The Invisible Superstar
Her real name is Eithne Ní Bhraonáin, one of nine children born to a couple who ran a pub in Ireland. Today, Enya lives in a castle and has mammoth record sales, yet she is private, almost reclusive. William Langley meets the enigma behind the voice.
During the aching expanses of time between one Enya record and the next, the Irish singer quietly disappears, not only from the public eye, but also right off the radar screen of modern life. One minute she is there – a pale, willowy presence in clinging black velvet – the next she is gone. How does she manage it? Where does she go? What lies at the core of this elusive, enigmatic woman’s phenomenal success?
In the past 17 years, Enya has sold more than 65 million albums – an achievement that ranks her alongside Madonna, Whitney Houston and Cher. Her fans claim to find in her music something that borders on the power to heal, and the mystical, quasispiritual tone of her songs sets the mood for the first The Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Yet she remains the blankest of canvases. Most of us wouldn’t recognise her face on a postage stamp and when she walks the streets of Dublin – a city well-populated with inquiring minds – few pause to wonder who she is.
No one ever seems to know where Enya is. Having arranged to meet her first in Ireand, then in London, I find myself waiting for her in a luxurious Paris hotel suite. Will she emerge throuh tendrils of Celtic mist? Speak unseen from the depths of some unearthy void? Or not show up at all?
Suddenly, she is in the room and, instead of the anticipated chill, there is a warm handclasp and a honeyed Donegal voice. At 44, Enya looks magically good, dressed in her habitual black with a red beaded crucifix at her breast. Beauty of this order has no right to be hidden. So why do we see so little of her?
“I am really a very shy person,” she says, sinking into a gilded armchair. “If I appear, it is because of the music, not because I want to be seen. I’m not a recluse. I like to go out, but I don’t like the glitziness that goes with it.”
Enya’s life is a schmooze-free zone. She is almost never seen at show-business parties, nightclubs or those music-industry beanos that draw other stars in droves. She doesn’t tour and her stage appaerances are rare.
She has never married, has no children and accounts of her romantic entanglements are sketchy, to say at least. Currently, she lives alone in an outlandish 165-year-old seaside castle in the exclusive Killiney district of Dublin – home also to Bono and The Edge from U2. A chauffeur-driven limousine whisks her in and out of the tall, ornate gates, but the only serious travelling she seems to do is to Sydney, where her beloved sister, Olive, lives.
Given her love of lore and fable, it isn’t hard to picture Enya as a modern-day Rapunzel, waiting in her lonely turret for a handsome prince to come calling. Yet she seems strangely unbothred about the prospects of his arrival, insisting that she wouldn’t like her life to be any different.
“I’m very happy as I am. I realise that I made sacrifices early in my career and that it was hard on my relationships because, when I am working, I am very focused and it isn’t easy, when you have been in the studio all day, to say to someone, ‘I’ll meet up with you later on.’ I learned that it was necessary to be dedicated and put work first. But, at the same time, it was a wonderful feeling to be successful at doing something I loved.”
Now that the success is established, doesn’t Enya, with her natural warmth and manifest loveliness, sometimes yearn for a more domestic life? She ponders the question for a moment. “Not in that sense,” she says. After The Memory of Trees [in 1995], I thought, ‘Right, now I want a home’.
“When I left school, I had a list of priorities headed by ‘marriage’ and ‘children’. That is how, I suppose, as a woman, you are brought up to think. At the same time, as I grew older, I told myself that if it happens, it happens, and that will be fine, but if it doesn’t, that will be fine, too.”
Enya was born Eithne Ní Bhraonáin, in the Gaelic-speaking village of Gweedore, in north-west Ireland, one of nine children of music-loving parents, who ran a local pub. In this rumbustious, quintessentially Irish household, she was the quiet one.
“It wasn’t until I went to boarding school that I heard my voice for the first time,” she says. The school was run by Loreto nuns and the regime was austere.
“It gave me, though, a sense of independence that I’d been lacking,” she says, “and although it was difficult in some ways, I’m glad I did it.”
Under the stern eye of the sisters, she perfected her English, became an accomplished pianist and, upon leaving, was drafted, as though by design, into a folk-rock group, Clannad, composed of members of her extended family. The band was managed by Nicky Ryan, an ambitiuos Dubliner, and while it achieved considerable success in Ireland and beyond, Nicky, assisted by his poet wife Roma, was looking for bigger things. The Ryans had noticed something special about Enya’s voice and vaguely spectral presence – something that complemented their own notions of the music they wanted to make.
When they broke from Clannad in the early 1980s, they convinced Enya – over the objections of her family – to go with them. A brilliantly creative relationship emerged, with the three living and working together in the Ryans’ house in Dublin. Enya composed the songs, Nicky arranged them and Roma wrote the lyrics.
“I loved to talk about music to Nicky,” Enya says. “His influence came from people like The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and he had these ideas about layering vocals, painting landscapes with music. Roma knew about Irish mythology, told stories, wrote poetry and had this special feeling for lyrics. My grounding came from the classics.”
It was a potent mix. The trio’s broad intent was to fuse traditional song patterns with modern studio techiques of synthesis and multiple overlay. Their first break came when film producer David Puttman commissioned Enya to create music for his 1984 movie The Frog Prince. Then came her 1988 album Watermark with its haunting hit single, Orinoco Flow (Sail Away), and Enya had arriven.
Among Enya’s most devoted fans are those who tell her that her songs have helped them through illness, berevement and the breakdown of relationships. After the terrirost attack on New York in September 2001, several US television stations took to using Enya’s song Only Time as a soundtrack to their coverage of the atrocity. So, is she in the business of entertaining or ministering?
Enya says she is “spiritual bit not religious” and that, although many people see the influences of devotional music in her work, she is not trying to write hymns. “Sitting and writing music on your own makes you think a lot about your life,” she muses. “Who are you? Would you change anything about yourself? This is where it comes from. It is like having a mirror held up in front of you, looking into yourself and asking these questions.”
She is a notorious perfectionist, pending month after month in the studio, reworking numbers thoundsands of times and, as a consequence, Enya fans have to wait a relative eternity for each new album. The latest, Amarantine, coming five years after A Day without Rain, features songs sung in an entirely new language invented by Roma. “We had the idea after I did the songs for The Lord of the Rings and sang them in Elvish,” says Enya. “I’ve sung in Gaelic, Latin and Japanese, so we thought, let’s try something completely new.”
Success has reputedly made Enya the third richest woman in Ireland; her fortune is estimated at well over $100million. Six years ago, she spent a hefty slice of it on Victoria Castle, an ornate, 10-bedroom pile, set in two-and-a-half hectares of wooded grounds overlooking Killiney Bay. Built in 1840, the castle had fallen into disrepair following a fire in 1920s.
Enya talks lovingly of “the home I always promised myself” and those who have visited the property – renamed to Ayesha Castle, after the Queen of Death in H. Rider Haggard’s novel She – speak with awe of its warmth and splendour.
“I had very set ideas about what I wanted to create,” she says. “It had to be something of mine and I didn’t want it to be a kind of museum. What I was looking for was a romantic athmosphere that I could feel at home with. I think I’ve achieved that. I love my home. I have friends round. I take care to live in it, not to work in it.”
The castle has not, however, been without problems. Earlier this year, an Enya-obsessed stalker evaded elaborate security systems, broke in ad tied up her maid in an attemp to confront the singer. Enya had to lock herself in a strongroom until police arrived.
“I’m sometimes asked what are the pluses and minuses of celebrity,” Enya says with a sigh, “and, for me, the biggest plus is being successful at something that I love to do. The minuses, unfortunately, include having to live with security and the knowledge that you may be stalked.”
Her big eyes become downcast. Enya’s vulnerability is palpable and her distaste for celebrity – occasionally mocked as a New Age affectation – appears not only convincing, but also sensible.
“I do like people,” she says. “I have lots of friends, but I can only be who I am.” Then she rises and floats away, leaving only the question: who is she?
Women’s Weekly: William Langley | January, 2006
transcribed by enya.sk, article scanned by Elisabeth