’s great. Let’s get on with it. Enya’s got a lot more to offer than just looking for hit singles.”

To some extent it’s a question of protecting yourself against misinterpretation. Where something precious is at stake, like talent on a potentially world-spanning scale, one philosophy comes down to the immortal words “Let’s be careful out there…”

“Once you step out and say ‘fuck off world, fuck off music world, I know what to do blah, blah’, I think it becomes even more difficult,” Nicky adds. “You have to follow that aggression with even more aggression and you become much more exposed. I’m not saying Sinéad is putting it on but she’ll be expected to be aggressive from now on or she’ll be nobody – or that’s the danger. Whereas with Enya it would be the complete opposite. It’s very soft, gentle stuff. You couldn’t call anything on the album hard or aggressive – and I think it’s intrinsic to the nature of the music that it is like that.”

Enya changes the direction of the conversation slightly. “We don’t try to push things in any way commercially. If it happens that it’s commercial it’s just by accident. It’s not commercial in a Top Of The Pops sense, I think, whereas that’s the direction everyone else is being pushed in. If it happens it happens but we think ‘we gotta have a hit, we gotta get into the charts’. That’s not a concern of ours.”

So are there any fellow spirits out there?

“All I can say,” Enya responds, “is that while I don’t listen to music, there’s bits in there of everything I’ve heard. I can see the influence in part, of traditional, of classical, of 50’s hits, of 60’s hits. But there’s no-one I can say I was influenced by because I don’t listen to music.”

“I have deep down worries about that aspect,” Nicky says to Enya. “The only way I’d like to see things changing is by the same natural progression by which everything else was handled and not due to any outside pressure, whether it’s success or anything else. I think it’s the most important thread to keep together: always come back to basics and recognise that the bottom line is that you write beautiful melodies and keep the music innocent.”

It’s a word you don’t encounter very often in the context of pop music or rock’n’roll.

“Keep it as innocent as possible,” Nicky repeats, “away from all that external influence of money and all the other rubbish that can affect it. I’ve seen so many artists go baw-ways over either money or fame or whatever – they start out amazingly well and then they become non-productive because of money, because of laziness and self-indulgence. Not being able to keep tabs on it and say: ‘Right, I have to get out of here now and get some music done’. If you can’t do that, it’s the end of the trip. The music’s gone.”

To some extent, it comes down to commitment and over the past six years, from the leanest winters after the split with Clannad, through the thaw of The Frog Prince and the promise of spring in The Celts, to the watershed of Watermark, that’s something Enya, Nicky and Roma have never lacked for.

“That I would love to be able to keep and hold onto,” Nicky adds, “even if there was loads of money to be made and all that (laughs). I’d still like to be able to get back to the roots of the thing and say ‘OK. Let’s forget about everything else and make a new album, Enya’. Because what we have is something special. I think there’s really great things to come when you consider what it’s grown from.”

“It’s going to be really startling,” Enya smiles confidently, her eyes lighting.

Come in Balor, your time is up.

Smaoitím… the first time I heard the name Enya. Nicky was on the phone announcing the new addition to the Clannad line-up, full of enthusiasm and hope. Those dreams crumbled and with them one kind of innocence: Enya looked even more wide-eyed and vulnerable in those days.

The Ryans’ retreat into their Artane home followed, Nicky putting Aigle Studios together with a mixing desk he’d intended to bring on the road with Clannad. Enya joined them in seclusion, working together on developing the deeds of greatness, seldom venturing into the glare of the bright lights. There is something about the Enya ethos that seems to belong to another world, another era. Does she ever feel out of time? “We think of the music as timeless,” she replies, “it’s neither old or modern or futuristic. It’s not set in any era.”

“But we are slightly detached,” Roma interjects.

And the music has a measured, contemplative feel that’s almost Victorian in its sense of space. Enya and attack have been sacrificed on the altar of grace and beauty. Behind it all you can sense the appeal of quietude.

“Sitting in silence – I just love it,” Enya comments. “This is one of the rooms I just like to sit in. It’s quiet, so you can sit and think. Or just do nothing. It’s lovely – although it can be embarrassing if someone walks in and finds you sitting in silence and staring (laughs).”

But that kind of solitude is essential to the creative process for someone who is shy and reserved by instinct. “Going way back, when we asked her to put some music together, she wouldn’t even play the piano in front of me,” Nicky recalls, “there was no way that I could get into the studio and have her play at the same time. If she heard a footstep outside, she’d stop playing the piano immediately. And that went on for a long time. Then we got to the stage where she had to sing a few notes and that was very tentatively approached – there was no way she was going to sing in front of somebody. Enya doesn’t work quickly by nature.”

The contrast with the brash and instant nature of so much pop music could hardly be more extreme.

“It’s not all roses,” Nicky adds, “when the work gets going a totally different mood sets in. You have to strike the right balance between getting the work done and having a nice vibe going. That’s when my back starts getting up and I start arguing. Jesus Enya, let’s get some work done!”

“I’m always behind,” Enya laughs, “so we just have dreadful arguments and scream at each other!”

“That’s when the magic goes out the window!” Nicky says with exaggerated ruefulness. “I freak out (laughs). I’m not panicking on anyone else’s behalf, I just can’t wait any longer because I’m dying to get started on something. Enya works on her own out in the studio developing the melodies and I have to wait a long time before I’m involved. So I feel: for Jaysus sake will you get it finished so I can get in there. But then Enya can write a piece in ten minutes that’s stunning, that you could imagine took months.” It’s the end result that counts. How does Enya feel, now that the album is out there, part of the flux and flow of people’s everyday lives?

“I’ve heard from so many people,” she says, “the different times they want to listen to it, the different influences they see, the different things they read into the music and at this stage it’s everyone to their own story. It’s out of my hands now. It’s theirs. They’ll listen to it when they want and conjure up what images they want to see.”

Which is why the titles are like signposts. They suggest a direction for the listener but it’s up to everyone to find their own way, beyond the evocative images and phrases, into the arms of memory. “You played that piece ‘Smaoitím’,” Nicky says to Enya, “and the first words that came into my head were ‘The Loss of You’.

And I said ‘Let’s call it that’. And then it occurred to me that the song should be in memory of your grandparents. I cannot imagine the melody you wrote being about anything else.” “I came in after I’d written it and I spent the rest of the day pretending that nothing happened in the studio and I was really excited about it,” Enya recalls. “You know, ‘Smaoitím’ is like ‘I am remembering’… It’s very hard to do a direct translation.”

Smaoitím… a small dark figure in a white coat and black gloves signing albums furiously in a packed shell of a record shop in the new Stephen’s Green centre last Saturday afternoon, the walls ready to come tumbling down in the excitement. Stepping graciously outside to have her photo taken, the fans still throbbing around, the cameras flashing. Up in the foyer of the Westbury Hotel – and even there the crowds are gathering. A small dark, vulnerable figure.

Enya’s father Leo has been watching it all. “It’s overwhelming,” he says, “It’s overpowering. There’s no words to describe it all.”

Let’s be careful out there…

Hot Press: 1 December 1988
Niall Stokes