Enya’s nine albums are the audio equivalent of a National Geographic calendar. When gods hit play on celestial Spotify, flowers bloom, clouds part, babies are born and a hundred aromatherapy candles flutter. People claim tunes like 1988 single “Orinoco Flow” assist healing from disease or surgery. Fans peg Enya with words typically reserved for the divine: otherworldly, sacred, ethereal. Record covers display her as an impressionist painting or poised regally in a fantasy scene. Enya has dubbed her sound as “Enya” rather than categorizing it under earth-bound genres like New Age. If you can hear pan flutes, maybe she’s nearby.
As the wealthiest woman in British music with a fortune of £91 million, few are as successful, yet so private. This only adds to the mystique. Does Enya do normal human things? The 54-year-old lives in a castle next to Bono, but you’ll never see her standing on tables in VIP. She won’t provide details of her private life, doesn’t use social media and has never toured. Pope John Paul II and the King of Sweden are part of the fan base that vigorously consumes her music despite minimal hit singles or mainstream airplay. How does a pop culture recluse outsell Beyoncé or Adele in key markets? Business schools, unable to decipher the trend, have dubbed this phenomenon “Enya-nomics.”
When asked to speak with Enya, my initial instinct was that her music wasn’t my style. However, the further I dug, the more intriguing she seemed. Born one of nine children, Enya Patricia Brennan spent her rural Irish upbringing learning music and plays the majority of instruments on her albums. As an act, Enya actually operates as a trio, and they’ve never collaborated with outsiders. Along with producer Nicky Ryan and his wife Roma as lyricist, the threesome has controlled every element of her career since 1982. Our conversation left me inspired by how Enya dedicated her life to creating and refused to let fame taint any part of it.
To the disappointment of Enya-hive, she didn’t remind me of a human wind chime. Brennan was sweet, friendly and had a sense of humor. The interview was a bit like a phone call with my mom, who was very excited about our chat, by the way. Enya told the stories behind Diddy and The Fugees sampling “Boadicea,” a track that 30 years later remains popular with producers. Also on the cards was Nicki Minaj and Paul McCartneybeing fans, her favorite material purchase and turning down composing for Titanic. I also partly understood the magnetism some feel; Enya’s voice does have a certain hold.
Nicki Minaj said her latest album The Pinkprint was influenced by you.
I was told that, um yes, to me it’s a great compliment to be inspirational to other artists. If we talk about what’s happening now with “Boadicea,” it has a great influence musically for a lot of people as did songs from some of my other albums and I feel that to me, personally, that’s a great compliment.
Who else has surprised you by being a fan?
I suppose the ultimate was Paul McCartney at the Oscars. We were performing together, at that year, our songs. He walked up and spoke to me and said, “I finally get to meet Enya,” and I’m talking to Paul McCartney from The Beatles! It was just a wonderful moment.
You’ve been sampled many times. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on sampling and if they’ve changed over the years.
It’s still very much the same on sampling. I work with Nicky and Roma, they’re really part of the team that have been there from the beginning. So they would get all of these requests in and they would listen. Firstly, they’d be listening out for anything that’s obscene. It has to be something of a melody by a singer that we really sort of enjoy the version of whatever they’ve sampled. We had to, in some way feel a link between what the song was about and the original song that we had written. At the beginning, with The Fugees, we were actually on the verge of suing them because of the copyright infringement, because they just didn’t approach us. It was a case of, I wasn’t featured at all on the credits and it [the sample] was very much a part of the song. So myself, Nicky and Roma felt it was very important to stand up in that regard to how we felt about sampling. By all means… if you want to sample a piece, but come forward, let’s hear the song and if we’re happy to go ahead we will absolutely approve.
I believe that by sampling, they’re giving music a new lease on life. Snoop Dogg drew me into the whole genre of funk as well as soul through use of samples. I would never have listened to The Gap Band or Funkadelic without Snoop. Kanye got me into Curtis Mayfield.
I do agree musically that if they compliment each other, that’s what happens. But in that regard, you just have to make sure you go through the right process. If an artist is going to sample a piece of music, then you get to hear it, that’s what’s important to me. There are a lot of songs that I’ve been happy for them to sample because you’re right, it is introducing the music to another generation, but it also sounds good. I’m not closed about people sampling the music, far from it, there’s a lot of my music that’s been sampled, but I just feel it’s right to approach the artist.
That’s part of the reason you gave the sampling rights to Diddy for “I Don’t Wanna Know,” he approached you in such a polite way.
He phoned the studio we were working in and Nicky took the call and he [Diddy] just said he had this fantastic singer that he was working with and it was Mario Winans. Immediately we said “send the song” and it was a great song. Very very different rendering to The Fugee’s “Ready or Not,” and [Wyclef’s] a great singer as well. So we just said “yes” because we felt that it worked. You kind of know when it’s working. Absolutely.
How do you feel about The Fugee’s “Ready or Not?” Many regard that to be a classic.
Oh absolutely, I think they’re wonderful musicians. We were both fans, but the way it just happened was the wrong way and I just felt I had to make a stand for what I believed in musically. As you said with P Diddy, it was a phone call, and all we expected was just a call to say “will you listen to this song?” It was just a case of not being asked or not being credited, it wasn’t right.
Are you familiar with the Houston rapper Scarface? He briefly sampled you on the outro to “The World Is Yours.” [Sample appears at the 109th minute]
No, I don’t hear every sample. I’ve never heard that one because there are so many, there are lots more. Again, when you think of it, that at this stage you’re still influencing people musically, I see that as somewhat of a compliment. From the beginning of the [self-titled] album, it was really exciting to work on a soundtrack where the director had more or less said to write whatever it is that I felt and that Nicky and Roma were there and we got to experiment. Nicky got the idea to work my voice like an instrument, to do the Wall Of Sound that Phil Spector had, he wanted to create that with a voice. Whether people pick up from the songs the excitement we experienced in the studio, I’m hoping, maybe that’s why people listen to the music and sample it. There’s a certain amount of excitement and freedom that we have in the studio, that they sort of sense, if that makes sense to you?
For sure. Do you think because you had a rural upbringing, that has affected your view of wealth and fame?
I was brought up in the north west of Ireland in a very rural area and my family is still there, but now, I’ve more or less been living most of my life in the east coast, in Dublin. To me, what was really important from the beginning was the love of music. I feel the success is kind of like a bonus really, because I just loved music from a very young age, being on stage at three and a half years [old]. I find that I’ve stayed true to that sort of feeling. I never wanted the success or the fame to lose the sense of my love to the music.
People can easily lose their way with sudden fame and wealth.
So long as their love of music is not affected. The way I worked was I spent a lot of time in the studio and the success, the fame, doesn’t make it any easier to write a song or to perform. When I walk into the studio, that’s the moment where I feel that’s all I focus on, just the music. You end up working for quite a few weeks, where you’re just focused on the music all the time. I think that’s where it comes from, where I don’t want anything to change what’s important to me.
The White Stripes have a song called “Little Room,” which kind of talks about the same thing. Remembering when you were in a small studio creating, and trying to keep that authenticity as you get more successful.
Well then, that must be what makes him most creative, because it’s really important to be surrounded by the right people, in the right surroundings. Every time I finish an album, I’m not sure what I’m going to work on next. It’s really important to always have that sense of freedom that I don’t have to write a song I’ve already written. That I can write a song in any language, which I’ve done, and it’s something again that I enjoy.
[Enya has performed in 10 languages including Japanese, Gaelic and a language invented by Roma called Loxian.]
You’ve talked about staying grounded despite material wealth. Is there one thing you particularly enjoy that is a bit lavish?
Um… my home in the South of France, I suppose. It’s lovely because I do own a beautiful home here [In Ireland], a castle, but the weather is not great. I have to say, it’s so lovely to go to the South of France. Basically it’s just chilling out, because it’s important to your writing to take time, to get away, then to come back to work on the next project.
Is there a material thing you really want that you don’t have yet?
Oh that’s a good question [laughs]. I have to say, I’m very very content, you know, with where my life is at the moment. I would pass on that actually.
Because you keep a low profile, it must be nice to do a lot of normal activities without being noticed.
When you release an album, there’s more attention to you, but there are ways to do it, you don’t walk around with a big entourage. I just find the way I live, that’s what I’m comfortable with. Again, I’ve always felt that success and fame are two different things, so I’ve never been a person to seek fame. I love the success, the success of the music is very important to me, but the fame side of it is something that I feel other people enjoy, they do it so well, but I like to be able to get around without being recognized too much.
You enjoy the show “Vinyl.” Do you have a favorite episode or scene?
I just thought it was very spectacular. Some of it is hearsay, some of it is fact on what was going on in the record industry at that time. It’s an era that I particularly enjoy, to see in film. So I’d say, which was the favorite episode, I suppose I watched the last episode, I thought that was pretty phenomenal. It’s very good, but then it’s Martin Scorsese’s you know.
So it has to be good.
Yeah, because I’ve watched Boardwalk Empire and he’s used one of the main gangsters that was in one of the series’ as the lead.
I’ve just started watching it, so don’t ruin it for me.
Okay! Okay! [laughs]. Are you enjoying it? It’s lucky I didn’t say too much about the last episode then. It’s really brilliant, it’s so great and the featuring of the music of the time, and the fashion, it’s really a long time overdue I think.
There’s a perception, because you’re a private person that you’re constantly in a solemn lifestyle. I thought it would be interesting to ask, what does Enya listen to when it’s party time?
It really depends on the party because, as I’ve said in interviews, I love all genres of music. I feel that it’s so true that if you play a particular song in a room, it changes the atmosphere of that room. So it’s really important to meet the right atmosphere. It depends on, who is at the dinner party, that’s what kind of music I’m going to play.
It sounds like you’d be quite a good DJ.
[Laughs]. That’s a big compliment, but I’d really be in tune with what the people enjoy to hear and set a particular atmosphere. It’s very difficult, if you play a little bit of classical music, it’s really a grand sort of feeling. Then you start to go into Halloween party with Michael Jackson, that sets a fun sort of scene, Ghostbusters or something like that, if I was the DJ. If say my mom and dad were there, I would play music that my dad kind of grew up with. It’s really to do with who I’m entertaining.
Your three-decade relationship with Nicky and Roma is one of the longest in music. It’s remarkable that something like money or dodgy contracts hasn’t got in the way.
It’s to do with them being lovers of the same thing as me, being creative. When I met Nicky and Roma, we talked about different aspects of music. For me, it was melody and performing. For Nicky, it was wanting to experiment with the sound of music. For Roma, she wrote poetry and wanted to explore creating her own language, different languages. So it’s very different what we bring to the studio. It’s strange because outside the studio, we are just three very close friends, but when we go to the studio, we are three people who will bring something exciting and we never know what it is going to be. That’s the sort of creative freedom that we have that keeps it very much fresh and alive. It’s more to do with the focus always being on the music, absolutely, so that’s why it has worked. But it’s something different, if I play a song and I’ve sort of written a melody, I play it to Nicky, I know he hears a totally different arrangement to me because my influences musically are so different and that’s really exciting. One golden rule we have is to try every idea. Let’s try every idea in the studio, you listen back, and that’s why it takes two to three years for an album, because you have that little bit of time where you set aside a song and you listen back after two to three months. You can be a critic for a short time and sometimes it’s a case of “this needs more” or “this needs less.” That’s the way I’ve enjoyed working.
I was surprised you approved “Only Time” being in the Volvo Trucks Epic Split commercial with Jean-Claude Van Damme.
[Laughs], it was fantastic, oh my goodness me. We were trying to work out how they did it. Oh my god. You see visually, at the beginning, every time I write a piece of music it’s always visual to me. There can be so many aspects visually and that’s where the music has always led itself to film as well. I actually started with film first because it was Roma, when I played him the first piece of music I wrote, an instrumental, he said “that’s really visual, I know exactly what you are try to say without the words or explaining.” In that regard having worked with Peter Jackson and so many wonderful film directors, it’s so different to see a visual with the music. When it works, it works and that’s it full stop, I just thought it was brilliant!
Why did you turn down composing music for Titanic?
I was sent a script and they were actually working with some of my music as they were filming. James Cameron, he approached and sent the script, but what happened was when we were talking about the end song, it was to be a collaboration and that’s something that I’ve actually never done. I’ve felt, I get to write the song, I sing. I’ve always written the melodies so I find it kind of strange and I was working on an album, so I just said it wasn’t going to happen if it was a collaboration. But, then with Lord of the Rings, the final song, there was no collaboration with Howard Shore on the final song, written by myself, Nicky and Roma, Collaboration is not [something] that I’ve really felt I’ve missed out on. I suppose because I’ve worked so closely with two other people, I feel like we get a sense of that all of the time in the studio.
Now that record sales aren’t what they used to be, are you thinking of alternative ways to sell or market your music? Obviously the industry has changed over the course of your career.
It’s very, very different to what the late 80s/90s were, but I’d still have to feel comfortable with what I’d be asked to do. I feel there are certain aspects that suit younger artists. With Facebook, Twitter and all of that, I would feel uncomfortable because I didn’t grow up with that.
You’ve never sold merchandise.
No, no, because I felt that would be associated more with someone who toured and I’ve never toured. I kind of steered away from it, but as far as the touring, believe it or not, I still have that door ajar because I still feel rendering the music for live performance would be something that would be very interesting.
I think it’s quite difficult to recreate your sound live.
Yeah, but it would be a different rendering. When you think about what it was like on stage in the late 80s/90s, it was more electronic, the sound. The record companies thought that would have suited the music and I actually thought that was nothing on what was happening in the studio. Now you have the wonderful big stage set-ups and you have the means of having a choir and an orchestra. It’s a different rendering of the music, but it’s my voice and all of that music all scored, I find it would be sort of interesting.
You are one of very few artists with total control of your music and career.
That was important to us because when we worked on the first album, the Enya album for the score for the BBC, when I was approached by Warner Music to record the first solo album, it was a case of absolutely so excited to be approached for a solo album, but we had a clause in the contract that I would have to have two to three years between each album because of the way I worked. I don’t know if there’s any artist that would be able to get that in a contract, but it was important that the music didn’t suffer. That we – myself, Nicky and Roma needed that time to listen to the music, it was actually in the contract. I wasn’t a known artist at the time so they said, “Yes, that’s fine.” But then with the success of the album Watermark with “Orinoco Flow,” they felt the priority was going into the studio and they didn’t feel the necessity for me to tour, because I’d surpassed my sales and what was expected for a second album. They thought “oh, no no, you’re going to take another two years on the next album Shepherd Moons.” So actually I did a lot of promotion right around the world and they felt that again sales wise I’d surpassed my sales, so the necessity to tour wasn’t there, but to work on the album.
Jimmy Ness | Forbes | 20.6.2016