The Guide to Getting Into Enya, Celtic Patron Saint of Mystical Multi-Tracking
Photo of Enya from Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.
Entertainment

The Guide to Getting Into Enya, Patron Saint of Mystical Mood Music

As the biggest-selling Irish artist of all time turns 60, we explore the career of a low-key, high-drama 20th century icon.
May 17, 2021, 8:00am

There’s a precious, low-key page on Twitter called Enya Comments. Dedicated to – you guessed it – sharing comments found under Enya videos on YouTube, it veers between silly and sincere one post to the next. (“This should be the Australian national anthem,” “her tenderness is so lovely”, “this shit fire brother”. You get the gist.) Beyond the similarly private Kate Bush, you’ll struggle to find a living artist more capable of evoking such mystery and sweeping awe than the woman born Eithne Pádraigín Ní Bhraonáin sixty years ago today. Raised in the Irish-speaking, Atlantic-hugging parish of Gweedore, Donegal, she’s a paradoxically low-key, high-drama 20th century Irish icon and a global powerhouse of supernatural mood music.

Long before being name-checked by everyone from Grimes and Nicki Minaj to Panda Bear and Weyes Blood, Enya’s journey began in the bustle of a large musical family. “At three years of age, I used to go to singing competitions,” she said. “A part of the competition would be for the whole family, and we’d have to sing harmonies after hearing a song once. I never found it strange.” The move to later join her family band, Clannad, was hardly unexpected; alongside uncles, brothers, and her older sister, Moya Brennan, her stint as keyboardist and backing vocalist in the folk group was formative, but it also seemed like a blind alley. Feeling unsung and compelled to create music on her own terms, Enya – along with the group’s manager/producer Nicky Ryan – broke off in search of something more.

Trusting her instinct proved vital. By pushing forward with Nicky Ryan and his wife, poet and lyricist Roma Ryan, Enya’s intricate alchemy – blurring the lines between Celtic pop, new age, classical and folk – took centre-stage. Though skeletal compared to the widescreen craft that would make her a household name, early efforts such as "An Ghaoth Ón Ghrian" (or “The Solar Wind”) carried the promise of an artist spanning spectral worlds. Steered by the global success of beatific lead single “Orinoco Flow” (you know the one), the arrival of her second album, Watermark, in 1988 marked the arrival of a superstar intent on avoiding the spotlight.

Eight studio albums, countless awards, and 75 million albums into her journey, and with her songs now Gen Z internet memes, there’s no better time to find out who she really is.

So you want to get into… Sublime, Fantastical New Age Enya?

As a quick descriptor, “new age” can catapult you to visions of pan pipes and ropey meditation CDs. But when it comes to the music of Enya, it almost feels respectfully fitting – self-referential even. Multi-tracked and drenched in reverb until they become something else entirely, heavy hitters like “Orinoco Flow” and “Only Time” double as portals to Enya’s literal brand of new age at its most transportive. If the deft pizzicato of the former or the cosmic wanderlust of the latter doesn’t resonate with you on some level, you surely have no soul.

Evoking pure wonder right off the bat, several stone-cold classics fit the “fantastical new age” bill. Take the sprawling phantasm of “Caribbean Blue” or the gossamer sound bath that’s “A Day Without Rain”. Better still, there’s “Boadicea,” a song so majestic it takes the very concept and claims it as its own. Notably sampled by Fugees on their 1996 hit “Ready or Not,” it distils the subtle grace of Enya’s vocal range. Key to it all is Nicky Ryan’s production. Melding deft, disembodied blocks of harmony with soft focus instrumentation via the likes of a prized Roland D-50 synth, his Midas touch often feels like sculpture. By layering track upon track, then slowly revealing the nuance therein, songs like “Only If” make a thousand Enyas, plinking synth strings and a dazzling flurry of arpeggios go a long way. 

Playlist: “Boadicea” / “Anywhere Is” / “Only Time” / “The Memory Of Trees” / “Orinoco Flow” / “Lazy Days” / “Only If” / “China Roses” / “Afer Ventus” / “Angeles” / “Exile” / “Drifting” / “Wild Child” / “Amarantine” / “Water Shows The Hidden Heart”

So you want to get into... Heady, Mystical, Celtic Pop Enya?

Although it’ll certainly help, you don’t need to have grown up in 1990s Ireland for Enya’s music to pack a considerable Proustian punch. You might not recall, say, drifting off to the likes of “Smaointe” and “Deora Ar Mo Chroí” in the back of a car as a kid, but don’t be surprised if they still summon echoes of the before times. Similarly, it won’t hurt but you don’t need to understand Irish for the lyrics of songs such as “Na Laetha Geal M'Óige” to hit home: “Looking through my childhood, I was so happy, unaware of life/Our time was so short. I sorrow for it. Long gone the day.” It’s a translation but it hurts doesn’t it? She’s got you again.

Aside from English, Enya and her lyricist-partner Roma Ryan have navigated exquisite worlds in Latin, Welsh, Spanish, French, Japanese and Loxian, a fictional language created by Ryan for the former's 2005 album Amarantine. But again, literal comprehension is far from required. Much like the delicate glossolalia of Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, having absolutely no clue what’s going on has its benefits, too. While her soundtrack to 1987 BBC series The Celts is a solid point of entry, you’ll find songs conjuring the magic of ancient mythology and mystical island landscapes strewn across her discography. You could stick on Dario G’s “Sunchyme” and surround yourself with a million Himalayan salt lamps at golden hour, and still the vibes would feel doomy when compared to the sheer transcendence of the likes of “Isobella” and “Triad: St. Patrick/Cu Chulainn/Oisin”. Even Silent Night (or “Oíche Chiúin” here) is a secular-sounding hymn worthy of a spin at any point of the year.

Playlist: “Na Laetha Geal” / “Deora Ar Mo Chroí” / “Isobella” / “Smaointe” / "Deireadh an Tuath" / “Epona” / “Triad: St. Patrick/Cu Chulainn/Oisin” / “Athair Am Neamh” / “Oíche Chiúin” /  “Sumiregusa (Wild Violet)” / “The Longships” / “March of the Celts” / “Evening Falls” / “Ebudae” / "'S Fagaim mo Bhaile”

So you want to get into… Swirling, Dramatic Enya?

To be fair, the lion’s share of Enya’s music could easily be filed under “swirling and dramatic”. But there’s just some songs that stretch that M.O into staggering-out-in-the-wily-windy-moors territory. And with Enya, the more forcefully Wuthering Heights the better. Take “Tempus Vernum” and “Pax Deorum,” two instances of our leading lady thriving in the realm of Latin histrionics. Throw in “Cursum Perficio,” a tempestuous take on Carl Orff's cantata “Carmina Burana,” and the whole choral melodrama thing is off the scale.

Any guide to Enya that fails to note the fact she lives in an eye-popping 19th century castle probably isn’t worth your time. Overlooking the Irish Sea and Wicklow mountains, it’s long felt symbolic of its owner’s craft. When she said “[the castle] kind of feels like it found me more than anything else” in a 2016 Reddit AMA, it only underscored the storybook-like, gothic air of fate about it all. The balmy ambient tones of “La Soñadora,” and soul-stirring ballads like “Aníron” and “May It Be” – recorded for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – tap directly into that energy. Much in the same way you don’t need to speak Irish to grasp a song like “Smaointe”, you don’t need to know who or what Saruman is for these to burrow deep.

Playlist: “Aldebaran” / “Cursum Perficio” / “Aníron” / “La Soñadora” / “Tempus Vernum” / “Book of Days” / “May It Be” / “I Want Tomorrow” / “Pax Deorum” / “Storms In Africa” / “Dan y Dwr” / “The Humming” / “Watermark” / “The Loxian Gate” / “On My Way Home” / “Eclipse”

@brianconey