Enya has music, not fame, as a goal Combination: Her work melds qualities of folk, classical and New Age sounds.

March 17, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK -- For someone who has sold more than 20 million albums worldwide, Enya certainly has managed to keep a low profile.

You won't see her nightclubbing with Madonna or touring the Amazon with Sting. She hasn't sat in with U2, jammed with the Stones or done a black-tie benefit with Luciano Pavarotti. She hasn't done Letterman and is almost never found in the pages of People.

About the only place she ever does show up, in fact, is in people's CD collections. And frankly, that's fine with her.

"There are some artists whose name is bigger than their music," says Enya. "You know of them more than the music. But the thing about me is that people know the music more than they know anything about me." She laughs. "Or what I even look like."

For the record, she looks great. With her short brown hair, bright hazel eyes and strong, Irish features, she's beautiful without being showy about it, while her carefully tailored suit a marvel of artfully stitched brocade and black velvet that glints aubergine in the sunlight conveys both classic elegance and contemporary style.

But the Enya most people come in contact with is a purely aural experience. Her sound isn't like most pop music today; it stresses melody over rhythm, prefers lush textures to harsh tonalities, and puts its faith less in the glitter of wordplay than in the pure emotive power of sound. At its best, her music combines the melodic positional integrity of classical, and the ethereal beauty of New Age music, making Enya a virtual category unto herself.

Her music may be unlike anything else on the pop charts, but that certainly hasn't kept it from selling. Since the release of her 1988 album, "Watermark," Enya has been something of an underground sensation, selling millions on what has amounted to mere word of mouth. True, "Orinoco Flow" did clamber into the Top 40 in '89, but neither her 1991 album, "Shepherd Moons," nor her current "The Memory of Trees" has been a radio or MTV favorite.

Not that she ever worries about such things. "It's kind of a different world altogether," she says of her recording process. "You have to sort of forget about the audience, the success, and just let the music take you on a journey."

Family musicians

In her case, that journey began in the Gaelic-speaking part of County Donegal, Ireland. Born Eithne Ni Bhraonain Anglicized, that's Enya Brennan in 1961, she was one of nine children, and hardly the only musician in the bunch. Sister Maire and brothers Ciaran and Paul were the first to make names for themselves, having formed a folk group called Clannad with their uncles, Pat and Noel Duggan.

Clannad had been recording for half a dozen years by the time Enya joined up, in 1979. "I was only with them for two years," she says. "It was definitely an experience for me, because I went from studying music to being on stage and doing tours. I really enjoyed that, but musically I felt restricted. They veered more towards the Irish traditional music, and I wanted to explore more."

Fortunately, the ideas Enya had of translating her classical training into something more individual and inventive had a lot in common with the ideas Nicky Ryan had about record production. "He was producing [Clannad's] albums at that time, and we talked quite a bit," she recalls. "He had this multi-vocal idea, which fascinated me so much. I've always had a great love for harmony, and he knew that, so we used to talk a lot about it. And after about two years of going on tour all the time, I felt, musically, I wanted to do something. So myself and Nicky got together."

At first, Enya just wrote, composing the score for a film called "The Frog Prince," though someone else did the arranging and orchestration. Not long after, she made her first solo recording, an album of soundtrack music from the BBC film "The Celts." That's the point at which Enya and Ryan began applying the multi-vocal approach they'd long discussed.

"It was really strange, because we didn't know what we were looking for," she says. "Yet we knew, when we actually came across the sound, that this was what we were looking for. And the strange thing is, to this day, that's what it's like working with multi-vocal. You never know what the end result is going to be like, because each melody is different."

Vocal tapestry

Multi-vocal is just that a tapestry of vocals, layered each over the other in a string of overdubs. The effect is not unlike the sound of a choir, but the process is totally different, for instead of simple three- or four-part harmony, Enya will put down dozens and dozens of individual vocal tracks, depending upon the demands of the specific song.

"Any time I go in to sing multi-vocal, I do it spontaneously," she adds. "I just listen to whatever was recorded firstly if it's piano or some strings or percussion and then I'll go in, and just enhance what's there.

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