The story of Enya has all the makings of an ancient Irish legend, involving heroes and villains, sorcery, and at its heart a mystery: how does this publicity-shy singer sell millions of records while hardly ever leaving her castle?
On leaving Dublin Airport to meet Enya, I am somewhat compromised by a message on my mobile from my mother telling me she will kill me if I'm nasty to her. It's the kind of fierce, loyal devotion from fans that has helped Enya sell more than 70million albums worldwide, making her second only to U2 as Ireland's biggest-selling artist of all time. Unlike U2, however, or just about any other artist, Enya's sales have grown - not diminished - with the passing of each year and each new album.
Music industry insiders even have a term for her inexorable rise: Enyanomics. It is defined as the inexplicable growth in sales of an artist in inverse relation to how much publicity they have. In fact, the less publicity, the better. In Enya's case she has appeared in public a mere handful of times, yet her present worth is estimated at between ?60million and ?100million.
In spite of - or maybe because of - her ever-growing success, critics continue to decry her work as tosh: soothing Body Shop Muzak. Elevator New Age balm to light a candle to and soothe the furrowed brow. Uplifting nonsense concealing the most cynically calculated mood music in the history of (Middle) Earth.
Yet who cares what critics think? Certainly not Enya. 'I picked up a bad review once. I just read it and put it down. That's what it meant to me,' she says. She is critic-proof, as are ABBA, Cliff Richard or U2, the difference being that in 20 years, Enya has never played a single note live. Not one. Now that's what I call Enyanomics.
She lives in a castle in Killiney, south of Dublin, bought for ?2.5million in 1997 and named Manderley after the house in her favourite book, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. For today, I am told, she has rented a nearby castle, but this is subsequently downgraded to a golfing hotel, which used to be merely a smallish castle, if not a bog-standard country estate.
We're sitting in a wood-panelled room with servants' bells around the walls. The only sound is the chink of our cups and the murmur of a corporate party checking in next door for a weekend of golf.
Enya, 47, is invariably described as birdlike, or school-marmish, but the truth is that she is shockingly, outrageously normal, only with a small invisible protective bubble around her that says don't pry too hard, or else. 'When people ask me a question, I go very quiet,' she says, when asked why she doesn't do this sort of thing too often. 'It unnerves a lot of people.'
Indeed it does, as I discover while attempting to find out what inspires her songs.
Do you... do you...? 'I like to sit with the blank canvas. I'm not one of these people inspired suddenly by a beautiful landscape or a story or an emotional moment... I like to curate different ideas and put them all in one song, and see the journey of what it will become.'
OK. Not quite sure what that means.
'I make sounds.'
Give me an example.
'Like daЕ It's very difficult to do it on the spot.'
Go on, give it a go.
'Leiii... dad a... daiii a daiiiii a daaaa.' Enya's voice grows in strength and then trails off into a beautiful melody, even fading on cue, just like a CD. It's eerie how good she is.
'When I sing it first time, I try to make it sound like a song, but without the words...' They come later, as we'll see. Still, it does sound undeniably amazing. It sounds... just like one of her albums.
It must be strange being Enya. Almost as big as U2, but people still don't really know what you look like. 'I know,' she laughs. 'I would consider myself more successful than famous. People might walk past me in the street and do a double-take. "Hang on, I've got a CD at home with her on it!"'
Enya has a theory about why: ' "Watermark" sold around the world before anyone knew who I was, so I had a career that wasn't dependent on what I looked like. But even so, early on, the record company wanted me to be more rock'n'roll,' she says with a shrug. 'I told them the music worked by itself. I probably could have been a more famous person, but then I thought, how is that going to benefit the music?' And the record company couldn't answer that. I mean, you are supposed to be selling my music, aren't you? So how is changing my image going to benefit the music? They didn't have an answer to that.'
You get the impression that Enya is formidable in one of those giant record company boardrooms with a glass table, fighting off suggestions of naked photo shoots and remixes by Calvin Harris. 'People inevitably want to portray you in a certain way, so I started to control it rather than let them do what they wanted to do. That's the person I've been since 11 - making a decision and sticking to it.'
Enya - born Eithne Patricia Ni Bhraonain, in 1961 - was one of nine children, growing up under 'wild Donegal skies'. She was a middle child and fought to be noticed in a large family, but at the age of 11, was sent to a strict boarding school run by nuns, which seemed to have a profound effect on who she was to become.
'Boarding school brought out my independence. I didn't have my mum or sisters to answer to.' Just God. It got her accustomed also to 'being cut off from my family'. At school, Enya's talent on the piano was spotted and she was drilled. Even during holidays, her childhood memories revolve around relentless work and musical discipline, separating her from her family.
'I had to do schoolwork and then travel to a neighbouring town for piano lessons, and then more schoolwork. I can vividly remember my brothers and sisters playing outside in the sun, and I would be inside playing the piano. This one big book of scales, practising them over and over.'
It's the routine that she imposes on her work now, and the hypnotic repetition of her music today is weirdly reminiscent of those childhood scales, ascending and descending for hours and off into the sunset.
Why do we know so little about her? 'I'm very private, but because the tabloids try to write things about you... I mean, I'm not a sensationalist story, but because you've had a hit, you should be going to nightclubs. Why? There have been occasions when they've invaded my privacy and I've gone, "Ouch! How on earth did they know that?" So I've been burnt a couple of times, but you learn, over time, to be more careful.'
It's a story somewhat at odds with the floaty ethereal Enya we know from the CD covers. But Enya isn't having any of it, and has certainly been careful to plug any leaks that detract from the purity of the brand, by reducing her inner circle of friends to a number that can be counted on one hand.
'The people around me now I trust. It's good to have people who you know are not going to photograph you at a party or race off to tell a story to the tabloids about you.' In the inner sanctum of Enyaworld, the two people most trusted above all are Nicky and Roma Ryan, her closest friends. Nicky and Roma are not merely friends, but her lyricist and producer, and not just her lyricist and producer, but the two people who forged Enya: discovered her; nurtured her talent; made her a star; and continue to control every last detail of every record, down to the way she looks in photos - demure and a bit Fleetwood Mac. It is rumoured that their wealth far exceeds Enya's, making this tall crazy guy with a bushy moustache and his hippy wife richer than their neighbour, Bono. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Nicky and Roma to Project Enya. She is quite open about their role, often referring to Enya 'as not me but three people'.
Nicky talks mystically about the 'magic number of three' and the holy energy they harness from the respective psycho-geographical points of the trinity from which they come: Belfast, Dublin and Donegal. I ask Enya to sum them up in a word and her eyes sparkle: 'Alive.'
I'm looking forward to meeting them because in music-industry legend, Nicky and Roma have taken on mythic significance - as master manipulators pulling Enya's strings; weird voodoo-doll people; sharp-as-a-pin 21st-century business brains masquerading as airy-fairy folk-heads from the 1970s.
Nicky strides in first: sixtyish, wearing a suit and Converse trainers. 'People think we've got an agenda,' he laughs. 'CBS sent a war correspondent to interview us once! Accused us of putting a traditional drum in the studio to dress it like a set!' Roma follows him, fussing nervously around Enya and asking everyone if they'd like a cup of tea. They make quite a couple and are immediately hugely likeable.
How did they come to be involved with Enya? Was she part of your master plan? Nicky sighs. 'In a sense, it was a master plan. We had managed Clannad. But after seven years, the fact of the matter is they didn't want us any more.' (Clannad -best known for composing the theme music to two popular ITV television series of the 1980s, Harry's Game and Robin of Sherwood - were the band that Enya's musician parents formed before Enya finished school, and included Enya's brothers and sisters, plus Enya herself on keyboards.)
Nicky wanted to drag Irish folk into the 1980s, using a Prophet-5 keyboard and creating a big new 1980s sound, to go with the big new hair. This was Ireland rebranded by Riverdance, Guinness advertisements and a new-found Celtic sheen: all dry ice, big stadiums and the mystical sound of tills ringing. But Clannad, he says, weren't having any of it. They believed traditional meant traditional. 'Plus, there was a lot of drinking and unprofessional stuff that I wasn't happy with. They had got stale, still doing the same tour and playing the same songs, and there was a certain amount of jealousy towards Enya, because she was the cool one with the keyboards.'
Nicky and Roma hatched a plan to go it alone with Enya, but the family forced a showdown. 'They stood her in a room and said, "It's them or your family", and Enya said, "I'm going with Nicky and Roma."'
The split was acrimonious. 'Don't believe a word about how friendly traditional music is. We lost a lot of friends. Let's just say that.' Enya is characteristically guarded. 'Look, you cannot impose someone else's life on another person,' she says. 'I have to say I'm very comfortable with my decisions. I'm able to make decisions very quickly. Do you want to do this or do that? I never look back and regret anything.'
But they didn't speak for years, and only recently does she now see her nieces and nephews. In a quirk of fate, Nicky says, Clannad were recording at Peter Gabriel's studio when news came through that Enya had got to Number 1. Gabriel came through with a bottle of champagne and said, 'Are you not going to toast your sister's success?'
Enya was 26, and had paid her dues before tasting success. Nicky, too, had done his time at the coal face of the music industry, managing Irish bands with such great names as Elma Fudd, Scullion and Thin Lizzy through sticky-beer-hall tours for maximum grief and scant reward. 'I'm from the north side of Dublin, considered the lesser, poorer area. You have to imagine The Commitments. Did you see The Commitments? I grew up in that exact area, that exact spot. 'I wasn't musical, I was into sound, just sound, bashing an old upright piano, reverberation, large sound. Loud.'
Nicky had in his head an idea of what the Enya sound was going to be. 'I could hear it in my head, but I didn't know how to make it.' The idea was a kind of Celtic wall of sound meets Stig Anderson (who transformed ABBA with epic reverb and, coincidentally, bashing an old piano). Nicky describes his version of the wall of sound as a 'choir of one'. Layer upon layer of overdubbed Enya, creating a continuous flow of aural wonderment/bubble bath (delete according to taste).
When Enya left Clannad, Nicky and Roma became surrogate parents. She moved into their house, building a studio in a shed and soldering the mixing desk together with a blow torch.
It would be tempting to see something Freudian in Enya's rejection of the family that never saw her for who she was, lost among nine children, for the family that turned her into a global star, but she pooh-poohs such analysis. 'I lived with Nicky and Roma,' she says, pausing for one of her unnerving eternities, 'for financial reasons.'
Things were touch-and-go for a long time. Enya gave piano lessons and the money ran out as they waited for her to compose something. Eventually, they were commissioned to write music for BBC series The Celts, then a movie, The Frog Prince. Roma added lyrics to Enya's melodies, many of them written in an alien language 'from a faraway planet' Roma invented, called 'Loxian', a kind of cross between Martian, Gaelic and Hobbit. Neither Roma nor Enya, it transpires, disappointingly, can speak it - even though they created it. I know this because I tested them on a few phrases such as: 'Mal korrheeay onakoul ve pirrro' ('It is raining in Ireland') and 'Hanee unnin Eeskan?' ('Would you like a cup of tea?') They hadn't a clue what I was talking about.
Rob Dickins, who was head of Warner Music, signed all three of them as 'Enya' to BMG in 1989 (bizarrely, he was later name-checked among the lyrics of Orinoco Flow). But how far has Enya really travelled from the girl being made to practise piano scales alone, over and over again, in that Donegal drawing-room? Being alone has stayed with her. Work, too. She talks endlessly about hard work, doing the work, getting on with it.
Luckily, Enya's childhood prison has become a multi-million pound business. She kicks around alone in that big old castle of hers, yet the public know next to nothing about her, inviting comparisons with another female reclusive genius, Kate Bush.
As with Bush, it seems that the less Enya has given the public, the more she has inadvertently drawn the attention of stalkers and fantasists, who use her life as a tabula rasa on which to draw their own madness. 'When you think of Kate Bush, you think of the music, not the headlines,' says Enya. 'But I've had to deal with stalking from the beginning. "Watermark". That was the beginning of it. It's a traumatic experience.
'It's strange to start with, but I've found it's necessary not to focus on it, because then you get very paranoid; you close yourself away. All my energy becomes focused on something negative, and then they've won.'
Enya's stalkers are manifold and disturbing. In 1997, an Italian man with a picture of Enya tied round his neck walked trance-like round Dublin before stabbing himself outside the pub owned by her parents. In 2005, a man broke into her castle, forcing Enya to retreat to her 'panic room'. He managed to tie up her maid before being arrested. A week later, another man broke into the grounds, but failed to get into the property.
'Anyone in the street can have a stalker. It's not because I'm famous, but because I'm more private than most celebrities,' she says. After the break-ins, Enya set up systems to protect herself. 'Now, when I start getting letters, I have to go to the police and say this person is going to cause problems, and that's it.'
Such things must be very isolating. Without a close bond with her family, has she never contemplated a family of her own? 'People would say to me, "Do you want to settle down and have a family?" and I would say, "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen." I didn't think, "Oh My God! I'd better settle down and have a family." Why should anyone make me feel this is what I should do? Why? Whatever path you go down, you should feel comfortable with it.'
Enya relies greatly on Nicky and Roma, who are her family, and now no longer have a studio in a shed, but meet Enya at an equidistant point from their two castles. They work 10am until 5pm every day (Fridays off) and refuse to let the record company know when an album is due. 'No one's opinion comes into the studio other than ours. No one's.'
Yet a week earlier, I had found myself in an underground cinema listening to a much-anticipated new Enya album with 50 or so Warner record execs flown in from across the world. We'd all handed in our phones in case we secretly recorded it and flogged it on the internet. It's a Christmas album, so it's the usual fare with sleigh-bells. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' one exec commented, ruefully. When the 'obvious single' started, another jumped up shouting, 'Thank you, Lord! Ker-ching! This will sell bucketloads in Jo'burg.' (South Africa is keen on Enya.)
A new Enya album is good news in an industry in which artists of her size - Radiohead, Paul McCartney - are now going it alone. Enya has no plans to do the same. She doesn't gig, so she still needs to sell music in some format, but has no plans to become a 'CD shipping outlet'.
They make great and surprising company, these three people who could probably buy out a couple of African states and Denmark to boot, but who, instead, seem to be having a bit of a sly laugh at the world's expense. Good luck with the album, Enya. Not that you need it.
Х 'And Winter Came' by Enya will be released on 10 November
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