Irish singer Eithne Ni Bhraonain – better known as Enya – has essentially created her own style of music and sold about 80 million CDs in three decades. Yet after leaving a New York hotel after talking about her first new work in seven years, Dark Sky Island, chances are she was able to walk the streets of Manhattan unnoticed.
It’s an enviable place to be in a celebrity-soaked world.
“As a musician, I love the fact that the success was on the music,” she says. “I always say that fame and success are two very different things. I had a choice – and not a lot of people have this choice – of whether to seek fame with this music or whether to stay back behind the music and let the music speak for itself. And, really, that’s what I did.”
Now, though, Enya seems prepared to emerge from the shadows: the 54-year-old singer, who rarely performs in public, may actually be ready to take the stage.
“Performing is something I enjoy,” she says. “The way we put an album together is very much a performance feel. We’re trying to capture that live performance and that’s why I would know it would work on stage, and I would love to perform it.”
So why hasn’t she done so?
“Time,” she says. Making her music takes a lot of it. She sang in the family band, Clannad, in the 1980s, until she, producer Nicky Ryan and his wife, lyricist Roma Ryan, hit upon their signature style.
A fan of producer Phil Spector and the Beach Boys, Nicky Ryan uses Enya’s voice as an instrument, piling vocal tracks on top of each other, usually on a bed of synthesisers. Often she sings in her native Gaelic and other languages – even fictional ones. Enya often wonders if it bothers her fans not to understand what she’s singing about.
“They all seem to pick up on the emotional performances of the song and seem to interpret their own emotions with the music,” she says.
She’s not fond of the term New Age, but it’s the category the Grammys have used to give her four awards.
Since the song Orinico Flow and album Watermark were hits in the late 1980s, Enya's professional life has been consistent. She and the Ryans work in an Irish studio. The music is meticulously crafted – sometimes Enya will record dozens, even hundreds, of vocal tracks for a song, then erase them if the idea doesn't gel. Each album takes a minimum of three years to make.
“Once I start an album, that’s all I will focus on,” she said. “But as soon as I walk away, which was only recently, you start to think: ‘Is this the album that we finally follow with live performances?’ Because we have such a choice of songs from each album.”