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COVER STORY : Enya Dreams : The music is mystical, the singer a mystery--not what you'd expect from the artist behind two of the biggest albums of the last decade. But what lies behind the carefully cultivated veil?

January 07, 1996|David Gritten | David Gritten, a frequent contributor to Calendar, is based in London

DALKEY, Ireland — There are certain career strategies that, you'd think, would doom any musical artist to a lifetime of obscurity.

First, you could develop a distinctive genre of music quite unlike anything that's been heard before, owing much to hymns and traditional Celtic tunes, with a dash of new age thrown in. You could sing some of it in Gaelic or Latin in a pure, ecclesiastical voice.

Then you could spend two or three years shut away in a remote recording studio, painstakingly, obsessively adding dozens of overdubs to your original tracks and gradually creating an ethereal wall of sound.

When at last your albums are released, you could refuse to go on tour to perform them live, stay well away from music biz parties and keep personal appearances and media interviews to a bare minimum.

Sounds like a recipe for not selling records, right?

Irish singer Enya has pursued just this policy--and it has made her one of the planet's top-selling artists. Her 1988 album, "Watermark," has sold 8 million copies worldwide; its successor, 1991's "Shepherd Moons," did even better, selling almost 9 million and spending an astonishing 199 weeks on the U.S. Top 200 chart.

Sales for her new album, "The Memory of Trees," are equally healthy--six weeks after its release it is already at the 3 million mark, with nearly 400,000 in the United States and the rest mainly in the 14 countries where her other albums went platinum. That makes some 20 million records sold in seven years.

These are the sort of statistics that spell "phenomenon" loud and clear. Indeed, the only Irish act to have sold more records than Enya is U2--and that Dublin group has been around more than twice as long. Van Morrison may have been the Irish artist chosen to serenade President Clinton on his recent trip to Ireland, but the venerable Morrison does not sell records like Enya.

Clearly something remarkable is happening--and largely it is happening in this southern suburb of Dublin, an affluent coastal resort that is also home to Irish rock aristocrats such as U2's Bono. Here, on a large spread behind security gates, is the home of Enya's producer, engineer and co-arranger Nicky Ryan, his wife, Roma (who is Enya's lyricist), and their two daughters.

A separate building on the estate houses the Aigle recording studio (the word is French for "eagle") where Enya and the Ryans hole up for years on end to create their aural extravagances.

In an upstairs listening lounge, Enya stands before a window looking on the verdant Wicklow Mountains. She is 34, a dark, slim, strikingly attractive woman with a demure manner and mournful eyes, dressed rather formally, in a deep-blue velvet jacket and black velvet pants.

When "Shepherd Moons" was released four years ago, there had been a suspicion that "Watermark" was a one-off fluke, and at the time Enya seemed less assertive and confident; Nicky Ryan sat in on her interviews, and she frequently deferred to him.

Even now Enya has her critics, who call her work soporific, pretty, tinkling, essentially little more than a superior form of elevator music; they assume her fans draw easy solace from its vaguely spiritual feel. Even neutral observers find it remarkable that her music has achieved so much success. These days, though, Enya bristles with confidence as she launches into a spirited defense of her work.

"I have a lot of opinions about [my success] now," she says. "I read a lot of the mail I get, and it's from people of all different ages, which is strange--young children, teenagers, married couples, older people. And in a lot of cases, it's people who are so busy with their lifestyle. I know from just being around some of my family how people are used to noise every day--on the radio and TV, traffic, at their workplaces there's all that noise going about.

"So they don't actually take any time for themselves. You know when you go for a walk and it's really quiet? To ponder and be alone with your thought? It's calming. I think when people listen to the album, they experience a little bit of this. They sit down and they're more peaceful than they're used to, and they think about themselves and interpret their own emotions and feelings to the music."

She stops short of theorizing that her music offers spiritual comfort, or even specific meaning to listeners: "I think there's a sense of spirituality there. But a lot of people will never know what the lyric's about if I'm singing in Gaelic or Latin or Spanish. Yet people can still sense the emotion in a performance. They don't care what the words are about--they just want to experience the whole song."

She says her melodies have specific references for her, as do Roma Ryan's lyrics: "Why they become personal to people, I don't know, because they seem so personal to me."

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