How does Enya do it? As Ireland’s most successful solo artist her ethereal, almost hypnotising music is instantly recognisable but if you passed her in the street you probably would not have a clue who she was.
Anti-fame, publicity-shy and fond of taking years out between albums, the 54-year-old singer songwriter has sold more than 80 million records worldwide without doing any concerts, a phenomenon labelled Enyanomics.
Defined as the inexplicable growth in sales of an artist in inverse relation to how much exposure they have, it is how Enya has rocked since she urged us all to sail away in her 1988 hit Orinoco Flow.
Yet with album sales in terminal decline thanks to downloading and piracy, and record companies pushing live performances more than ever, could Enya’s first “gig” be just a whisper away with her latest album Dark Sky Island? As ever, the Celtic queen is keeping her cards close to her chest.
“It’s much easier to talk about touring now that stage productions are massive.
“Today we can have an orchestra but in 1988 it wasn’t really seen as practical, especially for a debut album. I don’t know.
“The album has just happened so there’s a lot to think about. I’m just going along with it. I almost quite like not knowing what’s coming next.”
Enya has just returned from New York, where she was introduced to the Metropolitan Opera’s pioneering “live” series when her performance was simultaneously beamed into cinemas around the world.
“That was an idea that has been strongly put forward, so we’ll see,” she says.
One gets the impression that whatever happens, Enya will have the final say, with the help of the couple she describes as her “musical family”, producer and manager Nicky Ryan and his lyricist wife Roma.
Having managed Enya’s real musical family in Clannad, the group including three of her siblings, it was Nicky who persuaded the then 20-year-old to go solo in a move that prompted an “it’s the Ryans or us” showdown with her parents and a falling out with her siblings that dragged on for years.
Asked whether she still sees her family in County Donegal, Enya is characteristically guarded, although she chuckles at the notion of being forced into anything against her will.
“You make it sound very dramatic, like I was kidnapped or something!”
The truth is she craved independence. Having trained as a classical pianist, Enya toyed with the idea of becoming an opera singer before “surprising” herself by agreeing to join Clannad.
“I was very strong in that regard. Anything that I thought of, any step I had to take had to be my own step.
“Every decision is my decision and that comes from being at boarding school at 11 years of age.
“When you’re in a big family, your older brothers and sisters make all the decisions. Then suddenly I found myself at school, hearing my own voice saying ‘What would you like to do?’ So I got very used to that.”
Born Eithne Patricia Ní Bhraonáin in 1961, the sixth of nine children, “Enya Brennan” proudly tells me her grandmother was “the first female drummer in Ireland” and recalls having mixed feelings about her stage debut as Red Riding Hood when she was three years old.
“I loved it but it was odd being out front. You’re looking up at the stage and all of a sudden you’re looking down at the audience at such a young age.”
Solo singing competitions were “a part of life” in the Gaelic-speaking village of Gweedore, where her father ran the Irish folk music venue Leo’s Tavern and her mother taught music at the local school. “There’s this lovely story about Dad,” she says, in a rare moment of candour.
“He played a lot of beautiful Irish ballads combined with the big band sound, like Glenn Miller but he was self-taught. One day he tried to write music.
“He said, ‘Daughter, I sharpened my pencil, took out a manuscript and I sat there all day and I didn’t write anything, but I feel that that’s come through your work’.
He has lived my success and loves the fact he passed on his passion for music.”
The success of Watermark, Enya’s debut album featuring Orinoco Flow, was a surprise to say the least.
“Singing in Gaelic? It’s hardly hit-making stuff,” says Enya but then she “never dwelt on the sales side of things”, despite amassing a reported £100million on the back of her unique, other worldly, sound.
“We were outside the box,” she says, somewhat of an understatement for an act sung in a made-up language called Loxian.
“We gave ourselves freedom from the very beginning. We never put any restrictions on time, languages, or how we work.”
Shrewd as well as self-reliant, Enya managed to negotiate a contract with Warner Music that largely left her to her own devices.
She was given a minimum of three years off between each album, an unheard-of luxury these days. Enya was also determined not to become the focus of unwanted media attention.
“It’s portrayed like I’m a recluse because I don’t do any interviews other than the promotional ones but that’s because I want the focus to remain on the music.
“I always felt fame and success were two different things. When people heard Orinoco Flow they didn’t know, was it a band, was it a singer, who was it? They enjoyed the music. So it felt to me I don’t really need to flaunt it, to sell the music.”
Enya makes no secret of the fact that she enjoys her own company though.
She recalls the flack she got for revealing in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that she craves silence.
It was considered crazy talk in the brash 1980s compared to today’s more “mindful” times.
“The reaction was like, ‘Whoa, strange person here!’ Now people know what it’s about but, you know, life is so busy you need a moment.
“It was just kind of saying how noise is very difficult at all times. I don’t physically sit on my own, in silence, I was just saying sometimes it’s great to not have any noise factor. You know?
“There are times when with family, friends, relationships, it’s very difficult because I do need space.
“You want both worlds. You want the solitary moments to welcome the music but I’m very much within a family, a very social person, it’s just I do it privately.”
Enya’s love life remains as mysterious as the Elvish in her soundtrack to the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. While far warmer than her ice maiden image, like her vocals she has many layers and woe betide those who try to peel too many back.
In her spare time she enjoys travelling:“As soon as I’ve taken a break, it’s a suitcase and I’m away,” and reveals she spent part of the past seven years since her last album renovating her second home in the south of France:
“I took three years off because I needed a break and the music needed a break. It sounds like a long time but it flew. I had already renovated my castle, so…”
She is referring to Manderley Castle, her home in Killiney, south Dublin, a tribute to the estate which featured in her favourite book, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.
She reportedly outbid Michael Flatley for the 1840 slice of turreted Victoriana, paying £2.7million in 1997.
Because of the threat from stalkers, she spent £250,000 reinforcing security there, raising the ramparts to more than 9ft high.
Enya may have walls around her but the fans flock to her music, particularly in America which accounts for a third of her global album sales.
She believes the strong melodies and melancholy nature of her major to minor key changes explain her success.
“That’s what I’m always drawn to write, a strong melody. I do envy other people if they have written a great song.”
Like whom? “Sam Smith. That was a beautiful song,” she says, referring to the recently released Bond theme Writing’s On The Wall, from Spectre.
The Beatles have also proved an inspiration, not least for Nicky Ryan who wants to produce Enya’s next greatest hits album at Abbey Road. Enya met Paul McCartney at the 2002 Oscars when she gave a live performance.
“Paul McCartney said ‘I finally get to meet you’, so that was quite special.”
With the festive season approaching, Enya’s excitement is building: “There are people who love Christmas and people who don’t… I happen to love it,” she beams.
In the meantime, she is also eagerly awaiting responses to her seventh album in 27 years.
“I enjoy hearing reactions whether it’s negative or positive. If there are people who listen to the music that’s fine by me.
“Everything has always been very black and white with us, the ups and downs are discussed and you just kind of get on with it.
“You mellow out as a person as you grow older. You don’t get caught up in the minutiae.”
Like that feeling you get when you listen to her music, Enya seems content to let the words wash over her.
Camilla Tominey | The Sunday Express | 15 November 2015