There’s no way to avoid it. The word ‘recluse’ is at the back of my mind for my entire conversation with Enya. Towards the end of our time together, I ask her why so many people consider her to be the Greta Garbo of Irish music, locked away in her Dalkey castle in Dublin’s wealthiest residential belt.
There isn’t a hint of irritation, but rather a hearty laugh.
“The media put tags on people,” she says. “With Oprah Winfrey, it’s the weight issue. What is the spin they have on me? ‘Oh, she’s a recluse.'”
It’s a more potent word, she believes, than the more prosaic reality of being busy and not courting publicity.
“She’s not a recluse,” she says of herself with a chuckle. “She’s working.”
But Enya, by her own admission, is very happy to avoid the spotlight and rarely tends to do interviews, particularly in Ireland.
Now that she’s releasing her first album in seven years, the atmospheric, highly textured ‘Dark Sky Island’, she has agreed to talk, but very personal questions are firmly out of bounds – not least those concerning relationships.
She’s unmarried, yet wears a ring on her wedding finger, and has no children.
Her decision to avoid the spotlight was made in 1988.
“‘Watermark’ (her huge selling album) became this great success and I kind of stood back and watched this because people didn’t know if it was a band, who the singer was and so on. But they enjoyed the music anyway.
“Fame and success are two different things. It wasn’t a case of me having to become famous to sell the music. It’s the age factor as well – I wasn’t 18.
“I felt it was all very exciting, but when I was doing promotion or media, I’d always ask myself, ‘Is this going to make me more famous or is it going to focus on the music?’
“And I backed away from certain things and was happy to talk when it was about the work, so I felt I had a choice.
“When I finished the album, I was back in the studio anyway. It wasn’t like I disappeared. I had to work on the next album.”
It takes her, on average, three years to make an album and the nature of the work requires her to give it her all.
But it’s not because she has an aversion to socialising.
“At first, I was surprised (to hear ‘recluse’ being bandied about) and I kind of spoke out on it. Now it’s not something that concerns me.
“I wouldn’t be someone to try to correct if something was said or written – it’s just all speculation. There’s a lot of that. It’s kind of like, ‘Why?’ But that’s fine.”
She shrugs her shoulders.
She doesn’t appear to be remotely bothered by what anyone might say.
Enya cuts a very different figure from the person I imagined. Now 54, the singer born Eithne Ní Bhraonáin is warm and funny and not at all aloof. I met her in a suite in the plush Intercontinental Dublin hotel and she exudes stillness and calm.
She looks elegant in a demure, figure-hugging, knee-length crimson dress and her conservative hairstyle appears remarkably similar to the one she sported when ‘Orinoco Flow’ made her a star almost 30 years ago.
Her Donegal accent is still very much intact, despite the fact that she has lived in Dublin for almost all of her adult life.
She says she speaks Irish every day – although she refers to it as ‘Gaelic’.
At one point, she breaks into quick Ulster Irish and I can just about make out that she never uses English when conversing with her family.
She’s happy to shoot the breeze about her near neighbour in Dalkey, Bono.
“He’s a neighbour of mine in the south of France too,” she adds, mentioning that she bought a home there a couple of years ago and visits it regularly.
Enya laughs warmly when I suggest the U2 frontman must be wondering if she will pitch up near one of his other global homes in the future.
She knows him well. “The south of Dublin is quite a small place,” she says.
“We meet each other quite often. When we were both working on the albums, and struggling, and we were officially late with our albums, we did have a good conversation about it.
“We both could relate to that, although, of course, our music is very different.”
Does she like U2’s music?
“Ah yeah. I’ve always enjoyed them. That longevity. They’ve had an incredible career and have stayed on top all that time.”
Enya says her taste in music is far more varied than people might give her credit for.
“I listen to all genres of music when I can and I’m drawn to a strong melody,” she says. “Taylor Swift has done really good songs. Sam Smith too.
“And Adele is about to release a wonderful album. I would be drawn to any genre, believe it or not, but it is a strong melody that draws me in.”
She is selective about what TV she watches, but one drama series in particular transfixed her.
“‘Breaking Bad’,” she says, with the fervour of an ardent fan. “It was just fantastic. Have you seen it? Every week, I’d find I couldn’t wait for the next one.”
Her new album is the first since 2008’s festive themed offering ‘And Winter Came’.
“After that, I didn’t know what to do,” she says, “so I took a three-year break. Up to then, each album was three years in the making and I’d never taken a sustained break before.”
She used part of that hiatus to holiday in France and it was then that she decided to buy a bolt-hole on the Mediterranean.
“Then, in the spring of 2012, I had a yearning to get back to the studio, so I knew it was time to start a new album. And as soon as I started, I realised just how much I’d missed it – the music, the writing, the performing.”
Ironic, perhaps, since Enya has eschewed playing live since her first album was released – but more of that later.
“The first piece that I wrote was inspired by poetry that Roma (Ryan, her long-term collaborator, along with Roma’s husband Nicky) had written and one of them was about Sark island in the Channel Islands.
“There are only about 600 people living there and they banned cars because they wanted to control the light pollution.
“There’s a spectacular sky over it. It’s quite a magic thing to experience – which I have not, yet. The story came with me to the studio.”
And gave the album its title.
Enya looks pleased when I suggest that if there was just one word to describe her music, it would be ‘elemental’.
“We deal a lot with the elements of the universe and nature. The first piece of music I ever wrote was described to me as very visual. I can be a week, two months, six months trying to capture it (the ideas). But because I’m classically trained, I have the discipline to go to the studio – it’s our own studio – so when I go in, there are no distractions. The focus is on music.
“In that regard, even if I’m there, I find that every day I am closer to the melody. That is what is important to me. I never try to impose a theme on a song or a sense that I must write.”
Enya says she is workmanlike when it comes to recording. The studio she owns with the Ryans – who are both corners of the ‘Enya triangle’ as Enya, herself, puts it – is just up the road from her home and she is in there five days a week, more if the album is coming close to completion.
“There is good stress when you’re working up to the date where you’re planning to have it finished.
“We’re not concerned about anybody’s opinion until then and the record company hears nothing until that stage. When you’re ready to play it to the record company, you know you’re nearly done. It’s how we’ve always worked.”
Enya met Nicky and Roma Ryan when Nicky managed Clannad, her family’s band, which she joined on leaving school.
When Enya left Clannad to follow her own path, Nicky followed and his remarkable studio gifts have been fundamental in creating Enya’s trademark ethereal sound.
Roma is a poet and writes most of Enya’s lyrics, including those in Loxian, an invented language that Enya speaks about for a good five minutes.
Afterwards, I briefly meet the pair and they are so zen-like it’s unnerving. I’ve interviewed several producers over the years who, while expressing little interest in the actual songs, have been wowed by Ryan’s technique of texturing sound.
“Nicky calls the studio a digital brain with an analogue sound,” Enya says. “The technology has gone all modern, but we still record as a performance. He feels its very important to get the live aspect of the music. His idea was to layer my voice and then the sounds as well.
“It’s kind of like building up a wall of sound – he’s a big fan of Phil Spector and the Beach Boys and you can see all those elements coming in. It starts with the melody, the lyric and the arrangements. The only way to know is to have time. That’s why it takes three years.”
Unusually among big-selling artists – and Enya is in the A-league, having shifted an estimated 75 million albums – she refuses to tour her music.
I ask if she has had a change of heart and her answer is remarkably convoluted. In short, there are no immediate plans to but it’s something that may happen down the line.
“Nicky has the idea of us working with an orchestra and a choir and to do it live in a studio – his favourite would be Abbey Road, because of the Beatles,” she explains. “It would basically be a compete live performance.
“We would record it, then listen to see what it’s like and then take it from there. I’m conscious of the fact that we haven’t toured any of the albums and this would be a lovely project to do.”
It would certainly be a significant departure. What’s clear from Enya is the importance of control in the creative process. She has little interest in collaborating and says she has turned down numerous projects from big-name musicians. She politely declines to name names.
“It’s just that I feel in control of my own songs,” she says, almost apologetically. “I know them so well and I wouldn’t have as much of a sense for them if they were someone else’s.”
Dark Sky Island is released on Friday.
John Meagher | Irish Independent | 14 November 2015