It is one of the most extraordinary stories in contemporary music. Very few people would have seen the potential fully, when a young slip of a girl from Donegal, on the remote north western tip of Ireland, by the name of Eithne Ní Bhraonáin, first hooked up with Nicky Ryan and his partner Roma Ryan.
It was the tail end of the 1970s and by then Nicky was a well established sound engineer and producer, having worked his aural magic on a plethora of Irish albums, among them records by the band that he and Roma had managed together, trading under the name of Clannad (a gaelic word meaning family). Eithne – pronounced Enya – had been a member of that group for what amounted to the blink of an eye, slipping briefly in alongside her siblings to play keyboards. It didn’t last and so when the chips were down, and it was time for everyone involved to pledge their long term allegiance, Enya, Nicky and Roma decided to pursue a dream together.
To those on the outside it might have seemed like a strange and unlikely allegiance. But to look at it that way was to seriously underestimate Nicky Ryan’s musical vision and integrity, as well as Enya’s talent. He had worked with some of the finest Irish musicians of the era, including the seminal Planxty. His knowledge of contemporary music stretched into rock on the one side and the more experimantal branches of contemporary folk on the other. He had developed a mastery of the craft of recording, and planned to build a studio in the back garden of the house that he and Roma shared in the low key suburb of Artane on the North side of the city, where he could put his command of the speakers and the faders to even more productive use. All that was in his head when Enya arrived in Dublin, bristling with talent. When the call had to be made as to how to go forward, he and Roma – a visual artist by background and a powerful ally always in making the tough decisions – joined forces with Enya. They were in this together. They would be partners for the long haul, with the studio as their base.
She was already an accomplished, clasically trained player, but Enya took advanced piano lessons to further develop her skills. Things moved slowly, perilously so, and there were lean years when it was hard to keep the wolf from the door. She taught piano on the side. Collectively, they battened down the hatches. Enclosed in their private world in the studio in Artane, Enya worked on composing, and Nicky weaved his sonic spell. They felt they were getting somewhere but things were tough in the music industry generally and even tougher in Ireland, where, as the 1980s progressed, the level of unemployment was reaching record levels. It needed patience. As it turned out the triumvirate had that in abundance.
Enya wrote a couple of instrumentals for a local compilation record. Instinctively, Roma felt they had a cinematic appeal: listening to them her imagination ran free and the images flowed. She sent the tracks to the celebrated British film producer David Puttnam. Impressed, he commissioned Enya to write the music for the film The Frog Prince. While most of the album was orchestrated, Enya recorded two tracks, ‘The Frog Prince’ and ‘Dreams’, with Nicky, in the recording retreat they had by now named Aigle Studios. The lyrics for the title track were written by Roma, defining the moment at which the members of the core creative team definitively established their credentials, and the mutual trust that would be essential to their work together. As things evolved, while the roles might shift, overlap and be shared in different permutations, it became clear that Enya was a group consisting of three people, with Enya – or Eithne – as the focal point and lead singer, Nicky as producer and Roma as lyricist.
The cinematic quality to Enya’s compositions brooked no resistance. The Frog Prince was followed by another commission, this time to write the music for a six part BBC television documentary, entitled The Celts. With lyrics by Roma, some co-written with Enya, and Nicky in the producer’s chair, there was a haunting, ethereal quality to much of the work that enticed listeners into an increasingly distinctive aural world. There was also drama in abundance. Recorded in 1986, and collected onto an album in 1987, entitled simply Enya, in record industry terms it was a relatively low key BBC release – but it provided a crucial breakthrough nonetheless.
There are times when you have to marvel at the way in which a roll of the dice can lead us into unexpected places and ultimately define the course of our lives. If there was a remarkable and unpredictable synchronicity about the manner in which Enya, Nicky and Roma had been drawn together by a combination of circumstance, intuition and belief (with a bit of good fortune thrown in), then more was to follow. Rob Dickins, the chairman of Warner Music in the UK heard the Enya album and was enchanted by it. At an awards ceremony in Dublin he met the singer and, following up within a matter of days, on the basis of an instinct that he hardly understood, in a genuine act of musical faith he put a recording contract on the table. Enya, Nicky and Roma accepted.
It was written in the stars. I remember listening to Enya’s official debut album Watermark before it was released and being astonished at just how good it was. It achieved the remarkable distincton of being by turns both big and intimate, lavish widescreen, almost Spectror-esque production values on tracks like ‘Storm In Africa’ sitting comfortably alongside pieces of sparse and timeless classical beauty, like the wonderfully evocative title track. Using the Prophet 5 as its core instrument and layering Enya’s voice in vast banks of unison and harmony vocals, it was a fresh and impressive take on what people might have tried to pigeon hole as a ‘new age’ or Celtic sound – but there was a highly sophisticated pop sensibility at work too, especially on the lead single ‘Orinoco Flow’. An invigorating lyrical trip around the world that name-checked as many as 20 places – from Tripoli in Libya to the Isle of Ebony from the Persian tale from The Thousand and One Nights – as a single it became a wonderfully positive and optimistic opening salvo, its complete absence of cynicism reflected in the fact that Rob Dickins himself was accorded a humorous nod of appreciation in the lyrics. It was a massive hit, going to No.1 in the UK and in Ireland, as well as in the European Hot 100 – powering Watermark to the top of the charts in its slipstream. In the long run, the album would sell over 8 million copies worldwide, but even in the early stages it became clear that Enya, Nicky and Roma had an unprecendented hit on their hands.
There are events for which the phrase ‘poetic justice’ might have been invented. Knowing the individuals involved, the vicissitudes they’d had to deal with along the way and the hard work and determination which they had invested, individually and collectively, in launching the Enya phenomenon, it amounted to a thoroughly deserved vindication.
The massive scale of the success of ‘Orinoco Flow’, effectively the debut single by an unknown artist, took just about everyone’s breath away. Where other artists might have attempted to crank up the machine and go on the road in support of the record, the beauty of it was that Enya didn’t need to. Buoyed by the stratospheric chart performance of its lead single, Watermark was selling in vast quantities too. And besides there was a thorny question as to how the album’s huge sound might be represented effectively in a live context. The more the record sold, the less pressure there was to undertake what might have proven to be a difficult and costly endeavour.
The unexpected bonus of the decision not to tour was that the Enya enigma grew. Who was she? Where did she live? What was she like? There are many artists who, having achieved what is often misguidedly termed overnight success, suffer quickly from over-exposure and find their careers withering. Enya was never going to be one of them, her innate reserve and desire for privacy being bolstered by the unique circumstances of her success.
The follow-up Shepherd Moons was released in 1991. It was another huge hit, not only giving the Enya team their first UK No.1 album, but also delivering their Stateside breakthrough, as the album sailed up the Hot 100 and into the Top 20 for the first time. But what was happening with Enya’s music and its quiet proliferation, had a deeper root than the chart position achieved by any one record might indicate. In 1990, the Gerard Depardieu hit Green Card had featured three tracks from Watermark. In 1991, the romantic comedy LA Story, a vehicle for the comedian Steve Martin, also featured three Enya tracks, including two from Watermark. Already a hit, Shepherd Moons carried on in the same vein, tracks gracing Barry Levinson’s Toys (‘Ebudae’) the box office smash Far And Away (‘Book Of Days’), the hit TV series Baywatch (the single ‘Caribbean Blue’) and Martin Scorcese’s acclaimed The Age Of Innocence (‘Marble Halls’). Roma Ryan’s early insight that Enya’s music had a special cinematic quality was proving remarkably prescient and durable.
It went further too. Enya’s music was being widely played on radio; you heard it in shops, in lifts and in bars and even while you waited to be put through on the telephone. It had no ambition to be cutting edge or avant garde, but it had captured the moment nonetheless in the most extraordinary way, as reflected in the lives and tastes of an incredible number of ordinary people going about their fractured daily lives and seeking something mystical or other-worldly to act as a balm against the ravages. The haunting, atmospheric quality of Enya’s compositions was a key factor in this regard, but Nicky Ryan’s meticulously assembled wall of sound production style was crucial too, as evidenced by the fact that musicians and producers from the unlikeliest schools were also tuning in and taking note. In 1992, the Enya album was remastered and released in the US as The Celts. One of the songs on the record, the inspiringly gothic, breathy, percussion-driven ‘Boadicea’, had featured in Luc Besson’s Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue) and in 1992 was again used in a movie, this time the adaptation of Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers, with resounding effect. Triggered by the movie, The Fugees would sample it without permission for their massive global smash ‘Ready Or Not’ and Mario Winnan would repeat the sampling exercise for his 2004 hit ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’, for which Enya was credited as co-writer.
With the ongoing success of Enya’s records, the money was available to invest in a new studio set-up in the house to which Nicky and Roma moved in Killiney on Dublin’s south coast and, with its construction, the Enya team became even more self-reliant. No one else needed to be involved until the master was delivered to the record company. What would they have had to offer anyway, that the core team couldn’t do as well themselves, or even better? Three persons in the one Goddess: it made perfect sense.
The Memory Of Trees, released in 1995 gave Enya her first top ten album in the US, and her first No.1 record in Australia, Spain and Sweden; she was now an established international star, with millions of loyal fans throughout the world and increasingly in the fertile territories of the east, including Japan. But, along with Nicky and Roma, she remained true to her Irish roots, living, writing and recording in Dublin and frequently singing in Gaelic, among an increasingly rich tapestry of languages that Roma was exploring in the song-lyrics, including Latin and Spanish.
The release of Paint The Sky With Stars: The Best Of Enya in 1997 meant that it was five years before the follow-up to The Memory of Trees was released. A Day Without Rain, launched in 2000, was trailered by the single ‘Only Time’, which became Enya’s biggest hit to date, climbing to No.10 in the US Hot 100 as well as No.1 in Germany and Switzerland. It was a song that, in different ways, took on a life of its own. In the first instance, it was used by NBC as the soundtrack to ads for the hugely popular TV series Friends, inspiring a resurgence in radio play that fuelled sales of the album. And then, on September 11, 2001, terrorists from the radical, extremist Muslim paramilitary group Al Qaeda launched a murderous series of attacks, the first of which saw the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York being toppled, and thousands of innocent lives lost. It was the single biggest disaster in the US since the attack on Pearl Harbour during the second world war, with the fatalities ultimately running higher even than that bloody act of war.
In the wake of these horrific events, a visual essay, showing images from the attacks, was assembled by a private New York citizen, put on the worldwide web and widely shared among internet users in the US and beyond. It used ‘Only Time’ as its soundscape and the track became a surrogate theme song in the post-apocalyptic atmosphere that prevailed after 9/11, its sad serenity providing a badly needed counterpoint to the profound sense of devastation and upheaval occasioned by the catastrophe. No one knew what the future held or where the fallout from the attacks would take us. The theme of the song had acquired a new urgency, reflecting the widespread feeling that only time would reveal the extent of the wounds that had been inflicted and how long it would take for them to heal, if indeed they ever would. A Day Without Rain went on to become Enya’s biggest selling album to date, with sales of 13 million.
Roma Ryan’s intertest in esoteric languages and linguistics meanwhile was proving another source of connectivity. As far back as the Shepherd Moons album, Enya named the instrumental ‘Lothlorien’ after the elven stronghold in Tolkien’s fantasy Lord Of The Rings. Peter Jackson, the director of the films based on the book, reciprocated in 2001, including two songs composed and recorded by Enya in the Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Rings soundtrack, including ‘Aniron (Theme For Aragorn And Arwen)’ in The Council of Elrond sequence, with lyrics written by Roma in Sindarin. The cinematic quality of the music clearly remained undimmed.
Amarantine, released in 2005, was more classically shaded and less obviously pop influenced in its textures than its predecessors. It further consolidated Enya’s success nonetheless, especially in Japan, where she has become one of that rare breed, an international artist whose sales in Europe and the US are mirrored in the Land of the Rising Sun. It also contained a number of songs with lyrics in Loxian, a language created by Roma Ryan, which she has written about in the book Water Shows The Hidden Heart. It is perhaps a true measure of the depth of Enya’s appeal that her fans are undaunted by the prospect of listening to songs sung in Japanese, Latin and Irish as well as Loxian. Even where the lyrics are abstruse, the music is shot through with a seam of beauty and yearning with which a huge number of people can identify.
There was a seasonal aspect to Enya’s most recent album, And Winter Came. Originally conceived as a Christmas record, it evolved into a celebration of winter, including a reworking of ‘Oiche Chuin’ (or ‘Silent Night’), which she had first recorded in 1988. Always seen as a more time-sensitive release, less that twelve months on, it has sold almost 3 million copies, charting in over 20 countries and earning Enya a first ever No.1 in Hong Kong. But as with her previous albums there is no knowing what might spark a second wave of momentum for a record that retains the elusive combination of classical inspiration, Celtic atmosphere and pop sensibility that has defined Enya’s work – and which has allowed her to stake such a unique place in the history of contemporary music, since she first exploded onto the international scene with ‘Orinico Flow’…
It truly is one of the most extraordinary stories in contemporary music. In terms of success, the central protagonists have surely exceeded the wildest expectations of everyone involved when they started out on their singular journey. But to put it like that is to bypass the essential truth: that Enya the group – that is Enya, Nicky Ryan and Roma Ryan – have forged a sound of remarkable originality which has captured the imagination and the loyalty of fans all over the world in the most fantastic way. Looking back to those early days and the battle they fought together to establish a foothold, in personal terms their success seems all the more heart-warming and brilliant.
There is something pure and true about what they have created in the music of Enya that defies cynicism, forging a path of integrity and making music of startling breadth and reach in the process.
My, my – as the song goes – time flies. It is 22 years since the original release of Enya and this album brings together so much of the earth-spanning music – the music of the spheres – created over those years by one of the world’s biggest stars and her close friends and partners in music, Nicky and Roma Ryan. But there is still more of this to come. A lot more.
Only time will tell what new twists and turns the journey might take in the future. Of course. But to have arrived here and now, intact and still dreaming: now that is some wonderful achievement.
Editor, Hot Press
Warner Bros Records | November 11, 2009