I am due to take tea with one of the world’s most successful recording artists at 3pm but at 3.05pm there is no sign of her in the Dorchester’s tea room and I am shuffling anxiously in the foyer, wondering whether I have got the wrong day, the wrong hotel, or perhaps just imagined the whole scenario.
Eventually, it strikes me that she may have arranged to have tea in a private room. After all, Enya, Ireland’s most successful female singer and 78th richest person (according to The Sunday Times), is hardly known for her love of appearing in public: despite notching up a staggering 65 million album sales during her career, she has never performed a full concert, rarely gives interviews and, if we are to believe reports, lives a Rapunzel-like existence in a castle in Ireland, venturing out only to make records and visit empty churches.
Sure enough, the man at the front desk informs me that I am expected (by “Mr Enya”, he says) in a suite on the first floor. I make my way up to be greeted by a record company PR executive who takes me through to a large, quiet, oak-panelled room. Tea and coffee are laid out, along with four bottles of mineral water and two large plates of finger sandwiches, decorated with cress.
Feeling peckish, I scoff one as I wait – chicken filling, delicious – only to realise that this has made the plates unsymmetrical, which means having to scoff another. I am half way through this – salmon this time, bit soggy – when Enya wafts in. Stem-like, and wearing a black dress along with black earrings, she is the epitome of her music: ethereal, other-worldly, Celtic.
There is also something distinctly avian about the way she carries herself: from the way she glides, to how she perches on the armchair and, in her sing-song Irish accent, how she accepts my congratulations (muttered through a mouthful of bread and fish) on finishing Amarantine, her first album in five years.
“Thank you,” she tweets. “I only finished two weeks ago, after two years’ work. I haven’t really, sort of, sat back and taken in the fact that it is finished. There are plus sides of, y’know, working so long on an album, and minus sides, y’know. There is always a risk factor of maybe – y’know, y’know – people passing on to other music or, y’know… I have seen artists come and go in the length of, sort of, my career, y’know.”
Now, I expected Enya, born Eithne Ni Bhraonain, to be a difficult interviewee – in previous conversations with journalists she has come across as painfully shy, intensely private and prone to churning out generalities – but this inarticulateness comes as a surprise. Listening to the interview afterwards, I count the number of times she says “y’know” and “sort of”, and give up after 200.
This would be frustrating were it not for one fact: Enya is the nicest, most modest pop star you could ever hope to meet.
When I quote remarks made by Guardian journalist Rory Carroll, who was recently held hostage for 36 hours in Baghdad, and who tried to befriend his captors and emphasise his Irishness and non-Britishness by mentioning Enya’s work, she almost faints with shock.
She puts her cup of coffee (no milk) on the table, to compose herself.
“I didn’t hear that. And, actually, I find things like that really strange. Maybe because there are such big gaps between the albums, I feel separated from the success. In the studio I’m just hoping that one person out there will enjoy the work.”
Doubtless, this sense of detachment from her global success, boosted in recent years by her music being sampled by R&B artists such as The Fugees and Mario Winans, is accentuated by the fact that she never tours (a business expert has even coined the phrase “enyanomics” to explain her ability to sell millions of albums without giving live performances), and by the fact that she takes years to make each record.
By the sound of it, the albums are assembled with the kind of meticulousness that Peter Carl Faberge reserved for manufacturing his eggs: she and her producer, Nicky Ryan, begin each track with one of her melodies and then build sound over sound, in some cases recording 500 tracks for one song. Still, the 12 songs on Amarantine took “only” two years to record, leaving three years since her last release unaccounted for.
Gently pecking at a sandwich (chicken), Enya explains where those years went: after 9/11 her song “Only Time” was adopted by many TV and radio stations as a backdrop to their reports, prompting her to release a special edition of the song with funds going to families of victims; she composed two songs for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring; and she has been renovating her small castle overlooking the Wicklow Mountains, outside Dublin.
“It was restored after a fire in the 1920s and it kind of lost its Victorian look. So I kind of brought it back to Victorian, with aspects of Georgian and contemporary. It was called Victoria Castle and then Ayesha Castle, but I have rechristened it Manderley Castle, after the house in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. It’s very much, sort of, me… “
The many macho male critics who loathe Enya’s relentlessly contemplative work could probably think of objects that would encapsulate Enya better than a castle: wind chimes, aromatherapy candles and yoga mats, for instance. But a small Irish castle does seem very “sort of” Enya to me: you can imagine her wafting around in velvet dresses; not turning on the radio or TV for months; staring out of the window, sitting in contemplative silence for hours.
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to work out where her urge for stillness and solitude (she has chosen to remain unmarried and without children) comes from. Clearly it is a reaction to an upbringing that she herself has described as “continual hustle and bustle and crying and chaos”, a childhood that featured eight siblings, and a mother and father involved in the music business as part of a travelling band, playing traditional music. At 18 she joined Clannad, the Celtic group formed by her siblings and two uncles, but it was not long before she went solo.
Her big break came after film producer David Puttnam commissioned her to write music for The Frog Prince, and she came to international prominence with her 1988 hit “Orinoco Flow”.
Unfortunately, Enya’s efforts to be left alone don’t always succeed. Her peace was recently shattered when an intruder dramatically smashed into her castle. During the incident she was forced to lock herself into a “panic room” after discovering that the man had made his way through the castle’s defences. He opened a safe and stole personal items, but left behind cash and valuables. It wasn’t the first time that Enya had suffered from the unwanted attentions of fans: in 1996 an Italian, who had been seen in Dublin wearing her photograph around his neck, stabbed himself after being ejected from her parents’ pub in Donegal.
“It’s the con-factor of success,” she says. “From day one I have had to think about security because some people seem to have a sort of fixation with me. The best way to deal with it is to not give it a lot of space. It has happened quite a few times, y’know. After it happened I just went straight into the studio, received an awful lot of support and just, kind of, said: “OK we know this feeling, let’s get on with life.’”
At this point, the record company PR knocks on the door of our room and hi-fives in my direction, indicating I am approaching the end of my allotted time. I use it to rush through the remaining questions on my list. Does she plan to tour? No, but she is planning to do a live TV special, she replies. Is she really the reclusive new-age nun that everyone says she is? Not really – she enjoys travelling. And is it true that she would leave Ireland if the country got rid of its controversial artists’ tax exemption scheme, of which she is thought to be one of the biggest beneficiaries? “Absolutely not. They keep saying that. But it’s a myth that anybody has full tax exemption. I don’t know if you are aware, of the laws… you only get the tax exemption on publishing income. I am taxed on all record sales. And if you see the album sales I have, they are… quite vast, y’know.”
She blushes after the comment – perhaps realising it may sound immodest in print. There is another blush when she contemplates my final question: is there a man on the scene? A Mr Enya? “Mr Enya?” She puts the remainder of the sandwich she has been nibbling back on her plate, and then places the plate on the table. She has only tackled two, whereas I have demolished eight.
“The last few months have been very difficult. Finishing an album is very hard on relationships.” Ah: so there was a Mr Enya on the scene, and he has gone? “You got me there. Y’know, I kind of have a normal life. But there are aspects of being famous that… sort of… make relationships difficult… y’know?”
The Dorchester, London, W1
1 x tea
1 x coffee
2 x finger sandwiches
Financial Times: Sathnam Sanghera | November 25, 2005